Jul 27, 2012

Circassia: In London to Draw World’s Attention

Circassians protest in London to raise awareness of their ancestor’s expulsion from Sochi, where the Winter Olympics of 2014 are going to be hosted and amid little international awareness of their tragic history.

Below is an article published by NorthJersey.com:

Waving flags of green and gold and wearing the traditional clothing of their ancestors, a small band of Circassians from North Jersey is gathering in London this weekend as the Summer Olympics shift into full swing.

They won’t be taking in the sporting events. Instead, they will join about 250 others to protest the location of the next Winter Olympics — a year and a half from now in Sochi, Russia — and also bring attention to the plight of Circassians now living in Syria and caught in that country’s civil war.

“This is our chance to really tell the world what happened to us and the true history of what Sochi is all about,” said Dana Wojokh of Little Falls, “because you are not going to find it anywhere else.”

The 25-year-old Wojokh was one of eight who congregated in Totowa this week before embarking on their mission. They are among about 5,000 in North Jersey – mostly from Wayne, Haledon, Prospect Park and Hawthorne — who make up the largest Circassian cluster in the United States. Like many other ethnic groups that add to the unique quality of the area, the Circassians retain their traditions, and mostly live in obscurity.

But when Sochi was picked to host the 2014 Winter Olympics, many of the 5 million to 7 million Circassians worldwide made their voices known, saying their ancestors were massacred on the same hill where skiing events will be held.

Circassians use the word “genocide” when talking about their surviving ancestors, whom they say were exiled from their homeland situated between the Black Sea and the Caucasus Mountains — nearly 150 years ago by the Russian army. The Russian government has said there was no genocide, and the historian Walter Richmond says the Russians contend that the Circassians who left the Caucasus migrated on their own for religious reasons.

Most of the Circassians ended up in Turkey, with large groups also in Syria, Jordan and Germany. Historians say many from the Golan Heights, who were driven out by the Israelis in 1967, settled in Paterson — at the invitation of the U.S government.

Richmond, the director of Russian studies at Occidental College in Los Angeles, said a country called Circassia can be seen in old maps, and it was internationally recognized as a nation, until it was destroyed in the 1860s. Another historian said the Circassians can be traced to the 8th century B.C. and even participated in early Olympic Games.

The Russians, Richmond said, have argued the nation never existed.

Richmond, who has written about Circassian history, said they are unrelated to Russians and that their language is different from most in that region. Islam is their traditional religion. “They are a unique people,” he said.

In North Jersey, Circassians are close-knit with “everyone knowing everyone,” members said. They have formed several civic groups and have also organized ceremonies commemorating Circassian Memorial Day. In Prospect Park, residents also elected Will Kubofcik, who is of Circassian descent, mayor in the late 1990s.

Many of the younger generations raised in New Jersey have learned the Circassian language, and elders, known as thamadas, have passed along their stories through oral histories, they said. Many have also kept in touch with distant relatives around the world.

Zack Barsik, president of the Circassian Cultural Institute in Totowa, said his mother was born in Syria, and as a youngster he spent many of his summers in Damascus, where family members still live today.