When does a country become a country? Is it when the United Nations deems it so, or is it when an 18-year-old hangs a flag on his dorm room wall?
His suitcases were still packed, his bunk was without bedding, and yet the young man stood, in the middle of his new dorm room, smiling at a giant flag on the wall. The flag was red, white and green striped with a yellow sun in the middle.
I was there for move-in day. The young man was my son's freshman roommate.
"Where are you from?" I asked.
"Kurdistan." His voice was proud.
I introduced myself, and he said his name was Alan. On another wall, I saw a photograph of young girl wearing a lace dress.
"Who is the girl?"
"My sister," he smiled. "She is 8."
"I bet she misses you."
"She was sad to see me go."
"What do you plan to study?"
"Electrical engineering," Alan said.
Later, I asked my husband, "Is Kurdistan a country?"
"That's a good question," he said, pulled out a map, and showed me where Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey intersect. "This is where most Kurds live," my husband pointed to the region, "and here is Erbil, the city where Alan is from."
He and I started reading about the Kurds and learned that the Kurdish language was outlawed in four countries for most of the 20th century. We read about the Peshmarga who spent generations fighting for Kurdish freedom, and we wondered what Alan's story was.
The day before winter break, I received a text from our son: "Hey can Alan stay with us for a few days?"
"Would love to have him," I responded.
On Alan's last night with us, we went to a Christmas tree lot, and Alan helped select a tree. Back home, we hung ornaments on the tree while Alan told us about the Peshmarga.
Alan explained that the Peshmerga is any Kurdish fighter who fights for Kurdish independence and rights, regardless of their group or parties. "My father joined the Peshmerga when he was 16. In my father's generation and my grandfather's generation, everyone has lost someone. One man I know lost three brothers and his father," Alan said. "Previously, the Peshmerga had no base and lived in mountains and caves, surviving through all means. The official army is now called the Peshmerga out of respect to the martyrs."
He explained how much the city of Erbil has transformed in the last decade. We learned that Alan was in the first graduating class from his high school, and that students from his school were now attending universities all over the world.
The next morning before Alan left, I made us tea and we talked in the kitchen.
"Honey with your tea?" I asked.
"Yes, please," Alan said. I took my tea plain.
I asked Alan about Erbil. He told me that Erbil is the oldest, continuously inhabited city in the world.
"Were you born there?" I asked.
"I was born in Iran," he said. "When I was 8, we fled. My parents are journalist and would have been killed if we had stayed in Iran. We rode on horseback across the border."
"Were you scared?" I asked, imagining a family fleeing for their lives on horses.
"It was fun!" Alan said. "I still remember it." Instantly, I loved his mother for making a terrifying journey fun for her child.
"What was it like when you first arrived in Erbil?" I asked.
"We had to wake up at 3 a.m. to pump water, or else we did not get any. We had an hour of electricity a day. It has changed so much. We have water and electricity all day now."
Being able to fill a teakettle with water and heat it seemed more remarkable than it had an hour earlier.
"What do you miss most?" I asked.
"I miss the picnics." Alan said. "There are musicians who walk around, and we call them over, and they play, and we dance," Alan said. "Oh, it is so much fun. On the winter solstice, we stay up all night dancing. No one sleeps. In the spring, we picnic for three days. That is the beginning of our new year."
Alan used our computer to search for YouTube videos of Kurdish dancing. When he found dancers, he said, "These Kurdish dancers are in Europe." He had a hard time finding other videos.
"Why is it hard to find videos of Kurds dancing?" I asked.
"If we post videos of dancing from the other three parts, those in Iran, Syria and Turkey, we'll get killed," he said. "Some of the videos I showed you were recorded in the autonomous Iraqi region, where I live, and it's safe to publish it."
As I listened to Alan talk, I noticed how easily he said the phrase, "If we do such and such, we will be killed."
We watched a few more videos of Kurds dancing. I saw three musicians playing what looked like a flute and a drum. Alan told me the flute-like instrument is made from wood and is called a Zoorna, a doozala or a joozala (depending on the region), and the drum is called a dahol.
The men dancing wore matching coats, crisp, white shirts and billowy pants, and the women dancing wore brightly colored pantsuits. Their synchronized movements consisted of intricate footwork and shoulders moving back and forth in time to the music. The men and women were in a line, smiling with arms locked.
"The musicians play and we dance," he said, "but if there are no musicians, we clap our hands, and we still dance. We keep our traditions. There has been so much change, but we keep dancing."
"You keep the joy alive," I said.
"Yes," he said and smiled. "Yes."
I packed Alan a meal for the plane, and drove him to the bus stop. His plan was to take the bus to the airport, fly to New York, to Jordan and then to Erbil. The morning I took him to the bus was Tuesday.
"What time will it be when you arrive home?" I asked.
"Three in the morning on Thursday," Alan said.
"You are ahead of us?" I asked.
"A half a day."
"Who will meet you at the airport?" I asked.
"My mother, my father and my sister," he said.
"Even in the middle of the night, your sister will be there?" I asked.
"Yes," he laughed. "She will not be able to sleep, she will be so excited."
I drove home and started to wash breakfast dishes. I sipped the last bit of tea and tasted honey. The cup of tea I drank from was not mine. I realized I had tasted the sweetness from Alan's cup. I pictured him arriving home in time to celebrate the winter solstice, and I saw him dancing through the night with family and friends.
Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness: The beginnings of a great country start with protecting what matters.
Kathleen Buckstaff is the author of The Tiffany Box: A Memoir, a USA Best Book Awards Finalist. The Tiffany Box is full of love, humor, heartache, and insight. A gathering of e-mails and letters to her closest friends comprise Kathleen Buckstaff's candid, funny, and recognizably true chronicle of a generation "in-between": nurturing its young while nursing its aged, and coming to terms with the bitter realities that temper life's sweet rewards.