Behind the Headlines: Just off the Plane, Chechen Jews Adjust to a Different Life in Israel

life in Israel. In the center of the room stands a makeshift table, a large wooden plank perched on sawhorses and covered with coarse papers.

Four heavyset, elderly women sit on plastic stools around the table, silently busy as they prepare the contents of an array of bowls and buckets. One woman chops large onions, one dices cooked beets, another cuts homemade pickled green peppers and cucumbers into strips, and the fourth, her head covered in a traditional kerchief, meticulously peels cashews, then cuts them into tiny pieces.

Chaim Shalmayiev is getting married this night, and his mother and her friends are preparing for the celebration.

In one corner of the room, detached from his surroundings, sits Chaim’s friend, Ilya Nissimov, the latest addition to the Chechen community in Israel.

Barely one week has passed since the Nissimov family of six landed at Ben- Gurion Airport in the dead of night, without a notion of what awaited them or who would welcome them,

The family was among the first group of 32 Chechen Jews to arrive in Israel on Dec. 27 on a special flight arranged by the Jewish Agency for Israel.

They came from Grozny, the capital, where Russia has been waging an all-out war against the breakaway republic.

Having fled the war, the Nissimovs arrived empty-handed, with only suitcases containing clothes and a few personal belongings. They left behind their car, their clothing shop and the house that was in their family’s possession for generations.

A second party of 25 refugees is expected any day. According to Jewish Agency reports, most of the dozens of remaining Grozny Jews have reached safety out of Chechnya, but there are still some people unaccounted for and communication with them has broken down .

Ilya has an uncle back in Grozny, and they all worry about him.

“We have lived there for 2,000 years,” says Ilya in a low voice, his eyes downcast.

“Now the Muslims have driven us out. When it became bad, I sent Marina and the children to Nalchik” he says, referring to a neighboring area where many refugees fled.

“Then the Russian army came and the Muslims, with whom I used to eat and drink, came in armed with rifles and knives and told me that if I want to stay alive, I better leave everything behind and go.”

Burlant, Ilya’s mother, who looks older than her 54 years and suffers from a heart condition and swollen legs, nods sadly, adding: “They were always after us, the Muslims.”

She says that since the Chechen leader, Dzhokhar Dudayev, came to power in 1991, the Muslims “started to harass us openly.

” `Go to Israel where you belong,’ they told us. All our men have scars from fights with the Muslims.

“It came to the point that we could not even send the boys to the corner shop to buy bread for fear they would be robbed, or worse,” she recalls.

“They came inside our homes and beat us. Evedi, my grandson, was once clubbed over his head with a rifle butt and has never been the same again,” she says. “Even in Israel, when he hears the siren of an ambulance or police car, he takes cover. He is so afraid of everything.”

Grozny once had 5,000 to 6,000 Jews, most of them north Caucasian mountain Jews who had lived there for generations and knew each other well. They were cobblers, barbers and small shop owners.

Since Russia began its assault on the city last month, the Jewish quarter has been partiality destroyed, including its ancient synagogue, which the Communists had turned into a music school.

While many of the Jews had left for Israel in recent years, the beginning of the war sent most of the rest of the community fleeing.

“Yes, I wanted to come to Israel,” says Ilya. “Israel has a flag and a strong army. We are welcome here and safe, but I feel bad.

“I live with friends, my kids sleep somewhere different every night, we eat other people’s food. I am ashamed to take from others. I never had to before.”

Chaim, Ilya’s friend, pats his back, explaining that this was how he felt when he came here three years ago, with only his guitar and suitcase.

Since then he has brought over his parents and younger brothers and sister, and has even bought a two-room apartment in Oshiot, a quiet neighborhood in Rehovot.

When Chaim heard on the news last month about the arrival of a plane carrying Chechen refugees, he immediately rushed to the airport to find out who was arriving. When he saw his friend Ilya and his family, he insisted they stay with him.

Ilya says he doesn’t want much right now – just a roof over their heads and some furniture, so they can start to build their lives anew.

He wants to feel settled and see his three children in school. But how does one do that, he wonders aloud. How and where does one begin?

Ilya, like other indigenous Chechen Jews, is thinly built, small in stature and dark-skinned.

His looks are deceiving, however, for Ilya was once Chechnya’s lightweight boxing champion.

“We all did sports; we had to, in order to fight back against the Muslims,” Chaim says, showing off his younger brother’s certificate as Israel’s champion in classic wrestling.

“All the men got into fights with them, and have scars and knife wounds to show for it.” He lifts his shirt and urges Ilya to do likewise.

Farther north, just east of Netanya in the pastoral village of Kefar Yona, the three members of the Ismailov family are also adjusting to their new homeland .

They don’t look Chechen, and Vladlin, a 48-year-old graphic designer, explains that their grandparents fled Russia and moved to Grozny during World War II.

Their account of life in Chechnya differs from the Nissimovs. They say their relationships with the Muslims were good, better than with the Russians. And they are vehemently opposed to the Russian invasion.

But they agree that life became more difficult when Dudayev carne to power.

Vladlin’s wife, Svetlana, a 35-year-old doctor who worked with emergency and rescue vehicles, says, “When Dudayev took over and unilaterally declared independence, he first set free all the prisoners, and that is when the troubles started.

“He then opened the arsenals the Soviet Army had left behind, and armed all the Chechens,” all except the Jews, she says. “We had Yibrey (Jew) written in our documents.”

Dudayev then abolished pensions for all Chechens, declaring that the sick and elderly should be cared for by their families. Next he froze salaries, and neither of us got paid for months,” she says.

“First they took our home,” adds Vladlin. “A group of armed and masked men came and drove me to a forest, where they made me sign papers stating that I had sold the apartment and got paid for it.

“I signed; what else was I to do? People were already disappearing by then. We had two days to leave our home and went to stay with Chechen friends. I started to move what was left to Nalchik, but thieves there robbed us of that too,” he recalls.

“The Jewish Agency there took care of us, and I started to work with them, going back and forth to help Jews escape from Grozny. When the Russian Army that surrounded Chechnya started to bombard Grozny, we left,” Vladlin says.

Recounting the arduous journey with their 2-year-old daughter, Alberta, Vladlin says: “In subzero temperature, we made the 120-mile journey to Nalchik – on foot, by hitchhiking and by bus. The Russians let us through only after ascertaining that we were not Chechens.

“The roads were filled with refugees. But we were lucky; the real killing started after we left.”

“The bastards,” Svetlana interrupts. “They’re killing everyone. The Chechens are good people. It’s only Dudayev and his mafia. The Chechens would have gotten rid of them somehow.

“But once the Russians came, the whole Chechen people joined Dudayev and his bandits to defend their country. Dudayev’s criminals took mostly property, and here and there someone disappeared. But the Russians, they kill everyone indiscriminately. They are murderers!”

“But now we are safe here,” Vladlin says, calming down his wife.

The couple say that they had in fact been planning to come to Israel but were waiting to save some money.

But now, everything they owned is lost. All they want now, they say, is to master the language as soon as possible and start working, preferably in their professions.

They say they knew it would be hard here and they are not afraid to face the difficulties; they have no regrets about coming to Israel,

The Ismailovs and the Nissimovs are on the “direct absorption” track in Israel, meaning they receive financial and other assistance from the state and are free to choose what to do with it.

Their “absorption basket,” some $10,000 for a family of five over the first six months, is designed for Jews who come from distressed areas. The grant provides free transportation to Israel, and then to their place of choice, plus additional assistance for rent or mortgage payments, free health care, Ulpan, children’s education and more.

It is a generous package. However, with Israel’s high cost of living, it does not guarantee an easy start.

The Ismailovs say they are grateful for the help they have received, both from the Jewish Agency along the way, and from the State of Israel. They are convinced that they can make it, and are eager to begin their new life. Ilya Nissimov, in contrast, is not so confident. He says he won’t be going back to boxing for a while, but might look for some promising boys to train.

All he cares about is getting a place to live, seeing his children settled and in school and finding work – any work.

Like the rest of his family, he is still bewildered. He is happy to be here, he says, but he worries, especially about his sick mother, his fearful wife and son Evedi.

His friend Chaim tells him not to worry. In Israel, there’s always someone who will help, he says. No one goes hungry, and everything will be fine in the end.

Ilya does not look convinced, but agrees to put aside his worries and get dressed, for tonight the Chechen community is celebrating Chaim’s wedding.

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