For followers of Ocalan’s philosophy, the capabilities of small local organisation should come as no surprise. All the same, the contribution of Söderhamn – a town the size of Arbroath – to the Kurdish struggle is impressive. It helps, of course, that Söderhamn is home to some 200 Kurdish families, so that many people will know Kurds personally, and that Sweden is more generally aware of the Kurds and their situation than we are in the UK.
But this would not be enough without the catalyst of a strong local organisation. The Söderhamn organisation is a solidarity group, largely made up of native Swedes, and two of its activists were at the Kurdish conference I have just attended at the European Parliament. Benny Gustafsson and Per Olov Nordin spoke to me about what they have achieved.
The Kurds in Söderhamn came from Nusaybin and Mardin in Turkey (North Kurdistan, or Bakur) in the Eighties, but it wasn’t until 2009 that links were solidified through a twinning arrangement between Nusaybin and Söderhamn, on the initiative of people from a range of political parties. Their first action was a cultural event, and delegates visited each other’s towns. Söderhamn also sent money for poor families.
In the Sixties, social-democratic Sweden established a scheme for schoolchildren to spend a day a year doing paid work in order to donate their wages to a humanitarian cause. In recent years, this practice has tended to fall by the wayside, but in Söderhamn they have kept it going. Benny, who became involved in Kurdish solidarity through a combination of left politics and personal friendship, is a retired headmaster – as well as, previously, a building worker. At the time of the Daesh attack on Kobanî, he wrote to the pupil boards of Söderhamn’s schools asking if people from the town’s Kurdish support group could come to one of their meetings and show them what was happening. After seeing pictures of Kobanî in ruins, four pupil boards, representing some 1200 pupils, decided to send that year’s money to help rebuild a school for children in Kobanî. This decision was repeated the following two years, and on each occasion they were able to raise around 10,000 Euros to contribute to the building. At the same time, the teachers collected money to buy skipping ropes and footballs, which a delegation from Söderhamn hoped to deliver in person; however, the Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq (South Kurdistan or Bashur), which has little sympathy for the autonomous administration in Rojava, would not let them cross the border, so the equipment was handed out to Rojava refugees in Iraq instead. Later the Söderhamn municipality was able to get twenty recycled laptops to the Kobanî schoolchildren.
The level of official support possible in Sweden is enviable. In 2017, YPJ commander, Nesrun Abdullah, visited Söderhamn and was presented with a symbolic cheque in the town hall, in front of local politicians, representatives from local organisations, and, of course, the local school children. It is hard to imagine such a reception in the UK, where those who fought Daesh as part of the Kurdish YPG are facing increasing official harassment and even arrest (though there have been similar visits from Palestinian activists so we shouldn’t give up hope).
More recently, the schools involved in Söderhamn’s fundraising have got new heads, and, of course, pupil councils change each year. Further fundraising of this kind is uncertain, but the local activists have more plans for the future. They would like to form an additional twinning with Kobanî, because, as they pointed out, twinning is a way that even local people can play a part in international politics; and Benny told me that he is determined to get there himself. He faced near brushes with major bomb attacks on his visits to Nusaybin, but is not put off by the uncertainties created by the Turkish invasion.
Although, as in so many places, Söderhamn’s town politics have moved to the right, even the more right-wing parties are supportive of the Kurdish link. This is not just because right wing groups tend to misrepresent the Kurds as anti-Muslim, but because they can see that there is strong support for the Kurds among local voters.
As I heard what this small group of Swedish activists had achieved, I noticed that that morning’s birthday notices from Facebook included Fazya Abdi, whose request that Scotland raise money for a school in her city of Kobanî, had triggered our own fundraising campaign. I messaged her and told her that I was planning to write about the Swedish example in the hope that it would raise horizons for a final fundraising push. I checked with her, too, that, in the current uncertain political climate they were still going ahead with their building plans. She assured me that, for now at least, life in Kobanî proceeds as normal – and they are impatient to get building.
Click here to find out more about our Kobanî school fund and how to donate. We would also be glad to come and talk to your organisation about our fundraising and/or the Kurdish situation more generally. You can contact us on firstname.lastname@example.org or find us on Facebook.