We are, many of us, far from home today, a holiday when a phone call is no substitute for being with family.
But home for some among us is farther than others.
The 6,762 miles that separate Yusif Sardarzade from his kin in southeast Azerbaijan are just geography. The real extent of that distance lies in the circumstances that forced him to flee, without the ability to phone home, and seek refuge in a country that is so blind to the plight of his people that he may as well have landed on another planet.
“I am Talysh,” he said through a Russian translator Monday evening. “My culture is called Talysh. My language is Talysh. Talysh. That’s what we are.”
I met Sardarzade earlier this week at an annual Thanksgiving dinner for refugees organized by the African Community Center in Aurora. He was among a broader group of dozens of people seeking refuge or asylum in the United States not just from Africa, but also Southeast Asia, Central America and other places scarred by intolerance and persecution.
But Sardarzade’s story – and that of his friend and fellow dissident seated beside him – was new to me, and likely new to most folks in this state where the two believe they are the first of their people to seek refuge.
“I hope with your help the whole world will hear us,” he told me.
Sardarzade is a 38-year-old golf pro from Lankaran, a city on the Caspian Sea that is home to hundreds of thousands of people born into the Talysh culture. The ethnic group spanning from southeast Azerbiajan to northern Iran has its own ancient language and customs that, under Soviet rule, it generally was allowed to speak and practice. But over the past few decades, the Azerbaijani government has engaged in increasingly aggressive assimilation efforts, shutting down the Talysh radio station and newspaper, prohibiting use not only of their language, but also even the mere mention of the word “Talysh,” and persecuting those who speak out for their rights.
“I will fight for my people until my last breath,” Sardarzade said.
He and his friend – an information technology specialist with whom he fled in April – are members of a group seeking autonomy so the Talysh may freely speak their language, practice their customs and preserve their culture.
That threat is so great, they say, that the government ended both their jobs in recent years and started lobbing false accusations at them and other dissidents. Sardarzade’s wife was prodded to denounce her Talysh identity and end their marriage. If threatened by police, he said he urged his father, deny me as your son.
Last winter, while the family celebrated his son’s 11th birthday at their mosque, government forces raided the party and arrested everyone there, Sardarzade says. Since that day, he says, his boy has stuttered when he speaks.
“Trauma,” he said.
Both men say they were repeatedly arrested for their outspokenness and activism. Last December, Sardarzade says, police tortured him in jail by beating him and breaking his ribs. When asked about his own treatment, his friend just closed his eyes and shook his head. He fears that allowing his name or photo to be posted in this story would jeopardize the safety of his loved ones. That fear makes it nearly impossible for either to communicate with their families. A phone call, an email, or a text message, they say, could trigger arrest, or worse.
“They want to make us, all of us, sorry we were born Talysh,” Sardarzade said.
Facing increasing death threats, the two dissidents came to realize last winter that staying in Azerbiajan would cost them their lives. They waited until the period before the presidential election in April, when international monitors had their eyes on the country, to flee with only their passports and clothes on their backs.
They say they first went to Georgia, and then Turkey, then Germany, then Mexico. They worked their way up to Tijuana and sought asylum at the U.S. border. Then came a months-long odyssey in ICE detention facilities, including the one run by GEO in Aurora. They were amazed that their jailers called them “sir.”
As their asylum applications are being processed, both men say they are living on $335 a month until their Social Security authorizations come through and enable them to work. They’re living in a space in Aurora provided by the African Community Center, which helps refugees with resettlement. They are grateful beyond words for what that organization, Colorado and the U.S. have done for them and are doing to help them and others for whom asylum is a matter of life or death.
Both say they are aware the greater Denver community, which has helped them with paperwork, housing, home goods, translation and comfort, is generally frustrated by the Trump administration’s immigration and refugee policies. But both say without hesitation that compared to the problems in their country, “Trump is amazing.”
To welcome a refugee, as Sardarzade tells it, is an act of salvation.
And to share a meal with other refugees and Americans eager to welcome them is an exercise not just in sustenance, but in awe.
Sardarzade points to a plate full of turkey, stuffing and cranberries, as well as dishes from Syria, Korea, and the Philippines, and then looks around the room filled with members of all manner of tribes dressed in all manner of garbs and believing in all manner of totems dancing together to the rhythms of “Whip/Nae-Nae” by rapper Silentó. He holds his hand to his heart and swallows before speaking.
“It is a dream of our people to see this many cultures together,” he said. “The feeling of freedom in this room. There is goodness here. And we are grateful.”