Meskhetian Turks Flee Persecution, Start Anew In U.S.

Nahal Toosi, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, July 8

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The Umarovs arrived in Waukesha on June 18. In the next few months, the family of five will be joined by others in the same situation. At least 40 more Meskhetian Turks, including many relatives of the Umarovs, are expected to move to southeastern Wisconsin this year through the U.S. refugee program. They are Wisconsin’s newest refugee group.

Recently, Jeffrey and Bryn Kirk welcomed the Umarovs to their home for a spaghetti dinner and an orientation session on life in America.

Binali Umarov, 38, made it clear he would take any job to support his family.

“We want to live in peace, and we want to support our children,” he said. “We want a quiet life.”

History of persecution

A life of peace and quiet is something many Meskhetian Turks have long been denied.

The group is believed to have originated in a region known as Meskhetia in the country of Georgia, which had Turkish settlers, according to a cultural profile from the Wisconsin Department of Health and Family Services.

In the mid-1900s, during the rule of Josef Stalin in the Soviet Union, the Meskhetian Turks were deported to Soviet Central Asia, notably Uzbekistan, because Stalin thought they would be disloyal to the Soviets during a conflict with Turkey. But in the late 1980s, as the Soviet Union was falling apart, ethnic tension in Uzbekistan forced the Meskhetian Turks to flee.

Some 300,000 Meskhetian Turks now dwell throughout Central Asia, Russia, Ukraine and Azerbaijan, facing different types of treatment.

In Russia’s Krasnodar region, where some 17,000 Meskhetian Turks live and where the Umarovs are from, xenophobia has proved a winning political strategy.

The Meskhetian Turks, who are Muslims, face severe discrimination and are not allowed to become citizens, meaning they can’t own land, get certain jobs or have full access to education, said Steve Swerdlow, a researcher with the European Centre for Minority Issues who has studied the group.

“The Meskhetian Turks have a unique ability to adapt to the tough historical cards they’ve been dealt,” Swerdlow said. “They are extremely hardworking.”

Each year, the United States allows thousands of refugees to move here on humanitarian grounds, such as fleeing religious or political persecution. Refugees undergo a special admissions process that differs from those of other immigrant groups.

70,000 refugees worldwide

In fiscal year 2005, the U.S. plans to admit up to 70,000 refugees worldwide, with one focus being on Krasnodar’s Meskhetian Turks.

So far, about 10,000 there have applied for the program, according to a State Department official. They will be sent throughout the U.S., including Idaho, Texas, Pennsylvania, Florida and Wisconsin.

According to the State Department, more than 2,100 had arrived in U.S. as of June 29.

In Wisconsin, Lutheran Social Services is the key agency in charge of the Meskhetian Turk resettlement. Churches such as Ascension Lutheran in Waukesha, which the Kirks belong to, are sponsoring individual families.

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