Meskhetian Turks resettle in Philadelphia
Harold F. Schiffman
haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Fri Sep 24 15:27:44 UTC 2004
Does anyone know of work that has focussed specifically on the groups
deported by Stalin to Central Asia (such as the Meskhetian Turks, below)
and what has become of them? I know that Khrushchev allowed some to
return to their "homelands", such as these folks, the Chechens, the
Kabarians (all in the Caucasus) but of course Volga Germans didn't get to
return their homes, and Koreans deported from the Far East are also now
still either in Kazakhstan or in Russia.
I have been interested in this issue since I visited the North Caucasus in
1963, and actually visited a Balkarian village, where they proudly showed
us the wonderful new homes the Soviet authorities had built for them (but
neglected to mention that they had spent 15 years or so in Kazakhstan.) At
the time I wondered why their old homes looked so decrepid, but didn't
learn about the deportations until later.
Of course part of the Chechens' bitterness about their situation results
from having returned to Chechnya to find their homes and lands occupied,
but that doesn't get much press reporting in our media...
I also 'get' from the report below that these Meskhetian may not actually
still speak their original Turkic dialect; language maintenance for these
deportees typically collapsed because of the dispersement. I met Koreans
in Russia in 2002 who all spoke Russian; I wonder how many Chechens still
>>From the Philadelphia Enquirer, Posted on Thu, Sep. 23, 2004
A Home in America Displaced for decades, ethnic minority Turks settle in
the Philadelphia area. The language is daunting, the regulations
burdensome, but finally they're making a home in this country.
By Gaiutra Bahadur Inquirer Staff Writer
They walked two miles under the midday sun - past Rita's Water Ice, past
pizza and hoagie shops, through a landscape of brick houses, tamed front
yards, and street signs in a foreign script.
A right here.
"I need my car," joked Alibek Lomidze, who had just been turned away from
the first day of classes at Northeast High.
A left here.
It was not the first time the 18-year-old, his family or his ancestors had
had to navigate unfamiliar terrain.
His family is part of the first wave of 10,000 refugees known as
Meskhetian Turks, who are expected to be resettled in the United States
over the next few years. All 82 of the refugees, who had been living as
second-class citizens in Russia, moved to the Philadelphia area this
They come as the flow of refugees to the United States has slowed since
Sept. 11, 2001, a result of a labyrinth of new security procedures that
have nearly halted the influx from the Middle East, South Asia, and parts
The Meskhetian Turks are among three major groups that began arriving in
the United States this year, including thousands of Hmong who were forced
out of a shantytown settlement in Thailand, and thousands of Bantu, a
tribe that fled civil war in Somalia a decade ago for refugee camps
The Turks - not warehoused in camps, but eking out marginal existences as
vegetable farmers near the Black Sea - are coming now because advocates
pleaded their case in Washington and because, in a post-Sept. 11
landscape, they were easy to process.
"They did not pose any sort of a security threat, not coming from a
country or a group from which terrorists have sprung," said Ralston H.
Deffenbaugh Jr., president of the national Lutheran Immigration and
Refugee Service. "It was safe for U.S. interviewers to go there to
A coalition of local agencies - including an affiliate of the Lutheran
group, the Nationalities Service Center, and the HIAS and Council
Migration Services, a Jewish aid agency - has resettled the Muslim
refugees across the Philadelphia region, which has one of the largest and
most concentrated populations of Eastern Europeans nationwide.
Some live in dormitories on the grounds of an Islamic center tucked along
the Main Line, and a few live amid the farmhouses of Lancaster. But many
more are close to Russian canteens in the strip malls of the city's
"They were basically people without a home," Deffenbaugh said, "and one of
the things the U.S. can offer sometimes is a home for the homeless."
Over three days in the winter of 1944, soldiers acting on orders from
Joseph Stalin encircled the houses of 120,000 Muslims in the mountains of
Meskhetia, a part of the former Soviet republic of Georgia near the
Turkish border. At gunpoint, the soldiers herded the Meskhetian Turks, an
ethnic minority, into trains bound for exile 1,200 miles away in Central
The displacement started a refrain of loss kept up over six decades as
houses were confiscated, deserted, or sold for nearly nothing.
"We had one hectare of fruit and vegetable gardens," said Khamdi Karimov,
who was part of the relocation as a 14-year-old. "All that we left behind,
and we did not get one penny."
Now 74 and a patriarch among the refugees here, he remembered the exodus
as he sat in his bare-walled apartment in Bustleton.
It took three weeks to get to Uzbekistan in cold, claustrophobic railroad
cars. The bodies of people who died along the way were thrown onto the
tracks. At journey's end, they emerged to the new quarters that Stalin -
who some thought wanted to clear the way of sympathizers, should he decide
to invade Turkey - had dictated for them. "There was no floor," Karimov
recalls. "No windows. No roof."
They did not stay there for long. They built lives, and they built new
houses, only to quit them in 1989 during a pogrom led by Uzbeks in which
100 Turks died and the rest were scattered. Some fled to Azerbaijan. About
17,000 settled in Krasnodar, a region near the Black Sea in Russia.
Karimov's four sons, all here now, were among them. So were Alibek Lomidze
and his family.
"What country are you from?" Pat Ryan, head of Northeast High's program of
English for Speakers of Other Languages, had asked Alibek's family earlier
"How long have you been here?"
"One month and two weeks."
"You speak English very well."
"I've been studying. Watching TV."
"What's your name?"
"Samet Lomidze. In America, Sam."
Ryan turned to the others to glean their levels of English comprehension.
"Aynura," declared Alibek's sister, a 14-year-old stylishly dressed in tan
capris and pink-and-white sneakers.
"Ilkhom," their cousin said.
"Alibek. In America, Ali."
The young man who, two months ago, knew America only through dimly
understood Eminem lyrics, was mystified by the baggy jeans that are the de
facto uniform at the high school. He was neatly arrayed, as he would be in
Krasnodar, in black slacks, a white shirt, and elfishly tapered black
"How do you feel about living here?" Ryan asked them. "Are you excited
right now? Are you missing your country? Do you feel sad?"
They were silent.
"Did you go to high school?" Ryan pursued. "How many students were there?"
"1,000 students," said Samet, Alibek's brother.
One thousand students had elected Samet, 16, student council president,
only to see the principal strip him of the title because of his ethnicity.
In Krasnodar, it was common for Meskhetian Turks to be segregated by
("I was hurt," Samet later said of the overturned election. "But I
understood there was nothing I could do.")
Ryan explained that they would be taking three periods of English a day,
as part of the beginner's ESOL group.
"Wait. Wait," Samet said. "We know eight languages."
"Very good - four," Alibek added. "Turkish, Russian, Uzbek, Azerbaijani."
"You know," Ryan told them, "we have many students from Russia and
Uzbekistan. You will do very well here, I know."
By now, Samet and Aynura Lomidze were in class.
Alibek, however, had been turned back from the high school, unregistered,
because his immunization card was a continent and an ocean away, left
behind in Russia.
Already a high school graduate, already disappointed that he placed in the
beginner's ESOL class, Alibek was crestfallen. He knows what it's like to
be without the right documents.
The regional government in Krasnodar would not grant the Turks propiskas,
the registration cards that prove a permanent stake in the country.
Without one, Alibek - the grandson of a World War II soldier who lost an
arm fighting for the Red Army - could not go to college. Nor could he join
the army, a requirement for all adult males not in college.
Without the card, his father, Aybek Lomidze, could not own land. He could
not even sell the cucumbers he grew on rented land at market, but had to
sell cheaply to wholesalers.
The Meskhetian Turks navigated streets where police could demand propiskas
- or fines equal to half a month's salary, in their stead - of the Turks
carrying as their only ID relic passports from the Soviet Union.
"This only, we had," said Aybek Lomidze, 46, through a translator. "We
don't have anything else but the passports of a country that doesn't
"We had a feeling all the time that we were illegal there," his wife,
Zarema, explained. "Thank you for the American government that they
accepted us. We don't have citizenship yet, but we have documents that say
that we can live here."
A few days later, they'd come to see the forgotten immunization card as
just a small snag along the way. Alibek's uncle, who arrived this month in
Pennsylvania, would be able to deliver it to Alibek, who finally started
class this week, on Tuesday.
But on that first day of class, Alibek and his parents did not know what
would happen. Sweaty and burdened - by the snafus they have to untangle,
the English they have to learn, the new lives they have to invent - they
were focused only on arriving.
The trio walked for an hour; SEPTA is a luxury they cannot afford. Not at
$2 each way for three children, every day. That would eat up half their
monthly stipend, as refugees, from the U.S. government. The children will
walk to school until Aybek finds a job.
But the distance is nothing compared with the three generations of
dispossession that has brought them here, to a section of the city with
bookstores piled with texts in Cyrillic and a convenience store called
Odessa. About 40,000 immigrants from former Soviet bloc countries live in
Now, his parents by his side, Alibek Lomidze pointed two blocks ahead to a
high-rise where Russian echoes through the hallways. There waited an
air-conditioned apartment paid for by a charity, with couches and beds
donated from neighbors who once were refugees, too.
"Home," he said, with relief.
2004 Philadelphia Inquirer and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.
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