Syria’s Other Syrians, the Circassians

Shapsough Quarter, East Downtown Amman. Shapsoughs are Circassians who mostly inhabited the shores of the Black Sea in historic Circassia c. 1500–1864. The Quarter is one of the oldest areas in Amman. Source wikipedia: http://bit.ly/1ZYdrwD

I sit in a coffee shop’s balcony in downtown Amman. It is mid November, and I have just gotten back from university.

I look away before writing the first lines of this article. I think of how crowded the other side of downtown which I could see from where I sit with all these small, old, unpainted houses, as I wait for the cup of Moroccan tea I ordered.

My memory takes me back to my hometown, Makhachkala. I compare the vast, green neighborhood surrounding our home to what I see from distance.

I distract myself from nostalgia by thinking of what it is like for the inhabitants of these neighborhoods during the rainfall season, when even central western Amman hardly survives the consequences. I imagine school children returning home, balancing on sidewalks to avoid the water.

Al Husseini Mosque, the heart of downtown Amman. Source: Instagram @ Diana Ishaqat

Downtown Amman is where different worlds collide. It is where the old meets the new, the modern tourist attractions meet the forgotten allies leading to places cut out from the picture catalogs promoting the city.

Ninety six years ago, this country was born. Over ninety years ago, thousands of the exiled Circassians- my ancestors from my father’s side-arrived here from historic Circassia, following the Russian- Caucasian war.

My body shivers imagining all these people leaving home to no return. Ill with poverty and hunger, they had no shelters to protect them upon their arrival, except for caves and ancient Roman ruins.

My cup of tea arrives. I grasp to it as I then think of my journey this year and my final year of Bachelor studies. For me, between little adventures and memorable summer discoveries, workshops and trainings, the year went by in a blink of an eye.

Hours from where I sit in peace, holding a warm drink between my hands, knowing that my family and friends are a phone call away, lies Syria. Syria is where civilians like myself are paying the ultimate price for the ongoing conflict. For them, life had been a hell for every year since 2011.

Nada

Nada started describing herself as Syrian by birth and Circassian by origin. She was born and raised in a Damascus suburb, a small town called Kodsaya. After high school graduation, Nada received acceptance to Damascus University in 2010. She majored in her favorite subject, Mathematics.

“I was in my second year of studies when war started. It [ war ] took over a year to reach Damascus suburbs. Luckily, in Kodsaya, in the neighborhood of Circassians, we have not been under the direct shelling, unlike our close neighbors, but we did witness the shelling.

“Let’s imagine, the rivers burning afar. We listen to the silence and suddenly, the music comes towards us, to “kill” us, for the dance to come back more intensely. ” Arabic prose on an abandoned building, downtown Amman. Source: Instagram @ Diana Ishaqat

Later on, it was getting harder to live in a partly isolated and besieged place such as our neighborhood. We had to move to Berajam — one of the two Circassian villages in Al-Qunaitra- near the Israeli borders.” Nada recalls.

“Berajam was a piece of heaven. We stayed there in my father’s house for six months in that peaceful farm, and the whole village became crowded with the Circassian who fled from other conflict zones.

Berajam is located in a strategic area because it is on road of supplies of the Free Army. That is the reason why they [ Free Army members ] came and settled between the civilians. That made the Syrian army angry and they started an armed conflict.

Me, my aunt and my grandmother were able to escape. But unfortunately, my father with more than 200 people including women and elders were locked. They stayed under the continuous shelling for more than 10 days. They have lived in the shelters under very bad conditions, for instance, if the army sees a light of a cigarette [ during night time ] from the shelter they will start bombing the whole shelter.The smell of death was everywhere.

..My father met Noor -our neighbor- in the shelter, and they became friends. In the tenth day, the people who were stuck in the shelters decided to run away because there was a lack of food and supplements. Most of the people were able to make it, others were killed because of the continuous shelling. “

Pre-war Kodsaya, Nada’s town, covered with snow

After Nada returned to Kodsaya, which was no longer safe, she described attending university as a major “challenge” because of the armed conflict. “I was not able to sleep, I was so frightened. The two armies would start firing whenever they wanted. The sound and the smell of the guns never ended, all day and night. When the tanks start shelling, my hearts would beat in a very fast way, I would thought I would die there, or our home will collapse because everything was shaking. Life was becoming “impossible” each day.

..We decided to come to Jordan, and we made it in November 2012. There I met Noor, whom my father met in the shelter, and after six month we got married. After another six months, I was so lucky to be accepted in Dafi scholarship, funded by the German Government.”

Nada had already passed three years at Damascus University with a very good average, and worked on transferring her university credits to the University of Jordan in 2013. She had successfully graduated with an Excellent average last summer.

“I applied for the DAAD scholarship and I was so lucky to get accepted to continue my master studies in Mathematics. I hope that one day I will become a professor in math, who knows! I have been married for the last two and half years with no kids yet. Although I am living in poverty, I’m thankful to God that I am living a happy life.”

“I feel sorry for the people in Syria, and I cry each time I see the news, lots of Circassians are still living there, some of them are so poor that they do not even have the money to get out, others who were able to sell their houses have left.”

Many Circassian refugees seek asylum in Germany, where a community of diaspora Circassians had settled generations ago. Nada described the method of getting from Syria to Germany as “Illegal, mainly through smugglers.”

“As individuals,” Nada continues, ” there is nothing much we can do to help, but I believe that one day this dirty war will end. We will be stronger by that time, we will go and rebuild our country [Syria ]. “

Azza*

“I remember the last day in Syria. My father and I didn’t really say goodbye to each other. I believe it is an old tradition of ours; we don’t say goodbye if we intend to meet again. I want to believe that we will meet again, but something within tells me that we won’t have the chance to do that in this life,” said eighteen years old Azza, sharing her story.

“My father stayed in Syria. We were only able to pay the smugglers to take me, my mother and sister. Father promised he will join us someday. I am waiting for “someday” to arrive.”

“In my first year away from home, I felt paralyzed. I pushed and forced myself to attend school and take opportunities that might open doors for me. Routine chores became a challenge. I knew that I let myself sink low, it would be difficult for me to turn back. I needed to be strong for myself and for my beloved ones who have lots of hope in me. I kept telling myself that I could leave everything behind in my memory and focus on the future. Sometimes it works, sometimes it sounds like wishful thinking. “

*Azza’s town Bareqa, Al Qunaytra, pre war. Source: http://on.fb.me/1PEurCi

“The last year in Syria changed me. I feel insecure about the future. Every time something works for me, I can’t feel real joy or happiness because I’m used that every little hope ends. In my worst days, my daydreams comfort me.

At sometimes I would imagine me and my family in a safe home, not worrying about how we are going to afford life. I would love to have a room of my own which I could decorate the way I plan, and a small garden. My father and I used to plant flowers together. ” Azza recalls.

“At other times I would imagine myself someone else. I imagine scenarios where I would be born in a different country, to different people, somewhere in the west, where no one suffers from war. War is for third world countries, the others just pretend to fight, and continue to express irrational fears of becoming “invaded” by their weak “enemies”.

“I want to remember only the good things about Syria. I wish to forget the sight of bombed buildings and sound of gunfire.

I only wish to remember things that made me happy. My school, my friends. The small shacks where we would stop after school to buy lunch with my classmates. The traditional Circassian dance classes and practices. Our weddings and celebrations. The nights in summer time when would stay up until dawn on the roof of my uncle’s house all of us together; my cousins and our family’s friends. My father, and our garden. I miss home.”

Kerim*

“I don’t bother watching the TV. It is all lies. People come from the outside and pretend they understand everything about the situation. Though I can’t completely avoid the news, it is all over social media.

I feel angry. Too angry to discuss the situation. What does the world need more than children like Aylan Kurdi to drop their prejudice and free the civilians? What did we do to deserve this? We have been honest and hard working people our entire lives. I never took something that I haven’t earned, I never broke the law.

..the outsiders want us to prove we are “innocent” and “harmless” in order to accept us. Well I tell you what, millions of children like Aylan, lost between borders, hungry and cold, don’t care about proving anything. Children shouldn’t have to be forced to prove anything. They [ children] just want their families back, and a roof on the top of their heads. It seems like too much to ask from the world today,” Kerim expresses, before stopping to light a cigarette.

Kerim’s* hometown, Aleppo, previously the most populous in Syria. Source : CNN http://cnn.it/1KeR6sL

“I’m thinking that I’m starting to develop Survivor’s Guilt.Sometimes even during every day activities, I tend to feel like blood is rushing to my head, and my heart is beating too fast. Everything makes me feel like I was “selected” to come out alive, when it could have been a woman or a child who used the money I had from selling my car to escape the country with my family. “

I tried talking to other refugees, including relatives and my friends. They all say that we couldn’t have done anything for others; in the eyes of war we are all equally a target. But I can’t feel anything except for guilt. “

Most recently, in the answer to the letter sent from the Circassian Charity Association, the organization representing Syrian Circassians, to the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the latter described Syria’s Circassians as “ordinary foreigners” par “with other groups of the Syrian people” living in the Syrian Arab Republic.

This is the second official response explaining the impossibility of easing the conditions for obtaining Russian citizenship to representatives of the Circassian diaspora of Syria, including the civilians seeking asylum.

Above in this article, you have read the excerpts from the interviews I have conducted with Circassian refugees from Syria. The purpose of interviewing members of this ethnic group in particular is to shed light on their situation as minorities amid the conflict, and to raise awareness of their little-known internationally cause.

Names were changed upon the request of the interviewee for privacy concerns.

Article by: Diana Ishaqat (Amman, HKJ)
Edited by: Stefan Alijevikj, Ivana Petrisková

Article was written for Youth Challenging Diversity Project. January 29th, 2016.

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