I am a Las Vegas native and traveling English teacher working in the dusty desert mountains of what was once Mesopotamia.
According to my passport stamp, I live in Iraq. But if you ask my students and anyone else here (including me), I live in Kurdistan.
For those who do not know, Kurdistan is the autonomous region of Northern Iraq. It’s also home to Peshmerga, the formidable Kurdish military force that’s been on the front lines against ISIS since 2014. To lend some perspective, the name Peshmerga literally translates to “those who face death.”
Fighting is nothing new for the Kurds. Anyone here knows the adage, “No friends but mountains.” For centuries, Kurdish people have shed blood to protect their identity in the eye of the sectarian storm that engulfs them: Iraq below, Syria and Turkey to the west, and Iran to the east— all of which want nothing but Kurdish demise.
In recent decades, they have faced ISIS, Saddam Hussein, the largest civilian-directed chemical massacre in history—I need not go on. Yet if sometimes by only a thread, Kurds have carried on, tirelessly rebuilding themselves time and time again with a seemingly inextinguishable hope for peace and sovereignty.
Two days after the attack in Las Vegas which killed 59 and injured hundreds more, one of my Kurdish students approached me during a class break.
“Miss, did you see that we’re wearing black?” he said. I looked up from my desk, somewhat confused, “Hi Mohammed, yes?” Shyly, he continued, “We are sorry about what happened in Las Vegas, and we know that you are from Nevada. That’s why we wore black today.”
I didn’t know what to say, so I chose words that helped me keep back tears.
These are 19-year-olds who have grown up in fear of conflict and brutal dictatorship for much of their lives.
Nearly all of them have lost someone to war, terrorism, or brutality. That they could show such compassion for me, when the front lines of ISIS recently loomed just 20 miles away, was astonishing.
Their act of kindness reminded me of the relation between suffering and empathy. In a moment, I was swept with warmth, gratitude, and much-needed solidarity.
Dearly beloved Las Vegas, my students are thinking about you all the way from Kurdistan—the stateless nation in northern Iraq. The place with no postal service, no addresses, no ATMs, and centuries of struggle. I hope this touches you, as it did me in the aftermath of this terrible tragedy.
As far as my students are concerned, I wish them a nation as great as their hearts.
Author: Jillian Stenzel
Image: Author’s Own
Editor: Sara Kärpänen
Copy editor: Nicole Cameron
Social edtiro: Nicole Cameron