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Chechens in U.S. feel shame, fear over Boston bombing

Boston Marathon Bombing (2013)Tamerlan TsarnaevDzhokhar TsarnaevImmigration

When Albina Digaeva, a Chechen who was granted political asylum in the United States, first learned that the Boston bombing suspects were from Chechnya, she called the California family who initially put her up when she arrived 15 years ago and apologized.

A member of the host family that originally hailed from Boston "tried to calm me down and said I can't claim responsibility for the actions of two individuals," said Digaeva, who now lives in Los Angeles and doesn't know the two brothers suspected in the bombing.

But Digaeva wasn't soothed. The possibility that people from her homeland — Muslims, like her — had attacked her adopted country, killing four individuals and maiming dozens of others, shook her to the core.

Chechens make up a tiny, disconnected proportion of America's immigrants. An estimated several hundred are spread throughout the country, including Maryland, with most coming here to escape the violence they experienced at home through years of fighting for independence from Russia.

Then the terror followed them with this month's bombing.

"I do feel embarrassed and I do feel responsible and I do want to apologize, even though that wouldn't bring back those lost lives or those lost parts of the injured," Digaeva said. "The least I could do is say that as a Chechen, I'm very, very sorry."

The disgrace she feels is shared by other ethnic Chechens who have taken asylum here from their war-torn state on the southern border of the Russian Federation. Several Chechens now residing in Maryland declined to be interviewed, citing embarrassment or trepidation about being identified publicly, according to several organizations working with the community in the U.S.

"They're just afraid," said Glen Howard, president of the Jamestown Foundation, a Washington think tank founded years ago to support Soviet dissidents, but which claims no political agenda today.

According to federal authorities, 26-year-old Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who was killed during a shootout with police, and his 19-year-old brother Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who is facing federal charges, detonated two bombs at the Boston Marathon's finish line April 15, which killed three, and the subsequent shooting death of a college security guard.

The brothers came to America in 2003 after fleeing Russia's troubled Caucasus region with their families. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev told investigators that the bombing was motivated by his older brother's anger over U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"Most likely somebody radicalized them," Ruslan Tsarni, one of the brothers' two uncles living in Montgomery County, told reporters last week. He added that his nephews "put a shame on the entire Chechen ethnicity." Another uncle who lives in the same neighborhood also offered regrets.

Some Chechens living in the U.S. fear reprisals for speaking out, that they'll be targeted by the American government or angry residents who believe all Muslims are radicals. Others worry their relatives back home will be negatively affected by the attention. And still others just want to avoid the spotlight.

The bombing and fallout has "traumatized these people," said Howard.

Before the bombing, they lived in relative obscurity.

Between 200 and 1,000 Chechens live in the United States, according to unofficial counts by aid organizations. Official numbers are hard to come by: Chechens are lumped in with Russians on U.S. asylee reports.

They're spread throughout the country, with individuals settling in Seattle, New York, Boston and the D.C. metropolitan area — home to about 30 Chechens, according to Howard.

They don't network, nor seek one another out, say those who work with the immigrants. Some feel far removed from Chechnya, having moved to the United States after living in another country, while others have simply assimilated into American life.

"This isn't really a community, it's just a bunch of people who live here," said Almut Rochowanski, a founder of the Chechnya Advocacy Network, a nonprofit organization raising awareness of human rights and other issues in and around Chechnya.

The territory, which borders Georgia, has a centuries-long history of resisting repressive Russian rule. After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Chechen separatists again sought independence in two movements known as the first and second Chechen wars. Russia fought back fiercely, and tens of thousands died.

The battles with Russia have largely come to define Chechens, a mostly Muslim group with its own language and customs, according to the University of Maryland's Center for International Development and Conflict Management, a research center focusing on preventing conflict around the world.

"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

twitter.com/triciabishop

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