Monday, August 6, 2007

Meskhetian Turks

After transferring down to CNN World Headquarters in Atlanta, GA in 2005, I realized that though I was walking alone into an unknown city, I was not a foreigner. I desired to see this city and the South with fresh eyes. So, I began volunteering with the International Rescue Committee ( and in turn discovered the beauty of America through the eyes of refugees.

I adopted a family of Meskhetian Turks - the Tashtanov's. My role was to help get them on their feet as they fled Azerbaijan for American and seeked asylum in Atlanta, GA. Upon the Tashtanov's arrival, their English was non existent, but their eagerness to start a new life and gain an identity was unmistakable.

Meskhetian Turks have been twice deported in the past 60 years and are scattered across the CIS. They come from present day Georgia (as in the country) and to this day debate rages as to whether they are ethnic Georgians who adopted Islam, or Turks who were part of the Ottoman Empire’s expansion. However, few can dispute the nature of their forced eviction from Georgia.

In November 1944, under orders from Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, nearly 120,00 Meskhetians were round up and deported to Central Asia. It has been suggested that Stalin saw Meskhetians as a potential Fifth Column, despite the fact that Meskhetians had not demonstrated signs of disloyalty.

In June 1989 tragedy struck the Meskhetian community a second time. The outbreak of ethnic violence in the area of Uzbekistan prompted another uprooting. Meskhetians once again were scattered across Central Asia, Russia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Turkey.

And so came the Tashtanov's from Azerbaijan to Atlanta, GA as part of a resettlement program implemented by the US in 2004. They are a family of five brothers, all married with children. I worked with the youngest brother, his pregnant wife, and the parents. Together we got lost as I drove them around Atlanta, opening up bank accounts, buying cell phones, attending English class, and finding jobs. Together, we grew.

I learned about their culture and also taught them about ours. At times it was hard for me to bite my tongue as the women were constantly subsurviant to the men. To say the least, it was a learning process for us all, but I do hope I gave the five wives a bit more of a voice.

Their determination to make a life in Atlanta and succeed has been beautiful to watch. They are my inspiration.