Ohio’s Ahiska Turks spend Eid reeling from tornado
The community is one of the biggest immigrant success stories in America’s Midwest in recent years
The yard of Ruslan Kilich’s Dayton, Ohio trucking company, SAR Express, is an apocalyptic scene. The left side of the company’s warehouse has been torn away and its huge steel girders lifted clean from the ground. Lengths of metal and insulation litter the concrete forecourt where trucks and trailers lie shredded and smashed. Outside on the street, a crew of utility workers dumps mangled electricity poles – snapped like toothpicks – into a dumpster.
“Seven trailers and eight trucks have been damaged; three drivers were on site when it hit,” says Kilich, a member of the ethnic minority Ahiska Turk community who immigrated from Russia in 2009. “My office is not usable; the insurance assessors came but we’re looking at six, seven, eight months before we’re back to normal. But thank God, no one was killed here.”
The outbreak of eight twisters that touched down around western Ohio late on May 27 killed one person and injured hundreds. Thousands of properties have been destroyed or damaged. The most powerful, an EF-4 tornado (EF-5 being the most destructive) about a kilometre wide and backed by gusts of 320 kph, left a trail of destruction through swathes of Old North Dayton, an area where many Ahiska Turk families live and work.
Also known as Meskhetian Turks, Ahiska Turks originate from the border regions of Turkey and Georgia and have been victimised for generations. Thousands were deported in train wagons from their homeland to Central Asia by Soviet leader Josef Stalin in the winter of 1944, with many dying from exposure along the way.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, they fled pogroms in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan for Ukraine and Russia, but conflicts there in the 1990s and more recently saw them forced to flee once more, mainly to the US and Turkey.
Dayton's Ahiska Turks are one of the biggest immigrant success stories to have emerged in America’s Midwest in recent years. Since the US government opened asylum procedures for at-risk Russia-based Ahiska Turks in 2005, more than 1,000 families have moved to Dayton. For the past decade, the community has been at the forefront of revitalising parts of the city left derelict in the aftermath of the Great Recession of 2008. In a city that’s lost half its population since 1960 through post-industrial decline, the Ahiska Turk community is well-known for buying up cheap, damaged homes and properties before renovating and selling them on.
“The Ahiska Turkish community has played a critical role in Dayton’s growth and revival,” says Monica Harris, a coordinator at Welcome Dayton, a city initiative that assists immigrants. Some involved in the house flipping business even made it into a PBS FRONTLINE documentary broadcast last September that depicted the community's efforts to help turn around Dayton’s economy.
The Osman Gazi mosque in Old North Dayton was formerly a dated funeral home before the community bought and renovated the building using materials imported from Turkey. Across the street from the mosque, which opened in April 2018, a former school building has been converted into a Turkish community centre and school where iftar meals were held throughout Ramadan.
Ten days since the tornado hit, mosque attendants could still be found handing out food, clothes and water to people, including a mother and son who arrived seeking help after their home lost electricity. Both the mosque and community centre escaped significant damage from the tornado, though trees and power lines were downed around the mosque.
For 32-year-old Alişer Bektash, the tornado has proved devastating. Originally from Voronezh in western Russia, Mr Bektash opened the Sultan Quality Furniture store on Old North Dayton’s Dixie Drive last January. A year earlier, he travelled to Bursa in Turkey to source specialist furniture makers from whom he bought and imported to the US sitting room sets, bedspreads and a host of other housewares and furniture – investments of “at least $100,000” (Dh367,000). “The business idea behind opening the store was that it would sell specialty, Eastern-style furniture,” he says.
But because his store had only recently opened, and because he invested heavily in a state-of-the-art security system, he put insuring the store and its contents on the back burner, and never got around to it.
The tornado collapsed the roof on one side and water leaked inside, ruining much of the furniture.
“I put all my money into this business,” he says. “I got to start from scratch (now).” With two containers of furniture currently en route from Turkey and no store to sell it in, Mr Bektash faces testing times ahead. What he’s managed to salvage, mostly lightly-damaged furniture, now sits in his brother’s warehouse and is worth only a fraction of its former value.
Harris of Welcome Dayton says some aid, business and county agencies may be able to help the victims most affected, but are waiting for the tornado outbreak to be declared an official disaster by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) which would then open up a tranche of federal funding. Such declarations can take months to transpire, but it’s something Ruslan Kilich is holding out for.
“If it’s declared an official disaster,” he says, “it will definitely speed up the recovery.”
Published: June 6, 2019 06:14 PM