February 19, 2006
They came from Krasnodar, Russia, east of the Black Sea, 51 refugees escaping religious and ethnic persecution, coming to a new home in the city of Barre – and a new life. They changed planes three or four times; came through Vienna or Frankfurt or Amsterdam to get to New York and finally Burlington, where they were met by their sponsors, members of the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program.
Fotima Kothalyieva, seven months pregnant, was the first to arrive in August, so her baby could be born in the United States. The others came in November, December and January, some flew here alone, some brought their children. Even the elderly great-grandparents, Mavlood and Makhpula Temirov, made the arduous trek.
Over the past nine months more than 100 refugees from southern Russia have made their way to central Vermont from Krasnodar Kray, one of the six regions of the former Soviet Union. The first group of 55 came about nine months ago and now live in Waterbury. The newest arrivals first stayed with families in central Vermont, but are now settled in their own apartments in Barre City, and their children are enrolled in Spaulding High School or Barre Elementary. None of the families had met before they arrived in Vermont, but all are members of the Meskhetian Turkish community. Most lived in rural villages of the Krasnodar region, although a few stayed in Krasnodar City, which has a population of about 500,000. According to one of the group, Ali Kothalyieva, they were spread out over the whole region.
"There were 375 Turkish families in one town the size of Barre where I lived. But some lived 17, 40, even 300 kilometers from there."
The area their Turkish ancestors came from, near the city of Akhaltsike, was at one time part of the Ottoman Turkish Empire. Ever since the 16th century, Russia fought to gain control of the Meskhetian area. By Soviet times a tightly controlled border separated the Meskhetian Turks from Turkey. This division made them residents of the Georgian Republic of the Soviet Union and outcasts in their own region.
Now, welcomed into a foreign land, they face the challenges of learning a new language and finding jobs.
The long journey
One evening recently a dozen adults and a few of their children gathered in the Barre City apartment of Aziza Azimova and her husband Ismail Shaibov to tell their story. It is tale of repression and hardship and the terrible uncertainty that comes of living in a country where you are not wanted.
Emily Kaminsky, a Barre resident who spent a year in Russia, served as translator. The second-floor apartment in the old house was freshly painted, but bare of all but the essentials. Sitting Asian-style on colorful pads on the floor of the living room, the women were in traditional dress with head coverings, the men in Western dress. The women sat on one side of the room, the men on the other as these Turkish families shared fruit, cookies, tea and the sad history of their lives in the former Soviet Union.
Tursun Ismailov, 40ish, tall and muscular with a stiff brush of graying hair spoke vehemently. "Life is very difficult there. Not just for me, but for everybody. For all of our Turkish people. Either you drive a truck or you're farming land or you work in construction."
Ali Kothalyiev, who sat next to Ismailov, said he had worked as a truck driver, transporting goods for Russians. The Turks were allowed to go to school, but did not have access to higher education, which limited their employment opportunities. There were other barriers as well.
"You had your passport checked every other day," according to Ismailov. "They asked for money every time they checked your passport. If you didn't pay the bribe they'd put you in jail for a couple of days – for two or three 24 hour-periods – if you couldn't show a passport or pay the bribe. And they could also take somebody else from your family to jail."
Meskhetian Turkish families lacked "propiska," a credential allowing a resident of Russia to live and work in a city or district. The propiska system originated in old Russia when perhaps 80 percent of the population were serfs and considered the property of great landed estates. Propiska was a way to control the movement of serfs, and the Soviets kept the system in place. In theory, propiska has been abolished in Russia, but in fact it still exists.
"For 16 years (since we arrived in Krasnodar) they gave us only temporary propiskas," Ismailov said. And according to Abdul Rashid Temirov: "Every three months you had to get a new one and without it you couldn't leave your home. The police would come and say, 'Give me money.' Every day they would check for propiska. If we had to leave the city the police would see us and come to us and ask for our documents."
Aziza Azimova said, "For 16 years without propiska I couldn't even leave to go see my mother who was in Uzbekistan."
"We'd be riding on a bus," Ismailov said, "And they'd come up and call to us, 'You black one, let me see your propiska.' It was shameful to us to be singled out like that. For a policeman to come after you." Several people said they never understood why they were called "black."
Achmed Temirov said, "They even did this to women. Grandmothers and grandfathers. They would put them in jail too. They'd take 1,000 rubles or more. It didn't matter if you didn't have money to pay the bribe. You'd have to wait in jail till someone could come and bring money for you. Russia lives off bribes now."
Traditionally Meskhetian Turk households included extended family members of several generations. They were not allowed to own land, but many rented land to raise produce. "I rented three hectares (roughly 7.5 acres)," Abdul Rashid Temirov said. "As a family we grew tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and basically we lived on that. People from the market would come to my place and buy a ton of produce and take it to the city to sell for a higher price."
Gulchehkrah Temirov said women had to work too. "I worked for six years on a farm before we rented the field. And then on the rented land. We women also worked at home, raised our children. I have four. And grandmother and grandfather Temirov lived with us too. We had a large family to feed."
Their real troubles began in November 1944 when Stalin, without warning and for no clear reason, deported all Meskhetian Turks to Uzbekistan. About 70,000 people were uprooted overnight.
A persecuted people
Great-grandfather Mavlood Temirov remembers it well. "I left Georgia when I was 8 years old. We were 45 days in a freight car made for carrying coal to get to Uzbekistan. If somebody died in one of the cars they buried them there next to the railroad tracks. It was a very cold winter. … Many of our old people died. Mothers with young children died in these open cars."
Abdul Rashid Temirov said that "20,000 people died on the way."
After Stalin died in 1953, conditions for Meskhetian Turks in Uzbekistan eased for a while. Some even prospered. But as the Soviet Union began to crumble in 1989, the Meskhetian Turkish refugees felt new pressures. According to the Soros Foundation Web site, Mikhail Gorbachev's liberalization policies released ethnic resentments against these Turks and pogrom incidents began to occur and spread in Uzbekistan.
Eventually all Meskhetian Turks fled Uzbekistan, by whatever means they could find. "If you had no resources you went on foot," said Ali Kothalyieva. "People went all over Russia. To Belgorod, Rostov, Veronezh, Krasnodar, Stavropol. We just happened to get to Krasnodar." Unfortunately they landed in a place that didn't want them.
"There are other places in Russia where Turks went where they were able to get propiskas," said Abdul Rashid Temirov. "We thought the Soviet Union is a relatively democratic state and we would be accepted. But we didn't know fascism was coming to Krasnodar."
The governor of the region, Alexander Tkachev, a Putin appointee, openly called for a "Russia for Russians" in his speeches. And because Turkey was an ally of the United States, and Gov. Tkuchev considered America an enemy of Russia. Hence, ethnic Turks were seen as enemies. "When we bought TV satellites or antenna to pick up Turkish language programs, the newspaper wrote that Turks in Krasnodar were spies for Turkey," Abdul Rashid Temirov said. "They even took photos of my wife, Gulchekhrah, working in the tomato fields and showed her on television saying she was dealing drugs. They told many, many lies."
Jews also were persecuted in Krasnodar, according to Achmed Temirov. "I had Jewish neighbors who had lived for a very long time in Krasnodar. They had an old cemetery there. But Gov. Tkachev had the cemetery razed and built a service station on the site. The governor also was behind the destruction of an Armenian cemetery. All their gravestones were broken."
Thanks to foreign journalists, members of human rights organizations and a Meskhetian Turk advocacy leader, Yusuf Sarvarov, these stories of persecution reached the International Organization of Migration. From there word came to the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants and finally to the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program.
Settling in Barre
Life for new immigrants is never easy. The families have only a few months' support from government refugee assistance programs and then everyone between the ages of 18 and 65 must be employed. But for the moment, the newcomers are relieved to be in a place where people are polite to them and don't ask to see their documents every time they leave the house.
"We're happy that people are like that here. The thing that's strange to us is we don't understand the language!" said Saniya Kothalyieva. Some members of the group speak as many as four languages, but none speaks English. They use Turkish at home and are fluent in Russian.
Their new life in Barre is very different from the life they left behind. Abdul Rashid Temirov said, "We don't see drunk people here. There, Russians drink a lot of vodka. Also those who drive cars here drive properly and we haven't seen one accident yet. … In Russia every week you would see an accident."
Saniya Kothalyieva said she was so happy her granddaughter Arzu, Fotima and Ali Kothalyiev's child, could be born here. "We wanted very much for this to happen because the doctors in Russia said we cannot give you documents when she is born."
Achmed Temirov and his brothers Abdul Rashid and Mamad and also Morov Kotcheleyev have been hired to work at Vermont Castings in Randolph. But they need to drive to get there. "Today," said Temirov, "I had my driving test for my license. … It went smoothly, was very easy. "That I could go there, take the test and have somebody sit next to me without asking, 'What are you doing here?' was fantastic. In Russia, if you're Turkish, you're not going to get your license unless you pay a bribe. Three hundred or 500 dollars."
Great-grandpa Mavlood Temirov told how they had all been good workers in Russia, and all the men had done service at one time or another in the Soviet Army. "I worked for 40 years for the Soviet Union on a collective farm picking cotton and operating tractors." He held up one hand with a finger missing. "I lost a finger from a tractor. They drafted my father in 1942. I started to work when I was 10."
Azimova said, "For such a small group of people we have a long story."
Ali Kothalyieva said, "It's about time to feel like real human beings."