Inspired by refugee parents, SMU grad unites three degrees with community outreach to empower others

As a newly minted SMU graduate with three degrees, Kovan Barzani not only has exceeded his Kurdish-American parents’ expectations, but reinforced their decision to flee Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s brutal regime for “peace and peace of mind” in the U.S.

By Denise Gee
SMU News 

Kovan Barzani and mother
Kovan Barzani with his mother

DALLAS (SMU) – As a newly minted SMU graduate with three degrees, Kovan Barzani not only has exceeded his Kurdish-American parents’ expectations, but also reinforced their decision to flee Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s brutal regime for “peace and peace of mind” in the U.S.

While weighing three college scholarships during his last year at Liberty High School in Frisco, Kovan recalls his mother’s singular request, delivered with a smile: “Be sure to get at least two degrees – one for you and one for me.”

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As it happens, Kovan chose SMU precisely because it could offer not two but the three degrees he sought – in economics, public policy and management – while helping him cultivate the three virtues most valued by his family: “empathy, adaptability and persistence.” Also a plus: His Plano-based family would be nearby as he navigated the next four years.

The Barzanis’ slice of North Texas suburbia belies the chaos his parents and other Kurds endured under Hussein’s regime. Kurdistan, a mountainous region that reaches into southeastern Turkey, northern Syria, northern Iraq and northwestern Iran, is defined more by ethnicity than geo-political boundaries. Kurdistan’s only autonomous region currently exists in Iraq, but Hussein’s savage treatment of the Kurds during the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s culminated in a genocidal campaign of mass executions and chemical gas attacks that killed as many as 182,000 people, destroyed thousands of villages and displaced millions.

Kovan’s father, Omar, was among the Kurds who made it to the U.S. shortly before Hussein’s rise to power in 1979. It would be years before mutual family friends would introduce him to Kovan’s mother, Tania, whose family in Iran was prone to persecution for their political ties.

A better life awaited Tania after marrying Omar and moving to Texas in 1994. After Kovan’s birth in 1995, two more children would follow – as would learning the ins and outs of motherhood and an unfamiliar culture and language while her husband spent long hours operating his restaurant business. As a child, Kovan watched her quiet struggle.

Kovan Barzani
As part of his SMU Engaged Learning Project last fall, Kovan taught English to refugees served by the International Rescue Committee in Dallas. He also helped provide computer equipment that so far has helped 30 families.

“The language barrier inhibited everything,” says Kovan, who found himself learning his Social Security number by age 6 to help his mother fill out paperwork at doctors’ offices and elsewhere.

Tania repaid her son’s kindness “with immense love and acts of selflessness, always doing without so we could have what we needed or wanted,” Kovan says. By middle school, however, he saw a way to help her achieve what she really needed and wanted – to learn English, and pass her U.S. citizenship test.

Using his Plano Public Library card, he began checking out the Rosetta Stone language instruction software it then made available. “I’ll never forget the glow on her face after each lesson,” he recalls.

He would see that glow in the faces of others time and again. The joy he experienced helping his mother learn English was clearly reflected in Kovan’s pursuit of altruistic community projects after his arrival at SMU in 2013. Recognizing that his mother's barriers to learning English were shared by other North Texas immigrants, he set out to help them.

With financial support and guidance that SMU’s Engaged Learning program provides for student-driven community initiatives, Kovan partnered with the International Rescue Committee (IRC) in Dallas to offer literacy and technology skills to those served by the IRC.

With Cox School of Business lecturer Karin Quiñones as his mentor, Kovan developed a network of donors to provide laptops, desktop and other electronic equipment to the IRC, where he also taught literacy courses. (And at last check, more than three dozen families have benefitted from his efforts; see related KERA story.)

Another innovative project Kovan conducted as a student exemplifies his strength in political strategy (and it, too, sparked media interest). In 2016 Kovan managed Democrat Jim Burke’s campaign bid to be Texas State Representative for District 114. Though Burke’s chances of winning were a long-shot against three-term Rep. Jason Villalba, Kovan was pleased by what he managed to accomplish. His analysis of the district’s changing demographics, paired with stealth community outreach, would help Burke draw 28,000 votes with a budget of $5,000. “Compare that to another campaign that spent $200,000 for essentially the same turnout,” he says.

Kovan’s years at SMU have strengthened him on numerous levels. “Collaborating with current and future leaders has been amazing,” he says, pointing out three leaders in particular whose guidance has been invaluable.

Kovan Barzani
While visiting Iraq and Kurdistan in 2015, Kovan made his way to an area within 10 miles of ISIS-occupied Mosul to offer translation and refugee-registration help to Iraqi soldiers. He also was able to meet Kurdistan President Masoud Barzani – who’s not related, but did know Kovan’s Kurdish Peshmurga grandfather.

For management studies at the Cox School of Business, Kovan credits Simon Mak, associate director of the Caruth Institute for Entrepreneurship, for “providing unparalleled interaction and accessibility.” Within Dedman College, economics Prof. Bo Chen “is a game theorist who makes strategizing solutions based on rational outcomes fun” – and former U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia Robert Jordan, Diplomat-in-Residence at the John G. Tower Center for Political Studies, “has the unique ability to project his insights in a non-partisan way.”

Kovan’s compassionate and knowledgeable grasp of the world led to his being named an inaugural Tower Scholar during his sophomore year at SMU. The honor roll member also would benefit from a Bickers Scholarship, Crosby Scholarship, Charles and Sarah Seay Scholarship and Maurice Acers Scholarship.

At SMU’s May 20 Commencement Convocation, his family cheered on his accomplishments, including his landing a job as a business analyst with Plano-based Capital One. The globally minded company’s appreciation for continuing education and community involvement is in sync with Kovan's next three goals – to earn both a M.B.A. and master’s degree in public policy while “becoming a change agent in my community,” he says.

On a personal level, Kovan aims to ensure his family obtains financial and healthcare security while he helps others overcome humanitarian crises and gain the tools to succeed in the U.S.

“Until we connect with people in our communities who need us the most,” he says, “we won’t have life’s fullest picture.”

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For more than 100 years, SMU has shaped minds, explored the frontiers of knowledge and fostered an entrepreneurial spirit in its seven degree-granting schools. Taking advantage of unbridled experiences on the University’s beautiful campuses and SMU’s relationship with Dallas – the dynamic center of one of the nation’s fastest-growing regions – alumni, faculty and 11,000 graduate and undergraduate students become ethical leaders in their professions and communities who change the world.