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Repatriation of Crimean Tatar Youth:
The Experience of Ali Chabuk

By Laryssa Chomiak and Waleed Ziad

Ali Chabuk was born and raised in Uzbekistan, a grand son of forcefully deported Crimean Tatars in 1944. Upon their return to Crimea, Ali's family confronted the difficulties faced by a large percentage of repatriate Crimean Tatars: social injustice and barriers to reintegrate into the Crimean society. Ali taught himself English while in Uzbekistan and decided to use his linguistic skills and personal commitment to social change. He volunteered for the Mejlis during the highly contested elections of 2006. We met Ali during our research trip in the summer of 2006 by chance, while observing a Crimean Tatar tent city that had been erected in front of the Crimean parliament to protest land issues. He was of invaluable and integral importance to our research, giving us perspectives and opinions that are not covered in the media. Since then, Ali has worked for the Ministry of Labour and Social Policy in Crimea and recently won a highly competitive and prestigious Fulbright Fellowship for graduate study in the United States.

Question: Why did your family decide to leave Uzbekistan and return to Crimea? What were the problems you and your family immediately encountered upon your return to Crimea?

Ali Chabuk

Ali Chabuk

Ali Chabuk: I cannot say that my family's life in Uzbekistan was unbearable, and a reason for our decision to return to Crimea. My family did not face any major social or economic difficulties there. My parents had jobs; I had the opportunity to get a higher education. We, Crimean Tatars, survived as a nation after our deportation from Crimea in 1944, partly because we lived among Uzbeks who are also Muslims. Their hospitality and friendship gave us much support during our first years living in exile. I have great sympathy for the Uzbek people and am very thankful to them and their nation.

Nevertheless, my grandparents had always dreamed of returning to Crimea. I was brought up in an atmosphere of constant reminiscences of our Motherland narrated by my grandparents. The expression "to live like a native among aliens" speaks for itself, which meant that returning to Crimea was our goal in the long run. When I talk to my parents about my family's decision to return now, they say: "We moved back to Crimea as soon as it was financially possible for the sake of you and your sister, and to make your adaptation into Ukrainian and Crimean society easier especially at your early ages. Unfortunately our parents (my grandparents) were not able to do this for us...." So, today I am very proud and thankful to Allah that I am back on the lands of my ancestors and can continue our family tree back in Crimea. And for me this is a tribute to my ancestors.

Upon our return, my family encountered problems of social reintegration. Housing has been one of the first and foremost obstacles for our family and most of the Crimean Tatar returnees. We live, four of us, in a 20 square meter room within a dormitory with poor facilities and simply can not afford even a one room flat which starts at $40.000, a sum that is impossible to meet with our family income. Even though my father took part as a volunteer in the management of environmental consequences of the nuclear disaster in Chernobyl in 1986, and enjoys a special status qualifying him for free government housing, nothing has been granted to him. Status remains as only status without much else. My family has also applied for land in Crimea, yet we were denied without any explanation. We have been denied the opportunity to build a house, and the grave situation is compounded by ongoing social injustice and inequality.

Question: How did you get involved in the Crimean Tatar National Movement?

AC: After realizing the unjust social and economic conditions faced by so many returnees, my personal inspiration and commitment to work for the development of the Crimean Tatar people drove me to work for the Mejlis. I realized that I could be more useful to my community and family working for the Mejlis during the highly contested parliamentary elections in 2006 rather than, say, being a book-keeper in a firm. Because of our team's hard work during the elections, we have eight elected Crimean Tatar deputies in the Crimean Parliament today who represent the Crimean Tatar minority, focusing especially on their social issues and questions of reintegration.

Question: Could you provide more details on the campaign work that you were involved in?

AC: During the parliamentary elections of 2006, I was one of the office managers in the Kurultay-Rukh party block with a wide range of responsibilities. It was my pleasure to work on a team with Ayder Seytosmanov, Elvidin Chubarov, Zair Smedlyaev and others. Responsibilities included recruiting and coordinating mobile groups, collecting signatures in support of the Kurultay-Rukh voting list, and coordinating campaign activities of all Mejlis cells and candidates across Crimea. Our activities involved organizing meetings with local inhabitants, media and PR events, and the organization of concerts, round tables and conferences. We were also involved in ordering printed materials and managed the distribution of campaign materials across the region to all Mejlis cells and other voting electorates. We partook in the development of advertising rollers and bill-boards and tracked their coverage on TV as well as their distribution to key areas across the region.

Question: Please tell us about your current work with the Ministry of Labour and Social Policy in Crimea.

AC: Today, as the Minister's assistant, I am currently running a project on the establishment of a Center for the Handicapped. The creation of this center is of crucial social importance, the primary objective of which is to promote services to people with disabilities. The extension of social services to this underrepresented segment of society serves to encourage handicapped individuals to become functionally independent and productive members of society through educational opportunities, vocational training, medical rehabilitation as well as socio-economic rehabilitation. The project has the capacity to improve the lives of Crimea's most disadvantaged people. We have launched the implementation stage of the project in mid-2007. I hope that very soon the Center for the Handicapped will be up and running, representing a unique development initiative in the region.

Question: Could you discuss the process of Ukrainian citizenship for Crimean Tatars? What stage has it reached, and how does this impact day-to-day living of the Crimean Tatar community?

AC: The issue of citizenship is the number one issue, which every Crimean Tatar family has to resolve upon their return to Ukraine, a highly bureaucratized country. Every returnee family is concerned with this issue immediately upon their arrival to Ukraine. This is the first step they need to take to integrate themselves into Ukrainian society, because the absence of citizenship deprives them of basic political, economic and social rights. In 1998, an agreement, unique in international relations, was reached between Uzbekistan and Ukraine that would simplify the procedure of acquiring Ukrainian citizenship for Crimean Tatar returnees. However, even today it takes 5 to 6 months or more for the returnees to get Ukrainian citizenship. And for many of the returnees this is a difficult period, as they can't be employed and start earning their living without citizenship (it is almost impossible to get a well paying job without citizenship and city registration). Pensioners and the elderly, who depend entirely on the government, can't receive pension payments from the government without citizenship. So I would call this a social defect or a hole (among many others) in the social system.

To conclude, I would say, that many social, economic and other uncertainties beyond the question of citizenship impact the decision of Crimean Tatar families still living in Uzbekistan to return to Crimea. At the same time a reverse trend is occurring, in which Crimean Tatar families having been unable to integrate into Ukrainian society, and as a result are moving back to Uzbekistan. I would call this trend 'self exile' because of the dead situation they face in Crimea.

Question: You recently won a highly prestigious Fulbright Fellowship for graduate study in the United States. Please tell us what you anticipate you will be studying and how this will impact your work in Crimea.

AC: My study objectives in the United States are directly related to my personal commitment to being a successful agent of change in the social system of Crimea, Ukraine. Many of my study objectives derive directly from my experience with working at the Ministry of Labour and Social Policy of Crimea. I have chosen to specialize in social policy with an emphasis on policy analysis, policy planning and implementation, as well as promoting social and developmental integration and cooperation across various sectors of social life.

I believe that this program is a great opportunity for me to increase my ability in promoting social justice. Upon my return from the United States, I will seek to pursue a career in the Government of Crimea to become a key player and decision-maker with respect to Crimea's social and economic issues, which of course includes the issues faced by Crimean Tatar returnees. Through my work, I want to become an honourable representative of my people.

On a side note, I wish that the Fulbright program would became more popular among Crimean Tatar students so that they could benefit from opportunities of educational exchange sponsored by the U.S. Through this program, we can acquire important theoretical and practical skills and become successful leaders in bringing justice and prosperity to our nation.

Question: What do you think are the most immediate obstacles Crimean Tatars face today?

AC: In my opinion, this is a complex mix of various everyday problems. Take for instance equal job opportunities: Crimean Tatars are still discriminated by employers and face highly bureaucratized urban registration regulations. While it is significantly easier to register for employment on the rural level, this deprives Crimean Tatars of seeking opportunities in cities, and having access to various benefits that come with urban life, most importantly medical treatment. It is not a secret that Crimea's rural areas are underdeveloped in terms of facilities (gas, electricity, water supply and already mentioned job opportunities, etc.), and that the standard of living is very low. I bring up the urban registration obstacle to show that the reality of Crimean Tatars being scattered across rural areas is a direct result of their inability to register for employment in cities.

Yet the main obstacle faced by Crimean Tatars is the land issue. Our successful reintegration is virtually impossible without our owning land. I believe that many of the obstacles that I have discussed are a direct result of the land issue, our repatriation as well as the legalization of our status as indigenous people of Crimea.

Laryssa Chomiak is a doctoral candidate in political science, studying North Africa and Eastern Europe at the University of Maryland, College Park, MD. Waleed Ziad is an economic consultant in Montreal, QC, and has degrees in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations as well as Economics from Yale University.

Posted: 28 May 2008

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