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The Sochi Connection: The Winter Olympics and the Circassians

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On Sept. 29, 2013, the Olympic torch for the 2014 Winter Games was lit in Greece kicking off the torch's 65,000-kilometer journey to Sochi.

For most sport fans worldwide, this flame marks a celebratory moment of the world coming together in the spirit of "excellence", "friendship"; and "respect" -- core values of the Olympic Movement.

However, as this symbolic beacon of togetherness travels to the Caucasian coastal city, another flame is burning -- that of a Diaspora community, the Circassians, who called Sochi home before being ousted from it by Tsarist troops 150 years ago.

I am a descendent. This is my Sochi connection.

Like many Jordanians and other Middle Easterners of Circassian origin, I have neither visited Sochi nor other parts of the Northwestern Caucuses, the motherland of the Circassians. However, like other minorities across the region, I associate with my ethnic identity and all it embodies in history and culture.

Loyal to the countries they have migrated to in the late 19th century (then the Ottoman Empire), the Circassians have gently worked to preserve their cultural heritage through the magical folkloric dance, music and to a much lesser extent the language. In Jordan, for example, multiple Circassian cultural and charitable organizations have been set up as early as 1932.

However, the Circassian Diaspora have chosen to stay away from the convoluted politics of the Caucuses and remained largely "invisible" and "quiescent" across time, as Professor John Colarusso, an expert on the Caucuses, notes. And with time, Circassia's tragic saga was rendered a missing chapter from world history.

History Untold

The ancestral homeland of the Circassians is Northwest Caucasia (between the Black Sea to the west, Caucasus Mountains to the south, Ukraine to the north and Chechnya to the east).

Having lived in this homeland for millennia, the Circassians encountered many peoples of different cultures and ethnicities, maintaining relative quietude and peace from the Middle Ages up to the 17th century. Amjad Jaimoukha, a Jordanian Circassian scholar notes that towards the end of the 16th century, "Russia began to push south towards the northern steppes of the Caucasus in a process of gradual encroachments," until the first quarter of the 19th century when Russian troops "embarked on a vicious war of attrition," which the Circassians resisted courageously for 35 years, despite their meager resources, "until the last battle was fought and lost in 1864."

More than 800,000 lost their lives and over a million were forced out of their homeland, making this exodus "one of the greatest mass movements of population in modern history" according to Paul Henz, American scholar and former diplomat.

Today, most Circassians live outside of the Caucuses, in Jordan, Syria, Turkey, Israel, some parts of Europe and the United States.

The Awakening

When in July 2007, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) chose Sochi as the host city for the 2014 Winter Olympics, the Circassian core was awakened, worldwide, in sentiments and in actions. Thanks to the Internet and social media in particular, Circassians started to come together, united in their fury toward the Games.

Choosing Sochi for the games "could not have been better designed to bring these scattered peoples together in outrage," writes Colarusso.

"Sochi triggered something in all of us. It was about identity, particularly for the youth, the driving force behind the No Sochi movement," recounts Tamara Barsik, a New Jersey Circassian and founding member of the No Sochi Committee, during her current Amman visit.

"Shortly after the announcement, we started connecting with Circassian organizations in Turkey, namely the Kafkas Forum, and organized our first demonstrations in Istanbul and New York City to not only protest the games but also to raise awareness on the Circassian tragedy," she adds.

With time, other Circassian communities and organizations in Jordan, Turkey, and elsewhere were mobilizing their own peaceful protests and eventually led to the creation of the No Sochi Committee in 2010 which then sent peaceful protesting delegations to the Vancouver Winter Games and later to the 2011 London Olympics.

This Circassian awakening or "Renaissance" as Tamara calls it, also included dynamic efforts to connect and work with academia, human rights organizations, and the media to be aware of and acknowledge the Circassian tragedy of 1864. Circassian delegations began lobbying the U.S. Congress, Parliaments of the European Union, Canada, Georgia, Latvia, Estonia and elsewhere to officially recognize the tragic Circassians exodus.

But beyond the political activism that Sochi set in motion is the rise of a strong sense of solidarity amongst Circassians in different parts of the Diaspora. No Sochi evolved into more than just a global protest of the Games.

As the conflict in Syria escalated last year, the 25 Circassian organizations involved with No Sochi shifted their resources, both human and financial, to protect and repatriate the Circassians in Syria into Turkey and Jordan.

"This was our humanitarian calling. We put the brakes on the Sochi issue and focused on the now," expressed Tamara. "The Syrian conflict set off another dimension of the Circassian campaign, that as a minority our struggle continues, being displaced yet once again. We have to work together," she asserts.

Sochi Calling

Today, as the Sochi Olympics approach, Circassians seem to be carrying their own torch -- one that symbolizes not only their ancestry's "bitter" past, but also their "sweet" and hopefully more promising future.

The IOC, keen on safeguarding the universality of the Games have indicated in an email exchange that it is their understanding that "elements of Circassian culture are already part of Sochi's 2014 cultural festival." If that truly is the case, it is a step forward.

This is far from being recognition of the Circassian tragedy of 1864. It is also far from what the Circassians deserve; the right of return or at the very least a recognition of that right by Russia and the international community.

The Circassian Renaissance has only just begun and will hopefully continue. We all have a responsibility to uphold our identity and ensure, in spirit, words, and peaceful actions that our past and present are recognized and respected.

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