While politics might evoke controversy for most people, there is one exceptional politician who defies these stereotypes: Ziyad Raoof, the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) representative to Poland, who is not just a diplomat but also a well-known philanthropist, humanitarian, and cultural advocate. Raoof’s life story embodies resilience, compassion, and a profound dedication to cultural exchange. Raised in a family deeply engaged in national liberation movements and advocacy for democracy in Iraq, his life has been marked by both hardship and an unwavering commitment to making the world a better place for all.
A family shaped by struggle
Raoof’s journey begins in Erbil, the current capital of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI). He was born into a family of educators, for whom a large bookshelf in the living room played a significant role in the upbringing of the children. Raoof inherited a legacy of advocating for democracy and human rights, including those of the Kurds, who had suffered drastically under the rule of different oppressive regimes in Iraq. His father faced imprisonment multiple times as a result of his support for the freedom of Kurdistan. During the 1940s, he was at the forefront of the Kurdish freedom movement, for which he was sentenced to five years in prison in the 1950s.
Raoof’s mother was equally passionate about education, freedom, democracy, and women’s rights. As an active journalist, she wrote on women’s rights in Kurdistan, making her mark through contributions to newspapers like Tariq al-Shaab. The young Ziyad Raoof thus grew up surrounded by inspiring role models.
Speaking to Kurdistan Chronicle during an exclusive interview, Raoof explained how his family’s involvement in liberation movements inspired him to dedicate his life to the Kurdish cause. This path, however, was fraught with risks, leading to his arrest in 1977, when he was just a student. Following his release, he fled to Turkey and eventually found a way to continue his education in Moscow, where he studied law.
Arriving in Poland
In 1986, Raoof made his way to Poland, embarking on a journey that would forever connect him with the Polish people and culture.
Upon his arrival, he discovered a vibrant Kurdish diaspora community. Many Kurds had come to the country in the 1960s and 1970s for university studies, as during that time Poland offered generous scholarships to students from Iraq and Kurdistan. These students became actively involved in politics, organizing events to raise awareness about the plight of the Kurds in Iraq.
Raoof believes that the early Kurdish diaspora community played a crucial role in introducing Polish society to Kurdish culture and identity. During this time, the first Kurdish book, Kurdistan and the Kurds by Abdulrahman Qasemlou, was translated and published in Poland, serving as a pivotal resource for researchers and those interested in understanding the Kurdish cause.
In addition to being a diplomat, Raoof is a philanthropist who tirelessly advocates for human rights, cultural exchange, and peace, with his charity work in Poland garnering recognition and numerous awards. He emphasizes the importance of giving back when others need help, a principle deeply ingrained in his upbringing.
“I will always remember 1991, when millions of Kurdish civilians were stuck in harsh conditions in the mountains bordering Iran and Turkey because of the brutality of the Ba’ath regime. During those days, despite experiencing serious economic hardship themselves, Polish people rushed to help the Kurds. I always feel that I owe Poland something and have to reciprocate their generosity,” Raoof explained.
After witnessing the Polish people’s remarkable humanitarian response to the crisis faced by the Kurds, Raoof decided to establish the first Kurdish-Polish Association, which is still active today in Krakow, with a mission of enhancing cultural relations between Kurdistan and Poland.
“My work does not strictly benefit Kurds. I believe that culture knows no boundaries and that cultural preservation, no matter its origin, is the responsibility of all. That’s the reason why I am involved in so many cultural activities in Poland and in other countries around the world,” Raoof explained.
Raoof’s commitment extends beyond humanitarian efforts to the preservation of cultural and architectural landmarks in Poland. Utilizing his financial success from a business that he launched in the early 1990s, he invested in restoring historic buildings, some of which are 300 to 400 years old. These buildings have been transformed into tourist attractions, cultural institutions, conference centers, and traditional hotels or restaurants. Today, they attest to Poland’s rich history.
And that’s not all. Ziyad Raoof is also an art collector, owning many pieces of art from Kurdistan and around the world. Many museums and art galleries in Poland have reached out to him to ask to borrow artwork for public display, something that Raoof will always respond to with positive enthusiasm.
In 2003, when the KRG had yet to open its official representation office in Poland, Raoof brought together many Kurdish artists, intellectuals, and activists to participate in a festival dedicated to Kurdish culture, art, and history. One segment of the festival was an exhibition of contemporary Kurdish art in Krakow. Later that year, the exhibition was awarded the prestigious title of “Exhibition of the Year” by Poland’s Ministry of Culture and National Heritage.
Raoof believes that the Kurdish people and Polish people share historical parallels that offer valuable lessons. Poland’s history, marked by occupation and division, mirrors the Kurdish experience in many ways. Despite being divided for over a century, the Polish people preserved their national identity, language, and culture, ultimately regaining independence and building a strong nation.
“This tells us that no matter how much a nation is oppressed or divided, if cultural identity is kept alive, there is always a high likelihood of prevailing against adversaries,” Raoof said.
Acknowledgments and awards
The spirit of this Kurdish diplomat, coupled with the contributions that he has made to Polish society, have secured Raoof a distinguished position in Poland and among Polish intellectuals.
In 2003, Raoof was given the title of “2002 Mecenas Kultury Krakowa” – translated as Patron of Krakow Culture. The award is given annually to individuals who have contributed significantly to cultural promotion in the former Polish capital.
Later, in 2017, he was also honored with the prestigious Małopolska Award for his contribution to the country since arriving in 1986. “During the award ceremony, the Voivode of Małopolska expressed gratitude and said that the award was for my service to my community in Poland,” Raoof said during the interview.
Most recently, Raoof was granted the title of “Krakow Ambassador of Multiculturalism 2020.” The title was first established in 2018 by the Krakow City Council to award individuals, groups, or organizations actively involved in intercultural dialogue in Krakow. It recognizes activities and initiatives aimed at promoting cultural, ethnic, and religious diversity as well as the integration of Krakow’s foreign residents.
Last but not least, at the invitation of the Polish Minister of Culture, Raoof served for two terms as council member of the Polish National Museum. Later, he joined the council of the Krakow Museum to play a significant role in organizing many landmark events in the country, including international conferences, symposiums, and exhibitions where Kurdish artists and scholars had a chance to partake.
The history of diplomatic relations between Kurdistan and Poland holds paramount significance. The KRG opened its representation office in Warsaw in 2004, just one year after Iraq was liberated from the Ba’ath regime. In 2005, Polish Prime Minister Marek Belka, accompanied by Minister of Foreign Affairs Adam Rotfeld, Minister of National Defense Jerzy Szmajdziński, and Minister of Culture Waldemar Dąbrowski, made a historic visit to the KRI, laying a strong foundation for future diplomatic relations.
As Raoof explained, this marked the first visit by the prime minister of a foreign nation to the KRI, which paved the way for many other world leaders to visit and establish relations with the KRG.
According to the KRG representative, current relations between the KRI and Poland are growing quickly, particularly in the fields of education and trade. Poland has become one of the main destinations for many Kurdish students seeking to pursue higher education, and universities from both countries closely cooperate for academic exchange.
Raoof believes that Poland’s transition to a new political and economic system in the early 1990s has resulted in its rapid development, offering valuable lessons for the KRI’s own path to progress. Poland’s history resonate with the Kurdish struggle, making it a natural partner in fostering mutual understanding and cooperation.
Today’s bond between Poland and the KRI owes its strength to Ziyad Raoof and those who have done their best to reciprocate the generosity of Poland toward the Kurds during hard times. Raoof has not only contributed to the cultural and humanitarian landscape of Poland but has also actively engaged in building bridges of understanding and cooperation between the two nations.
Ziyad Raoof’s life story, deeply rooted in advocacy for culture, freedom, and peace, serves as an inspiring example of how one individual can make a significant impact on the world.
Sardar Sattar is a translator and journalist based in the Kurdistan Region. He has an MA in English Studies from the University of Lodz, Poland. He has translated several books and political literature into Kurdish and English. He writes regularly for local and international newspapers and journals.