FEATURE: More Friends Than Mountains
The Kurdish community in Chicago, Illinois, United States, recently gathered at Evanston Public Library to paint kites for children in the Kurdistan Region as part of a project called “More Friends than Mountains.”
Osman Cen, President of Kurdish Cultural Center of Illinois (KCCI), said the “event connected the children from our communities to those in refugee camps and other places in Kurdistan.”
“I hope those kites give them a little relaxing time in their hardship life,” he added.
Participants of the kite painting event from the Kurdish community were from all parts of the Greater Kurdistan, as well as fellow Americans. Some people painted the Kurdish flag while others drew birds and Kurdish words on the kites.
“Our community members are recent immigrants,” Cen explained. “They are in solidarity with refugees in Kurdistan.”
As a part of the project, children in refugee camps will receive kites that people painted here in the US.
Additionally, the children will partake in the project’s different art initiatives. These art initiatives include a series of “HOPE Murals” which is a collaboration of two American artists, Mike Stenerson and Melissa Marie Collins, and two Kurdish graffiti artists, Vanilla Van and Awa F. Bakr.
Building kites, origami workshops, and other creative activities are sponsored for children in the refugee camps through the partnership and organizations who are also included in the project.
The founder of the project, Jason Everett, 38, said he named it “More Friends Than Mountains” to demonstrate that people are in solidarity with the Kurds in their struggle for freedom and independence.
“I chose ‘More Friends Than the Mountains’ as the title because of the old adage ‘no friends but the mountains’ that expresses the Kurdish historical experience,” Everett said. He has visited several countries in the past with similar projects.
“I wanted this project to show diverse people coming together in friendship, Kurdish and Americans, to encourage and inspire people living in challenging circumstances.”
Everett will leave Chicago on Jan. 20. He will spend the 15-day trip in the Kurdistan Region where he will visit refugee camps in Erbil, Sulaimani, and Duhok. He is working with the Kurdish Cultural Center of Illinois, Kites in the Sky, UNICEF, and the US Consulate in Erbil to support his project through the Barzani Charity Foundation (BCF).
Mohammed Hawar, a Senior Education Officer at BCF, said the foundation welcomes the project and will make sure that it runs smoothly.
“BCF has community centers in all refugees and IDPs camps in [the Kurdistan Region], also in urban areas as well such as Sheladze, Tenahi, and Ble,” Hawar stated.
“Through these community centers, BCF will be able to facilitate this project and at the same time make some other activities alongside Jason’s project,” he added. “This will bring a positive message from our friends in the USA that [the Kurdistan Region] is not alone in the current humanitarian struggle.”
Everett said his partners from the US would learn about the Kurdish people, mostly about populations living and serving in refugee camps, as well as current events in the region.
“I expect that people who have given their time, talents, and resources to participate in this project will gain a lot of value from the project,” he said. “I also expect to, through my time in Kurdistan with Kurdish friends, dispel common misperceptions—to highlight ways we are similar and share some of the cool characteristics of modern Kurdish culture.”
Kites in the Sky owner, Catherine Gabren, is one of the contributors of the “More Friends Than Mountains” project. She has assisted similar initiatives in the past. However, Gabren, who contributed over 800 kites, said she views this project differently.
“It is always a pleasure to give a kite to someone who rarely, if ever, flies a kite,” she said. “Jason is taking and sharing happiness with people who need it so much.”
“It breaks my heart to know that so many people, children are living in and under such traumatic circumstances. Jason’s willingness to not only go but to share these kites is incredibly generous.”
According to Gabren, kites are universal and have a significant role in human history.
“At one point in Japanese history, they were banned, except for certain celebrations because too many farmers were flying kites and not doing their work,” she explained. “They speak a universal language of happiness.”
Peter Landreth, a high school geography teacher and tour guide, who was one of the precipitants of kite painting event with the Kurdish community, said he had mentioned Kurds to his students “for a while.”
“I hope these kites bring a smile to people’s faces in refugee camps,” Landreth stated.
Everett is a freelance photographer and traveler based out of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, United States. His inspiration for photography came from his need to understand, capture, and communicate the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and later, his years of traversing complex Israeli and Palestinian conflict. Therefore, his work focuses on international conflict, but his interest spans urban environment and social life. Everett has launched several similar projects in Cuba, Uganda, and Rwanda. He has taken kites and skateboards to these countries.
He said his trip to Cuba was the beginning of this kind of projects. He managed to take 22 new skateboards to donate to young people in Cuba.
Through these initiatives, he said he learned how to travel to a new country “with the intent to connect with people in some kind of good project.”
“I don’t know if I will ever travel again without finding some kind of unique way to connect with people for a good cause – it has changed the way I travel.”
Ridvan Bolgi is a reporter based on the United States. He is interested in Kurdish affairs in the diaspora, immigration, and public affairs in the United States. He graduated from Istanbul University with a BA in Public Affairs and Advertising in 2013, and from Columbia College with an MA in multimedia journalism in 2018. He is currently working on a documentary about how Muslim immigrants’ integration happens through building temples.
Editing by Karzan Sulaivany