Feature Story

PROFILE:‎ Bakhtiar Mam Sheikh: From Fighting in the Kurdish ‎Mountains to Become a British Politician ‎

‌Hakeem Dawd Faraj

When he was only five years old, the sound of gunfire was very normal for him.  He grew up in an area which is well known for violence and war. He did not cope with that environment, so he escaped it. Escaping opened many new doors for Bakhtiar Mam Sheikh, a Kurd who is now councilor and deputy mayor of London’s wealthiest borough.

 His name is Muhammad, but he is known as ‘Bakhtiar Mam Sheikh’. He was born in the spring of 1965 in Tairawa, a well-known street in Erbil, the capital city of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. The first thing he talked about after naming the date of his birth was violence. He remembered that when he was five years old, he did not fear the sound of a rifle firing or of gunshot. “In those days, we witnessed the continuous fighting between Peshmerga and Iraqi soldiers”.

Peshmerga is a Kurdish word, meaning ’those who face death’. Unlike now, where it is an official force of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, Peshmerga forces were unorganized at that time, existing only as guerillas and positioned in the mountainous areas to fight the central government of Iraq, from 1960 until 1990.

Despite the fighting and unrest, Bakhtiar, unlike most of his generation, continued his studies until he finished high school in 1983. But his dream to be a university student vanished.

One year after finishing high school, at only 19 years old, Bakhtiar decided to become a Peshmerga. That was not an easy decision for anyone at that time.

“To remain in the city there were only two options for me; either to be soldier of the Iraqi Army or a ‘Jash – Iraqi-oriented Kurdish militia (a traitor). I chose to leave the city and fight in the mountains for the independence of my nation”.

The Romantic Vision Soon Vanished

For a young man like Bakhtiar, being a Peshmerga was more related to romance than war and violence at that time. “The first four months were a very happy time. We were training and people joined us every day.” But it was not always that way; the situation changed very soon. “When the training was over and I joined the frontlines, the romance was gone. During this time, I always saw blood; my friends were martyred and injured every day. I saw dozens of bodies killed by bombardment and fighting”.

During that time Bakhtiar believed that he would never be able to put down his Kalashnikov (AK-47), because of endless wars in the region. “I was right though. I put down my gun, but war and violence never ended in my home country and the region in general.”

Bakhtiar was a Peshmerga until the uprising in 1990, when Kurds in the North of Iraq rose against the Iraqi Army. In 1992 the first election in the Kurdistan Region was held and a government was established.

That was the perfect time for former Peshmerga member Bakhtiar to make his young dream come true: studying law at university. However, at that time there was an international blockade against Iraq, also making Kurds bear the burden. Nevertheless, Bakhtiar deserved to study at university after serving its nation for almost 6 years as a Peshmerga.

“The violence and war never end in that area”, this is what Bakhtiar predicted when he was young. He was right, after fighting the Iraqi Army for almost 30 years, in early 1990s civil war erupted and Kurds started fighting each other, which is known as the “Fighting of Brothers”. He felt helpless, seeing as beside the endless wars there were no basic services. “When I left my country, we received one hour of electricity in 48 hours”.

That was the time Bakhtiar decided to leave his country and head to Europe. “In November 1997 I left Erbil. My essential goal was to reach any country in Europe, because I was really tired of the fighting and unrest. I was sure if I stayed there, I would be killed because of my political activity”.

 “My entire journey took only one month. I went to Turkey first and then travelled from there directly to the UK. It was risky to travel with a fake passport, it worked, fortunately” Bakhtiar explained.

Starting a New Life, Far From War

Life in the UK was completely different. Despite the common difficulties that every refugee faces, Bakhtiar started his new life far from war and violence. That had been his dream for years.

He said “when I arrived here I did not know 10 words in English. It was really difficult. After 4 months of college, I got a job. I got the UK citizenship after two years”.

After living in the UK for 17 years, Bakhtiar was elected as councilor for the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea in 2014, which is home to the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and among the wealthiest boroughs in the UK. That was a huge success for him, especially after he was appointed as deputy mayor of The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea in May 2018. He is a member of the Labour party but was appointed by the Conservative party to be a deputy mayor. This shows the confidence and trust both parties have in him.

Bakhtiar first started working in the construction field and after some years he became a businessman. “But I was not happy with that, I always thought of something else, something related to intellectuality, not money. That is why l left that field and started working as a lawyer”.

After 2012, he started working for Labour actively. In local elections May 2014 he was a candidate for councilor in St Helen’s area in the council of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. Bakhtiar received 683. That marked the first success for his political experience. In May 2018 Bakhtiar surprised both parties by receiving the majority of votes: 924 and both seats went to Labour.                                  

 “I knocked on every door; I talked to everyone in my area. In those four years I served anyone who needed my help. I helped churches and mosques. Anyone who called me for anything I answered him or her and did my best in fulfilling their demands. There are more than 6000 homes in St Helen’s; I knocked every door more than 20 times in the last five years. I know everyone in that area. I think that is the story behind my success”.

                                    

Councilor Bakhtiar is now a Labour Group Deputy Leader in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. He is also a member of two committees.

Despite all the success and achievements in his life, Bakhtiar still believes that none of his real dreams have come true. “Kurdistan State is in my blood. I fought for independence; I never regret that and will never stop dreaming about Kurdistan Statehood, because that is our (Kurdish) only rescue path”.

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