Philosophy graduate Zanyar Rojhelat’s Kurdish heritage inspires his work exploring right to self-determination

Zanyar Rojhelat

Zanyar Rojhelat will pursue his PhD in philosophy at the University of Ottawa after earning his master’s degree at UMSL. (Photo by August Jennewein)

Zanyar Rojhelat turned appropriately philosophical when asked recently about reaching the end of his graduate studies at the University of Missouri–St. Louis.

“Life is a path more than a purpose,” said Rojhelat, who earned his master’s degree in philosophy and received the department’s Outstanding Graduate Student Award. “What I value about path and dislike about purpose is that as much as purpose is useful, it has kind of a psychological force to it. When it’s reached, most of the time, it will lose its value.”

He offered an example of a person wanting a glass of cold water on a hot summer day. That individual’s sole focus might be on opening the refrigerator door, pouring the glass of water and consuming it. But once the person drinks, the water is gone forever.

“The path is something that always remains,” Rojhelat said. “It never ends, and you enjoy every step. If you have a purpose, it’s simply a purpose on that path, and when it’s finished – when you drank that cold water – you don’t wonder what to do next. You already know your path, where you’re going, what lies ahead.”

For Rojhelat, the path is carrying him to the University of Ottawa, where he will pursue a PhD in philosophy while building on the work he’s done at UMSL examining the question of collective identity and the right to self-governance and self-determination.

It’s useful to look back at his upbringing and his heritage to understand how Rojhelat arrived at this point.

A people without a home

Rojhelat grew up in a small city in the northwestern part of Iran, but ethnically he is not Persian but rather Kurdish – a member of the largest stateless ethnic group in the world with an estimated 30 to 45 million people.

Most live in the geo-cultural area known as Kurdistan, which spans areas of southeastern Turkey, northern Syria, northern Iraq and northwestern Iran. They have a history of being marginalized and persecuted in each country.

In 1988, during the closing days of the Iran-Iraq War, Saddam Hussein ordered a chemical weapons attack on the Kurdish city of Halabja. It killed as many as 5,000 people and injured as many as 10,000 more – most of them civilians – in the largest such attack against a civilian-populated area in history.

Around the same time, Turkey systematically depopulated Kurdish rural areas by razing to the ground approximately 4,000 Kurdish villages, renaming the entire region to Turkish names and forcing the population to migrate to big Turkish cities to be assimilated there.

Similarly, the Syrian state banned Kurdish culture and denied their identity, to the point of depriving a large portion of the Kurdish population the legal right to citizenship.

The oppression took more subtle forms as Rojhelat was growing up in Iran. He had to adopt a different official name ­– Muhammad Ahmadi – and was required to learn Farsi rather than his native Kurdish language to attend school and advance academically.

Rojhelat internalized all the conversations he heard among adults growing up about their history, and he grew up with the sense of being an outsider, forced to conform to someone else’s rules.

He recalls being a mischievous child. His father had a word he used to call him whenever Rojhelat did something to make him exasperated. He was 25 before he realized what the word meant.

“It means stateless child,” Rojhelat said.

Cultural lessons

Iranian men over the age of 18 are required to serve between 18 months and two years in the military. Rojhelat spent his compulsory service in an Azerbaijani province in northwestern part of the country, and he used the opportunity to begin learning a third language.

It also got him thinking more and more about culture and identity.

“I found out how great it is to speak to people with their own language,” Rojhelat said.

He pointed a famous quote from Nelson Mandela: “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart.”

After completing his military service, Rojhelat enrolled at a national university to study computer engineering. It seemed a practical decision – one that would provide job opportunities.

It was also at that time that Rojhelat began teaching himself English, believing it would be important in helping him understand the ever-evolving technology field.

Rojhelat never found much meaning or satisfaction from computer engineering, so he returned to school to pursue an MBA. But business also didn’t provide a sense of purpose.

Instead, he found work as a self-employed language teacher, and he continued to add to his own knowledge by learning French and later German.

“All these languages, they give you a broader perspective,” Rojhelat said. “They help you to move beyond your local world. It gives you an idea to also see the world from the perspective of other cultures and languages – how they see, how they express themselves – and you appreciate the differences and the similarities ­– mostly similarities. You can see the same values and that your culture and language only further enrich these values.”

A pursuit with meaning

Rojhelat was also starting to read more and more about philosophy. Over time, he decided he should pursue his interest in a formal academic setting, and he decided to explore options outside Iran, including in the United States.

St. Louis stood out as a destination because it is, in Rojhelat’s words, “a philosophy city,” with strong philosophy departments at the University of Missouri–St. Louis as well as Saint Louis University and Washington University in St. Louis.

He had read and appreciated some of the work of Washington University Professor Kit Wellman and UMSL Associate Teaching Professor Jill Delston, who both work in political philosophy. He wanted to learn near those thinkers.

Rojhelat credits Curators’ Professor Gualtiero Piccinini, who serves as the director of graduate studies, for admitting him into UMSL’s graduate program despite limited formal training in philosophy.

He hadn’t lived outside Iran when he arrived in St. Louis, and he remembers vividly the first time he walked onto UMSL’s campus and was greeted by a billboard filling the side of one of the buildings with the phrase “We Transform Lives.”

Rojhelat didn’t yet know how much he’d come to agree with that.

He spent his first semester taking courses at UMSL but also sitting in on other philosophy courses around the city, at both SLU and Wash U.

With inspiration and encouragement from UMSL faculty members such as Professors Jon McGinnis and Eric Wiland, Associate Professor Billy Dunaway and Assistant Professor Lauren Olin, he started to refine his thoughts about collective identity and the right to self-determination.

That became the central topic of his master’s thesis.

“While at UMSL, Zanyar managed to turn his interest in this question into a research project that is very original, and philosophically insightful,” Dunaway said. “There isn’t a lot of philosophical literature on national self-determination in philosophy. Zanyar managed to take prominent ideas about what justice is and apply them in creative ways to reach conclusions about when a group has a right to self-determination.

“It sheds light on the Kurdish issue, but it also applies very broadly to questions about the rights of groups to own or control things that are central to their culture.”

The path continues

Rojhelat hopes to develop his ideas further as he moves further along his path in Ottawa. He believes the doctoral program will help him bridge the analytic philosophy that is prevalent in the United States and that he learned at UMSL with continental philosophy that has origins in 19th and 20th century Europe.

He was also drawn to the program because it is bilingual – with courses in both English and French.

Rojhelat will head north grateful for the opportunities he found in St. Louis and at UMSL and how they have shaped him.

“The first thing I saw when I came on campus, there was that big billboard, saying, ‘We transform lives,’” Rojhelat said. “I think they really do. I can see for myself. I have experienced that. I owe that to my professors. They were all inspirational for me.”

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