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U.S.: Meskhetian Families From Krasnodar Adjusting Well To Life

Members of the extended Svonidze family A group of 84 people from Russia's stateless Meskhetian community is gradually acclimating to life in the eastern U.S. state of Pennsylvania after their arrival last summer. They are the first of thousands of Meskhetians expected to resettle in the United States through a refugee program aimed at ending the decades-long odyssey of the Meskhetians since their deportation from Georgia. Three Meskhetian families are living in the town of Lancaster, about 260 kilometers southwest of New York City. The others have settled in Philadelphia and its suburbs. They say they have been welcomed warmly by the communities and express gratitude to their American hosts, Church World Service -- a Christian charity that assists them with housing, food, clothing, and job searches.

Lancaster, Pennsylvania; 3 December 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The International Organization for Migration (IOM) launched a U.S.-sponsored resettlement program earlier this year designed to help beleaguered Meskhetians from Russia's southern Krasnodar region emigrate.

Gulbakhor Suvanidze is a mother of two and a former geography teacher. She tells RFE/RL that what has struck her the most about the United States is how few problems there are with documentation and finding work, compared to Russia.

She describes her encounter with her future American employer, a food processing company.

"Honestly, we were afraid that there will be hours of questioning and waiting, but they invited us [into the office] immediately and told us to fill out job applications. We filled them out. The man in charge asked for our Social Security numbers, made photocopies, and then said, 'You're hired.' They knew nothing about us. How can they hire us like that? The man said, 'You can start tomorrow,'" Suvanidze says.
"These guys are going to be wonderfully successful in America. They know how to live in a modern world. These are people -- at least the middle-aged folks -- who have had such good solid educations, who have had careers and experience at managing things."

Suvanidze says she was amazed by that straightforward approach -- and by the trust placed in her -- accustomed as she was in Russia to long lines, suspicious officials, and hostility.

After working for more than two months in the company, she says she likes her new job, not only because of the decent pay -- $8.50 an hour, plus benefits -- but also for the humane treatment she is receiving there.

"I like it very much. People are treating you with respect. Even the director of the company will approach each of us and will inquire about our lives. He will ask if there's anything they can help with. I am taken aback by such treatment. I can't imagine a director of a company back home will ever come to regular workers, to inquire," Suvanidze said.

The seven members of 52-year-old Tiyenshon Svonidze's family occupy a three-story brick house in Lancaster and pay $650 a month in rent. Svanidze recently purchased a used car for $3,000, which he is paying off in installments.

He and his two younger brothers -- the heads of the other two Meskhetian families in Lancaster -- work as a team, maintaining equipment at the food-processing plant. They are also paid $8.50 an hour, with benefits.

This picture of modest immigrant success stands in stark contrast to the treatment Meskhetians have been receiving in Russia. Meskhetians are the survivors or descendants of a rural Muslim population in southern Georgia that Soviet leader Josef Stalin ordered deported to Central Asia in November 1944. Tens of thousands were forcibly evacuated from Uzbekistan in 1989 following bloody pograms and were resettled in other areas, primarily in Azerbaijan and in Russia's Krasnodar region.

Many of Krasnodar's 13,500 Meskhetians have decided to accept the U.S. resettlement offer, citing what they say is harassment by authorities, poor job prospects, and the denial of their basic civil rights.

Svonidze tells RFE/RL that the decision to resettle in America was not an easy one to make. But he says that when he arrived in the United States, he realized it would be the end of their journey.

"Most importantly, people around here surround us with such love and care, so we don't feel at all like guests. We don't feel like total strangers, like we were feeling and were told in Russia. Our friends here -- Nancy and Mel, Laura and Marcie, Barbara -- are representatives of supporting agencies. We feel like one family, like they are close relatives," Svonidze said.

One of the friends mentioned by Svonidze, Laura Stammberger, works for PRIME-ECR, an affiliate of Church World Service, and is a project manager for Meskhetian resettlement in Lancaster. She tells RFE/RL that the three Meskhetian families in Lancaster are still in the early stages of their acculturation, but that there are already indications that they are going to do well.

"These guys are going to be wonderfully successful in America. They know how to live in a modern world. These are people -- at least the middle-aged folks -- who have had such good solid educations, who have had careers and experience at managing things. Another thing in their favor is they're very devoted to one another, caring not just about what goes on with themselves but what goes on with the brothers and sisters. They really do have ambitions for the better," Stammberger said.

Marcie Harder is the manager for the Lancaster Meskhetians employment program, which is also handled by PRIME-ECR. Harder lived for nine years in Russia as a child and speaks the language fluently. She tells RFE/RL that employers in Lancaster have generally been willing to give jobs to qualified Meskhetians, and that so far they have not been disappointed.

Harder notes one incident in which a Meskhetian is suspected of having been denied consideration for employment because he was a Muslim, which is against the law. But in general, she tells RFE/RL, local employers are willing to consider them for jobs.

"Many of the places that we applied to, when they find out that I am working with immigrants who are newly arrived in the country, they say, 'Oh, really? Tell me where they're from. We've hired refugees before, and they're known to be some of our hardest-working employees -- our most punctual, ones who don't have problems with their co-workers.' They get along well, and they've been known to advance," Harder said.

But poor English-language skills remain a major hurdle to finding better-paying jobs, Harder says. This is why Meskhetians have been more successful finding work in smaller companies or in those where there are already Russian-speaking employees.

As is typical with immigrants arriving in the United States, young people tend to adjust faster and with less effort than the older generation. Svonidze proudly points to Murat, his lively 12-year-old nephew, who is the main English-language interpreter for the three families. Murat studied English for three years in Russia and already speaks with confidence.

Another obstacle for finding employment in Lancaster, Harder says, is transportation. Lancaster is a sprawling city, and public transportation is sparse. So far, the three Meskhetian families are sharing one car.

Svonidze says he is happy with the arrangements his family has been provided with so far. For the next year or two, he plans to stay with his family in the house they now rent.

But he says he also dreams of a house of his own and a return to his "real" job -- a wrestling coach.