Building a House, Crafting a State: Syrian-Circassian Wartime Migration in Abkhazia

Gehad Abaza
UC Santa Barbara

My doctoral project asks: How do people (re)build houses and lives for themselves in post-war contexts? I investigate how war-time migrants engage with the housing policies of an internationally unrecognized state, Abkhazia, and how, in turn, housing policies can shape citizenry and belonging. The 2011 Syrian revolution-turned-conflict resulted in one of the severest cases of mass exodus since World War II. Yet, as conflict is destructive, it can also generate different forms of daily practices, social categories, and opportunities as people continue to struggle for life. This project focuses on the renegotiation of “home” at the margins of a defeated revolution. I ask: What can the house as a political space reflect about the state-making project, ethno-racial exclusion, and displacement through the social relations of its inhabitants? In 2014, Abkhazia sponsored the ethnic return migration of hundreds of Circassian-Syrians, whose ancestors had fled the Caucasus due to Russian imperial expansion at the end of the 1800s. While the ministry framed the trip as a “homecoming” to their ancestral land, Syrian newcomers find themselves traversing life in the aftermath of the 1992 secessionist war with Georgia, and their own displacement from their natal homeland.

Image credit: Gehad Abaza.

Image description: On May 21, 2021, people in Abkhazia commemorated the mass exodus of millions of Circassians to the Ottoman Empire in the late eighteenth century. Almost a century later, Syrian descendants of the exiled Circassians “return-migrated” to Abkhazia, a separatist state in the Caucasus, due to the war conditions in their natal homeland, Syria. Many experienced their return to an ancestral homeland as a displacement, and made historical connections between their own exile and the exile of their ancestors.