"They have a very strong warrior tradition that dates back centuries," reads an online assessment of Chechens in Russia, part of the center's research database of "minorities at risk."

Religion moved to the center of the battles in the 1990s, however, and some of the fighters took on the terrorist methods and beliefs of the Islamic jihadists, according to historians. Chechen groups are thought to have organized bombings that killed hundreds of people, including many children, according to the Council on Foreign Relations.

The terror links made the U.S. wary, said Howard, explaining why there are so few Chechens here. But Rochowanski said it's more a matter of logistics: Europe is closer and has a large Chechen population that draws others.

Tsarni, the Tsarnaevs' uncle, said Chechens are a "peaceful people" and tried to distance his nephews from Chechnya, saying they had never been to the territory. The young men and their parents came to the U.S. a decade ago from Dagestan, a neighboring Muslim republic.

"I respect this country, I love this country, this country which gives chance to everybody to be treated as a human being," Tsarni said.

Digaeva said the Chechen spirit is in line with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s legacy, making recent revelations that Tamerlan Tsarnaev caused a scene at a Massachusetts mosque by deriding a mosque preacher for praising the American hero particularly upsetting to her.

"It's heartbreaking," she said.

Digaeva, now 34, came to America to study when she was 20. The Second Chechen War prevented her from going back. She was granted asylum and became a U.S. citizen in 2010. She now studies architecture as a graduate student at California State Polytechnic University in Pomona in the hopes she can one day help rebuild her native land.

She's embraced the country and her role in it as an educator, studying Chechen history and Islam and teaching others about it in her time here.

She said it's her duty to speak to the public now, though her first instinct was to protect herself. In a subway the day of the bombings, she couldn't shake the feeling that she was being followed.

"It just triggered our past memories of living in Russia and also witnessing radical attacks, terror attacks, of some of the radical Chechens in Russia, targeting innocent lives," she said.

The Boston images stay with her. "A person who lost his two legs or other people who lost parts of their bodies, I just think of them, how their lives would be now. I also think of the brothers, how wasted their lives are," Digaeva said.

"If you don't agree with something, let's say the foreign policies of the U.S., there are so many different ways you can go with the legal systems of this country. It's a democratic society, it allows you to take different means of protesting, of giving your voice, of saying this is wrong," she said. "I just feel responsible and I feel sad."

tricia.bishop@baltsun.com

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