Chechen Asylum Seekers’ Flight From Fear
Thousands of people seek asylum in different places of the world each year. To mark “Refugee Week” (runs from 14-20 June), British newspaper Guardian meet a Chechen family who have built a new live in UK after escaping persecution in Chechnya.
Here is the story which appeared in Guardian with signature of Juliet Rix:
Within minutes of arriving at the Dzhavatkhanovs’ council house in east London, I have three kittens on my lap, tea, cake and four friendly people sitting round me: parents Tamara and Zelim, Kheda – a lively 11-year-old girl who wants to be an actor – and her brother, Hamzat, 17. Another brother, Zaurbek, 21, is busy upstairs. Over the next couple of hours we laugh a lot – despite the tale they have to tell.
The family is from Grozny, capital of Chechnya. Hamzat recalls “broken buildings, holes in the ground and bombing nearly every night”. They lived in a five-storey building, but the top three floors had been blown off. The Dzhavatkhanovs spent each night in the rat-infested basement. There was no running water, gas or electricity and Tamara had to cook on a makeshift fireplace she built outside.
Russian soldiers would come knocking (“or kicking”) at any time of day or night, Tamara says. Zelim had served two years in the Russian army but when one of the intruders spotted his old uniform hanging up, he accused Zelim of having killed a Russian soldier. “Every Chechen male aged 12 to 65 was considered a [likely] terrorist,” says Zelim.
“I was tortured and kept in a hole for three weeks.”
“It was just war, war – 13 years just crossed out of your life,” says Tamara.
On a sunny April day in 2001, just as they thought things might be calming down, Hamzat, then seven, was walking to school with two friends when he stepped on a landmine. His friends were killed and he had to have a leg amputated below the knee. Hamzat was still in hospital when the Russians attacked it. Tamara says: “I carried him and hid in a fireplace, covering him with my body. It was ping-ping – bullets flying everywhere.” Back at home, Hamzat was out on his crutches when a stranger approached. She was from Unicef, the United Nations Children’s Fund, and wanted to help Hamzat get a prosthetic leg. It was a three-day journey each way to the fittings and the first leg’s leather strap rubbed terribly and created painful blisters and friction burns. When he put the leg on to go to school, his mother says, “he groaned like an old man”. Well, says Hamzat indignantly, “think what I was going through!” He grins.
The charity Ccharm (Children of Chechnya Action Relief Mission) offered to take Hamzat to Britain for a proper artificial leg. At first Tamara was horrified – her little boy, going all that way. But soon Hamzat and his father were in London. When Hamzat’s treatment ended, Zelim applied for asylum. It took a year to get leave to remain and another year to bring the others over. It was hard for Tamara to leave: “I was torn. My mother was sick, but she said, ‘Go!'” Tamara arrived in Britain with no English and had to rely on Hamzat to translate. At first she was homesick, but when her mother died in 2008 and she went back for the funeral, she says: “I was so surprised – after two weeks I started to miss this country.”
She is now doing a catering course and Zelim has retrained as an electrician. Kheda is getting top grades, Zaurbek is at business college and Hamzat is doing AS levels. They feel now that out of Hamzat’s misfortune has come good luck for them all.
So where do they consider home? “I don’t know,” says Hamzat. “I don’t think I would fit in back home anymore so it can’t really be home.”
Tamara says it’s “60:40 – 60 here. I am very thankful for this country.”
And Zelim? “Here, of course,” he says with a grin. “I’m a Hackney boy.”
Note. Hamzat’s story is told in the Refugee Diary series for children by Anthony Robinson and Annemarie Young also.
12.06.2010 – The Guardian