THE WORLD http://www.theworld.org/?q=node/4821
Meskhetian Turks in Arizona
Ethnic violence and hate-crimes are on the rise in Russia. Some Russian lawmakers are calling for tighter restrictions on "illegal immigration," though many ethnic minorities are already Russian citizens. These ethnic tensions are nothing new to one minority group in southern Russia. The Meskhetian Turks faced decades of violence and repression. Now this group has gained refugee status in the United States. Reporter Julia Barton visited one of their comunities in Arizona
At a hotel ballroom in Tucson, Arizona, a wedding reception is underway. The music is Turkish, but the master of ceremonies breaks into Russian. Many of the women here wear Muslim head scarves, though some of the men are drinking vodka. And the round loaves of bread on every table are like those baked in the Caucuses. The scene offers a glimpse of America's newest refugees, the Meskhetian Turks.
The US is taking in some 15,000 Meskhetian refugees from Southern Russia. These refugees are essentially stateless. Although most were born in the Soviet Union, they've been denied legal residency in Russia. Their plight actually began more than 60 years ago, as World War II was coming to an end.
Faramus Ibrahimov was born in Meskhetia, a mountainous region of Southern Georgia on the border with Turkey. His relatives were poor farmers who spoke mainly Turkish. In November of 1944, Russian troops told them they would all have to leave. They had been branded "enemies of the people" for their ethnic ties to Turkey. More than 100,000 Meskhetian Turks were loaded onto trains bound for Central Asia. Ibrahimov was seven at the time. He spent a month on the train.
Ibrahimov: “On the way, people were dying--children and the elderly. Their bodies were tossed out of the box cars. It was impossible to bury anyone.The soldiers would come by and pull the dead from the cars like cattle. They treated us worse than cattle.”
By some estimates, 17,000 Meskhetians died on the 1,500-mile journey. Most of the survivors landed in Uzbekistan, then still a part of the Soviet Union. Ibrahimov says life was not easy there... but at least the Uzbeks accepted them as fellow Muslims. Then in 1989, ethnic tensions erupted in Uzbekistan. Soon they escalated into a full-blown pogrom against the Meskhetian Turks. Mukhabat Tsatsigir was among those who fled.
Mukhabat: “We gathered the kids quickly and left. I had five young children and I was worried that they would be killed. We didn't think about what we were leaving behind - our house, our belongings. We just grabbed the kids and left.”
Tsatsigir's family headed for Krasnodar, the Russian region closest to the Caucuses. She and others thought the Soviet government would help them resettle. But the Soviet Union soon collapsed and Krasnodar didn't want the refugees. Authorities there passed laws to declare them "illegal migrants."
L.A. attorney Swerdlow: “They were officially stripped of the right to work, to register their birth certificates. When children were born, basically, they have no mother and no father, officially. They just appear as orphans who then have to be adopted by their own parents.”
Los Angeles attorney Steve Swerdlow has documented the conditions faced by Meskhetian Turks in Krasnodar--conditions he says include beatings, arbitrary imprisonment, and frequent demands for bribes.
Recently the violence has escalated to murder. In 2003 Swerdlow and human rights groups helped persuade US officials to take in the Meskhetian Turks of Krasnodar. He says their resettlement represents a post 9-11 style refugee program, one with very specific limits.
SWERDLOW: “Refugee officials have been thinking about how reconceive this program to make it more agile, and I think what was important were to find groups that were relatively finite or relatively manageable, who don't represent a security threat.”
Mukhabat Tsatsigir now lives in Tucson, in an apartment complex where some thirty Meskhetian families have settled. Everything is good here, she says. But she worries about her brother in Russia who didn't qualify for the resettlement program. US authorities stopped accepting applications last year. It's a huge concern for Meskhetian activist Sarvar Tedorov.
TEDOROV: “Families are being broken apart. That's why I've said if you are going to accept only a part of us, you're helping Russia's genocide of our people.”
Tedorov applied for resettlement after a nephew was beaten to death in Krasnodar last year. He and his family now live in Phoenix. They drove down to Tucson for the recent Meskhetian wedding.
In the hotel ballroom, the bride and groom are doing a traditional dance. Well-wishers approach with dollar bills, a symbolic gift for prosperity in their new life here, so far from the many lives they've left behind.
For the World, I'm Julia Barton in Tucson, Arizona.
"An Area of Safety. Refugees from the former Soviet Union learn to call Tucson home", by Julia Barton.