One year ago Talal Haj Hassan had a diplomatic career and a stable job in the Swiss embassy in Damascus, Syria. But as violence in that country spiraled out of control, Hassan started to consider his options. It might not seem like deciding to pack up his large family and head to the Russian Caucasus was the most obvious choice for this Damascus-born Syrian, but in fact, when he boarded the last flight to Moscow on August 6, he was returning home.
"When I first came here and heard people speaking Circassian in the street, I started crying," he said, sitting with some of his family in the foyer of a retreat center in Nalchik, Kabardino-Balkaria.
In Russia, Haj Hassan is known not by the name in his Syrian passport, but by his Circassian name, Talal Stash. His great-grandfather was four years old at the end of Russia's conquest of the Caucasus in 1864. He was taken from the village of Gabukai, near Krasnodar, and exiled to Bulgaria, then Turkey, and finally, to Syria's Golan Heights, where the Ottoman Empire settled many immigrants from Russia. When, in 1967, Syria's Six-Day War with Israel once again displaced the Circassians, Hassan's family ended up in Damascus.
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