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The new Americans

Russian Turks settling in the area say they faced bigotry in Russia

Russian Turks settling in the area say they faced bigotry in Russia

April 11, 2005|by KAREN HANNA

karenh@herald-mail.com

HAGERSTOWN - Ilimdar Akhmedov, 26, already wears baseball caps like an American - backward and low over his eyebrows.

It's the dark hair underneath that explains why he's here.

Akhmedov, whose family is one of nine that recently came to Hagerstown from Russia, pointed to the cap Sunday as he told an interpreter about the discrimination that drove him and other Meskhetian Turks to America.

"He says, 'In Russia, anyone (who) has dark hair, they don't like,'" said Mustafa Sefik, who speaks Turkish. The dark hair, he said, brands Akhmedov and the others as Muslims.

According to Dr. Shahab Siddiqui, who is helping coordinate resettlement efforts, 29 Russian Turks have come to Hagerstown in waves since the end of February. He is expecting a total of 50 to 65 eventually to resettle here. Many are relatives and distant relatives of each other.

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The efforts are supported by the Virginia Council of Churches, which represents Church World Service and the Episcopal Migration Ministries.

Both are under contract with the State Department to assist with the relocation of immigrants to the United States, Ed Haurand, the council's operations manager, has said.

Area religious groups helping with the effort include Christ's Reformed Church, John Wesley United Methodist Church and the Islamic Society of Western Maryland.

A member of the mosque, Sefik helped bridge the language barrier as several immigrants spoke Sunday about their decision to leave Russia.

Children played outside as groups met for religious class in the mosque.

"Since they knew the U.S.A. ... freedom, freedom, the U.S.A. is a country that has freedom for everyone, they wanted to come here to raise their children in freedom," Sefik said.

Azna Akhmedov, 18, began unwrapping her green head scarf as she explained why she left Russia.

She pumped her fist, thumb up, as she explained simply her observations about her new country.

"We like the United States, we like," she said. "Good, good, good."

Akhmedov, who was in her last year of high school, looks forward to going back to school. She would like to be a nurse but told Sefik she was worried her education would be stifled in Russia.

Sefik said the immigrants were not able to worship or travel as they pleased.

According to George Miller, president of the Literacy Council of Washington County, the group is making strides toward learning English, and they are eager to become Americans. "They want the things we all take for granted," he said.

Five children are expected to begin class at Eastern Elementary School today, Miller said. One boy will begin school Tuesday at South Hagerstown High School.

Siddiqui said many volunteers have come forward to help ease the immigrants' transition to America. Their expectations were high, he said, and many arrived in America believing this is heaven.

The families are sharing cramped quarters in apartments near the mosque and Dual Highway - new arrivals live in the mosque's community center, which is usually used for classes and fellowship - and beginning the process of learning English.

According to Gary Graves of Christ's Reformed Church, the immigrants all sign up for benefits such as food stamps, Social Security and cash assistance soon after their arrival. Once they get their Social Security cards, they can begin looking for work, he said.

The immigrants come from a variety of occupational backgrounds. Graves said the group includes at least one nurse, a doctor, a farmer and a lawyer. Akhmedov was a butcher.

Dr. Kalim Ahmed, chairman of the mosque education committee, said the group includes 13 children. He talked in the mosque parking lot as boys in T-shirts drank sodas and kicked around a soccer ball. The children, he said, already look like Americans.

"Whatever you do, end of the day, five months, six months from now, these people should be independent, living their lives, pursuing the American dream. That would be success," Ahmed said.

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