Turkish culture rebuilds in the Gem City
By Tammy Newsom
Photo: The Turkish American Society Organization hosts Abrahamic Traditions Dinners to facilitate interfaith dialogue
Dayton is a special commonplace. Many Turks came to this country in fear of judgment from non-Muslims. What they found instead was a receptive community. Coming from both Russia and Turkey, Turks brought a similar heritage to begin a new era of openness, or glasnost, to Dayton.
Turkish citizens began emigrating from Turkey to the U.S. steadily in the 1940s, investing wealth and diversity throughout California, New York, New Jersey and Chicago, Ill. Up to 3,000 Turks emigrate annually to the U.S. – a rate that has created a need for such groups as Dayton’s Turkish American Society Organization (TASO). According to Director Ozgur Ozey, the Turkish American Alliance (TAA), of which TASO is a member, assists all Turkish groups regardless of their background, acclimate to American life.
Originating from Georgia and Russia, just north of the Turkish border, the Ahiska Turks share a combined 300-year history with Turkish citizens, and beg little difference in language, culture and customs. By all accounts, these two groups – the Ahiskans and those from Turkey – are brothers.
However, conditions that brought each group to the Gem City varied greatly. In 1944, Joseph Stalin deported some 100,000 Ahiska (also called Meskhetian) Turks from Georgia to Central Asia – primarily Russia’s Uzbekistan region – in an effort to redistribute wealth.
Forty percent died from extreme cold during the deportation of November 1944. When communism fell in Europe in 1989, local authorities, such as the Kremlin and the Krasnodar, blamed the surviving deportees for the region’s socioeconomic meltdown.
“In Russia, Turks would be beaten up or denied opportunities,” said Ahiska Turkish American Community Center (ATACC) President Isolom Shakhbandarov. “No State ID was allowed because they were denied citizenship. One could not own or sell anything. The old Soviet documents would not allow Ahiska Turks to immigrate, or go to school. If one had to drive a car he or she would have to bribe authorities to proceed. Life was hell every single day.”
Although a few Ahiska Turkish were able to migrate safely to nearby Turkey and obtain citizenship status after the Russian army invaded Aberjan in 1992, continuous reports of human rights offenses poured into the U.N. Security Council.
“When the Soviet Union was unraveling and going to hell in Central Asia, the Ahiska Turks were killed and persecuted,” said Adil Baguirov, Dayton Board of Education and ATACC member. “There were some that attempted to go back home, but the Georgian houses had long been occupied by other owners.”
Displacement and other abuses so moved the U.N., the Ahiska Turks were awarded refugee status in 2004 and began migrating to the U.S. from Central Asia. Unlike immigrants, refugees were given small loans, Medicaid and food stamps to travel to America. According to Shakhbandarov, the Ahiska Turks had no choice but to come to America.
“The U.S. granted us refugee status to save us,” he said.
City of New Neighbors
Since 2004, the city of Dayton has welcomed around 530 Turkish families, both immigrant and refugee. Dayton was chosen due to low-cost housing, accessibility to Interstate Highways 71, 75 and 77, lakes, rivers and airports. Between 50-60 percent of community members found work in the trucking business. Some families set up small businesses. “The American dream is that one can reach success with a right mind and hard work,” Shakhbandarov said.
The Turks have renovated more than 500 buildings within their own communities. According to Ozey, immigrants purchased these abandoned properties in Old North Dayton, on streets near Stanley and Webster, Linden and Riverside for $5,000-10,000 and remodeled them for as little as $15,000- $20,000 in material cost. The fraternity among these two communities has generated thousands of dollars of revenue for the city and has beautified dwellings in its wake.
Dayton officials, including former Mayor Gary Leitzell, have urged the ATACC, “Send more immigrants.”
“The U.S. is a great country, however, the power that controls most of the world needs to be up to date,” Shakhbandarov said. “More than 50 percent of Americans don’t understand international arenas. This is the best government – the best democracy – in the world and voter turnout is extremely low. The presidential elections only showed a 60 percent voter turnout. Voting is how we control our government.
“Immigrants are very humble and appreciative of the U.S. – to be able to finally leave those problems behind,” he added.
The ATACC came together with the TASO and AATS in support of a mutual agenda. “Martial arts, soccer, wrestling and cultural activities groups have formed, which are great examples for integration,” Shakhbandarov said.
Other TASO events, such as the annual Abrahamic Traditions Dinner, are held to facilitate interfaith dialogue. Additionally, the TASO has sponsored 11 annual student trips to Turkey.
Turkish Americans came to embrace equal opportunities in Ohio and the Midwest, otherwise closed to them in native Russia and Turkey. They came to rediscover their roots, culture and core values through other immigrants and, simultaneously, helped to rebuild and revitalize the Greater Dayton region.
“Basically, the best days are ahead,” Baguirov said.
The ATACC is located at 1305 E. Fifth Street. For more information call 937.760.8029, or visit ataccdayton.org. The TASO and sister organization AATS are located at 2601 E. Fourth Street. For more information please call 937.723.8845 or visit tasodayton.org and daats.org.
Reach DCP freelance writer Tammy Newsom at TammyNewsom@DaytonCityPaper.com.