August 24, 2006
Daughter of Kurdistan
Soraya Serajeddini: 1960—2006
By Jeanne Carbone Lewis
Soraya Serajeddini was only 46 years old when she died suddenly of an asthma attack on July 24. Yet, during that short period of time, she left a wealth of goodwill and support for her fellow Kurds everywhere.
|Soraya Serajeddini works at a booth at the Simonds Multicutural Faire in 2004, with the help of Simonds parents Shelly and Rick Ballard (in Kurdish clothes) and parent Maryam Ahmadpanah and her son Shahab, also a Simonds student. Photos courtesy of the Ver Ploeg family.|
Serajeddini and her family had lived in Almaden Valley for six years prior to moving to Maryland. But many of her friends in Almaden knew nothing of her impressive commitment to Kurdistan and the life she lived before she came to America.
“I remember when I first met her,” said Almaden neighbor Kim Hoppe. “She brought a Kurdish chutney over to introduce herself. Our boys were the same age and we spent a lot of time together in the neighborhood and at Simonds [Elementary School]. She was so calm and genuine. And very smart—she made a difference. She made me feel that I wanted to do more.”
Serajeddini was born in Iran to a respected family of Dr. Abed Serajeddini Nakshbandi and Mrs. Zeynab Setoodeh. She was Kurdish with ties to Kurdistan of northern Iraq through her father and to Iran through her mother. Their families had lived on the borders of Iran and Iraq for generations. Her parents recognized at an early age that Soraya was eager to learn and encouraged their daughter as well as her three siblings, Aziz, Nasser and Shawnem.
Serajeddini’s father was a member of parliament and introduced her to many of the dignitaries and artists in the county. She became politically active at 17, with a deep concern for the political climate she lived in. Her parents were liberal and never recognized either country and referred to their frequent dashes across countries to escape persecution as “crossing to the other side.”
In 1980, her family fled Ayatollah Khomeini’s maltreatment against the Kurds when the prime minister announced that he could not protect them. Serajeddini and her older brother Aziz were the last to leave as they were under the greatest scrutiny. They made the strenuous journey walking at night and hiding by day across the steep and snow-covered mountains with Kurdish villagers providing rifles and food through the war-torn area. They eventually separated for safety but were reunited with their mother and sisters in Iraq.
Serajeddini began to witness what she called the “dark truth” that Kurds in Iraq were just as oppressed and miserable as she was in Iran. The stories she heard from Turkey and Syria were even more horrific.
In 1982, Serajeddini came to the United States to attend San Francisco State University. At a party she was introduced to Tom Ver Ploeg her future husband. Ver Ploeg’s family embraced her warmly but Serajeddini’s family had reservations and insisted she finish her education before marrying. Ver Ploeg also needed to seek Sheik Osman’s permission for marriage. Ver Ploeg obliged but became aware of the pressure his wife’s family experienced by allowing their daughter to marry a Westerner.
Serajeddini received her BS degree from Northeastern University in electrical engineering in 1987, the same year she married Ver Ploeg. In March of 1988, 30 members of her extended family—the same ones that had given her refuge from Iran—along with another 5,000 people, died in Sadaam Hussein’s chemical weapons bombing of Halabja.
“Their only crime was being born with the curse of a Kurdish identity,” said Serajeddini to her friend Davar Ardalan, a journalist with National Public Radio who called her the ‘daughter of Kurdistan’ in honor of her activism.
|Committed to the cause. Tom Ver Ploeg and Sonaya Serajeddini at the 18th Annual Conference of the Kurdish National Congress in Washington, D.C. in March 2006.|
Serajeddini joined the Kurdish National Congress in 1991 becoming instrumental in publicizing Kurdish issues in the United States. Equally important to her was the birth of her sons, Aveen in 1994 and Daryan in 1996. While in Almaden Valley she shared her Kurdish heritage at the Simonds Multicultural Fair and her expertise of culinary delights and dressing in costume. In 2002, she joined the city of San Jose to select and implement a new utility billing system. It laid the foundation for a new Web self-service customer relations approach and the consolidation of City call centers into a single portal.
“She lived three houses down and we knew her as a neighbor,” said Almaden resident Art Boudreault. “We would talk during our annual July Fourth parade and I got to know her. I heard about her escape from Iran. She embraced the American culture but kept her Iranian traditions.”
Serajeddini was instrumental in organizing a conference on the independence of Kurdistan in November 2005 in Iraqi Kurdistan.
“Soraya’s dedication, determination, hard work and commitment to human rights, women’s rights, minority rights, Kurdish National Rights, democracy and freedom for all was unparalleled,” wrote Kurdish National Congress founder professor Asad Khailany in a memorial at http://www.kncna.org. “Soraya was a visionary and worked tirelessly to promote democracy and freedom in general and Kurdish human and national rights in particular. Even those who never had the opportunity to meet Soraya know of her work and cite her untimely passing as a loss to the Kurdish nation and cause.”
In March 2006, Serajeddini and her husband, Thomas Ver Ploeg, were elected to the board of directors of KNC. Ver Ploeg was the first American to hold such a post. Serajeddini was the KNC executive vice president at the time of her death and chaired the committee on Democracy and Freedom for all Iranians and Kurdish Human and National Rights, the first conference held in the U.S. Senate Building. She was also instrumental in the success of the Syrian Kurdish Human and National rights conference held in March 2006 at the U.S. Senate. She was working on a book to introduce the Kurdish issue to the American public.
“I will miss having someone to talk to and to share the boys’ accomplishments,” said Ver Ploeg. “And I will continue her work. She was an exceptional person—full of big ideas and big inspirations.”
Soraya Serajeddini: wife, mother, Kurdish activist. She will be remembered.