Small Victories: Meskheti Come to America

by on August 30th, 2004

The Meskheti are one of those little good-news stories that so often slips through the cracks, but their plight underlines a comment made by the Secretary of Defense last year. Speaking to a group of none-too-receptive Europeans at a NATO conference in Munich last February, Rumsfeld, clearly exasperated by the discussion, blurted out, “I know in my heart and in my brain that America ain’t what’s wrong with the world.”

Ask one of the Meskhetian Turks that just arrived in Philadelphia what he thinks.

A largely anonymous oppressed ethnic group, the Meskheti receive little attention in the world press. After World War II, Stalin deported tens of thousands of Meskheti from his (and their) native Georgia to Uzbekistan. When the Soviet Union broke up, around 90,000 Meskheti were driven out of Uzbekistan in pogroms, and the largest group, over 10,000, settled in the Krasnodar region of Russia.

If the Meskhetians thought they had found a home in Russia, they were quickly disabused of the notion. The ethnic Cossack administration in Krasnodar, displeased with their presence, denied them citizenship and even residency permits, leaving the Meskheti in what Congressman Chris Smith (R-NJ) called “a virtual no-man’s land,” unable to register cars, marriages, births, deaths, houses or businesses. The refugees were required to re-register as “guests” (an ironic term) every 45 days. They were constantly looking over their shoulders for thuggish ultranationalist Cossack paramilitaries, some of whom were rumored to be getting funding from the Krasnodar administration.

For its part, Russia insisted that Georgia, the Meskhetian homeland 60 years removed, should take them back, yet another in a long list of disputes between Moscow and Tbilisi. Its 1999 Council of Europe accession obligated Georgia to create conditions for the Meskhetis’ return, but Georgia, already bogged down by Abkhaz refugees and lacking incentive to assist another beleaguered ethnic group, dragged its feet.

Enter Uncle Sam and the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

The IOM and the State Department offered to let undocumented Meskhetians apply for legal residency, and eventually citizenship, in the United States. The conditions for inclusion were strict — only those who had no legal status at all were considered — even so, the IOM expects that up to 10,000 will register for resettlement by the end of August. They will be given medical screenings, cultural orientation, and assistance in meeting with US authorities — including the Department of Homeland Security — in anticipation of their arrival in the United States.

In truly American style, once the Meskhetians arrive in America they will get help, but not a free ride. While transport will be arranged for them by IOM to various parts of the U.S., they will be expected to pay back the cost. And charitable organizations in the United States will help them get housing and work, but after a short period they will be expected to build lives for themselves. They will be eligible for permanent residency status in one year, and citizenship in as little as four years.

Not all the Meskhetians are happy about the prospect of yet another resettlement. Some would prefer to return to their ancestral land in Georgia, but they are philosophical about the likelihood of that option. Many, however, are ready for their new lives in America. According to the Associated Press, one Meskheti leader told Russian television station NTV, “We are going to Philadelphia. Houses, jobs, the whole package is prepared for us. We don’t need anything else.” As of mid-August, 79 Meskheti had arrived in the United States since the program began in late June, according to an IOM press briefing.

Small victories like this are what career diplomats, overworked committee staff aides, NGO employees and development people live for. The victory wasn’t against Russia, the Krasnodar administration, or even Georgia. It was a defeat of sclerotic bureaucracy, small-mindedness, bigotry, and apathy.

How appropriate, then, that as the Statue of Liberty re-opens in New York Harbor, wretched refuse from yet another teeming shore arrives, yearning to breathe free. Like Irish, Italians, Vietnamese, Cubans, Afghans and others before them, the Meskheti come to the United States largely penniless and without friends or family to guide them, dependent on the kindness of strangers for their basic needs, but determined to start over and move forward.

Marc C. Johnson