An Area of Safety

Refugees from the former Soviet Union learn to call Tucson home

Given the recent political rhetoric and some of last week's election results, Tucson may not seem like an ideal refuge for immigrants these days. But the city is actually an official destination for ethnic groups around the world with nowhere else to go.

The U.S. State Department has sent Somali Bantu, Liberian, Vietnamese and other refugees here in recent years. They get some initial help from social-service agencies; they find entry level jobs and start a new life. That's how Faramus Ibrahimov wound up in a Central Tucson apartment complex, far removed from his homeland in the former Soviet Union.

The 68-year-old Ibrahimov is one of about 150 Meskhetian Turkish refugees who've arrived in Tucson in the past year. He was born in the Meskhetian (that's pronounced "mess-khet-ee-un") mountain range of Caucasia, near the border with Turkey in the former Soviet republic of Georgia. Few Meskhetian Turks alive today have actually seen the region, because in 1944, they were all forced to leave. Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin had been busy deporting mostly Muslim ethnic minorities from all over Caucasia during World War II--the Meskhetian Turks were the last to go. Ibrahimov remembers as a child the cold November day when soldiers with rifles arrived in his village and told them to pack up.

"We said, 'Where are we going?'" he recalls. "No one knew where."

He and some 100,000 others were loaded onto boxcars headed for Central Asia, more than 1,500 miles away. They spent a month on the train.

"On the way, people were dying, children and the elderly," Ibrahimov says in raspy Russian. "The soldiers threw the dead out of the boxcars. We couldn't bury anyone. They treated (us) like cattle--worse than cattle."

Today, Ibrahimov spends much of his time sitting out in the courtyard of his apartment complex, where 30 Meskhetian families have settled. A mini village has developed here, a bit like the ones Meskhetian Turks formed in places like Uzbekistan, where they banded together to survive after being dumped off the trains. Only here, you see children running happily from one apartment to another under the watchful eye of grandparents like Ibrahimov.

Ibrahimov speaks fluent Turkish, Russian and several Central Asian languages, but not the English he needs for most Tucsonans to understand his story. And telling it would take a very large vocabulary, because the Meskhetian saga only gets more complicated.

In Uzbekistan, Ibrahimov worked on collective farms picking cotton, melons and other crops. He says the Uzbeks welcomed his people as fellow Muslims, but things got messier as the Soviet Union began to fall apart. Ethnic tensions erupted in 1989, and several Meskhetian homes were torched.

Mukhabat Tsatsigir, who arrived in Tucson last May, was in her 30s when the word pogrom started flying around among Meskhetian Turks in Uzbekistan. It's a Russian word that combines the concepts of mob violence, ethnic cleansing and sinister government collusion. The word alone is enough to scare people away. "I had five young kids, and I was worried they would be killed. We didn't think about what we were leaving behind--our house, our belongings--we just took the kids and left," she says.

Tsatsigir and other Meskhetians couldn't go back to their original homeland--the Soviet Union still considered that to be a closed border region with NATO member Turkey. So many homeless Meskhetians landed in a region of Southern Russia called Krasnodar. It was as close as they could get to home, with a fertile climate good for their farming skills. But in all other respects, the move was another disaster.

With the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, Krasnodar became a border region, with many dynamics that might be familiar to residents of Southern Arizona--if you changed the Minutemen in lawnchairs to Cossack vigilantes on horseback, added more violent hate crimes and inserted the shadow of a war down south like Chechnya's. Muslim minority groups were now persona non grata in Southern Russia. Even though a new federal law mandated that Meskhetian Turks should get Russian citizenship, they were declared "illegal migrants" in Krasnodar, and denied schooling, medical care and pensions as a result. The Meskhetian Turks lived in a stateless legal limbo in Krasnodar for 16 years, until the United States agreed to take some 15,000 of them. They've been resettled in small groups all over the country.

Here in Tucson, Meskhetian Turks are working as groundskeepers on golf courses, as hotel maids, as sandblasters and as dishwashers. They're not able to enjoy the homegrown vegetables and handmade cheese they lived on in Russia, but they still bake round, Caucasian-style loaves of bread in their apartment ovens. And Tucson's small Turkish community has welcomed the group. Although the Meskhetian Turks have been cut off from Turkey for more than 80 years, local Turk Yilmaz Altunsoy says he understands them perfectly.

"They have almost all the same traditions, the same culture," he says. "They didn't change their culture" in the Soviet Union, he says.

Whether that culture will change in the land of iPods and cell phones is another question. As with most immigrant groups, Meskhetian youth are learning English quickly in Tucson schools, though most still listen to Turkish and Russian rap on their computers at home.

Los Angeles attorney Steve Swerdlow traveled in Russia extensively interviewing Meskhetian Turks to help them gain refugee status in the United States. He's amazed at the changes that have now overcome Meskhetian refugees he met back in Russia, where they were basically living in shacks.

"Now they don't have to fear walking down the street and being asked for bribes," he says. "Their sense of confidence is returning--their sense of dignity, their smiles." But, he concedes, "the wounds that they've suffered in Krasnodar will be with them a long time."

Certainly that's true for Faramus Ibrahimov and other elderly Meskhetians here in Tucson. Coming to America means admitting they'll never see the land where they were born again. Russia hasn't apologized for the original deportation of the Meskhetian Turks, and that makes them angry and worried about the fate of relatives who still live in the former Soviet Union.

Ibrahimov has a sister in Uzbekistan and a daughter in Russia who weren't eligible for refugee status. The United States only accepted applications for a year, and only for Meskhetian Turks living in the Krasnodar region of Russia. (There are an estimated 300,000 Meskhetian Turks worldwide.) Almost everyone who made it here had to leave someone else behind.

"We thank God we're here," Ibrahimov says, looking out over the sunny apartment courtyard. "But we're also cut off from those who can't come. It's hard on us. We want some way to bring them, too."