Forgotten Muslims: The tragic fate of Crimean Tatars

Crimean Tatar boys light candles during a memorial ceremony in 2014 marking the 1944 deportation of Tatars from Crimea — Russia has now banned such gatherings. (AFP)
Updated 08 August 2019

Forgotten Muslims: The tragic fate of Crimean Tatars

  • Members of the historically oppressed ethnic minority have been facing renewed persecution since 2014
  • The annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula by the Russian Federation forced thousands of Tatar Muslims from their homes

DUBAI: Five years ago, the Russian Federation annexed the Crimean Peninsula after unmarked troops marched into the Ukrainian territory and took control of the local parliament.

In the first six months of this year, Crimean Tatars who have lived on the peninsula since at least the 15th century, accounted for a disproportionately large majority of the number of arrests — 138 out of 200 — made by Russian Federation authorities.

The figures, released by the Crimean Tatar Resource Center (CTRC), a non-governmental organization, tell only a tiny part of the full story of injustice and harassment to which the community has been subjected since the peninsula’s annexation.

Out of the 73 recorded house searches, 55 were conducted in the homes of the Tatar minority, and out of 69 detentions, 57 were of Crimean Tatars, according to the CTRC. Today, Crimean Tatars cannot enjoy safety and comfort even in their ancestral land. However, they are no strangers to oppression and abuse.


  • The Mejlis, or Congress of the Crimean Tatar People, is the Tatar Muslims’ highest executive representative body.
  • The Congress was founded in 1991 to communicate the community’s grievances to the governments of Ukraine and Crimea, and to international bodies.
  • The Mejlis consists of 33 members and works to promote the rights of Crimean Tatars.
  • The Supreme Court of Russia banned the Mejlis in 2016, calling it an extremist outfit.

In 1944, the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin accused the Muslim Tatars of collaborating with Nazi Germany and betraying the country, and ordered their deportation from the peninsula.

In one of the 20th century’s major incidents of collective punishment, Moscow forcibly moved the entire population of about 230,000 to other Soviet states, mostly Uzbekistan. At the time, Crimean Tatars comprised nearly one-fifth of the peninsula’s population.

According to surveys by political activists in the 1960s, more than 46 percent of Crimean Tatars perished due to disease and starvation during the first three years of the deportation.

Most of the population was able to return to Crimea after the collapse of USSR in 1991. Crimean Tatars began to hold ceremonies each May 18 in remembrance of the forced population transfer. However, those gatherings have been banned by the Russian authorities since the 2014 annexation of Crimea.

The takeover of the peninsula followed a military intervention in Crimea that the Russian Federation staged in the wake of the 2014 Ukrainian revolution and unfolded amid widespread unrest across southern and eastern Ukraine.

A referendum organized by Moscow in 2014 ostensibly to determine the status of Crimea was considered illegal by Western powers and boycotted by the Crimean Tatars. According to the CTRC, the annexation forced more than 20,000 Crimean Tatars from their homes as the Russian Federation sent 200,000 nationals to live on the peninsula.

Human-rights groups say the persecution of the Crimean Tatars, who number about 300,000 today, has continued since the 2014 status referendum. It takes the form not only of arrests, searches and imprisonment, but also of attempts to tamper with their culture and history, according to the groups.

Some activists accuse the Russia Federation of falsifying the history of the Crimean Tatars to justify the persecution of the population. “During this academic year, it was discovered that a tenth grade textbook said the Crimean Tatars collaborated with Nazi Germany,” said Eskender Bariiev, CTRC’s chairman, told Arab News.

There was an outcry over the textbook, with Crimean Tatars filing multiple complaints that compelled the Russian authorities to remove it from the educational system, according to Bariiev.

The activists also say Russian Federation authorities are seeking to change the Crimean Tatars’ ethnonym, that is the name given to a specific ethnic group. Among the controversial replacements for “Crimean Tatars” being floated are Tatars, Tatar diaspora, Tatar minority or Tatars of Crimea, Bariiev said.

He said the Russian Federation authorities are trying to avoid acknowledging the fact that Crimean Tatars are an indigenous people of Crimea by using of all kinds of artifices. For instance, the Supreme Court of Russia banned the Mejlis — the representative body of the Crimean Tatars — on charges of extremism in 2016.

Speaking at a session of the UN Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Bariiev said the Russian Federation’s actions violated the right of indigenous peoples to manage representative institutions guaranteed by UN declarations.

Aside from the Mejlis, Crimea’s new administrators have banned a number of Crimean Tatar Muslim associations and groups and prosecuted their members.  

A CTRC report said 42 out of the 60 Ukrainian political prisoners illegally held on Russian territory are members of Hizb ut-Tahrir, an international political organization that seeks to “unite Muslims under one Islamic caliphate.”

At the same time, a number of Crimean Tatar activists have been banned from entering the peninsula, some for up to 30-50 years. One of them is the CTRC’s Bariiev, who has not been allowed to return to his homeland since 2015.

One of the reasons the court cited in his case was the threat allegedly posed to the public by a body he helped set up. In 2014, along with others Bariiev formed a committee whose stated objective is to protect the rights of Crimean Tatars.

Human-rights groups say the persecution of the Crimean Tatars has continued since the 2014 referendum

Another prominent Tatar Muslim who is banned from entering Crimea is Mustafa Dzhemilov, a former chairman of the Mejlis and a member of Ukraine’s parliament. He is one of those who experienced first-hand the community’s forced exile in Uzbekistan.

Dzhemilov said he was prevented from majoring in Arabic language in Tashkent, in Uzbekistan, due to his ethnicity.

“One of the admissions committee members told me they do not accept Crimean Tatars and recommended that I don’t waste my time and just join a different department,” Dzhemilov told Arab News.

He believes the authorities branded the Mejlis an extremist outfit because the Crimean Tatars’ representative body has refused to recognize Russian sovereignty over the Crimean Peninsula.

US intelligence reports in 2019 showed that the Russia Federation has deployed troops, aircraft and weapons in the disputed region. Satellite images enabled Defense One, a US publication, to identify five S-400 batteries, five S-300 air-defense systems and fighter jets at four different locations.

A US intelligence official was quoted by Defense One as saying that the Russian Federation is engineering “a deliberate and systematic build-up” of its forces on the peninsula. Russian border control also denied access to UN observers to Crimean territory, according to a recent Facebook post of the UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine.

The Russian Federation intends to heavily militarize the peninsula, hence it needs to fill the area with loyalists, Dzhemilov told Arab News.



Bakery spearheads deaf empowerment in Malaysia

Updated 24 September 2020

Bakery spearheads deaf empowerment in Malaysia

  • Young deaf Malaysians say that work opportunities are their chance to be included in society and contribute
  • Coffeehouse giant Starbucks followed in the footsteps of Silent Teddies and opened ‘signing stores’ in Kuala Lumpur and Penang

KUALA LUMPUR: At a small bakery in Kuala Lumpur’s Lorong Ampang area, a group of men and women take out from the oven and pack colorful cookies in complete silence. The cookies have one shape — that of a hand with the thumb, index finger and pinkie finger put up. In sign language it means “I love you.”
The bakery, Silent Teddies, was founded in 2004 by Cindy Leong, a sign language interpreter who has sought ways to empower Malaysia’s deaf community by encouraging entrepreneurship and training hearing-impaired youths to be independent. All staff members of Silent Teddies are people with hearing loss.

'I love you' in sign language cookies come out from the oven at Silent Teddies Bakery in Kuala Lumpur on World Deaf Day, Sept. 23. (AN photo by Ashwin Gobinath)

“We aim to build talents here and the mindset of the community needs to change because we cannot be solely surviving on corporate social responsibility donations or support to sustain ourselves,” Leong told Arab News as the International Week of the Deaf started on Wednesday.

About 40,000 Malaysians are registered as deaf and have limited access to education and career opportunities.

“Many deaf people are from the bottom 40 segment,” Leong said, referring to Malaysia’s lowest earning group.

Staff bake and pack cookies for sale at Silent Teddies Bakery in Kuala Lumpur. (AN photo by Ashwin Gobinath)

It took her Silent Teddies years to gain traction but in 2012 the efforts flourished with a deal with Malaysian airline AirAsia, the biggest low-cost carrier of Southeast Asia.

“It was a stepping stone for me and the bakers here to have their cookies and products sold to the masses in Asia. We were never driven by profits, our main goal is to empower the community by providing them training and opportunities to grow and support themselves.”

Cindy Leong, the founder of Silent Teddies Bakery, in Kuala Lumpur. (AN photo by Ashwin Gobinath)

Through the Society of Interpreters for the Deaf (SID), the initiative expanded to the coffeehouse giant Starbucks.

Berjaya Starbucks Coffee Company, a licensee of the Starbucks franchise in Malaysia, in 2016 opened the doors to employment for deaf people and established the signing store model — the first of its kind for Starbucks globally.

Starbucks Signing Store in Kuala Lumpur's Bangsar area, which employs deaf baristas. It is the first of its kind model for Starbucks globally. (AN photo by Ashwin Gobinath)

“Starbucks have always hired the deaf at our stores even before we were planning the signing store but because of certain security risks and cultural sensitivities, we could only give them very simple and menial tasks such as restocking and cleaning,” Berjaya Starbucks representatives said in a statement for Arab News.

Their signing stores changed the situation and offered hearing-impaired people better jobs and career progression. Established in consultation with the SID, the outlets in Kuala Lumpur’s popular hangout area Bangsar and in George Town, Penang, employ 14 deaf partners.

Barista Mohammed Akmal Abdul Khalid Akmal prepares coffee at Starbucks Signing Store in Kuala Lumpur's Bangsar area. (AN photo by Ashwin Gobinath)

“The training that we provide our deaf partners is the same training that we provide our hearing partners, that includes theory classes as well as on-the-job training in our stores and by extension, our deaf partners are also welcome to participate in the same learning opportunities as are hearing partners, such as our coffee master certification and advanced coffee master certification,” Starbucks said.

One of the coffee masters at Starbucks’s Bangsar store is 34-year-old Mohammed Akmal Abdul Khalid.

Barista Mohammed Akmal Abdul Khalid Akmal prepares coffee at Starbucks Signing Store in Kuala Lumpur's Bangsar area. (AN photo by Ashwin Gobinath)

Speaking to Arab News through a sign language interpreter, he said that he was ecstatic when his friends and family told him about job openings at Starbucks. He saw it as a chance to finally be included in society.

“The first thing that crossed my mind was my curiosity on how the deaf partners communicate with hearing individuals without any sign language, but I am adapting with the whole new culture.”

 Staff bake and pack cookies for sale at Silent Teddies Bakery in Kuala Lumpur. (AN photo by Ashwin Gobinath)

He said that the job allowed him to learn proper communication with hearing partners and customers, and he hopes that other deaf people will be given this opportunity.

“I hope there will be more chances for the deaf to work through the Starbucks signing store in Malaysia and across the world, because I want to see the deaf work hard and contribute to the society, just like everyone else,” he said.