October 28, 2015

Syrian Circassian Refugees - The Right to Homeland, the Right to Life

Author: Diana Ishaqat

Refugees, pouring in enormous numbers from the war torn Syria to western countries, represent an economic, cultural and social challenge. While many groups arriving on foot, boats and airplanes are cautiously welcomed in the foreign land, in the Caucasus, a small, highly strategic region sandwiched between Asia and Europe, the public has expressed its concern of extended red tape procedures and system unresponsiveness towards the Syrian refugees through petitions and demonstration held across the region and Moscow, supported by similar acts in Turkey and the United States.

How is the Syrian crisis affecting the northern Caucasus? And why are the human rights activists worried about the low refugees quota set by the Russian government to its southern republics?

In the 1860s, following a century of war in the northern Caucasus, the Circassians were exiled from their homeland into the Ottoman Empire, mainly to what is nowadays Turkey, Jordan or Syria. The forced immigrants did not only die of hunger and disease, but their intended drowning in the Black Sea became frequent as the Ottomans had no capacity, but still found the amounts of money coming from the Tsarist settlers of Circassia in exchange of the immigrants a bargain.

The events taking place in the final stages of the Russo-Caucasus war in Circassia are known to the modern world as the Circassian Genocide. The genocide resulted in ethnic cleanse of over seventy five percent of the population (two millions approximately), and the exile of ninety percent of the population left.

History repeated itself for the Circassians of Syria, who found themselves on the same “floating coffins” again.

It was early in 2011 when some Syrian Circassians, mainly women and children, moved temporarily to live with their relatives in Jordan “until things calm down” in the neighboring Syria. The news reports on the break of the outrage in the streets of the neighbor country seemed to be surreal, and soon to fade.

“I find it difficult to believe, the calendar points to year 2015, and we are approaching 2016. If you ask me, I still think it’s 2011. Time had stopped there in my mind,” says Tala, 23 years old Syrian Circassian, who had moved to Amman four years ago with her family. “I’m hoping to finish my Bachelor degree here in Jordan, and then join my family in the Caucasus. They had been there for about a year now. My brother found a job. It isn’t quite related to his experience, but he is a hard worker.I stayed because the educational system in Russia is a bit complicated, and I’m worried that I might not be able to transfer my credits to a university there. I don’t want to start over again, but I have to. I think earning a degree will make me feel more secure about my future, no matter where I will end up eventually. We no longer know who is killing who. I’m worried of never seeing some of my beloved ones again. I stopped watching the news. I pray the bloodshed in Syria will soon end.”

The Syrian Circassians were not different than the other Circassians diaspora in the Middle East: Well educated with many intellectuals rising in the Syrian literature and art scene, and notably involved in the political and economic life in the country of their residence. They shared the same values the Circassians maintained for generations, of great respect towards women and the elders, and nostalgic feelings towards their homeland which most of them had not seen but grew up listening to their grandfathers’ tales of its nature and rich culture.

They, like the Circassians of Russia, Jordan, Turkey, Germany, the United States , Australia and Israel, had charity organizations, Circassian traditional dance troupes, and strong community ties. They were proud of generously serving Syria while maintaining a distinct identity.

Little we knew that the country I’ve visited twice on my way from Jordan to the Caucasus many years back as a child was going to be erased. From the outside, everything seemed to be put in place, glued and taken care of.

To the Arabs, the name “Syria”, was associated instantly with its old souks, the historical sights of the past civilizations that inhabited it throughout history, its advanced educational system and its remarkable artists and poets including Adunis and Nizar Qabbani. To say that you’ve earned your degree in Syria, was as prestigious as one day it was concerned to be educated from Iraq.

The people could not have predicted that the system of the man who’s photo was hanged in every street and inside every shop and school would fall apart, tearing down families and homes as it went down, permanently changing the story of an entire nation.

“I understand Circassian quite well, and I can have full daily conversation in the western dialect. Native speakers say I have an accent influenced by the other languages I speak, but they don’t have any issues in understanding me most of time. I’m going to take lessons in Russian language soon. When I arrive to Nalchik, I’ll work on my skills in both languages. I will need Russian at work, and Circassian outside, within the community and the friends my family who is already in the Caucasus made. I have always wanted to come back to homeland. I just didn’t think such circumstances will force me,” says Cizar, 25, Syrian Circassian residing in Amman.

Syria was home to approximately 70,000 Circassians. Nowadays, the settlements of the Circassians of which the majority lives in Damascus and Aleppo are subjected to bombing and frequent acts of violence. Also, the of the inhabitants of the Circassian villages of Ber Ajam and Bareqa are reported to be trapped and suffering from the shortage of basic supplies.

Since the beginning of the armed upheaval in Syria, an estimated of approximately 2,000 Syrian Circassians asylum seekers had arrived to Kabardino Balkaria, Adygea and Karachaevo Cherkessk republics, all of which were a part of historic Circassia, today, southern of modern Russia. In homeland, settlement procedures and the low refugee quote set by the Russian Government to the Caucasus are being the main barriers the refugees face.

An estimated of 6,000 Circassian refugees are reported to be accepted by Turkey, and another 4,000 by Jordan.

Most recently, the murderer of an eleven year old Circassian girl, Judy Maf, who was shot by a sniper in Damascus, shook the Circassian community in the Caucasus region and diaspora and resulted in demonstration in the Russian capital, along with activists arguing human rights organization and the Russian Government to take an action to free the Circassians in Syria and collaborate in order to relocate them back to the Caucasus.

What keeps the refugees hope in the Caucasus, beside it being their historical homeland, is the welcoming attitude of the locals and the deliberate efforts of the republics’ organizations to help the refugees start their lives over.

“It will take some time for the refugees to get used to living here. The situation is heartbreaking, and the children are disoriented. The violence affected their development. In war, children lose their childhood. They might be still among us, but something within them changes for good… I think that the younger generation will be the quickest to get accustomed; they absorb the languages spoken by the locals better, and they show curiosity, although with caution, towards other children. It is a challenge we face together in homeland and diaspora. Such events should brings us closer…”, says Zarema Kuasheva, an elementary school teacher from Nalchik.

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