- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 23, 2009

Five years ago this month, I was touring Iraqi Kurdistan, otherwise known as northern Iraq. The 111-degree temperatures were particularly onerous because I was obligated to wear floor-length skirts and long-sleeved shirts to avoid the chance that some al Qaeda type would deem my dress insufficiently Islamic.

Kurdistan was pretty safe from the fanatics, thanks to the omnipresent Kurdish police called the peshmerga, but people were getting their heads chopped off elsewhere in Iraq back in 2004.

I’d like to return, but I’d not recommend summer as a time to be there, which is why I was curious to hear that Jeff Johnson, who appears on Black Entertainment Television, just spent a week there making a documentary about Kurds. As I write this, he’s flying back to the Kurdish capital of Irbil for another 10 days to cover regional elections on Saturday.

“It’s a social justice issue,” he told me last week. “As American citizens, if we’re spending tax dollars on this part of the world, we need to be concerned about what happens after we leave.”

Mr. Johnson isn’t the kind of guy you’d think would be interested in Kurds - at 20 million to 25 million, the world’s largest ethnic group without a state. Raised Presbyterian, he was thinking of attending seminary when he got a call from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1999 to be its national youth director.

The world of religion beckoned again, so he left the NAACP in 2003 to become a full-time youth minister at Empowerment Temple African Methodist Episcopal Church in Baltimore. He left in 2005 to pursue other interests and ended up as a Washington-based columnist, social activist and commentator for the syndicated “Tom Joyner Morning Show.” He also has his own show, “The Truth with Jeff Johnson,” on BET.

Then, “as I was looking at President Obama’s withdrawal strategy from Iraq,” he said, “there was no real mention of the Kurds nor their needs in the central government. They are persecuted everywhere on multiple levels.”

“I want to be talking about this in the African-American and larger community because they don’t know who the Kurds are. Forty-five percent of the oil in Iraq is in Kurdish regions. I can’t imagine we wouldn’t be looking to establish a military base there, but I don’t think we’ve got the political guts for it.”

I looked at Mr. Johnson’s black braids gathered into a large ponytail and asked how the Kurds reacted to him.

“I was confused with a Brazilian soccer player half the time I was there,” he said. “Everyone was fascinated by the hair.”

Mr. Johnson’s interest in civil rights will get quite a workout in northern Iraq. The news service Compass Direct just wrote about a hapless 16-year-old girl in the Kurdish city of Dohuk who converted to Christianity. Two years ago, when an uncle tried to kill her for converting, she defended herself with a knife. She killed him instead and was thrown into jail.

She was just released, but her father - also a convert to Christianity - has gone into hiding along with his daughter, afraid that some vengeful distant family member will kill them both.

Let’s hope that Mr. Johnson, who cut his teeth reporting on the carnage in Darfur, can put together a fabulous documentary on this vexing part of the world.

Julia Duin’s Stairway to Heaven column appears on Thursdays and Sundays. Contact her at [email protected]

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