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Some Circassians have had enough discrimination and returned to their homeland in the Caucasus

By Eli Ashkenazi



The Circassians, whose forefathers were brought to Israel in the 19th century, tend to preserve their heritage. After bringing a teacher of the Circassian language, they rebuilt an old house in their village, Kama in Galilee, to make it into an academic and cultural center for Circassians all over the world. At the same time, they face the same problems as all Arab villages: injustice in state budget allocations, water cut-offs in the village, and severe unemployment.

In Beit Shami in Kama, the Circassians are proud of their most recent accomplishment: the reconstruction of one of the most remarkable buildings in their village, which had been deserted for decades. Beit Shami was built at the end of the 19th century by an affluent family in Kama, located to the east of Nazareth near the village of Tabor.

“Reality dictates how we act. There is a severe economic crisis that obliges us to open up,” says the head of the City Council, Jalal Nafso. “I know that some village residents are not excited about it. One person asked me whether they will transform the village into a zoo. Lots of people want to maintain their privacy, but when there is no other option, there is no other option.”

The Circassians are a small minority that has never integrated. While they are Muslims, they study in Jewish schools and serve in the army. They have their own language, which they preserve, and they feel connected to other Circassians in the world and maintain relations with them. They first meet Jews in high school, much earlier than the Druze, for example. This encounter continues in the army or police, where many serve.

However, this contact declines markedly when they return to Kama in the Lower Galilee, with a population of 2,600 persons, or Rayhaniya in the Upper Galilee, with a population of 110.

Many Israelis know nothing about this small community, brought here, as well as other places, by the Turks from the Caucuses to defend the borders of the Ottoman Empire. The Circassians adopted Islam with the beginning of Turkish occupation of the Caucuses in the 17th century.

They are spread all over the Middle East. Today there are 25,000 Circassians in Syria, 10,000 in Iraq, and 20,000 in Jordan. In Jordan, they enjoy high status, and one finds many of them among senior army officers.

Personal search at the airport

The Circassian community clings tightly to its heritage, culture, and language. A few years ago, someone was brought from the Caucuses to teach the Circassian language in the elementary school in Kama.

Shalmon believes that the decision to link the destiny of the Circassian community to that of Israel, and their participation in the educational system and the army, is precisely what has led to discord among them, on questions of culture, language, and identity. The head of City Council, Jalal Nafso, agrees. He says that when he went back to the village after spending years in IDF, he felt abandoned.

He adds, “I went back to the village and ran for head of the City Council. Only then did I realize that I didn't know the truth of our situation. I ask young people why they don't join the army. They see others who went to study instead of joining the army, and their situation has improved. On the other hand, they see soldiers and officers who have been discharged, and what is waiting for them? Do they get appointed to government jobs? No. Why? Because their names are Jalal.”

The sense of being ignored by the state deepens their tendency to isolation, he says. “I was in the 890 Paratroopers Brigade. I was injured in the Chinese farms and in Lebanon. I reached the rank of colonel in Border Patrol—so give me my rights. We only want what we deserve.”

David Nafso, 23 years old, was discharged from the Israeli army a year and a half ago, and he has had difficulties finding a job since then. “I took part-time jobs, including gardening. I tried to get a job in several security companies, but I failed,” he says. “Now they summon me for reserve duty to stand guard. I won't work as a reservist in this state. Am I suitable as a guard in the reserves but not as a civilian?” He says he only realized his true status in the state after he was subjected to a humiliating personal search in the airport, when he asked to travel to Europe after being discharged from the army. “They treated me as if I were a terrorist,” he says. “The hardest problem is unemployment. I constantly scan ads for job vacancies but I can't find a job. My mother prays everyday for me to get a job. I'm sinking in debt. I was supposed to marry this year but I'll postpone it. I'm depressed and I feel that I wasted three years in the army. I tried to join the Prison Authority, but with no success. I know other young people in the same condition. They can't find jobs. Here, three young people left Israel for the Caucuses. Maybe in the future others will do the same. I can live like a millionaire there with only $100 a month. I'm thinking of traveling there.”

Jalal Nafso said that in recent years -- since the fall of the Soviet empire -- many young people have been traveling in search of their Caucasian roots. Nostalgia for their homeland is not the only thing driving them though. “Some young people have left Israel to build a new life in Caucuses,” he says. “An officer who was discharged from the army went to the Caucuses. At least there he feels that it is his land. During the war in Bosnia, Circassians abroad helped an entire Circassian village there move back to the Caucuses. Do you want this to happen here, too?”

Nafso says, “Several young people are thinking of selling their homes and land these days in preparation for their departure.”

…Nafso says, “The minute they leave the borders of Kama, you'll never hear any complaint from them. But when they cut off our water from noon until the next morning, it harms us. It is collective punishment, and it has happened more than once. For a whole month they cut off our water for long hours.”

He adds, “Water in the Circassian language means soul, so when you cut off my water, it's like killing me. We've become like the Southern Lebanese Army.” The City Council in heavily indebted—about NIS8 million. The new head of the council will be forced to implement a reform plan and dismiss ten of the council's 50 employees, which will only further aggravate unemployment.

 

Source: Haaretz.co.il / 08/02/2004
 




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