The Unequal Distribution of Rights, Liberties, and Freedoms
About a year and a half ago, I ventured to the state of Idaho. Curious as to what the locale offered, other than potatoes, my main goal was to cross another destination off the list of states I had never visited. My secondary goal was to learn what made it distinctive.
Enthusiastic to learn the history of the city of Boise, meaning le bois (the woods) in French, on my second day exploring the downtown area, I came across a curious find: A plaque on the side of a building stating that there was once a Chinatown on that very spot.
It hit me that if there was once this enclave, who else may have been transplanted from elsewhere?
After some investigation, I learned that there was once a River Ward that cradled the Boise River. Its community consisted of a primarily black neighborhood. Unfortunately, due to the city’s revitalization initiatives throughout the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, the area was razed for an expressway.
This revelation is not what surprised me. What I found curious was that a Basque Community had actually thrived and grown during this time and replaced the former Chinese community. West Grove Street between 6th Street and Capital Boulevard was the anchor. Over time, this short stretch of street added a museum, hotel, restaurants, gathering place, and other facilities of a community.
As I explored the area, I asked myself, How did this specific community survive when the others did not? I could clearly see the efforts to make the downtown area accessible around them, but those efforts clearly missed them.
No answers were given other than vague references to their perseverance as a people. Yet it did not answer my question: How was the Basque community able to traverse this period, but the Black community did not?
In the case of the Asian community, it appears that it had moved on to elsewhere. Throughout the latter half of the 19th century, Asians faced multiple acts of violence both from external and internal forces. This led to a decline in the community, and by the 20th century, it was only a shell of its former self. By the time of Boise’s revitalization, the last of the vacated properties were removed.
Then the Basques moved in to fill the void. Despite the differences in languages and derogatory statements made against them “dirty black Bascos” or “sheep tramps,” the Basque community seemed to have received sympathy due to the Spanish Civil War (1936–1939) and events within the Basque territories during World War II. Despite periods of rapid urban development in Boise, the Basque community was still able to grow.
The lack of a concrete answers, however, left me with the impression that, despite their differences with other ethnic groups, their skin color actually saved them.
Throughout North America, there are various ethnic communities that are a minority in representation but hold sway in political affairs. From Indian enclaves in New Jersey to the Cuban community in South Florida, their opinions have often captured the media’s attention especially when it comes to the ballot box and political affairs.
These ethnic enclaves within the United States do not hold enough power to cause wars or destabilize regions. Depending on the group, they could hurt a country economically via withheld remittances or denial of creature comforts that the other country does not have ready access to or these comforts are unaffordable for a specific class of citizens.
It is these enclaves that may be a minority in numbers but hold considerable power that I plan to focus on because it is through their relationships with the other groups within their country that could lead to civil war, destabilization, and halting the country’s overall development.
Enclave: Levant/Greater Syrian Diaspora (Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine/Israel)
Country: Ayiti (Haiti)
During the latter half of the 19th and into the 20th centuries, Greater Syria (Syria, Lebanon, Palestine/Israel) experienced a huge exodus of citizens throughout the Americas. Although religious persecution of Christians by Muslims and Druzes (heterodox sect of Islam) is often cited as the reason for this migration, further research discovered that this is not an absolute truth.
Although it was a cause for some, it was not the main reason behind the exodus. Yet many realized that this explanation would create sympathy for their migration, especially in destinations such as the United States where citizens viewed “Turks” (Muslims) as foreign threats. During this period in world history, the followers of Islam were viewed as violent, repressive, and scheming.
Feeding into this view allowed many people to gain easy entry into both the United States and various other countries within North America.
The truth is that, relatively speaking, this was a quiet time in the Levant. The Ottoman Empire controlled the region and there were limited economic opportunities.
By the late 19th century, the silk economy of Mount Lebanon began to collapse. Accounting for 60% of the GDP throughout the region, the prices began to drop, leading to bankruptcy of businesses who often took out loans to pay for liabilities in advance and during the cropping season.
At this same time, improvements in health care and rapid demographic growth led to more mouths to feed but little to no opportunities to feed them.
Although seeking adventure, leaving spouses, and, yes, escaping from persecution were some of the valid reasons that groups left the Levantine region. By far the biggest cause was economic opportunity.
In 1895, Mikhail As’ad Rustum, a Lebanese poet, wrote: “Now everyone desires to migrate. To buy, sell and be a merchant. In a country replete with wealth. Where the poor man can succeed. And in the early days, this process was easy to do from Lebanon.”
A Salim Hassan Hashi, wrote in 1908 that the causes of emigration were “to seek riches…in the farthest reaches of the inhabited world.” By far my favorite quote comes from Michael Haddy, a Lebanese-American, who was interviewed in the 1960s. “In 1892, not many people were going to America. This family went to America and they wrote back… [to say that] they made $1,000 [in three years]…. When people of ‘Ayn Arab saw that one man made $1,000, all of ‘Ayn Arab rushed to come to America…like a gold rush, [when] we left ‘Ayn Arab, there were 72 of us….”
The United States was not the only country of interest to this wealth-seeking population.
Throughout the 19th century, Ayiti (Haiti) had participated in a number of emigration programs to allow Black and Brown individuals to relocate from the United States and other countries with huge Black populations, the most famous of which was the Haytian Emigration Society. Although these programs were intended for a specific group, the lax process allowed for migration from Greater Syria.
This migration was titled the “Syrian Peril” by journalist Justin Lherisson, editor of Le Soir. Between 1895 and 1941, the island country experienced a large population of Middle Eastern residents (of both Islamic and Jewish faiths) who quickly became a growing middle class by establishing themselves in various cities.
Immediately causing alarm among both residents and politicians was the sheer number (estimates vary) of around 10,000 immigrants. The new ethnic enclave immediately grew in economic power during a time when the country was still trying to craft its own identity.
By 1903, Middle Eastern citizens were barred from entering the country and efforts to expunge those already there were established, yet they did not halt migration. Historian Brenda Gayle Plummer stated that in relation to nationality it “undermined Haitian society in that nationality determined who had recourse to external diplomatic or military force.”
Levantine immigrants were called blood suckers, vultures, and birds of prey.
There were waves of German and British migrants who contributed to the country’s growth by investing in infrastructure and improvements. Syrian monetary gains seemed to stay within their community, which had a meager existence, and went back to their various home countries via remittances.
In 1904, three Syrian shops in Arcahaie were looted and destroyed as hysteria grew around the anniversary of Haitian independence. Anti-Syrian movements developed to curtail their businesses, but had no real effect.
This was made worse during the United States Occupation (1915–1934), which saw significant gains to the community by working with the U.S. government. Now with protection from the United States (some claimed citizenship), Syrians were allowed almost free trade. Gradually, they accumulated capital, grew their businesses, and became entrenched. They would move on to enter a mixed-race elite that brought them into the financial sector, trade, and local politics.
Families such as Gebara, Boulos, Sada, Shemtob, and Bigio became the most well-known on both the island and abroad. By 1920, they developed the Club Commercial Syrien, which hosted balls and assisted in commercial interests. Syrian culture was slowly infused into the local culture, but unlike the other enclaves, they never mixed with the general population. Yet over time they began to refer themselves as “true Haitians”.
As their economic power grew, so did their businesses and interactions with the Haitian Bourgeoisie. The Gebara family opened the first Syrian Haitian cigar factory.
As the days of the occupation waned, it would be the Syrian population who petitioned the United States to stay. Suspicions of any group loyal to the U.S. increased after the Occupation.
As Ayiti became more corrupt and violent, caused by various parties, those from the Levantine were often used as a scapegoat.
Ironically, it was be under “Papa Doc” Duvalier that Syrians formally entered politics. There are unfounded claims that this happened due to the financial gains the Duvalier presidency made from this part of the population.
This would continue under “Baby Doc,” who saw the growth of sweatshops that unfortunately still exist to this day.
In February 2022, a three-day strike was organized by factory workers who wanted an increase in wages. Currently, they stand at 500 gourdes ($4.80) for a nine-hour workday. The workers wanted a minimum of 1,500 gourdes ($14.00) a day. Protestors were fired upon by men in police uniforms who used police plates. This was an escalation from an earlier incident when tear gas was fired into the crowd, which lead to rocks being thrown at the “officers.”
What is unknown is the owner of the factory.
Out of the original Syrian families to gain wealth and upper-class status, the Bigio and Boulos families still remain. Their ranks were filled by later waves of immigrants from the Levantine as well as Europe and the Caribbean.
Their involvement in politics has resulted in runs for president, deposing of former presidents, and continued accumulation of wealth while the country remains the poorest in the hemisphere. Unfortunately, re-investment in the country remains at nil.
Most Ayitian citizens will refer to the Syrian class with baited breath and distaste. It appears that the Syrian Peril was not so unfounded after all.
Enclave: The Szekely (Ethnic Hungarians)
Country: Szekelyland (Transylvania) Romania
Over the centuries, the region that would become Transylvania (Szekelyudvarhely) has been under the dominion of various kingdoms and empires prior to falling within the current borders of Romania.
Their exact origin of these people is contested, but local legend states that they descended from Attila’s Huns. It is generally accepted that they are true Hungarians, or Magyars (descendants of Magyarized Turki peoples) who were transplanted to the frontier as guards. A current quote from a Szekelyland citizen expanded on this after being asked if he was truly a Hungarian. His response: “even more so.”
Historical research going back to 1118 reveals that they once fought on the behalf of Hungarian King Istvan II at Orsova. According to the research of Dr. Laszlo Erdelyl, “It was King Andras II who united Szekler Lands with that of the Saxons as the villages of Sebos and Daroc.”
Gaining their autonomy through military service, the peoples known as Szekely settled in Bihar County (West Romania) in the 12th century, which at that point, was a part of Hungary. By the 14th century, the Szekely were considered noblemen. Proving one’s lineage granted liberties such as freedom of movement, which allowed one to live anywhere in the country. Most citizens served their life at the behest of the king, while some of the prominent Szekely families evolved into nobility through intermarriages and purchasing land.
By the beginning of the 16th century, the Szekely nation formed as part of an alliance among three groups: Hungarian noblemen, German Saxons, and Szekely guardsmen. This alliance engaged in constant warfare with the Ottoman Empire in the ongoing Ottoman-Hungarian Wars (1368–1791). The most popular battle was the Battle of Szarhegy, which ended with the Ottoman Empire occupying the region during the 16th and 17th centuries (1541–1699), but Hungary regained its territories soon thereafter.
Due to the warfare, the population growth slowed. Villages that were once thriving and growing had their development halted. Ethnic composition had also changed due to mass deportations and massacres. This period marked the end of the military services that the Szeklers had provided for centuries.
The Compromise of 1867 created a dual monarchy that birthed the Austro-Hungarian Empire (Austria, Hungary, Bohemia, Moravia, Bukovina, Transylvania, Carniola, Kustenland, Croatia, Dalamatia, Fiume, and Galicia).
In 1876, administrative reform abolished the autonomous areas in the Kingdom of Hungary and thus unified the country. This ended the long-running autonomy of Szekler Land and created four countries: Udvarhely (previously known as Telegdiszek), Haromszek, Csik, and Maros-Torda (with the capital Marosvasarhely).
During World War I, they drew upon their military lineage by becoming the Szekely Division. Formed under Army Officer Karoly Kratochvil (1869–1946), they became part of the Transylvanian military district (November 1918).
Engaging with Romanian forces along the Eastern Front, they found themselves in a defensive position while constantly engaging the opposition. Severely weakened in the winter of 1919, by mid-April 1919, they surrendered to the Romanian Army.
Following the Treaty of Versailles (1919), the Austrian-Hungarian Empire officially ended, and Allied forces made the new Hungarian government of Simonyi-Semadam sign the Treaty of Trianon (June 4, 1920). It was assumed that the non-Hungarian regions wanted to annex more land, but the treaty also allowed Czechoslovakia and Romania to grab large portions of land. Boundaries were then redrawn, putting Transylvania within the borders of Romania as per a 1916 agreement with the Entente Powers (United Kingdom, France, Russia, and Italy) and Romania was allowed to take several regions, including Banat and Partium, if their armed forces agreed to enter the war. This moved many Szeklers who had been within the corners of Hungary into a new frontier.
Hungary regained the region prior to World War II, but lost it once more.
In 1940, the Soviet Union and Germany entered upon the German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact (Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact). The agreement stated the following:
The two countries agreed not to attack each other, “either independently or in conjunction with other powers; not to support any third power that might attack the other party to the pact; to remain in consultation with each other upon questions touching their common interests; not to join any group of powers directly or indirectly threatening one of the two parties; and to solve all differences between the two by negotiation or arbitration.”
This lasted for 10 years, with an automatic five-year extension if neither party gave a one-year notice of dissolution. Another agreement was to split Europe into separate spheres of influence. As a consequence, two-fifths of Transylvania rejoined Hungary due to the Soviet pressure on Romania.
The 1947, Paris Peace Treaties officially brought an end to the Great War, but since Hungary was on the side of the Axis and Romania sided with the Allies, the borders were once more redrawn giving the entirety of Transylvania back to Romania.
In 1952, the former province of Mures (which has the highest population of Szekler peoples) was designated the Magyar Autonomous Region. In 1960, it became the Mures Magyar Autonomous Region, which in 1968 divided into the nonautonomous districts of Mures and Harghira.
It was not long after this that calls for Sezekeyland to return to Hungary began. “We, the inhabitants of historic Székelyland and the Székely settlements, demand: Autonomy for Székelyland, Freedom for the Székelys!” Quoted from the December 1, 1918, the Gyulafehérvár Grand National Assembly’s Decision proclaimed complete national freedom to all nations living together and demanded that this promise made prior to World War I be kept.
The Romanian Parliament and government faced calls that they fulfil the international responsibilities they had taken on and provide for the real and effective equality of the autochthonous Székely community in its homeland. The Romanian Parliament was pressured to ratify the Székelyland Autonomy Statutes.
According to the 1334/2003 Resolution of the European Council, the “nation-state” concept included in the Constitution was outdated and was not to be an obstacle to local autonomy, yet the authorities denied the re-establishment of Székelyland’s autonomy by referring to the “nation-state” clause. Romanian Parliament demanded that the term “nation-state” be erased from the Constitution.
The Romanians thought the European Union should remedy the deprivation of Romanians’ collective rights that came to pass 86 years ago and make the creation of the Székely autonomous administrational region the condition of Romania’s accession.
“The United Nations Organization should supervise the establishment of the autonomous status of Székelyland” (The Grand Szekely Assembly, 2006).
Under pressure from Victor Orban, prime minister of Hungary and his Greater Hungary initiative, on May 28, 2020, the Romanian Senate decided on Szekely Land autonomy. The very next day, it was declined after receiving support only by the Democratic Alliance of Hungarians in Romania.
The goal was to create a Northern Transylvania region with the counties of Harghita and Covasna and the capital city of Mures. Along with these changes would come with the powers to create their local government and elect their president. Yet, the political strength of this ethnic enclave with the backing of Hungary will most likely never amount to anything because to allow concessions opens the floodgates.
Other ethnic enclaves throughout Europe will also start to ask for autonomous regions or to return regions to their countries of origin. This will lead to a destabilization and redrawing of Europe, redrafting of constitutions, and in some cases, start wars. Yet this is an ongoing issue that Bucharest worries about and the European Union has put a lot of money into.
Enclaves: Armenians, Abkhazian (Abkhazia), and Russians (South Ossetia)
Since the conclusion of the Russo-Georgian War, as known as the Five-Day War (2008), Russia has occupied the regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Considered autonomous regions by countries such as Nicaragua, Syria, Venezuela, the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic, and a few other “breakaway” territories, the current atmosphere within Georgia, as well as in the Russia-Ukraine War, rings eerily familiar to the Georgians.
The official start of the Russo-Georgian War is traced back to 2006, when then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was accused by then-President Mikheil Saakashvili of enflaming separatism within the above-mentioned regions. The lynchpin was the arrest of four Russian military officers and 12 civilians suspected of espionage. From there, Georgians living within Russia had their businesses closed and were promptly deported.
What followed was a series of skirmishes between the Georgian military and South Ossetian militia. Seizing the opportunity, Russian invaded, stating that they were assisting fellow Russians in distress. On the backend, Georgia was on the verge of joining NATO but unfortunately not under the collective defense agreement.
NATO, Great Britain, and the United States called for a ceasefire, while then-President George Bush sent in humanitarian aid and increased military support. Prior to the dispute, the U.S. had been training and equipping Georgian troops in both combat and drone use. Some of this went towards tactics involving the pacification of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
To understand what was really taking place means to go back even further to the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The development of a Georgian state, identity, and constitution became a goal during the fall of the Soviet Union. Ossetians and Abkhazians, not living in the region but in areas that became Georgia, wanted to keep their brethren close by.
While under Soviet rule, both regions were considered autonomous.
The regions of Abkahz and South Ossetia (cut off from North Ossetia and existing as an autonomous region within Russia) had wanted to remain within the Soviet Union to preserve their identity.
Previous efforts were crushed by the escalating conflict from November 1989 to January 1990 resulted in the radicalization of Georgians. After the creation of Georgia (1991), nationalist leader Zviad Gamsakhurdia (1991) was elected president.
The country pushed forward in developing its own separate identity, despite being home to over 80 ethnic groups. A national language and identity were created that were distinctly Georgian. Over the next 15 years, a nationalist fervor started to increase.
Armenians living within the newborn country saw themselves as targets of discrimination. An ongoing joke between politicians became guess which one is secretly Armenian. The punchline is that bad politicians are Armenians and good politicians are Georgians.
The Abkhazians fought a war in 1994 (Georgian-Abkhaz Conflict), leading to declaring independence in 1999, although this declaration was not recognized until the 2008 Russo-Georgian War.
Today, Georgians within the contested regions have been stripped of their passports, homes, and other signs of wealth and identity. Russian troops are stationed in both regions to provide military and financial support.
Georgian Foreign Minister David Zalkaliani stated, “Of course, talk of holding any kind of referendum (in South Ossetia) is unacceptable…when this territory in Georgia is occupied.”
Recently, The New York Times posted an article titled, “The Ransom: Haiti’s Lost Billions” detailing the sums given forcefully to France by Ayiti. As pleased as I was to read that people were becoming aware of another facet of Ayitian history, what made me a little uneasy was the implication that if the country had kept those billions, then it would have been smoother sailing.
To use the other countries in the region as comparison, which of them truly had a happy outcome? In Ayiti’s case, would this have kept the Syrians away or brought in more?
Would this have kept the United States from invading?
Would a class system not have developed?
Among Ayitians, the above topics are salacious. I look forward to the books that will develop from this current “hot topic,” but if reparations are given, then to whom?
The government of Ayiti? Gangs of Ayiti? Bourgeoisie class?
We are often fooled into thinking that most countries have a homogenous population. When conflicts arise, we look at it as black and white, but within almost every country various ethnic groups distinguish themselves by dress, language, or culture.
What becomes difficult is distinguishing them especially when borders were created out of expediency and occupation.
The Sezekly have been the preverbal hot potato for over a century. Would autonomy be the solution to Romania’s issue or would that also be an issue for both the Romanian government and the UN? In their case is autonomy one step away from making another request for independence? Does an Abkhazian-type future await them if they continue to push? Could this lead to armed disputes? How do the ongoing conversations about Romania and Moldova unifying factor into the Sezekly conversation?
Speaking of Abkhazian, who is in the right or wrong in this? Is Russia truly the hero? What can we say about Georgia’s position?
The Russian government has used the Russo-Georgian War (2008) to frame itself as the dashing prince in the war with Ukraine. Is this why some of their citizens are believing their propaganda?
As always, I do not have an answer. Just like yourself, all I can do is learn about both sides, stay cognitive of the parties involved, and hope for some type of resolution.
A peaceful one is always preferred.
Bar Gernika & Hotel - Basque Block, Boise, Idaho United States
Spanish Basque Mural - Basque Block - Boise, Idaho United States
Article from La Ruche displaying Anti-Syrien comments ca. 1940
“True Haitians”. The heads of the wealthiest families in Haiti.
Map of Central & Eastern Europe circa 1914 - Encyclopedia Britannica
2018 Protest of Szeklers backed by Budapest - Photo taken from Balkan Insight
Neighborhood in South Ossetia after Russian - Georgian War 2008 taken from Atlantic Council 2018