Looking for Home: Georgia’s Muslim Eco-Migrants

Giorgi Dundua

Driven from their homes by natural disasters, Muslim Georgians from Achara struggle to preserve their identity.

It began with a landslide in 1989 that destroyed several mountains villages in Achara, a western region in Georgia on the Black Sea. Since then, approximately 9,000 families and about 37,000 people have fled their homes, relocating to other regions in eastern Georgia such as Tetritskaro, Marneuli and other areas where ethnic minorities live, the Ministry of Internally Displaced Persons and Refugees from the Occupied Territories of Georgia states.  

Many among these eco-migrants were Muslims, Georgians whose ancestors are thought to have adopted Islam during Ottoman Turkey’s control of the region from the mid-17th century until 1878.   Under Soviet rule, their difference from Orthodox Christian Georgians mattered little, researcher Jessica Preston has written. But with the return of Georgia’s independence, increased emphasis has been placed on the country’s traditional faith, Orthodox Christianity, as part of national identity.  

Though Muslim Georgians had maintained their religious identity for centuries in Achara’s remote highlands, some of the environments to which they moved after the 1989 landslide have proven challenging. Verbal abuse from other Georgians who are Orthodox Christians is not rare, some claim. One man interviewed for this project in Marneuli reported he suffered discrimination at work. 

Depending on their location, others have reported problems practicing their faith. When Muslim migrants first settled in the village of Maradisi, a few kilometers outside the capital, Tbilisi, they had no space to pray or to bury their dead and it took years to build the cemetery. According to tradition, they visit the cemetery with food and read the Quran there. 

Shura Dzirkvadze, 68, in her house in the village of Akhali Dioknisi, south of Marneuli. “I don’t know what kind of Muslims they are,” she says of the area’s ethnic Azerbaijni Muslims, who follow Shi’a Islam, “but the most important thing is that we have a close relationship” in everyday life.

Shura Dzirkvadze, 68, in front of her house near Marneuli. “We know that we [Georgians] are originally Christians. It is our history, but the Turks changed it 300 years ago. We barely preserved the Georgian language and [our] Georgian identity. It is fine that we are Muslims, but we are Georgians by blood.”

The cemetery in the village of Maradisi, near Marneuli. When the eco-migrants from Achara settled in the village, they had no place to practice their faith or to bury their dead, they say.

St. George’s Church in Marneuli. Most of the municipality’s 106,500 residents are ethnic Azerbaijani and largely Muslim.

Villagers in Maradisi prepare for Shuamtoba, a popular festival in Achara that celebrates both summer and cattle-breeding. Acharan migrants keep the tradition alive wherever they have resettled. It is held each year in the first week of August.

Like Muslims elsewhere, Muslim migrants from Achara commemorate the Feast of Sacrifice, or Eid al-Adha (also known by its Turkish name, Kurban Bayramı), in late summer or fall by slaughtering cattle to remember the Prophet Ibrahim (the Biblical Abraham) and his near-sacrifice of his son, Issac, at God’s command. The meat is given to others, including the underprivileged.

Things are easier in Marneuli, a town about an hour’s drive south of Tbilisi, with a large Muslim population of ethnic Azerbaijanis. The mosque in Marneuli was repaired in 1998 and a second mosque was built in 2016. Muslims from Achara here live alongside their ethnic Azerbaijani counterparts, working together, studying together, and selling potatoes, corn and livestock in the market.

Nevertheless, a few youngsters whose families were originally from Achara have reportedly converted to Christianity. Some locals scoff that they did it for money, but one 26-year old convert, who gave her name as Khatia, disagrees. “Nobody gave me money to change religions . . .” she says. “I knew that I had do life in Georgia with Christ’s love. Changing one’s faith is not a new thing.”

Other young people with family ties to Achara have seen their lives change, too. Marneuli is an urban area, offering greater opportunities and access to markets. More young people, like 17-year old Tengo Shainidze, are getting involved in social activism, embracing issues close to their heart, such as gender roles.

Twenty-two-year-old Irma Bolkvadze has been studying at nearby Tbilisi State University since 2013, and focuses her research on gender and minority rights. She thinks she would not have been able to pursue this path if she had stayed in Achara, which has fewer institutes of higher learning than the Georgian capital.  

But the changes have only gone so far. Even though some Muslim women from Achara’s mountain regions may feel freer in Marneuli, they still have to bear the burden of household tasks. In this primarily agricultural setting, many also do hard physical work out in the fields.

Both genders’ current lives leave little leisure for the lengthy trip -- over eight hours by car -- back to the mountains of Achara from the Marneuli region. Friends and family from Achara tend to visit them more often, migrants say. Most remember traditional Acharan food, but their new lives leave little space for all of their old rituals.

For such reasons,  some Muslim families back in Achara have a strong desire to remain on their land in the mountains, come what may. They worry about parting with their neighbors and trying to maintain their traditions and identity somewhere new.

As those who have gone before them can say, the change is not a straightforward one.

“No one paid me to change my religion,” says 26-year-old Khatia, who converted from Islam to Christianity. “I don’t actually live a religious life. I don’t go to church, but I pray at home. Changing your faith is not a new thing. I am not the first and the last person to do it. Religion does not mean a lot. It is important to live with the fear of God.”

The Imam Hussein mosque in Marneuli opened its doors in 2016. It was built with financial support from local believers and a foundation run by Iranian cleric Ayatollah Shahristan, ipress.ge reported. Apart from regular prayers, the facility hosts classes on the Qur’an and Islam in general.

Marneuli’s Imam Ali Mosque was built in 1739 and, thanks to a local fundraising campaign, reopened in 2000, the Human Rights Education and Monitoring Center reports.

Villagers in Maradisi harvest vegetables from local fields. Residents are largely farmers, cultivating cabbage, potatoes and pumpkins on small plots of land. They also breed cattle.

Men gather for Marneuli’s weekly cattle market. Held every Sunday, it started in 1996 and has grown to become one of Georgia’s largest, spreading over an area of about three hectares (over seven acres).

Graffiti on the side of a truck in Marneuli shows a woman in hijab.

Tengo Shainidze, 17, was born in Marneuli, where his parents settled after a landslide hit their village in Achara in 1989. The high-school student is socially active and takes part in projects organized by local non-governmental organizations related to the environment and gender equality.

Twenty-two-year-old Irma Bolkvadze is a Tbilisi State University researcher focusing on gender and minority rights. She thinks she would have had fewer opportunities for a higher education if she’d been born in rural Achara.

August, 2018 Religious Beliefs


Religious Beliefs

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