AMMAN, Jordan – Millions of people have fled Syria since the civil war began in 2011. Although the U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has registered more than five million Syrian refugees, thousands more may not have been recorded yet.
For Syria’s Circassians, this war was not the first time they were forced to leave their homes. The current conflict resulted in the third displacement of the minority group in less than 150 years.
The Circassian Muslim tribes fought the Russian empire in the Caucasus for more than 100 years. In 1864, their land was occupied resulting in the displacement of most of the people. Many did not survive, but those who did were deported to the Ottoman Empire and settled in Turkey, Syria, Palestine, Jordan and Kosovo. Many also split up after the end of the empire in the early twentieth century. Today some families are spread across three different countries.
Approximately 80 percent of the Circassians in Syria lived in the Golan, a southern city on the border with Palestine. In 1967, the Golan fell under the Israeli control in the aftermath of the Arab-Israeli War. Thousands of people were forced to flee to Damascus and nearby cities. Less than 50 years later, they were forced to flee again.
Yashar Islam, 71, is one of those people who had to migrate twice. His story began two generations ago.
His grandfather left the Caucasus with his mother after his father’s death. They settled in the Golan, where Yashar was born and raised.
Today, he still remembers the first time he had to flee home.
Yashar met with The Globe Post in his rented apartment in the Jordanian capital of Amman to share his story. His wife, Nahida, and daughter, Dana, sat in the room, adding their own comments to the story.
In 1967, Yashar was 21 years old and worked with the Ministry of Defense. He fled the Golan for Damascus with his parents and only brother.
People left their houses, work and friends, but Yashar managed to keep his job. “We were not affected as much as the others,” he said.
The wife’s family also comes from the Golan, and her father also worked for the military. They fled when Nahida was in the second grade. During a dark cold night one October, they started hearing people say, “Al Quneitra [the Golan’s main city] fell.” Her family was afraid because of her father’s sensitive post in the army, and decided to flee that night.
The family had to walk to Buraiqa, a village in the northeast. The next day, they arrived in Daraa, a southern city on the Jordanian border where Circassian volunteers rented buses for the escaped families. The day after, the escapees arrived in Damascus. They had had brought nothing.
“We returned to stay on a mat,” Nahida said using an Arabic expression.
The two families managed to rebuild their lives again.
Yashar and Nahida were married and settled in Qudsia. They had three children, Bislan, Sarima, and Dana. Dana was a senior at the University of Damascus, and her brother and sister were working. Nahida was a director of a school. Like any other ordinary family, they had their own house, friends, memories, dreams and hopes.
In 2012, after Yashar’s nephew was killed, he and his brother, who now lives in France, decided to leave Syria and flee to Amman with their families.
Nahida retired. Dana left her university and job along with Bislan and Sarima. In November 2012, they fled for Amman where their cousins rented them a flat.
Although the Circassian Charity Association helped the Circassian families, and Jordanian society was hospitable, this immigration was harder on the family, Yashar said.
Integration was easy since Jordanians have the same culture, language and religion, he explained. But this time the family had to leave their home country and everything they worked for for years.
After five years in Amman, Yashar and Nahida can’t receive their retirement payments. Dana never completed her bachelor’s degree, but she works in the administration department of a petrol station’s management company. Bislan and Sarima are in Norway. Two photos of them were displayed in the family’s living room.
Sarima got married and left Jordan as a refugee. Bislan left, “just like the other youth,” Yashar said.
“He left from this house; he took a flight, with his friends, to Istanbul and went to Greece by sea. In Europe, each one went to a country, he chose Norway because his sister was there.”
Nahida said she is waiting. Both her husband and daughter Dana said if the crisis ends, they will go back to Syria immediately.
Circassians found help in Jordan not only from the Circassians Association, but from their relatives and some 170,000 to 200,000 members of the community who settled in the country. However, they lost many things, just like their ancestors.
The Jordanian Circassians Charity association created a crisis management center in 2012. Ahmad Abida, a 57-year-old volunteer and the center chief, said they have helped more than 6,000 families over the past five years.
The association helped Syrian Circassian families to leave refugee camps, rented flats for them, provided financial support, medical assistance and education in cooperation with different local and international organizations.
Mr. Abida said that he would never forget the reaction of a Circassian man who was living in Al Za’atari camp. They called him to offer their help, and he started to cry. He was just like “a drowning man in a sea,” he recalled.
Tariq Jaikat, 55, a Circassian Jordanian who was a pilot in Jordan’s Air Force, is now an owner of a charity produce shop.
He and his family are known for providing food and medicine to poor people in Bayadir Wadi Al-Seer, one of the main Circassian neighborhoods in Amman.
“Free vegetables for those who need it,” a sign written on the storefront says. Mr. Jaikat said they help Circassians from Syria to rent houses and pay electricity and water bills. They also have helped people cover the cost of urgent surgeries, including a number of Caesarean births.
Mr. Jaikat has tens of files for the families in need in his store, but he doesn’t only provide them financial aid.
Once, a Circassian young man who couldn’t leave Syria at the same time with his family entered Jordan as a refugee and got stuck in the crowded Zaatari camp. Mr. Jaikat helped him to get out of the camp legally and to reunite with his family in Amman.
He is not involved in this organized work alone. Many of his friends in the army and the air force donate their cars in exchange for a tax exemption from the government and work with businessmen to provide free cars for disabled people in the community.
Syrian Circassians did not only flee to Jordan and Turkey. Many went back home, to their occupied region inside Russia. Others want to go back to Syria as soon as the war ends.