The Meskhetian Turks

The largest group of refugee arrivals to World Relief Atlanta throughout 2005 and 2006 was the Meskhetian Turks, an ethnic minority from the region of Russia known as Krasnodar.  Leaving behind a lifetime of forced migration and prejudice, the group has now begun making a new life for themselves in the United States.  This section highlights a bit of their history as well as providing links to pictures and stories from their resettlement experience in Atlanta.

History & culture:

The term Meskhetian Turks refers to a group of people in Russia (especially the region of Krasnodar) who have faced a long history of discrimination and displacement.

The traditional homeland of the Turks is the mountain region of Meskhetia in the present day Republic of Georgia.  Part of the Ottoman Empire centuries ago, the region eventually became part of the Soviet Union and its large communist system.  With this long history, the Turks have a mix of cultures and traditions: Turkish language, Russian schooling, Islamic beliefs, traditional close-knit families, rural and urban backgrounds. 

Along with many other ethnic minorities at the time, nearly the entire Turkish population (almost 100,000 people) was forcibly moved by Stalin and his army in 1944.  This move was quite a traumatic event for the population as they were placed on crowded trains in freezing weather and forced to leave behind their homes. Many died along the way. The group was placed in the area that is modern day Uzbekistan where they would have to fend for themselves to survive.  (Most of the adults and older children arriving to the United States today were born in this region.)  

Unfortunately, just as the Turks were beginning to rebuild their lives in diaspora, ethnic tensions began to grow between the newcomers and established groups in the area.  In 1989 there was a violent pogrom (a term referring to organized violence against a defenseless community) in which angry Uzbek mobs attacked homes and communities of the Turks.  In the face of the escalating violence, most of the Turk population fled east to Russia.  Once again, therefore, the Turk population was forced to leave behind the lives they had established and start over in areas throughout the region. 

The information in this overview comes from a  personal interviews and the report entitled MESKHETIAN TURKS: SOLUTIONS AND HUMAN SECURITY by the Open Society Institute, Forced Migration Projects.

Just after this move, however, the Soviet Union collapsed and broke into many individual nations. This was a significant problem because it left the Turks without the security of ties to any country.  While most Russian states agreed to incorporate the Turks who had moved there as citizens, others like Krasnodar refused to grant any official recognition to the over 17,000 Turks in their area. Meanwhile, Uzbekistan and Georgia had become their own countries and would not recognize the families who had left as citizens either.  This circumstance essentially made the Turks stateless and without the protection of a country.

Since this time, the Turkish families have been forced to live and work as constant “visitors” in the region of Krasnodar.  Their status as second class outsiders affords them little protection from harassment, bribery demands, and even state-sponsored violence. Without passports and other documents, the Turks stay hidden in their homes in constant fear of being thrown in jail without cause or recourse. Not being allowed to hold jobs, most of the Turks have had to work as day labor in agriculture.  Xenophobic tensions toward the Turks have grown in recent years, setting the stage for another violent confrontation.  Based on these circumstances, the Meskhetian Turks (as those eligible for resettlement were labeled) were finally granted refugee status under the US refugee program. 

Resettlement experiences:

From the start of their resettlement, the Meskhetian Turks showed that they were eager to get established on their own in America.  Their past circumstances affected their ease of resettlement. While some had been living in a small rural villages and others had had experience in large cities, the fact that they were coming from a European background meant most of the group members had access to education (at least to primary) and were familiar with western lifestyle.  That is not to say there were not challenges in learning differences in the American system, however.  The Russian system was obviously much more socialist than our own, and the Turkish families have had to adopt new ways of thinking in relation to work, property, and responsibility. Family and tradition are still very important for the group, and they have had to adjust to the separation and distance that are a part of the resettlement process.  (At one point, the entire population of many thousands wanted to all be settled together in Philadelphia!)  They have also had to learn to accept differences in the roles of women from their traditionally conservative culture to the equality guaranteed in American law.

Learn more about the Turks with the downloadable guide from the Center for Applied Linguistics:
Meskhetian Turks – Culture Orientation Resource

Probably one of the biggest challenges the group faced, however, was simply coping with accepting the slow pace of getting established in America.  The group wanted to reach a comfortable level quickly, but there was a lack of resources and opportunities to do so.  As with most refugees, they faced barriers in seeking work and dealing with problems due to their lack of English (though they showed a fierce determination to learn it quickly) and experience. Some came from professional or skilled backgrounds and faced the frustrating, even discouraging, realization that they had to enter low entry-level jobs and might never get back to doing the work they had before. Others found the complex nature of urban life a harsh contrast to their farming background that complicated their ability to adjust.

Despite these challenges, however, the Turks endeared themselves to resettlement staff and volunteers alike with their openness, hospitality, and desire to make a good life for their families. And as with most refugee families, they went on after their initial time with us to do quite well for their future.

The Meskhetian Turks in Atlanta

Every refugee group has its own experience in the Atlanta.  The Meskhetian Turk community here showed itself to be very active in making connections with other groups such as the Atlanta Turkish Association.  Living as part of a community was a key aspect of their life, so families tended to all live together in the same areas even after they moved.  They were also fiercely determined to move into areas with better educational and employment opportunities despite the financial sacrifice. 

In the photolog below, you can some photographs of Turkish families in Atlanta from the time of their initial resettlement around 2005 and 2006 as well as information about the programs that they participated in through our office during.  It also seeks to show a bit about what the group taught those of us from the United States about their culture and background as well.   

 View information and photos:
 The Meskhetian Turks in Atlanta: Pictures of Resettlement and Sharing