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The Circassians come home

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Long exiled from their homeland, Circassians are now seeking refuge in the Caucasus following conflict in their adopted home, Syria. Adjusting to life in Russia has not been easy. Русский

Svetlana Bolotnikova
15 July 2015

When Russia extended its empire in the Caucasus region in the late 19th century, its Muslim Circassian population was forced to migrate to areas in the Ottoman Empire, and many settled in what is now Syria. Although increasingly assimilated, they retained their distinct identity, including their Adyghe language and culture.

‘This is my country, my homeland,’ says Ali Nazran in Russian. He knows only a few words of the language, but this phrase has become a kind of mantra for him. Ali, 35, arrived in Russia four years ago after his adopted land of Syria exploded into civil war. Ali’s whole family – mother, father and brother – followed him. They bought a small house and settled in.

When Ali lived in Mardzh-Sultan, a suburb of Damascus, he had his own business, a small furniture shop. Back in Maykop, the capital of the Adygea Republic, Ali still works in the furniture trade, but only as a casual labourer.

Adygea

Adygea, an enclave within the Krasnodar Krai in south western Russia, with a population of less than 500,000, is one of three North Caucasus republics that are home to Adyghe Circassians, the other two being Karachay-Cherkessia and Kabardino-Balkaria.

Historically, Circassian tribes were to be found across the whole western Caucasus, but a century and a half ago, when they offered fierce resistance to the Russian conquest of the region, 90% of their population were either massacred or deported to Turkey, with thousands dying of hunger on the way.

The concept of genocide was unknown at the time, but after the fall of the Soviet Union, the Adyghe and Karachay-Cherkessian parliaments recognised these events as a deliberate attempt to exterminate the Circassian nation.

Circassians in Turkey commemorate their ancestors' expulsion from the Russian Empire in 1864. CC Soerfm, 2011

Circassians in Turkey commemorate their ancestors' expulsion from the Russian Empire in 1864. CC Soerfm, 2011

After fleeing first to Turkey and then to Bulgaria, Ali Nazran’s ancestors settled in Syria. But now the Syrian Circassians are once more being forced to abandon everything and flee conflict.

The richer among them have moved to the USA and Western Europe (there are Circassian communities in 55 countries). With Europe now fast-tracking Syrian refugees, many who returned to Russia have now moved on in the hope of a better life, says Ali Bgana, an Adyg who has returned from living in Israel.

Before the present civil war, radical Islam — as practised by Bashar al-Assad’s opponents — did not hold much sway over Syria. Though there are small differences in their traditions, Circassians and Arabs prayed in the same mosques.

In Adygea, says Ali Nazran, people — especially women – are less traditional in their dress: it feels like a secular society. On the other hand, the mosques are open all day, while in Syria they only opened for the five daily prayer times. And the Adyg character is much the same in both countries.

‘Adygs everywhere are brought up in the same belief and value system, the Adyghe Habze, which goes back to oral tradition,’ Ali Nazran tells me through a local interpreter. ‘It teaches us how to live, how to behave, how to treat women and older people.’ The Syrian Circassians have retained their own language alongside the Arabic spoken in Syria, and it has changed very little from the Adyghe spoken in the Caucasus.

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The mountains of Adygea.

Ali feels completely at home here, which wasn’t the case in Syria. Ali’s village outside Damascus was surrounded by Arab settlements, but was notable for its order and the cleanliness of its streets and houses, which the locals put down to its Adyghe population.

The Arabs always saw the Circassians as immigrants, aliens, but they appreciated their moral qualities. The Syrian authorities also liked to recruit Circassians into the army and security services, and there are still Adygs fighting in the government forces there.

Ahmed Stash, 20, is also happy to be home. ‘Life was difficult in Syria. It was like we were foreigners because we weren’t Arabs. And our mentality was always different.’

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Though Ahmed Stash has adjusted well to life in the Russian Federation, his parents have had a harder time finding their feet.

Ahmed has been back for three years now, and speaks good Russian, so he can help his fellow Adygs translate official documents. ‘Russian is even easier than Adyghe,’ he says. In Syria, Ahmed only spoke Adyghe at home – he lived in Homs, where there weren’t many Circassians. Most of his friends were Arabs, so his Adyghe isn’t as good as that of people who lived in Circassian villages.

Initially Ahmed enrolled at university in Nalchik, capital of Kabardino-Balkaria. But his parents soon got a mortgage to buy a flat in Maykop so he decided to transfer to the civil engineering department of the technical university there. 

Ahmed’s in his third year of a five-year course now, and would like to work for the city authorities afterwards. ‘I’d like to get citizenship, settle down here, get married and have a family,’ he tells me. ‘I think all Adygs should resettle here and live in their own country, not someone else’s.’

Difficult for the elderly

Ahmed’s parents have already got their residence permits, and can theoretically look forward to Russian citizenship, but for that you need a proper job.

But they are both 65, a big disadvantage for a jobseeker, even a well-qualified one: Ahmed’s father is a mechanical engineer, his mother a teacher.

To get citizenship, you need to find a proper job – not easy if you’re 65

Meanwhile, Adnan Stash has encountered the same difficulties. In Damascus, Adnan worked as a layout designer and sub-editor on newspapers and magazines.

‘I wanted to work in a print company here as well,’ Adnan says. ‘When I arrived I was struck by the out-of-date equipment they used, but I was happy to do any job they gave me – it was all familiar technology. They offered me a job the next day, but phoned again the same evening and said there were no vacancies. I don’t know why they changed their minds.’

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Alaidin Pshimaf sits on the left, with Adnan Stash on the right.

Adnan doesn’t think his lack of Russian was a problem, as Adyg women were also employed there. It might, however, have been because of his age – he is 63.

Russian men usually retire at 60, but foreigners have to work in Russia for five years before being entitled to a work pension. And it’s hard enough for Russians to find a regular job at that age, let alone immigrants. So Adnan, who already has a residence permit, is only entitled to the minimum unemployment benefit of 800 roubles (£9) a month, although his rent is 12,000 roubles (£135) and utilities cost another 5,000-6,000 roubles (£56-67).

To make ends meet, his wife, daughter and two sons have rented a kiosk from Adyg friends, where they sell grocery products: sugar, flour and other cereal foods. Serving customers is also helping Adnan to learn Russian.

Alaidin Pshimaf, another refugee from Damascus, has given up trying to find a job. He is 68 and spent his whole life as a road construction mechanic. But his work record counts for nothing in Russia, and he receives the minimum 6,000 roubles a month pension here. His life savings, meanwhile, are languishing in Syrian banks.

Fortunately, his sons are able to help him out. With the help of local friends, the elder son, a former manager, has found work as a taxi driver, while the younger has a job at a factory, and they both earn about 12,000 roubles a month.

Friendly relations

Alaidin Pshimaf was attracted by the idea of returning to his historical homeland even back in the Soviet years.

In 1980, Alaidin received a Soviet passport, which he still has, but he hasn’t been able to have it verified. The bureaucrats in the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs claim that the archives have been lost.

The USSR was seen as a country friendly to Syria, and the Circassians there were even more devoted to their historical homeland, although their community organisations steered clear of politics. And though other non-official bodies and movements were sometimes banned, the Adyghe Khase Circassian Council was never bothered: Circassians, after all, were (and still are) prominent in propping up Syrian governmental structures.

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The mountains of Adygea.

Returning Adygs are equally ready to be faithful Russian citizens. They are loyal to Moscow and, should war break out, would defend the borders of the state which includes their homeland.

But they are also welcome elsewhere. Khazrail Khanakhok, a member of Adyghe Khase’s executive committee, says that most Syrian Circassians are highly qualified specialists in their fields: it is no surprise that they are in demand in Europe and the USA.

‘Why do they treat us like this?’

Russia, on the other hand, is less than welcoming to the repatriates. Both Alaidin and Adnan have had problems acquiring Russian citizenship. They both have residence permits, but will have to wait five years for their passports. There is no fast-tracking in sight for them or the other 1,000 or so Syrian Circassians who have returned to Adygea and Kabardino-Balkaria.

This is odd, to say the least. The situation of these Circassians falls under the remit of a specific Russian law (‘On state policy concerning compatriots residing abroad’). They are members of a nation historically settled on the territory of the Russian Federation. Their national self-identification is further confirmed by the fact that they speak Adyghe, the second official language of Adygea.

In addition, these people have fled from a war zone, and should be entitled to the same special aid as Russian refugees from Ukraine. Ukrainian refugees tend to receive citizenship after just a few months, work is found for them and they receive assistance with their living costs. The Syrians, by contrast, are not only refused any official help but their resettlement is facing official obstruction.

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Maykop's Adyghe Khase organisation (from left to right): Zaurby Chundyshko, Ali Bgana, Khazrail Khanakhok.

The Circassians should be entitled to the same special aid as Russian refugees from Ukraine

‘They have made repatriation more difficult. Russian consulates in Syria are refusing to issue exit permits’, says Zaurby Chundyshko, chair of the Maykop city Adyghe Khase organisation.

‘Refugees have told me that they wanted to bring their relatives with them but were not allowed to complete the appropriate forms. The authorities fall back on all kinds of bureaucratic procedures – anything to avoid letting them in. And then when they arrive in Russia, they are stymied by immigration legislation. To get a residence permit they have to take exams to test their knowledge of Russia’s history and language. And most of them don’t speak much Russian.’

According to Ali Bgana, the language test was only introduced this year; previously, it only had to be taken when applying for citizenship. It was introduced to restrict the number of ‘undesirable’ migrants from Central Asia, but the Circassians got caught up in it as well.

Ali thinks it is impossible to learn Russian in three months – it takes two to three years. And Zaurby believes that if Adyghe and Russian have equal status under Adyghe law, then the settlers should be able to take exams in their own language and learn Russian as they go along.

Khazrail Khanakhok suggests that one way to help resettlement would be for the federal government to allocate funding to build, say, 100 houses a year for repatriates.

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If that happened, it would bring business investment into the equation, and Adygea would be able to accept anyone wishing to settle. Returning Circassians could build their own houses. The Russian government has already allocated 1,000 plots of land outside Maypol, some of them in the village of Mafekhabl, built 15 years ago by Circassian repatriates from Kosovo. And residents of another village, Panakhes, have given asylum to 200 refugees from Syria and helped them build 37 houses. Roughly two-thirds of Adygea's population live in villages and towns scattered across the republic's mountain ridges. Ali Bgana believes the problem lies with the republic’s government, which fails to serve the interests of its people. The head of government was appointed by Moscow, the parliamentary elections were a sham and all the local officials, including ethnic Adygs, just follow Kremlin orders. And the Kremlin is afraid of a flood of Circassian resettlers into the only North Caucasus republic where a majority of the population are ethnic Russians.

Both the Adyghe Khase Circassian Council and the refugees themselves believe these fears to be unfounded. At best, there might be 50,000 repatriates from Syria, and the security services could monitor the immigration process to keep out potential terrorists.

‘Are a few thousand Syrian refugees going to have any impact on the situation in Russia?’ asks Alaidin Pshimaf. ‘Why do they treat us like this?’

At present, Adygea, thanks to the efforts of the people who live there, is free from religious fanaticism, and most of the population support democratic reform.

But if they lose confidence in their government and hope that their voices will be heard, more radical religious leaders might take the initiative, and Adygea could suffer a fate similar to other Muslim republics of the North Caucasus.

All images courtesy of the author. 

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