Waving flags of green and gold and wearing the traditional clothing of their ancestors, a small band of Circassians from North Jersey is gathering in London this weekend as the Summer Olympics shift into full swing.
They won’t be taking in the sporting events. Instead, they will join about 250 others to protest the location of the next Winter Olympics — a year and a half from now in Sochi, Russia — and also bring attention to the plight of Circassians now living in Syria and caught in that country’s civil war.
“This is our chance to really tell the world what happened to us and the true history of what Sochi is all about,” said Dana Wojokh of Little Falls, “because you are not going to find it anywhere else.”
The 25-year-old Wojokh was one of eight who congregated in Totowa this week before embarking on their mission. They are among about 5,000 in North Jersey – mostly from Wayne, Haledon, Prospect Parkand Hawthorne — who make up the largest Circassian cluster in the United States. Like many other ethnic groups that add to the unique quality of the area, the Circassians retain their traditions, and mostly live in obscurity.
But when Sochi was picked to host the 2014 Winter Olympics, many of the 5 million to 7 million Circassians worldwide made their voices known, saying their ancestors were massacred on the same hill where skiing events will be held.
Circassians use the word “genocide” when talking about their surviving ancestors, whom they say were exiled from their homeland situated between the Black Sea and the Caucasus Mountains — nearly 150 years ago by the Russian army. The Russian government has said there was no genocide, and the historian Walter Richmond says the Russians contend that the Circassians who left the Caucasus migrated on their own for religious reasons.
Most of the Circassians ended up in Turkey, with large groups also in Syria, Jordan and Germany. Historians say many from the Golan Heights, who were driven out by the Israelis in 1967, settled inPaterson — at the invitation of the U.S government.
Richmond, the director of Russian studies at Occidental College in Los Angeles, said a country called Circassia can be seen in old maps, and it was internationally recognized as a nation, until it was destroyed in the 1860s. Another historian said the Circassians can be traced to the 8th century B.C. and even participated in early Olympic Games.
The Russians, Richmond said, have argued the nation never existed.
Richmond, who has written about Circassian history, said they are unrelated to Russians and that their language is different from most in that region. Islam is their traditional religion.
“They are a unique people,” he said.
In North Jersey, Circassians are close-knit with “everyone knowing everyone,” members said. They have formed several civic groups and have also organized ceremonies commemorating Circassian Memorial Day. In Prospect Park, residents also elected Will Kubofcik, who is of Circassian descent, mayor in the late 1990s.
Many of the younger generations raised in New Jersey have learned the Circassian language, and elders, known as thamadas, have passed along their stories through oral histories, they said. Many have also kept in touch with distant relatives around the world.
Zack Barsik, president of the Circassian Cultural Institute in Totowa, said his mother was born in Syria, and as a youngster he spent many of his summers in Damascus, where family members still live today.
After fighting broke out in Syria, he said, some Circassians there requested repatriation to Russia, but many have been denied.
“The right of return is our No.1 demand,” said Barsik, who didn’t make the London trip but helped organize it. “Circassians have the right to return to their homeland without any obstacles or difficulties.”
Richmond said that since the start of the Syrian civil war a few hundred people have been allowed to return to Russia.
“What Russia is doing is allowing a token number to come in so they can tell the international community, ‘See we are allowing them to repatriate,’ when in fact the number of people who are asking to come in is much greater,” he said.
The Russian Embassy in Washington didn’t answer requests seeking comment on Syria or the Winter Olympics. But in March, according to news reports, the senator for the North Caucasus republic of Kabardino-Balkaria proposed changes to Russian immigration laws to help expedite the return of Syrian Circassians. The Russian authorities have not yet approved the proposal.
On Saturday, the North Jersey contingent will be among those marching in a parade in London, alongside several other organizations protesting some aspect of the Olympics. Before or after the parade, Circassians will be allowed to speak and bring attention to their causes, they said.
The next day, they will head to Sochi Park Pavilion in Kensington Gardens with signs, urging a boycott of the Russian Games.
“We have every intention to tell people what is going on,’’ said Tamara Barsik, 29, of Haledon. “People ask me if I’m scared because there will be so much security. But I’m not scared because I’m going to be telling the truth.”
Wojokh said that her ancestors’ past suffering is always with them.
“This is something that we live every day,” she said, “because we haven’t been able to reconcile with our past, and we haven’t really been able to plan a proper future for us and our nation.”
The group will return Monday, but members said they plan to continue their campaign back home.
“Time is not running out; we still have two years, and we will make progress,’’ said Shan Kadkoy, 26, ofWayne.
Andrew Mitchell, spokesman for the International Olympic Committee, said in an email that during the bidding process the organization invited any group with objections to a particular host city to request a meeting with the Evaluation Commission, the panel responsible for visiting candidate cities and assessing their ability to host the games.
“As far as we know, we never received any request to meet with any Circassian group during the Evaluation Commission visit,’’ he wrote.
He said the Circassian culture will be part of Sochi’s Olympics but said he couldn’t provide details.