My (Unsuccessful) Appeal to the Australian Government to Accept Circassian Refugees from Syria

I’m putting this here for posterity’s sake.


            My name is Walter Richmond.  I am a Professor of Russian Studies at Occidental College in Los Angeles, California.  I have been teaching at Occidental College since 1995. I received a Ph.D. in Slavic Languages and Literatures from the University of Southern California in 1994.  I have published numerous articles on the peoples of the North Caucasus, including “Russian Policies Toward Islamic Extremism in the Northern Caucasus and Destabilization in Kabardino-Balkaria,” Moshe Gammer, ed. Ethno-Nationalism, Islam and the State in the Caucasus, Oxford and New York: Routledge Press, 2007.  My first book, The Northwest Caucasus: Past, Present, Future (Routledge, 2008), focuses on the history of the Circassians and other peoples of the region. My second book, The Circassian Genocide (Rutgers, 2013) describes in detail the genocide committed against the Circassian people by the Russian Imperial government and the history of the Circassians in exile. I have contributed many papers on the situation in the North Caucasus and the treatment of Caucasian minorities in the Russian Federation at numerous world conventions. I am generally considered the foremost expert on the Circassian people outside Russia and Turkey by the world academic community. Although through the course of my research I have made friends in the Circassian community, I am completely unrelated to the Circassian people and my interest in their nation has always been strictly academic.

            The Circassians are among the most ancient inhabitants of the North Caucasus, with a history in the region that extends no less than 2500 years. Their historic homeland stretched from Georgia in the southeast to the Crimean peninsula in the northwest. Because of the strategic value of their homeland, continual invasions made it impossible for them to establish a centralized state apparatus. In the late 18th century, Circassia became the focus of Russo-Ottoman expansion efforts. The Russo-Circassian War, which lasted from 1800 to 1864, ended in the total defeat of the Circassians. Throughout the war the Circassians repeatedly appealed to the Russians to live as good neighbors, but the Russians were determined to occupy the coast as a base of operations against the Ottomans. In the fall and winter of 1863 Russian army forced ninety five percent of the Circassian people to the coast of the Black Sea and deported them to the Ottoman Empire. During this process, well over half of the Circassians (out of a total of perhaps one million) died from disease, starvation, massacres and drowning. The Ottoman Empire reported that an additional 180,000 died shortly after arrival. Circassia was incorporated into Kuban Oblast and settled by Russians and Cossacks, who now represent the vast majority of the population there. The few remaning Circassians were kept as agricultural advisers, and many of them chose to leave as a result of severe repression by the new Slavic residents. The current Circassian population in Russia is approximately 750,000, less then half their 1830 population, and they are currently struggling against repression by the current Moscow government, which favors the ultra-nationalist Cossacks.

            After their arrival in Anatolia, the Circassians were settled on land that had gone uncultivated for centuries. As a result, many starved and handfuls of younger men practiced banditry as a last resort. I want to emphasize first that this was an extremely small minority, and second that it was indeed their only means of survival. As Sir A. Sandison, assistant to the British Ambassador in Istanbul phrased it, “these people, having been hunted out of Europe, and having been deprived of all they possessed, had been sent into Asia without any provision having been made for their maintenance and support. The consequence naturally was, that they were compelled to starve or to rob, and they, not unnaturally, chose the latter alternative.” Unfortunately, the reputations of these bands were applied to all Circassians, the vast majority of whom were living peacefully as farmers. Entire families found themselves chased from village to village. It took generations before the Circassians were able to live peacefully.

            After the creation of the nation of Turkey, the Ankara government embarked on a forced Turkification campaign. Circassians were compelled to adopt Turkish surnames and were forbidden to speak their native language even in their homes. They were often broken up into small groups and settled in isolation from one another to facilitate their assimilation. As a proud people, they naturally resisted these efforts and tried to preserve their language. The government responded by increased oppression of Circassians who spoke even a few words of their native language. For example, I personally know a person who was beaten repeatedly by one of his primary school teachers for speaking Circassian despite the fact he spoke Turkish as his native language.

            The Circassians of Syria are the descendants of deportees who were originally settled in the Balkan territories of the Ottoman Empire. In 1877, just thirteen years after their arrival, the Russian army invaded with the goal of driving all the non-Slavic peoples from the peninsula. The Russians drove all the Circassians out along with their Turkish, Armenian and Jewish neighbors. The ethnic cleansing mirrored the original deportation thirteen years earlier from their homeland, but was perhaps even more brutal, as both British and French observers testified to gang rapes, slaughters of women and children, and other atrocities. With the refugees dying in makeshift camps around Istanbul and having nowhere left to settle them, the Ottoman government sent most of them to their Syrian provinces. Although the initial plan was to settle the Circassians along the coast in modern Lebanon, the Christians there threatened violence at the proposal of settling a “Muslim” people among them and so the refugees were sent inland to deserts that were were under the control of Bedouins and Druze tribes. As a result, the Circassians had to fight for their survival for decades in addition to struggling to survive in an inhospitable climate with virtually no help from the Ottoman government. Nevertheless, they established several of the modern cities of Syria and Jordan, including Amman and Kuneitra on the Golan Heights. Kuneitra served as a cultural center in exile for the Circassians until the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, when the Israelis drove them out. Before the disengagement agreement of 1974 took effect, the Israelis leveled Kuneitra. However, even if they hadn’t, most of the Golan Circassians had died, found employment in Damascus, or immigrated to the United States. Most of my Circassian friends and acquaintances are victims of this third forced migration and their children who currently live in Paterson, New Jersey.

The political position of the Circassians in Syria today is precarious due to both current circumstances and historical legacies. With the establishment of the French Mandate in 1936 the Arab majority began to look upon the Circassians, who had worked for the French on peacekeeping missions, with suspicion. With the spread of Arab nationalism at the end of World War II, the Arab majority began to consider all non-Arab peoples, including the Circassians, outsiders who had no place in the new Syrian state. In self-defense, the Circassians aligned themselves with the inclusive ruling parties that controlled Syria from 1949 onward and supported the Ba’ath Party’s ascension to power in 1963 based on the Ba’ath platform of ethnic tolerance. Thus, many Syrians look upon them as supporters of Assad’s regime, although in fact many Circassians have defected to the opposition. Frankly, most of them simply want to live in peace and are interested in the political machinations of Syrian society only to the degree that it preserves their security as an ethnic minority. During the current civil war, many of the Circassians’ cities have been hit worst of all by the fighting and certainly many of them have died. Regardless of the outcome of the civil war, Circassians will be targets for repression either because of their ethnic status, their former political alliances, or their moderate approach to Islam. As a result, many of them have petitioned Russia to allow them to return to their ancestral homeland. Circassians in Russia have also demonstrated for the right of their compatriots to return. However, Moscow has allowed only an insignificant trickle of Circassians to repatriate. At under five million, the world Circassian community is too small to generate international outrage against Russia. The recent Winter Olympics in Sochi, the original capital of Circassia, is proof of that. Despite a concerted and vigorous effort to use the Olympics as a means of gaining visibility for their plight, only a handful of articles addressed their dilemma and no international effort to pressure Russia to allow them to return emerged. Current Russian policy seems to be actually going in the opposite direction, prioritizing the rights of the Slavic population and working to eliminate the ethnic enclaves that serve as the Circassians’ only remaining homeland. There are no other states willing to accept a Circassian refugee population. As a result, those Circassians remaining in Syria have no viable means of leaving the country.

            Thus, the Circassians should be viewed as political and not economic refugees. Indeed, during their time in diaspora, the Circassians have shown themselves to be extremely adaptable and capable of integrating into their adopted homes and becoming active contributors to their societies. They demand high levels of achievement from their children, which is why wherever they find a stable home they succeed. For example, in Jordan they have established themselves as a highly successful and respected business class. The dozens of Circassians in America that I have met have fully integrated into America. As I mentioned above, most of my Circassian friends live in Paterson, New Jersey, and even those who grew up in Syria and immigrated to America only after the 1967 war have become fully Americanized. Many of them are successful businessmen, and their children are devoted to contributing to American economic and cultural life.

            There is absolutely no possibility of the Circassians bringing radical Islamist ideas to Australia; in fact, they would likely serve as an example of a Muslim community that prioritizes the welfare of their adopted society and provide a counterbalance to any radical Islamic ideologues who might be trying to influence Muslims in Australia. Most of them only nominally adopted Islam as a prerequisite for admission into the Ottoman Empire, and Islam has never taken root in their community. They consider their ethnic identity to be their defining feature, and if they follow any traditions at all they follow Adyge Khabze, their national code of behavior that prioritizes honesty, self-sufficiency, tolerance for others and respect for authority. Sadly, it is their moderate approach to Islam that has made them targets for the extremist groups battling in Syria today, and which makes them so want to leave a part of the world that conflicts with their own way of life.

            The Arab-Israeli conflict is another example of the Circassians’ devotion to their adopted societies. They have always viewed this conflict as an issue that does not pertain to them and have remained neutral, loyal to the nation in which they reside. Such is the case with two thriving Circassian towns that exist in Israel today. In fact, they proved themselves to be such good citizens that when several families chose to repatriate to Russia, both their Jewish neighbors and the Israeli government tried to convince them to stay. After a short time in Russia, these families did in fact decide to return to Israel and were gladly welcomed back by the Israeli government.

            I have been studying the history of the Circassians for the past twenty years, and I have come to the conclusion that Circassians’ story is one of the greatest tragedies of the last several hundred years. Through absolutely no fault of their own, for the past 150 years they have been chased from one land to another and have been almost incessantly subjected to brutality and discrimination despite their proven ability to live in peace and integrate into the society in which they find themselves and become productive citizens. Once again they have been subjected to violence and face the possibility of an even greater tragedy if they remain in Syria. Since it is clear that the Russian government will never allow them to return to their ancestral homes, their appeal to the Australian government is quite literally their last hope. I have long believed that the only place where they and their descendants will be safe is in the western democracies, and I believe they will make exemplary Australian citizens and contribute to the welfare of the Australian people.

Walter Richmond
July 15, 2015

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