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The journey from Russia to Hagerstown

December 26, 2005|by Sultan Chaudhry

"I love it in here," said 8-year-old Alimzan Yakhuzov, "I love it in America." Alimzan is one of dozens of displaced refugees who now call Hagerstown their home. His father, Kheyraddin Yakhuzov, warmly describes typical mornings where he finds his son the first one awake, excited to go to school. "He loves school, he loves attending the mosque and he loves, most of all, computers. He never had these experiences in Russia."

Mr. Yakhuzov and his family have been living in the United States for seven months. A 33-year-old Russian farmer, Yakhuzov now works night shifts at a mattress warehouse. His family is one of 30 families that are expected to relocate to Hagerstown by the beginning of next year.

Dr. Shahab Siddiqui, the program director from the Islamic Society of Western Maryland (ISWM), explains the project.

"An organization called the Church World Services manages the relocation of refugees to the U.S. This group contacted the Virginia Council of Churches, who serves as the regional office for Maryland. Locally, the Christ Reform Church, along with many other religious organizations, pledged to accept and sponsor the thirty families or roughly 100 refugees from the VCC."

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To Yakhuzov and others like him, life in the U.S. is a major change from Russia, but is a welcome one.

"Yes, I love it in Hagerstown very much. Here we have rights. Rights to marry, own property and cars. I like it here because of the justice; everyone is equal." Yakhuzov spoke only through the aid of translator Vedat Dogan, a 25-year-old Turkish student who came to the U.S. three years ago. "There was too much oppression in Russia," Yakhuzov continued, "life was very bad."

Yakhuzov's co-worker, Navruz Muradov, also immigrated in March of this year. With Dogan translating, he added, "When the Soviet Union fell and Russia emerged, our people fell into the boundaries of a southern Russian state. We are from Turkey, but as oppression in Russia began to mount in the 1990s, not even Turkey wanted us back."

Muradov's uncle was the former mayor of the Turkish people in Russia and was contacted by American authorities who offered asylum in the U.S. "We had no rights in Russia. We couldn't own anything and were not even considered citizens. Our children could not attend school and we were constantly being harassed by the Russian police. They used to beat us and take our pocket money."

Following more than 20 years of oppression and two years of negotiations between Russian and American officials, the primarily Turkish Muslims began to enter the U.S. by way of Vienna, Austria in July 2004.

"We stayed in Lancaster, Pa., for three months first. There we received social services, health care and were introduced to life in America." Muradov added.

Qasim Burmi, the Imam, or spiritual leader of ISWM, commented, "It was so sad for these people, our fellow brothers and sisters. In Russia they weren't allowed to pray, large gatherings even for religious holidays made the police edgy, so they prayed in their basements, or for the holidays, on the snow."

Imam Burmi points out that Muslims and non-Muslims alike must condemn all forms of oppression, be it these incidents in Russia or the recent anti-Arab riots in Australia.

"There has never existed a nation on this earth that hasn't at some point in time faced oppression. It is our responsibility as free humans to speak out against all forms of oppression," Imam Burmi said.

Dr. Siddiqui said that as the community was informed that many of the immigrants were Muslims, local Muslims felt a special responsibility to the refugees. "ISWM pledged more than $75,000 in addition to volunteers and other items. I asked myself, 'What if it was me in their shoes?' It is really the least we could do."

Many local churches provide necessary support to the immigrants including housing, transportation and English courses. "It is a group effort" says Siddiqui, "Hats off to the Hagerstown churches and the Islamic Society. The volunteers are the bread and butter of this effort."

If you interested in aiding this effort, contact Dr. Siddiqui at shahabnoor@hotmail.com.




Sultan Chaudry is a college student whose parents live in the Hagerstown area.

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