Second Kurdish Congress Focuses on Kurdish Diaspora

19/10/2012  By WLADIMIR van WILGENBURG – RUDAW – More than 300 participants came from abroad. During the conference, officials from the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) emphasized the importance of the diaspora returning to Kurdistan.“We need your experience and we are listening to you advice,” KRG president Massoud Barzani said during the opening ceremony.

The conference addressed research in fields such as health and medical science, agriculture, higher education, economics, politics and human rights. There was an emphasis on sustainable, healthy development and infrastructure which are “necessary to support the KRG in its mission” — the final program of the KRG. KRG Foreign Relations Minister Falah Mustafa Bakir told Rudaw that parliament and the foreign relations department are discussing setting up a unit that focuses on the Kurdish diaspora and helping them return to Kurdistan.

But the conference was not without criticism. Thomas Schmidinger, a political science lecturer at the University of Vienna in Austria, told Rudaw that he was shocked by the scientific level of some of the presentations.

“I really do not understand why some people were selected to give talks here,” he said. “If students of mine gave such presentations in bachelor classes, they would fail.”

Schmidinger told Rudaw that the conference had too many topics and needed more focus. Other participants also thought it would have been better to organize parallel panels instead of having separate panels with different subjects.

Zeynep Arslan, an Austrian Ph.D. graduate in political science, spoke at the conference about Kurdish children in Turkey. She was critical of the KRG trying to attract people to the region when there is still poverty in Kurdistan. “It is part of an inferiority complex to think that Kurds in the diaspora know what is best for the people. The people in the diaspora are foreigners here, too.”

Arslan also criticized the lack of women involved in the panels. “There are always men talking. There were hardly any contributions from women, and the contributions that they made were not that powerful,” she said.

Soma Ahmad, from the Austrian NGO LeEZA, had a poster at the congress about the role of NGOs in the democratization of Iraqi Kurdistan. Ahmad told Rudaw, “If the goal was to get the diaspora to come to Kurdistan, I would call this a success.”

“But nobody knows what the goal of this conference is,” Ahmad added. “If you want to help Kurdistan, you should stop this elite-centric approach. A scientific conference should take place at a university where science takes place, not in a conference hall.”

Elend Paashe, a Ph.D. candidate who focuses on return migration to Kurdistan, found the conference interesting since he focuses on diaspora and development. “This conference was pretty unique globally in the sense that it signals a lot of political will to engage with the diaspora. And this is the first conference here, so it’s a start,” Paashe said.

However, he thinks the KRG should think more concretely about the practicalities involved. “In the future, they could be even more active and reflect more on how to not just welcome diaspora, but actively benefit from diaspora networks. A skills database could be the next step,” Paashe said.

He added, “They have been encouraging people to come back and saying that it would be good if migrants came back, but they could be more precise about what they mean by that. Do they want people to return for good, to live here?”

“What happens then, from what we know from other countries like Israel and Afghanistan, is that it’s hard to attract the most highly-skilled. You don’t easily get the top notch, the highest elite diaspora. They are more likely to come back for a few weeks or months on a project basis, rather to come back to stay permanently,” Paashe explained. Yvonne van der Bijl from the Netherlands, who had a poster that focused on European tourism in Kurdistan, described the number of Kurds from the diaspora as the biggest difference between this congress and the first one held in Holland. “In Rotterdam, there were mostly people from Europe, but this time there were also people from Australia, Canada and the U.S.,” she said.

She added that the organization of the conference was well done, and attributed it to cooperation between European and Kurdish planners. “I am impressed that Kurds could organize something on such a large scale,” she said. Leila Amin, a medical doctor from Sweden, had some criticism about the health panel. “There were too few concrete plans and solutions on how to fix the problems in the health sector,” she said. “We have very bad university hospitals in Kurdistan and we need improvements for the general public.”

“Furthermore, there were some people talking about private business and I got the feeling they wanted to sell their products,” Amin added.

Participants of the conference also criticized the lack of participation from local students and universities. “Our universities were not represented enough here, and I do apologize for that,” Alan Dilani, the main conference organizer, said. “We did not integrate the universities enough.”

Dr. Barzoo Eliassi, a researcher at the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University and one of the conference speakers, told Rudaw, “An important aspect of the congress was its openness toward non-Kurdish scholars and activists or participants. It is not an easy task to manage several hundred participants given that the Middle East is not exactly famous for having a productive bureaucracy, but the organizing committee did a great job despite some ineffective bureaucratic procedures.”

But Dr. Eliassi also noted that “the congress would have benefited from organizing themes in workshop sessions. The lengthy nature of the sessions was tiresome and counterproductive, since many participants could not concentrate fully during sessions that lasted several hours.”

Moreover, he observed that the media was present when KRG official spoke, but not when participants carried out their presentations. “It wasn’t clear whether this congress was about KRG officials or the invited participants who wished to contribute their knowledge and expertise to the Kurdistan Region,” Dr. Eliassi said.

Many participants told Rudaw that the conference was a perfect venue to network and meet new people. For instance, Welat Zeydanlıoğlu, founder of the Kurdish Studies Network, a global research network for scholars working in Kurdish studies, told Rudaw that it was “an amazing experience.”“I think it was very positive and a great investment by the KRG to advance the region,” Zeydanlıoğlu said. “The long term effects of this conference may not be seen now, but they will be in the future.” Bakir told Rudaw the conference was an important step. “This is the first step in building a bridge between inside [Kurdistan] and outside.” “In the past, we needed these people when we were fighting the regime or when we were ignored by the outside world. We wanted them to speak out. Now things have changed. We are now building our institutions and system and encourage people to come back,” he said.