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Tuesday, March 7, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Refugees' road leads to Tukwila

Seattle Times staff reporter

Fatima Khalilov's children are learning they need not duck and run when a police officer passes them on the street.

Her 8-year-old daughter was just a baby when a Russian patrol car stopped Khalilov and her husband on a road in the Krasnodar region of Russia, ostensibly to check their citizenship paperwork.

When her husband explained he didn't have his, police took him to jail for three days, leaving Khalilov and the baby to fend for themselves, with no way to bail him out of jail until a Russian friend came to their aid.

Today, the Khalilov family is living in a Tukwila apartment complex that houses more than three dozen other Meskhetian Turks, a virtually stateless and long-persecuted ethnic minority in Russia that's finding a permanent home in the Puget Sound area.

Refugee-aid agencies have resettled more than 350 Meskhetian Turks in the area, primarily in Kent and Tukwila.

They are among some 7,600 the State Department has admitted so far into the U.S. under a program begun in 2004. Plans are to allow about 15,000 into the country.

Their name refers to the homeland they once occupied, a region along the Turkish border with Georgia known as Meskhetia. Like the Turks, they are Hanafite Muslims, a Sunni sect considered liberal in its interpretation of Islamic law.

During World War II, Russian Premier Josef Stalin, fearing they would be loyal to Turkey, banished the Meskhetian Turks to Uzbekistan. After settling there and achieving some prosperity, they faced hostility and discrimination from Uzbeks living in poverty.

Tensions gave way to riots in 1989 that killed dozens of Meskhetians. The group fled under the protection of the Soviet Army to the Krasnodar region of Russia. There, among a Russian Orthodox Christian majority, they have been unable to secure citizenship papers, which have left them unable to hold property or go to college.

As one of the newest refugee groups to move to the Seattle area, the Meskhetian Turks are not unique in experiencing culture shock and disorientation. Unlike other recent refugee groups from Africa or Southeast Asia, the Meskhetian Turks aren't coming from war-torn or disaster regions.

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"It's a good group," said Cal Uomoto, Western Washington director for the resettlement agency World Relief, which has placed about 160 Meskhetian Turks in Kent. "They'll be successful here."

Adds Bob Johnson, regional director of the International Rescue Committee, which helped resettle the Khalilov family, "They weren't as isolated as some other groups. They had a vision of what America was like."

Language a barrier

Fatima Khalilov knew she had to get a job after the family arrived at Sea-Tac International Airport last May.

Back in Krasnodar, she had been a homemaker. Her husband, Nodari, the breadwinner, installed windows and drove cars to support the couple and their three children — Eldar, Elvira and Elman.

Her English was limited to "hi" and "bye."

Yet IRC's caseworkers say that, despite language barriers, Khalilov was the first of the Meskhetian Turkish women to join the staff of the Marriott Hotel in SeaTac. There, she was interviewed for a housekeeping job by an American and a Bosnian. Khalilov spoke Russian and could understand a little Bosnian. The Bosnian knew some Russian. The American didn't know either language.

Khalilov got the job, and has since helped other Meskhetian Turkish women get hired there as well.

She also organized Meskhetian Turkish women in her apartment complex into a dancing troupe. Several nights a week, they practice the dances she remembers learning in her childhood.

Already, they have been invited to perform their dance at a school — something they say the Russians in Krasnodar never permitted, along with practicing their Muslim faith or sending their children to an integrated school.

Meskhetian Turks and Russians were taught separately, and the Meskhetians were not allowed to continue school past eighth grade.

Education valued

Here, Khalilov said, she hopes her children will have a good future because of the public education they will receive through 12th grade.

The children picked up English quickly. The boys love wrestling, watching it on TV and practicing it. Khalilov's husband spends most of his day at the apartment complex, handling any complaints and maintenance problems.

Their family story follows the migration of their people.

Her family is scattered: She has one sister in Ukraine, another in Turkey, one brother here and two brothers in Krasnodar. Khalilov's husband is lucky: His four brothers and one sister have resettled here.

Portraits of her husband's father and his grandparents hang in the family living room.

The Khalilovs both grew up in Uzbekistan and lived there until violence prompted the family to move to Krasnodar, she at age 13 and he at 16. They met through their families and married.

In Krasnodar, "we weren't considered full human beings," Fatima Khalilov said through a translator. "I want a really good future for the children. The children didn't have a future there, no matter how good students they were."

Sanjay Bhatt: 206-464-3103 or sbhatt@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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