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Fearing Religious Persecution, Crimea's Muslim Tatars Flee The New Russia

St. George’s Cathedral, in Lviv
St. George’s Cathedral, in Lviv
André Eichhofer

LVIV — There’s a commotion in Room 312 of Lviv’s social services department, where over 50 Crimean Tatars are crowded into the small space — families with children, older married couples, students. All of them fled Crimea in March and headed for this western Ukrainian city.

They’re now in the concrete block near St. George’s Cathedral, which houses the welfare office, to find out how to receive benefits, how to register as residents, and even how to get an Internet connection. A woman is handing out forms. Somebody is texting on their cell phone. A baby screams.

Since Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula, more than 500 ethnic Tatars have fled to Lviv. Some left their homeland out of fear of political persecution, others for religious reasons. In Lviv, the Muslim Tatars have been warmly welcomed, but they are not receiving financial help from the state. Many of them are helping one other find places to live and have forged bonds in their struggles with bureaucracy.

In the hallway of the welfare office stands Ismail Ayubov, 33, who came to Lviv with his wife and two children in March. He’s a bearded religious man who left Crimea out of fear of religious persecution. “It can be dangerous for Muslims in Russia,” he says, adding that he’s not a fundamentalist like many Tatars who are members of the radical Hisb ut-Tahrir organization.

“I was afraid of the armed militias,” says another man, Enver Mohammed. Since the majority of Crimeans approved the annexation by referendum in March, the Tatars have faced an uncertain future, Mohammed says. More than 300,000 Tatars live in Crimea, and fewer than 1,000 have left their homeland so far. “Many don’t want to leave their life behind,” says the 28-year-old Mohammed. Anyway, “the referendum was a farce,” he says.

The Kremlin and the self-appointed Crimean government under Prime Minister Sergey Aksionov have repeatedly said they want to protect the rights of the Tatars. The Crimean Constitution of April 12 lists official languages as Russian, Ukrainian and Crimean Tatar. Aksionov’s deputy Rustam Temirgaliev is even Tatar.

But anybody who criticizes the self-appointed Crimean government will feel Moscow’s disapproval. Aksionov’s government recently refused Tatar leader Mustafa Dzhemilev entry to Crimea. The 70-year-old parliamentarian was the chairman of the Mejlis, the Crimean Tatar assembly, and when the former Soviet dissident criticized Russia’s annexation of Crimea, he was punished with a five-year entry ban.

Thousands of Crimean Tatars demonstrated against the entry ban last weekend at the Crimean border town of Armyansk, which led to scuffles with police. The peninsula’s Chief Prosecutor General Natalia Poklonska threatened Monday to dissolve the Mejlis and initiate criminal proceedings against the demonstrators.

Tatars helping Tatars

“Russia supposedly wants to protect minorities, but they’re only pretending,” says 25-year-old Alim Aliev, who supports the Tatars in Lviv. Along with about 60 other activists, he helps find them places to live, collects money, and assists them with filling out forms.

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In Lviv — Photo: Johnny

Aliev himself is a Crimean Tatar and has been living in Lviv for six years. When militias turned up in the streets of the Crimean capital Simferopol in March, Aliev created the Crimean SOS Facebook page. “We wanted to fight Russian propaganda and inform people about what was going on in Crimea and Kiev,” he says.

Most of the peninsula’s residents were getting information about Ukraine only from Moscow. They traveled little and didn’t know how things were in Kiev and Lviv. “They believe that a radical right-wing junta is in power in Ukraine,” Aliev says.

As the crisis escalated, the activists went a step further. They smuggled in protective jackets and food for the Ukrainian soldiers locked up in Crimean barracks. “We hid the things on freight trains heading for Crimea,” the Maidan activist relates. Helpers fetched the goods at the final station and snuck them into the military bases.

The activists later set up several emergency numbers for Crimean refugees and helped organize their moves to Lviv. “People get here and haven’t got a clue about what the next steps are,” Aliev says.

Some of the refugees are living in poverty in villages near the city. “We don’t have a bath or running water,” Mohammed complains. The refugees get no financial help from the state, yet Mohammed says he can’t access his bank account (his bank card has been blocked since the annexation) and has to live on whatever money people dole out.

A city employee explains that Lviv’s municipal administration has its hands tied. According to international laws, the Tatars are not refugees — they’re Ukrainian citizens, which is why the Geneva Convention on Refugees doesn’t apply.

Crimean Tatars already have suffered expulsion from the Soviet Union. Because some members of the minority collaborated with the Germans during World War II, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin had all Tatars deported to Central Asia in 1944. Ayubov, Aliev and Mohammed grew up in Uzbekistan before moving with their families to Crimea in the 1990s.

Ayubov and Aliev says that people in Lviv have been very friendly and welcoming, and there have been no language barriers. Although most people here speak Ukrainian, “nobody finds it amiss if I speak Russian,” Ayubov says. Having studied Turkish and Arabic in Istanbul, he’s been making ends meet by doing translations.

To earn a living, other Crimean Tatars have opened kiosks and shops, Aliev says. “One family even runs a café downtown,” he says.

It bothers Ayubov that there aren’t any mosques in Lviv, which is why he wants to go back home as soon as he can. “But only when Crimea is again governed by Ukraine,” he says. So he’s preparing to spend a long time in exile — an exile that, strictly speaking, isn’t one.

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