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Marathon Bombers' Refugee Roots Shed Light on Trajectories

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DZHOKHAR TSARNAEV
AP

Many classmates, friends, and family members of Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev have expressed shock in the accusations against the Chechen-born brothers who are suspected to be responsible for the Boston Marathon bombing. This is especially true in the case of Dzhokhar, who appeared to be well integrated in American culture compared to his older brother, Tamerlan. How is it that two brothers from the same origins had such very different experiences of enculturation into the U.S. and how did their trajectories eventually converge to create such mass destruction?

While many of the details of their migration experience have been made public, together they provide us with a significant understanding of how much it was affected by their refugee status. The Tsarnaev family entered the U.S. as refugees or involuntary immigrants who were forced to seek asylum. Hence, the brothers' age and psychological development at the time of arrival in the U.S., previous experiences in their country of origin, and refugee status provide clues into their varying levels of incorporation in their new home and how their different paths ultimately converged.

Dzhokhar was eight years old and Tamerlan was 15 when they arrived in the U.S. Both brothers became involved in sports, attended a mosque on Prospect Street, and enrolled in Cambridge Rindge and Latin School -- perhaps the most culturally accepting secondary school in the nation. In this environment, Dzhokhar thrived. Emigrating at a young age, he attended schools with the same friends he grew up with, gradually lost his accent, and became a well-liked and respected student. On the other hand, Tamerlan emigrated as a teenager, arguably the most difficult age of transition for adolescents. Although he became an excellent boxer according to his trainers in Lowell, he never lost his accent and his English was difficult to understand, opening himself up to discrimination.

Refugees are often from areas where conflict is historically embedded and marked in ideology and injustice. The Tsarnaev family emigrated from the Chechen diaspora in Kyrgzstan, a region Stalin deported the Chechens to in 1943. After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1991, Chechens engaged in a battle for independence from Russia that led to the Tsarnaevs' petition for refugee status in the early 2000s. While Dzhokhar was only a child during this strife, Tamerlan experienced that civil conflict as an adolescent, shaping his identity as participant in the conflict. Once in the U.S., Tamerlan could not find kinship with American youth who are naïve about civil armed struggles. As he posted on Facebook, he did not understand Americans and had no friends. Americans often assumed that they were Russian, forcing the brothers to clarify that they were actually Chechen. Being confused with the offender, Russia, may have caused young Dzhokhar's curiosity about his Chechen heritage, but it likely enraged Tamerlan in a cumulative alienating manner.

Unlike typical immigrants, refugee status provides a legal path to citizenship, even though refugees suffer from a "refugee deficit" which causes them to feel a sense of obligation to the struggle they escaped from while trying to integrate into a new country. As he grew older, Dzhokhar continued his acculturation in Cambridge and attained American citizenship. On the other hand, Tamerlan was arrested for domestic violence, which curtailed his application for U.S. citizenship. He got married and intensified his relationship to Islam, culminating in a six-month trip to Russia in 2012. His family did not agree with his radicalization. His actions landed the attention of the Russian government, which contacted the FBI, but nothing came of this.

The parents moved back to Russia in 2011 and left the young son alone with his older, radicalizing brother whom he admired. Their different trajectories converged and while Tamerlan died in the confrontation, he left his younger brother alone to face the consequences.

As a nation, we can learn from this tragedy and develop policies specifically directed at refugees whose human rights have been violated and who have the migratory transition in midst of their adolescence and identity development. We must begin to provide psychological services that include exposure to pro-social networks offering opportunities for support and leverage that will lead towards integration, not isolation. Failure to act preventively ensures the possibility that these youths will continue to keep orbiting around conflict with potential consequences for us all.