Kurds Leave Life In Europe To Fight ISIS In Their Iraqi Homeland : Parallels Until August, 24-year-old Aza Betwata was in Holland, enjoying beef and cabbage and studying to be a social worker. Now, he's among the hundreds of exiled Kurds who have returned and taken up arms.
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Kurds Leave Life In Europe To Fight ISIS In Their Iraqi Homeland

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Kurds Leave Life In Europe To Fight ISIS In Their Iraqi Homeland

Kurds Leave Life In Europe To Fight ISIS In Their Iraqi Homeland

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Now the violent history we just discussed means that Kurds are spread much farther than just the Middle East. Generations of instability led many Kurds to leave the region entirely, they've settle elsewhere. Long-ago thousands from Iraq's Kurdish region claimed asylum in Europe. Now that Iraqi Kurdistan is under attack, some young Kurds are returning to their ancestral homeland. They are fighting against ISIS. NPR's Alice Fordham is about to introduce us to one Kurdish fighter and wait until you hear how different his life used to be.

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: The man of the the Betwata Tribe gather to drink tea every morning in this outdoor courtyard with curving pillars and climbing plants. Most wear a traditional baggy blue suit, with a colored sash, and black and white headdress and they all talk about the war.

GENERAL SARHAD BETWATA: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: One of them, Sarhad Betwata, is a general. The grizzled officer says commands about a thousand men and later this morning will head off from here in Irbil to the frontlines of the Islamic State. Close to the Syrian border. And sitting respectfully in a corner is his nephew, Aza, tall and handsome in uniform and holding a sniper rifle almost as tall as he is. He's that pictures of a Peshmerga fighter, the soldiers Iraq's Kurds are so proud of, but until a couple months ago, Aza lead a very different life.

AZA BETWATA: I was student, social worker.

FORDHAM: You were studying to be a social worker?

A. BETWATA: Yes.

FORDHAM: What sort of social work did you want to do?

A. BETWATA: Like young people.

FORDHAM: Aza's family moved to the Netherlands when he was a child. He grew up speaking Dutch, loves traditional Dutch food like beef with red cabbage, but when he and his brothers realized the Islamic State were attacking their homeland they decided to come back. Aza's student friends couldn't believe it.

A. BETWATA: They didn't believe it, till I take the plane and came back. Until the day they didn't expect me to come back.

FORDHAM: What do you think it was difficult for them to understand?

A. BETWATA: 'Cause they never had seen something like that. Also for me it's difficult to leave everything, my school, my friends, my family to came back and fight. You don't know if you'll survivor or not, but it's a duty. You have to do it.

FORDHAM: He joined his uncle's battalion and very soon found himself on the frontline, filled with pride.

A. BETWATA: I was proud. It felt good, it felt like I was home. I had never seen a fight, but when I was there I was with my family, so my heart could rest and my mind.

FORDHAM: Aza had just two days training. He reckons he'd had plenty of practice shooting guns with his Kurdish cousins on summer vacations here. But when I ask him about the rifle he's holding, it turns out it's the first time he's handled it.

A. BETWATA: It's a sniper rifle, it belongs to my little brother. He won't come with us today, so I picked the gun and got in front.

FORDHAM: He hasn't even learned to strip and clean it yet. His younger brother Mirwan takes the opportunity to show him. Their uncle, the general, says they don't bother with lots of training. The boys's fathers and grandfathers were Peshmerga, fighting in wars in the '80s and 90s. They grew up looking at their photographs, hearing their stories.

S. BETWATA: (Through translator) I will give you just a small example. you know ducks when they come out of the egg, they just go into the water, they can swim. So it's inherited by family also. We know who is the good.

(LAUGHTER)

FORDHAM: He reckons he has about 30 European returnees under his command. Mirwan finishes breaking the gun up and putting it back together.

MIRWAN BETWATA: It's simple; it is not so difficult, just like the ducks - little ducks.

FORDHAM: Peshmerga officials welcome them. I meet Major General Hazhar Ismail, who's in charge of international relations.

MAJOR GENERAL HAZHAR ISMAIL: Actually, we don't have a correct number, but there are dozens of people volunteer - Kurdish people - they are coming from Europe and other countries want to fight with their brothers against ISIL to protect their families, their relatives and to protect Kurdistan.

FORDHAM: He's not quite sure on the numbers.

ISMAIL: Of course, more than a hundred.

FORDHAM: Which he concedes is nothing compared with the thousands of Europeans who are fighting with the Islamic State. And honestly, he says, a lot of these European Kurds aren't quite ready to fight. But they put them in the second line of fighting and he says they're good for morale. Meanwhile, back at the Betwata family home, the uncle - the commander - has changed to his uniform and is loading up two four-wheel drive vehicles. His brother, the fighters' father, is playing backgammon with the sheik, the leader of the tribe, and watching his son pack. And then suddenly, they're gone, and it seems awfully quiet. Only the old man and the children are left. They're going to the Mosul Dam, their father says, an area where the Islamic State was in control until recently. He turns back to the house. Hopefully, they'll come back safe, he says. Alice Fordham, NPR News, Erbil.

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