Coronavirus: a year after tornado devastation, Covid-19 hurts Ohio's Ahiska Turks

After losing livelihoods to last year's storm, the Turkic migrants now stare at prolonged misery

Ruslan Kilich's family-run transport company suffered massive infrastructural damage in a tornado last year, and now it is suffering again from the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic. Stephen Starr for The National
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For Zukhra Salamova, co-owner of Rasul’s Turkish Delights restaurant in Dayton, Ohio, it’s been a difficult few months.

Last Wednesday was the first day her restaurant’s doors opened in months and footfall has been scant since. “Maybe people don’t know that we’re open again,” says Ms Salamova, who is an Ahiska Turk. She emigrated with her family from the Krasnodar region of Russia to Ohio in 2006 and now runs the only authentic Caucasian eatery in the region.

Ms Salamova estimates that business at the restaurant, which opened in 2015 and serves shawarma, kebabs and lagman (a Central Asian dish of pulled noodles), is down 80 per cent.

Restaurants across Ohio were allowed to only sell takeaway until May 15 because of the pandemic, but Ms Salamova and her husband Rasul didn’t want to take any chances and stayed closed.

For Dayton’s 2,500-strong Ahiska Turk community it is just the latest blow after a tornado destroyed several of their freight and furniture businesses in May last year.

The National reported on the community following the tornado as their livelihoods lay severely damaged around them.

The stateless, ethnically Turkic group fled sectarian violence in Russia in the 2000s and later, war in eastern Ukraine after 2014 for sanctuary in the US. Many were settled in Dayton through an official refugee programme, but some moved from other parts of the US because of the low cost of living and to maintain their community bonds.

Over the past decade, they have come to be considered a migrant success story and have been welcomed by the city in part for their work renovating derelict buildings and for establishing a robust transport industry.

Zukhra Salamova's Rasul’s Turkish Delights restaurant in Dayton, Ohio. Stephen Starr / The National

Rasul's Turkish Delights did attract customers from all over the region and while business pre-virus was never overwhelming, its owners enjoyed a steady stream of customers. But now, like the community’s other restaurants, barber shops and haulage businesses, the economic fallout from coronavirus has hit hard.

Following an initial, short-lived rise in demand for services at the onset of the crisis in March, the transport industry has been hammered by falling shipping prices. Though diesel prices remain low, the increasing number of retail and other businesses that are folding is bad news for transport companies.

For Ruslan Kilich, whose haulage warehouse and lorry fleet – a two-minute drive from Ms Salamova’s restaurant – were almost wiped out by last year’s tornado, things are difficult.

“When gas prices are cheap, [shipping] rates are low, too,” he said.

“If there’s no load, there’s no point sending your lorry 2,000 miles just to come back empty.”

Since several of his employees are from New York, the hot spot of the US’s Covid-19 outbreak, Mr Kilich has also lost part of his workforce as they have chosen to remain there with their families.

Ms Salamova estimates that business at the restaurant, which opened in 2015 and serves shawarma, kebabs and lagman, is down 80 per cent. Stephen Starr / The National

His company is yet to receive compensation for the damage caused by last year’s tornado, and the warehouse remains under construction. He suffered damage to seven trailers and eight lorries, while the roof and much of the furniture store was destroyed.

Now, local municipal offices are still shut due to the pandemic, meaning city engineers and architects can’t work and that in turn affects his business.

Aliser Bektash’s furniture store in north Dayton was also partially destroyed by last year’s tornado. He is now selling his wares from a warehouse and business is failing to recover as a host of weddings have been cancelled this year, meaning fewer couples are moving in together and demand for home furniture has plummeted.

He says he is now also thousands of dollars out of pocket from the non-returnable fees attached to a loan application, which has been stalled due to the pandemic.

Migrant workers like Ms Salamov frequently work in jobs such as hospitality and healthcare putting them on the front line when it comes to exposure to the virus.

A growing number of reports suggest immigrants are also fearful of reaching out to health authorities and other official organisations due to the government’s increasingly anti-immigrant stance, which could adversely affect their health.

Though Covid-19 fatalities in Dayton’s Montgomery county have remained relatively low, according to community leaders, several Ahiska Turk men have contracted the virus – thankfully, they recovered.

Still grappling with the fear they faced in the wake of the tornado, Ms Salamova’s family now face the worry of starting a new life all over again.

“Maybe someone comes here to buy something, catches the virus and blames us,” she said. With the difficulties the community is facing, coupled with her children now being grown up and setting out on new lives, Ms Salamova said the restaurant is likely to be sold soon.

It will leave a gaping hole in the heart of a neighbourhood that’s struggled to get back on its feet.