Aslan Omer Kirimli’s two cellphones ring constantly. As vice-chairman of the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar People and deputy to Mustafa Dzhemilev, leader of the Crimean Tatars, Mr. Kirimli has been working non-stop since February, when Russian troops entered Crimea and laid the groundwork for Russia’s annexation of the region.
“We will never accept the occupation,” Kirimli says, sitting in the office and cultural center of the Crimean Tatar community. The busy locale is just steps away from Kiev’s Independence Square, where massive protests led to the ouster of former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych in February.
But what the Tatars can do is unclear. Since the controversial March referendum, members of the minority community – at more than 200,000, about 12 percent of the Crimean population – have been thrown into a strange limbo. Do they stay in their ethnic homeland, now firmly under Russian control, and surrender their Ukrainian passports? Or do they flee elsewhere in Ukraine, or abroad? It's a decision that thousands have had to make.
Since the crisis began, more than 34,000 people have been internally displaced, with more than 11,000 people leaving Crimea, according to the UN. Crimean Tatars, who mostly boycotted the referendum, make up a large portion of those who are leaving.
“Crimea is undergoing a hard period because there are very big problems – judicial, economic, social, and political,” Kirimli says. “And first is the political problem. But we are going to continue to work.”
An unsettled people
A large group of volunteers, working with relief group Krym SOS, have been aiding residents of Crimea who have decided to resettle elsewhere. In Kiev, Kirimli helped launch a coordination center that has now helped more than 800 families. At first, primarily women and children were seeking help. But now, many students are also leaving.
Veliullaiev Veliulla is one of them. Mr. Veliulla was studying English philology in Simferopol at the time of the Russian invasion and annexation. His mother, grandmother, and sister all remain in Crimea.
“If I finished university in Crimea then I would have had to stay and work in Crimea or somewhere in Russia,” Veliulla says. “So I started thinking about where I could go. I’ve wanted to go to Canada [to study] for a long time.”
Like many of Crimea’s Muslim Tatars, Veliulla’s family returned to their native homeland from Uzbekistan in the early 1990s. Many Tatars were displaced in 1944, when Soviet leader Joseph Stalin ordered the mass deportation of more than 200,000 Tatars for allegedly aiding the Nazis.
“This reminds me of the period 70 years ago,” says Eldar Umerov, a coordinator of the Crimean Community of Kiev. Mr. Umerov moved to Kiev two years ago to pursue his studies, and now spends all of his free time aiding those who have resettled. “When people returned after the deportation, they did not have homes … and now only 20 years after Ukrainian independence they’ve managed to build themselves homes.”
Crimea in Lviv
In a report released this week, the United Nations found that since the Russian annexation Crimean Tatar leaders and activists "face prosecution and limitations on the enjoyment of their cultural rights."
Alim Aliyev has been helping Crimean Tatars resettle in Lviv, in western Ukraine, where he has lived and worked for six years. Mr. Aliyev is a co-founder of Krym SOS. He estimates that before events occurred in Crimea, there were only 20 Crimean Tatars in Lviv. Now there are around 1,000.
“[People] are afraid that because of their religion, they will face repression in Crimea,” Aliyev says.
Early on, Aliyev began receiving calls from ordinary citizens in Lviv offering to house refugees. Lvivians have taken an interest in Crimean Tatar culture: The National Museum in Lviv began showcasing Crimean Tatar art soon after the annexation, and a recently opened Crimean Tatar restaurant in the city has seen long lines.
Not all resettlers, however, have stayed in mainland Ukraine. Some have left Ukraine all together and others who have been unable to find work in large Ukrainian cities have returned to Crimea. Others have returned out of fear their property back in Crimea might be seized.
Crimean Tatars are "sitting on [their] suitcases," says Aliyev, "because they are waiting for when they can return to Crimea."
Many Tatars now find themselves caught between two worlds. Arsen Zhumadilov, a businessman and Crimean Tatar activist, sums up the current situation saying, “I commute. I live both in Crimea and in Kiev.”
Zhumadilov is a Ukrainian citizen who grew up in Simferopol. His wife, parents, and brother are all still living in Crimea. He started a marketing consultancy that promoted Crimean Tatar entrepreneurs via discount cards similar to Groupon. Since the Russian annexation of Crimea, however, he has shut down his business.
“I didn’t want to my taxes going to the Kremlin. It’s ideological,” he says.
Zhumadilov, like many others, was shocked by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s actions. “We could never imagine that it could happen this way. It is for us Crimean Tatars a very painful thing to realize,” he said. “We thought ‘finally, we were back at home, back to Crimea, we started to rebuild our community, regenerate our language and culture and it was all so good.’”
Ukraine’s new President Petro Poroshenko forcefully addressed the issue during his inaugural address, saying, “Russia occupied Crimea, which was, is and will be Ukrainian soil.”
Crimean Tatar activists working across Ukraine are hoping Poroshenko will focus on returning Crimea during his presidency, but they see years of work ahead.
“I don’t have rose-colored glasses,” Aliyev said. “I think Crimea will return to Ukraine, but it will be a long process, from five to 20 years.”