A site for new eyes

The Baltimore Sun

A woman stands holding up two loaves of Turkish bread. A little girl in a hot pink headscarf and yellow jeweled top smiles broadly. And a wall hanging of Mecca and Medina flashes on the screen as 14-year-old Myra Illysova explains, "It's a symbol of Muslims. Every Muslim house has one."

The pictures provide glimpses of the lives of these Meskhetian Turk refugees from Russia, now high school students who belong to Baltimore City Community College's Refugee Youth Project.

For the past four days, the 20 students have documented their lives and resettlement as part of a photo camp run by National Geographic, one of 10 camps across the world this year that focused on young refugee populations.

The 12- to 17-year-olds snapped photos in city neighborhoods like Highlandtown and Little Italy and then their own neighborhood, which for most is Milbrook Park Apartments, a Pikesville apartment complex.

"This whole thing is about storytelling and giving children a voice," said Kirsten Elstner, director of the photography project, which began in 2003. "How do you tell your experience?"

Yesterday was the culmination of the four-day program, which took place in the Southeast Anchor Library in Highlandtown. Teams of five students edited their pictures - nearly 2,000 for most teams - down to 15 to be presented to the group.

Most said it was a welcoming and eye-opening experience similar to the ones they've experienced since settling in this country during the past two years.

Thousands of Meskhetian Turk refugees began resettling in the United States during the past few years, including more than 100 in the Baltimore area. Most families have faced generations of displacement and ethnic discrimination in Turkey and the former Soviet Union.

After World War II, most Meskhetian families were deported from Georgia to Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. Many have fled to escape ethnic discrimination, moving to other former Soviet republics and the United States.

All the Baltimore students and their families came from Russia, where they said they lived as second-class citizens. In a writing exercise at the start of the camp, the students reflected on their lives.

"We had to go because in Russia people didn't want us there because we're Muslims," one student wrote.

"In Russia I dreamed about becoming a doctor but it was impossible because I was Turkish," wrote another.

Most of the students knew little to no English when they moved here. Now almost all them are nearly fluent.

Yesterday, Turkish and Russian phrases filled the room. And students talked of how their lives have improved since moving to the United States.

Farida Zavutatze, 18, is an 11th-grader at Owings Mills High School. She moved here with her family from Russia about two years ago.

Zavutatze is one of the few students who covered her hair with a decorated headscarf. In Russia, her headscarf would elicit cruel comments, she said. "Some of the Russian people, some of them were not good," she said. "They called us black because of our religion. They don't like Muslim people. They just don't like us."

"Here, people, they don't mind what are you dressing. In Russia, they're going to be laughing at me," she said.

Myra Illysova, 14, and her sister Nigara, 12, live with their family in Dundalk. The girls said they grew up in Uzbekistan and then Russia for two years before moving to Baltimore 1 1/2 years ago.

"We want to learn a new language and to follow our dreams," Nigara said.

"In the beginning we had so much hard times because of the language," Myra said.

Now they enjoy their life. Myra wants to learn Spanish, as many of her friends at Patterson Park High School are Hispanic.

The sisters took lots of pictures of their family and neighborhood and the Turkish items in their house, from a decorative teacup their grandmother gave their mother when she got married, to a small bag with an "evil eye" on it that is supposed to protect their family, to the Turkish food their mother cooked.

"My favorite picture is in my house with my family," Myra said. "They're all happy. I like to freeze that moment."

Ibragim Zavutatze, 15, moved here in December 2005.

"In Russia, I couldn't do the stuff like I'm doing here," the Owings Mills High School student said.

He said he enjoyed taking pictures of his family and him playing billiards. His family looks happy in the pictures, he said.

"Pictures never lie," he said. "For me, pictures never lie."


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