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From Russia with Love
Catholic Charities Provides A New Life for Muslim Family
By Brian Kosoy

A donated television sits on a table in the living room, one of the few pieces of furniture in the sparsely decorated apartment on Jacksonville’s Southside. Large Persian rugs decorate the living room floor and walls, some of the few possessions brought with the Muslim family from their distant mother country – a country that has been far from motherly to the family. The apartment may look quite modest to the average American, but for Tashpulat Mursalov and his family, it represents a fresh start on a new life filled with opportunity.

Helping them make the transition to America is John Fitzgerald and his team of volunteers at Catholic Charities’ Refugee Resettlement Program in Jacksonville.

The Catholic Charities program eagerly welcomed the family to Jacksonville in July and provided them with an apartment, furniture, clothing, food and living assistance. They also hired a Russian translator, Tatiana Eady, who has contact with the family almost daily.

The Mursalov’s are Meskhetian Turks, originally from Meskhetia in the southwest region of Georgia that borders Turkey, a group that has essentially been “stateless” for about 60 years.

In 1944, Josef Stalin deported about 100,000 Meskhetians to the Ferghana Valley in Uzbekistan, where hostilities among the Uzbeks, Afghans and Meskhetians grew over the years. In 1989, the violence among the groups escalated, leaving more than 100 people dead. The Meskhetians were then quickly relocated to western Russia under the assistance of the Soviet Army; so quickly, in fact, that the Meskhetians were unable to obtain the necessary documentation to relocate.

Most of the Meskhetian Turks migrated to the Krasnodar Krai, an area the size of Pennsylvania with fertile land for agriculture. Despite citizenship laws passed in 1991, 18,000 Meskhetians Turks are still denied their legal rights in this region and are routinely subject to government harassment. Because the group lacks official residence status, they are unable to hold formal jobs and have limited access to education and social services. Violence is also prevalent in the region, as corrupt local officials routinely victimize the Meskhetian Turks.

Meskhetian Turks are currently one of the largest groups of refugees approved for resettlement to the Unites States. By the end of this month, more than 8,000 Meskhetian Turks will be resettled in our country with another 12,000 expected to arrive next year.

Tashpulat Mursalov, 39, has been married to his wife, Gulbakhar, 41, for 16 years. They have two children: Ibrakhim, 14, and Narquzal, 12.

The family lived in Krasnodar, where Tashpulat worked on a tobacco farm and Gulbakhar produced and sold tomatoes. In Krasnodar, the family witnessed the horrors of persecution firsthand. They were afraid to leave their house, out of fear of being arrested for not having appropriate documentation – documentation that the government made all but impossible to obtain. Police would enter their house by force, demanding money; if the family had none, they would take furniture, appliances, or anything of value. They also witnessed the torture of women and children in the streets.

Tatiana Eady, right, a Russian-speaking translator employed by Catholic Charities, talks to the Mursalov family during an evening meal in the family’s Southside apartment. The famiy has “adopted” Eady as a member of the family, calling her “Auntie Tonya.”

“We think of the United States as a mother and father,” Tashpulat said through an interpreter. “We feel very welcome here and are very glad to be here. We would really like to thank Catholic Charities and everyone who has helped us feel so welcome.”

Tashpulat’s brother, Bakhtiver, lives in the same apartment complex in Jacksonville. Bakhtiver and his wife, Faranas, arrived Feb. 5 through the assistance of Lutheran Social Services.

While Tashpulat and Gulbakhar await Social Security cards before they can begin working, Bakhtiver and Faranas are already adapting well to their new country. Bakhtiver, a skilled homebuilder in his native country, works for a local contractor installing air conditioning units in new homes. Faranas works in the kitchen of the Hyatt Hotel in downtown Jacksonville, which has helped her learn some conversational English quickly.

Directing the Refugee Resettlement Program for the Diocese of Saint Augustine is John Fitzgerald, a retired Navy captain who began working for the diocese part-time in 1996.

What began as a project requiring two half-days a week for Fitzgerald has evolved into a fulltime position. In 1999, the program resettled about 20 refugees. In 2005, the program expects to resettle nearly 200.

And the cases are more complex. Fitzgerald says the program used to only assist refugees with family currently living in the United States, but now they work on “free cases,” where refugees have no sponsoring relatives living in the country. While the largest clientele of Catholic Charities are Cuban refugees, this summer the program also assisted families from Sierra-Leone, Liberia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. The diocese will also relocate an additional 40 families of Meskhetian Turks this year.

Despite the program’s exponential growth over the last several years, it operates on an annual budget of about $250,000 and relies heavily on donations from parishioners and volunteers. Donations are the lifeblood of the program, as for every dollar received, the federal government matches with a $1.85, up to $1,850 per person.

“While the contact [with the family] has been frequent in the first few weeks, that’s going to taper off and we will have to teach them how to do things on their own,” says Fitzgerald. “And that’s one area where we need a lot of help.” Many [of the refugees] have never had bank accounts, and some don’t even know how to shop for groceries. Our job is to teach them how to help themselves and make intelligent decisions.”

“We’re kind of like a way station on their journey to hope,” Fitzgerald says. “They have come from a long, long history of oppression. Most of the refugees see this as an opportunity for a new beginning, especially for their children,” he says.

According to Fitzergerald, the first generation usually has a hard time adjusting, because some of the stories they are told are grossly exaggerated as to how wonderful things are here. Once they adjust to the personal responsibility idea, that to earn and enjoy their freedom takes a lot of hard work, then they do fine. But it’s the second generation that really reaps the benefit,” he says.

As the Mursalov family adapts to their new country, they await the arrival of their remaining family members. Tashpulat and Gulbakhar will soon be employed and begin paying for their apartment. Their son Ibrakhim just began his freshman year at Englewood High School, while their daughter Narquzal attends Southside Middle School. Their lives have just begun. Finally, the Mursalov’s have a place to call home.

Volunteers are desperately needed to assist the workers at Catholic Charities. It is not necessary to speak a foreign language, and anyone can help. For information on how you can help welcome families to Jacksonville, call John Fitzgerald at (904) 354-4846, ext. 226 or email: