It is late on a dark and cold Thursday afternoon. I’m at the library, answering some emails, helping some coworkers with English translations, chatting a bit with my office mates, and at 6, I will go to my English Club. Earlier in the day I sent a “Letter of Inquiry” to the Carnegie Foundation about funding for preservation projects at the library. I have been working on the “letter” for quite awhile, as it is really more like a full blown grant application, so it felt good to get it off. It is a long shot—a very long shot—but they have an Islamic Initiative in which they have funded mostly research, but they also funded the main library in Alexandria, Egypt for preservation work (to the tune of a million dollars). So, who knows? Might as well give it a try. I think that now I am going to just start sending off grant applications to any place I can think of, no matter how unlikely I feel it is that we would be awarded a grant, in the hopes that someone will take notice of who the Crimean Tatar people are and the importance of preserving their culture. And now that I know enough about the library, and how to ask questions, I can do more of the grant writing on my own, though I continually consult with Nadjie, or at least show her what I am doing.
I had a disturbing conversation last week with a young American Fulbright student here. She was only in Crimea for four months and has left now to go to a different country to study. She told me that when she asked young people she met at the university in Simferopol and other places what they thought were the biggest problems facing their country—thinking they would say corruption, the economy, etc—many said, “ the Crimean Tatars.” I asked, “How many?” She said she would estimate it to be 70-75%. One young man responded, when Sarah was talking about how terrible Stalin was, that “Stalin wasn’t so bad—at least he deported the Tatars.”
I guess I shouldn’t have been so shocked. I know that there are a lot of hostile feelings towards the Crimean Tatars. Every year around the memorial of the deportation (May 18th), a survey is conducted by Crimean NGO’s about attitudes towards Crimean Tatars. The results mirror almost exactly what my young friend said—70% of the Russian-speaking population feel the deportation was justified, and furthermore, a considerable portion of that 70% feel it should happen again today, that the Tatars should be forced to leave the peninsula. Granted, those who feel they should again be deported are a small minority, but those who just generally feel hostility towards the Crimean Tatars apparently is not.
And that hostility gets transmitted in many ways, I would think. Recently Serdar was talking about what he wants to do in his future (as he often does, being that age), and one of the things he said he might like to do would be to teach at the medical university where he is attending. But then he said, “That probably wouldn’t be possible because of my name.” I asked him what he meant, and he told me how he knew of someone who applied for a teaching job at the university who was passed over in favor of an individual with lesser credentials because they were Crimean Tatar. He really felt it was hopeless to even think about trying to teach somewhere like the medical university.
So, all of this I at least intellectually knew from reading and talking with people. But because I mostly don’t understand conversations that go on around me, and because almost all the people I know well are Crimean Tatars, and the people I know who aren’t Crimean Tatar know that is the population I live and work with, I do not hear that kind of virulent hostility. And it just sort of broke my heart to listen to Sarah’s reports of her acquaintances’ attitudes. How can people hate these wonderful, kind people that I love so much? But, of course, racism and its attendant violence, is not based on “knowing” people, but rather on a fictional idea of who they are, an idea fed by inadequacies and unhappiness in one’s own life and community. In the case of the Crimean Tatars, I would imagine that some of that ethnic hatred comes from residents of Crimea watching a group of Muslim people “immigrate” (even though they originally lived here, they are still seen by the rest of the population as outsiders) to their country, take over land (which the Tatars were forced to do when they weren’t provided land to replace the land and homes taken from them), and building sometimes substantial homes (Ak Mechet where I live is a mix of really huge homes, small to medium size homes, and also many unfinished and abandoned homes), and bringing all the problems and pressures that a huge influx of people in a short period of time can bring.
But what they don’t see is how the Crimean Tatar people were forced out of their homes in a span of fifteen minutes with only the possessions they could carry on their backs; the misery and deaths on that journey into exile; the difficult lives they lived for fifty years in a country that did not want them, that used them for what amounts to slave labor. They do not see the struggle of the people who made it back to Crimea to build homes, to find jobs, to make a new life for themselves, a struggle which at least three people ended in the violent protest of self immolation. They do not see how some Crimean Tatar people live to this day—several families crowded into a small space; my counterpart Nadjie who has lived for 16 years without heat or water, raising her two children; the two men in Ak Mechet living in what amounted to a boxcar and who perished in an alcoholic stupor as their “home” burned to the ground.
Of course, many of the Crimean Tatar people I know do live in nice apartments and houses, have relatively decent jobs, and seem to do okay for themselves, as best I can tell. But they all have in common the struggle to survive as a people in a land that once was their ancestral home but in which they are now a minority and are often viewed with hostility. I, of course, do not know the answer to any of this and can only hope that the ethnic tensions do not erupt into some kind of prolonged violence as they have many other places. And I can also hope that as the Crimean Tatar people build their homes and mosques across the peninsula, that they will be allowed to live in peace in the homeland that is rightfully theirs.