My beginnings …
When the facts are laid out in front of you, its easy to see how saying ‘no’ is to the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics, is morally and logically sound. For a little over 5 years now, I have raised the issues of these games but I realized that I never shared why, and how every passing day only strengthens my resolve to keep it a strong no. In the course of my postings here and for Sochi Watch, I will explain how I became the activist I am today and the firmness of my resolve.
I grew up in an Adyghe (self moniker for Circassian) household in America, to Circassian parents who were born and raised in Syria’s Golan Heights. “Khabza” (Circassian ‘code’ of conduct) was the rule of our house. When I was started Kindergarten at 5 years old, I had to be enrolled in ESL classes because (aside from the English on Sesame Street) Circassian was the only language I heard at home. Like other Circassian children, I was taught the general idea of my nation’s tragic story.
For much of my schooling, I was the only Circassian in my class. Coupled with my strong Circassian identity and values my parents instilled in me, I always felt different from my classmates. Yet at any age, Circassians in Diaspora have a hard time explaining the question, “Where are you from?” As a child, I felt a twinge of injustice every time I had to explain that difficult story. From a young age I knew I had to do something, (perhaps work at the United Nations or a similar organization) to promote and help my people, as I was also being taught by my parents that being an Adyghe at home was not enough, and that it was a duty and a privilege to give back to my people and nation.
With this lesson in mind, I became very involved with my local “khassa“ (Circassian culture and community organization) in New Jersey. In childhood and through adolescence, I was a student and teacher at the organization’s Circassian language classes and dance ensemble. In those years, when I danced on stage, I felt that I was telling the world my people’s story. When I taught students the basic steps of our dances or words of our ancient language, I felt I was passing on something so precious and valuable. One particular proud achievement happened offstage: When I was dancer, our dance group hoisted a huge green and gold Circassian flag on a flagpole paid for by funds we saved and collected.
It was a sense of community. It was a chance to be with peers and friends while I learned, practiced, and taught my noble and beautiful culture. I was praised regularly by my elders for my contributions and looked up by the youngsters. I was happy, proud and thought I was hitting a high note.
2007 was a year of rumbling change in the Circassian world, and it was a year I began to question my duties and role as a Circassian. On May 21 of that year, I attended a conference entitled, “The Circassians: Past, Present and Future” in Washington DC. It was the first forum of its kind hosted in the United States- let alone at the US capital- where the topic of discussion was about my nation. Some participants (including Sochi Watch’s Paul Goble & Fatima Tlis) were not even Circassian but all were definitely experts in their fields. As I always wanted to be involved with an international organization, I was impressed and honored to be in the same room as these people. As I always wanted to However I thought, “How can these people know so much more about my nation?”, “Why haven’t I been to taught all history?”, “Why don’t I know about what is currently happening in my homeland?”, and “Why don’t more people know about my nation’s struggles?” It was some time later when I realized that whatever I did until that time was not hitting “the high note”- it was not even scratching the surface of telling the world the full Circassian story.
Several months later on October 4th 2007, I participated with of a group of Circassians in Turkey and the United States who gathered outside Russian Consulates and Embassies in Istanbul and New York City to protest the 450th anniversary celebrations of the false “unification” between Circassia and Russia as well as Sochi being the newly appointed host city of the 2014 Winter Olympics. Up until then, I did not truly grasp that Sochi was a city of Circassia, nor that it was the very site of bitter grief for my nation. We held signs that read, “No Justice for Genocide Victims” and “Sochi- Land of Circassian Genocide” while distributing pamphlets explaining the true history and hard facts about Sochi. Even though they were smaller than the one we raised a few years back at our organization, the many little flags we held felt more powerful because it was coupled with a feeling of honor and a voice of truth. We were telling a message of who we were, where we came from, and what we needed so that our nation can thrive freely in peace instead of barely surviving over five generations.
I was swept away. This felt better and truer than anything I did before. A few weeks later, I wrote on my personal blog, “You got to fight for your right to have your own country.”