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Syrian Refugees Go ‘Home’ to Former Russian Riviera

Syrian Refugees Go ‘Home’ to Former Russian Rivierai
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April 15, 2013
As Syria’s civil war grinds into its third year, ethnic and religious minorities feel increasingly insecure. Armenian Christians have left for Beirut and Armenia. VOA's James Brooke reports from Sukhumi that another ethnic group is finding safe haven on the Black Sea coast in Abkhazia, a breakaway territory of Georgia, drawing on 150-year-old ethnic ties.
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— Syria’s civil war has created more than one million refugees. Many live in border camps in Turkey, Jordan or Lebanon.

But a lucky few are finding shelter on the Black Sea coast, in Abkhazia, a breakaway territory of Georgia. This sunny strip of beaches and forests once was called “Russia’s Riviera.”

They are Syrian Abkhaz, coming home 150 years after the Russian czar deported their Muslim ancestors to the Ottoman Empire, the forerunner of modern Turkey.

Elbrus Abhaza was a French teacher in Damascus. It’s my origins - Abkhazia,” he said of his ancestral homeland, which he first saw when he arrived from Syria in January. “We have roots, roots in Abkhazia.”

  • Abkhaz Syrian refugees are housed in blue and white prefabricated houses, installed in Sukhumi for United Nations peacekeeping monitors who worked in Abkhazia after the 1992-1993 war. (V. Undritz for VOA)
  • Installed for peacekeepers, this dining room now serves meals for 75 Abkhaz Syrian refugees. (V. Undritz for VOA)
  • Noor Wadkhuka, with her 10-year old son Gyakhra, pours tea for visitors. (V. Undritz for VOA)
  • Sami Emha runs the dining room, helping to cook for 75 refugees. (V. Undritz for VOA)
  • Basima Marshan, a former museum curator in Damascus, plays with her baby, Sana, while her 2-year-old daughter Sara, watches. (V. Undritz for VOA)
  • Syrian-born sisters, Sana and Sara, are the faces of Abkhazia’s new generation. (V. Undritz for VOA)
  • Laman Jadker adjusts to life in the land of her ancestors, a land she had only heard about in her Syrian village. (V. Undritz for VOA)
  • Walid Wadjukh served as a Syrian-Abkhaz volunteer in Abkhazia's 1992-1993 war. Last year, Wadjukh decided to move his family to Abkhazia. (V. Undritz for VOA)
  • The bedroom nook of the Wadjukhs’ 14-year-old daughter. (V. Undritz for VOA)
  • Elbrus Abaza taught French in a Damascus suburb before coming to Abkhazia. (V. Undritz for VOA)
  • Elbrus Abasa and his grandmother, Laman Jadker, face the future in Abkhazia together. (V. Undritz for VOA)

Before Syria’s civil war, Abkhazia fought its own civil war.

Administered during Soviet years as an autonomous region of Georgia, Abkhazia won de facto independence in 1993 by expelling Georgian troops and ending Georgian control. A Russian military presence, first established in the 1990s, was greatly expanded after Russia defeated Georgia in a short war in 2008.

Twenty years ago, Walid Wadjukh fought in Abkhazia’s secessionist war, serving as a volunteer from the Abkhaz diaspora. Six month ago, when Syria’s war came to his Damascus suburb, this flower seller and father of three moved his family to his ancestral homeland.

“The best place is where you can live peacefully,” he said, talking in his temporary apartment, accompanied by his wife Noor, and his 10-year-old son, Gyakhra. “Here we live peacefully. And they help us as well. People here help us, and they don’t bother us.”

With Abkhazia now peaceful, the Syrian refugees moved into blue-and-white housing vacated four years ago when a U.N. cease-fire observer mission ended work here.

Abkhazian government official Viacheslav Chirikba said 200 Syrian Abkhaz already have arrived. Another 150 are to come by the end of April.

“We want to help our brothers who are in need and in danger now in Syria, and to assist them in any way possible which we can provide them,” said Chirikba, foreign minister of a region recognized as independent by only two major countries, Russia and Venezuela. All other major countries say Abkhazia is still part of Georgia.

Although few of the refugees speak Russian or Abkhaz, Chirikba said they are needed as Abkhazia slowly rebuilds from its own war.

“Many of them have very useful professions - electricians - we have a need of them,” he said. “So many of them already start working, which is very good.”

At Sukhumi’s hilltop campus of Abkhaz State University, Beslan Baratelia says Abkhazia has a long-standing program to encourage ethnic Abkhaz to come home from Turkey.

“Repatriation has already been happening in Abkhazia for around 20 years,” said Baratelia, who is dean of economics. “A repatriation fund was created in Abkhazia that focuses on helping those who have returned to their historical motherland to adapt.”

Many houses are empty here. After separatist forces won control of Abkhazia in 1993, half of the population - 200,000 ethnic Georgians - were forced to flee.

In Tbilisi, Georgia, demonstrators say that if Abkhazia wants to boost its population, it should let Georgians return to their houses.

But Izida Chania, editor of Nujnaya Gazeta, said the population policy is ethnic, not just economic.

“We are trying to increase the quantity of ethnic Abkhaz living in Abkhazia,” she said, in her office located across Freedom Square from a burned out high-rise that was the final headquarters for Georgian soldiers here 20 years ago. "For us it's really important to understand exactly what kind of people are moving here, what kind of relationship they have with Abkhazia."

So Abkhazia rebuilds its population, drawing ethnic Abkhaz refugees from 1,000 kilometers away - and shunning ethnic Georgian refugees from 100 kilometers away.

James Brooke

A foreign correspondent who has reported from five continents, Brooke, known universally as Jim, is the Voice of America bureau chief for Russia and former Soviet Union countries. From his base in Moscow, Jim roams Russia and Russia’s southern neighbors.

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by: Anonymous
April 17, 2013 12:18 PM
They try to expand the quantity of Abkhazians and discriminate other minorities as well. I'm a Russian who lives there - not in London - and I know what I say, take my word!


by: Metin from: London
April 16, 2013 6:32 AM
It seems Mr Broke confused where to Sukhum is belong. In his first article it was SUKHUMI, ABKHAZIA and now Georgia.

Abkhazia is already accepted 45.000 (mostly Mingrelian) Georgians in Gal region. Is there any other example like that in similar conflicts? Have a look Karabakh for instance... And the question is how the Abkhazians became minority in their homeland and the Georgians became majority? Stalin-Beria period might help answer this question.

Many Georgians are fought against their Abkhaz friends, neighhbours during the war. Abkhazians are lost 4% of their population in this war. People still remember well the horrors of the war. Hatred still smoulders in peoples' hearts. "How could a woman who have lost four children tolerate if the killer of her children would move to her neighbour?" asks Esmeralda Arshba in the documentary film " Ei-toivottu valtio | An unwanted state"

Abkhazian society can allow the return only of those Georgians who did not fight on the Georgian side and only after they recognise Abkhazia as an independent state. And the same right for return should be given also to descendants of Abkhazian refugees from the Caucasian War of the XIX century, who live mostly in Turkey..

In Response

by: ereklikhan from: new york
April 17, 2013 12:06 PM
Mr Metin, you write one-sided absurdities. Abkhazia is not the land of Abkhaz only, it has been for thousand years homeland to Georgians (including mengrelian, svan, e.t.c) too. In fact most of Abkhaz nobility still have Georgian last names, as the feudal belonging of Abkhazia always was to the Georgian crown. Even the name the world knows Abkhazia with, is of Georgian origin Apkhazeti. More then half of population of pre-war Abkhazia were ethnic georgians and You can not deny them the right to live in their homes under pretext that they "fought the war" ? How about their children who were 2 years old then ? Did they fight too? Nevertheless it is an idiotic argument as It would be the same if Flemish Belgians kicked out of their homes Vallons and claim their homes.

The only practical difference between Abkhaz and Georgians is the language as the common history of cohabitation is much longer then the conflict. I know, You all try to deny that very hard but history is documented and when You try erasing Georgian writings from Bedia and Ilori churches, there are still photographs of them that exist.

In fact You do not realize that the only reason why no-one besides marginalized criminal states recognizes your existence is that You are ann apartheid land, who builds on the blood of Georgians and uses ethnic rules to separate its citizens. Georgians do not want You out, they only want what's theirs. You want them out and You claim their homes, while You lay under Russia who deported all of You to Turkey - refusing your own historic ties to the nation with which You share literally every single cultural element. By this not only You deny Georgians their rights but You condemn yourselves to certain death, as Russia will assimilate and swallow You like they did with many others, in the North Caucasus.


by: moniq from: France
April 15, 2013 7:59 PM
as long as Arabs are kept away from Europe - we are happy...

In Response

by: kallu from: neighbour
May 03, 2013 1:08 PM
Well i think abkhazia is a part of georgia these muslims with the help of russians are unnecessarily harassing georgians. They are calling people from thousands of kilometers away & who knows might some terrorists also come & settle there under the banner of refugees from syria or other war torn countries.

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