From Jabrayil to Los Angeles: The Story of an Azerbaijani Jewish Refugee

A refugee child from the Karabakh region, circa 1992/1993. (Credit: Ilgar Jafarov via Wikmedia Commons)
A refugee child from the Karabakh region, circa 1992-1993 (Credit: Ilgar Jafarov via Wikimedia Commons)

Ever since the flare-up of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in late September, I’ve been avidly following news of the situation on the ground. Until recently a frozen conflict for close to three decades, the dispute centers around the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh, a mountainous enclave primarily inhabited by ethnic Armenians but de jure recognized as part of Azerbaijan by the international community. While Nagorno-Karabakh Proper always had some areas with an Azerbaijani majority containing cultural and religious significance, such as the city of Shusha, the broader territory which fell under Armenian control included seven adjacent districts that were also Azerbaijani-majority. 

Armenians claim this further takeover outside the enclave was based on strategic and defensive needs following the war that met their unilateral declaration of independence in 1991, which they say was an expression of the universal right to self-determination. Azerbaijanis, however, claim that the secession was illegitimate in the first place, as the land was historically under Azerbaijani administration. Regardless of the context and rationale, the war’s culmination saw the displacement of some 700,000 Azerbaijanis from the Nagorno-Karabakh region, 200,000 Azerbaijanis deported from Armenia Proper, and 300,000 Armenians who fled pogroms and escalating anti-Armenian sentiment in Azerbaijan. 

My initial infatuation of the conflict was based off what I perceived as some striking parallels to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which as an observant Jew and the child of an Israeli mother had permeated my entire life. This mirrors interest I have in similar interethnic conflicts, such as in the former Yugoslavia. But once the recent war resurfaced in earnest, this interest was no longer in the abstract. Before I knew it, I was subsumed in the personal aspects of the conflict. In addition to following more Azerbaijani and Armenian pundits on social media than I could keep count, I had made dozens of friends from both communities. I saw their posts and pain, many who had friends and family, if not they themselves, directly impacted by the conflict. 

In this vein, I published an article on my assessment of the conflict, titled “Israel and Armenia: Parallel Experiences, Divergent Interests.” The primary purpose of the piece was to make the argument that Israel and Armenia have experiences which are strikingly similar, but at the same time possess differing geopolitical interests. My hope was that it presented a fairly balanced and objective analysis of the Israeli and Jewish relation to the conflict, which did not necessarily translate to exonerating or lambasting one side with regards to the dispute itself. Based on feedback I received from Azerbaijanis and Armenians, I believe I succeeded in that objective for the most part, though Armenians seemed to appreciate it more (perhaps owing in part to the article title and thumbnail picture). 

In the framework of my numerous interpersonal conversations on the conflict, however, one stuck out in particular. It stuck out not necessarily because it contrasted with the myriads of similar experiences of impacted persons in this conflict, but because the woman in question had a combination of factors that were particularly novel: Azerbaijani, a refugee from Nagorno-Karabakh, and Jewish. 

Azerbaijanis from diplomats to laymen often proudly boast of their 30,000-strong Jewish community, but the majority of these Jews are concentrated in big cities like Baku and Ganja, as well as towns such as Qırmızı Qəsəbə (aka “Red Town”). All these are outside of the occupied area, though Ganja is on the peripheral and had suffered missile strikes in the recent war. 

I therefore found the story particularly compelling. Moreover, I was already friends with this person a while before the recent escalations, where we were in a mutual Jewish Facebook group. I had known that her Azerbaijani advocacy caused some riffs in those circles, which had most members sympathetic to the Armenian plight. Ironically, one of her biggest defenders on the group was a Jewish Armenian (Jewish father, Armenian mother) who opposed her view on the conflict, but pointed out that he himself had no personal or familial relationship to the conflict, whereas this woman was a direct refugee. 

The background to how I came to know her personal story was in her directly reaching out to me following one such heated dispute in the group. She thanked me for being objective and fair to the Azerbaijani narrative, even though she knew at the same time that I was not taking a partisan stance, and often showed sympathy to aspects of the Armenian perspective. We then began talking about the conflict and her extensive personal story. At one point she told me she had written an article over the summer on the matter, but couldn’t find an outlet for it. Hearing this, I offered to report her story on my blog as I thought it definitely deserves to be heard.

Due to the woman’s desire to not go public with her name, she asked to use her paternal grandmother’s name, Telli Mamedova. She also has asked to pixelate the faces of her parents in the photos of her early childhood during this period due to them being recognizable.

Also, a disclaimer: The narrative presented below is my attempt to relay the story presented to me, as well as the content of extensive interpersonal conversation beyond the direct story, as faithfully as possible. It does not necessarily reflect my own views on the conflict or on any given issue discussed. Nor does its focus on the Azerbaijani portrayal serve to downplay Armenian suffering and experiences in this conflict. 

With that said, here is her story:

* * *

For most of her life, Telli had listened to stories about the Holocaust from her maternal grandparents – about the ghettos in Belarus, about how some escaped the Nazis, about how some were buried alive by the Nazis. Yet, she heard little about her father’s story as a refugee from Jabrayil, a city in the Karabakh region of Azerbaijan. Two instances from her childhood stick out in her mind. 

The first was soon after she had finally moved from the former Soviet Union to Colorado. Her family opened up a small fresh produce market. Word got out about her father’s background. One day their store windows were completely broken, where a note was left saying, “Get out of town you dirty Azeri.” 

The second was when she was only 9 years old, an experience she says she will never forget: she saw her father’s forehead completely split open. He had been celebrating New Year’s Eve at a popular Russian restaurant when he was cornered outside by several Armenian men and hit with a metal bat repeatedly. They only stopped when his friends realized what was happening and ran outside to stop the attack. As a child, she couldn’t understand why anyone would have so much hatred for her father. It wasn’t until a few years ago that she took the time to hear his story and learn about the other painful side of his history. 

Jabrayil is the administrative capital of the district surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh with the same name, one of seven lost during the war. At the time Telli’s father lived there, it had only about 50,000 residents. But the place was special, she says. It was said that you could plant anything in the soil and it would flourish. His childhood home had a large yard with many pomegranate trees and other fruits and vegetation. Telli’s grandmother was one of the first women in that region to be director of the education system, and was sent on numerous occasions into the capital to speak on behalf of the Karabakh region, something the family is proud of to this day. She was not only the mother of six children but also a stern woman who was able to build herself the career and respect she desired. Telli’s paternal family lived in the region peacefully for generations. 

But the fall of the Soviet Union prompted the Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh to break apart from what had until that point been an autonomous oblast within Soviet Azerbaijan, opting instead to unify with neighboring Armenia. This led to a multi-year war in the early 1990s between the two countries, which left 30,000 casualties between the warring sides and hundreds of thousands of Azeris displaced from the broader Karabakh region. Among those displaced was Telli’s family. They had to leave everything behind and flee in fear of being driven out by Armenian forces – like many of their neighbors already had been. Some had to pass through Iran and wait for safe passage back into Azerbaijan. Yet others, Telli says, ended up dying from the pure stress and heartbreak of losing everything and watching their loved ones killed. When the war ended, Armenia ended up with 20% of what had been Azerbaijani territory. To this day the pain remains in her family. So too the question: when can they go back home?

As a passionately Jewish woman, Telli was always curious to hear how her Belarusian Jewish mother was treated by the Azeri people when she would visit with Telli’s father, whose paternal side is a long-standing line of Mountain Jews (his maternal side being local Azeris). Telli’s parents met in Leningrad (modern-day St. Petersburg), where they attended medical school together. Her mother was a pediatrician that often brought over medical supplies with her from Belarus and treated the local children in her husband’s home region. They would in turn present her with gifts such as cheese, lamb, and fruit. 

Telli was not even 1 years old when she first came to Jabrayil during her parents’ back-and-forth visits to the area, where they eventually settled from 1992-1993 after escaping localized issues in Belarus. Jebrayil is where she celebrated her very first birthday, picked pomegranates with her grandfather, and, she says with a laughing emoji, where her uncle “shaved my head bald.”

She was 3 when the Karabakh War reached its peak and her family had to subsequently resettle in a refugee camp in Baku, where they then took a treacherous five-day train journey across Chechnya en route to Belarus during the dissolution of the USSR. There they picked up their Jewish Soviet emigration paperwork which had since arrived (a neighbor had checked in on it while they were in Azerbaijan), allowing them to move to Colorado in August 1994, where her parents still remain, and where she grew up until moving to Los Angeles later in life. Strangely enough, the few foggy memories of Azerbaijan she has are not related to the war, but of a shoe her mother had bought at the bazaar and of the Caspian Sea. 

Telli close to the age of 2 with her parents at a wedding in Belarus, August 1992.

Telli speaks fondly of Azerbaijan’s historical treatment of its Jews, among the oldest Jewish diasporas in the world. Known as the Mountain Jews, they are said to be one of the lost tribes of Israel that left after the destruction of the First Temple in 587 BCE and eventually settled in the region that is today Azerbaijan. In these lands they were able to flourish peacefully, developing and maintaining their unique Judeo-Tat language as well as their own Judiac cultural practices. Mountain Jews, she says, rarely experienced antisemitism and were even able to even have their own Jewish towns. She makes mention of the renowned Krasnaya Sloboda (using the Russian term for the aforementioned Qırmızı Qəsəbə) in the Quba region, said to be the only all-Jewish town outside of Israel and the United States. She also notes that her own father never knew what antisemitism even was until he had gone to Leningrad to attend school. 

Telli adds that Azerbaijan has its fair share of history with Ashkenazi Jews as well, who started to settle in the oil-rich capital of Baku in the early 1800s. They had a further influx into the country during WW2, where over 10,000 took refuge upon fleeing Nazi-occupied Europe. Telli says that many Jews were able to hold high positions in Azerbaijan, in contrast to the case in many other parts of the Soviet Union and indeed the world. 

While a majority-Muslim country, Telli lauds Azerbaijan for having always been welcoming towards Mountains Jews, Ashkenazi Jews, Georgian Jews, Bukharian Jews, and Kurdish Jews. Telli suspects it is in part because of this long Jewish history in Azerbaijan – with none of the stories of exile or ethnic cleansing to which Jews had become so accustomed – that present-day Azerbaijan and Israel have such strong relations. Many Azeris, she says, know the pain of being exiled from their lands. Perhaps this shared experience draws them closer into a diplomatic friendship with Israel, where many Jews have stories which mirror those from Nagorno-Karabakh. She also observes that this strong relationship has been maintained despite the disapproval of Azerbaijan’s powerful neighbors, Turkey and Iran. 

On this note, Telli bemoans what she deems as the unawareness of many in the Jewish community regarding the welcoming and safe environment Jews have found in Azerbaijan. She points to a recent op-ed published in the Jerusalem Post by Alex Galitsky, who is the communications director at the Armenian National Committee of America. Titled “Israel should rethink its relationship with Azerbaijan,” Telli claims Galitsky draws a false equivalence between Azerbaijan’s long-standing territorial conflict with Armenia and the Iranian regime’s genocidal hatred of Israel – implying that Armenia is the target of unwarranted hatred and violence.

The article, in her account, also claims that Azerbaijan is not committed to tolerance and that it does not support the unique Jewish community which has lived freely within its borders for millennia. But, she counters, her own father’s experience and the experience of the wider Jewish community in Azerbaijan show that to be untrue. Jews had always been welcomed and supported in Azerbaijan, and even given refuge there from the Holocaust.

“Where was Armenia then?” she asks. “The only way in which Israel should reconsider the relationship would be in exploring opportunities for closer collaboration and more partnerships. Just as Azerbaijan has been supportive of the Jewish community for thousands of years, we need to do the same for them now.”

Telli, nearly 4 years old, together with her father after arriving in Colorado, September 1994.

In regards to Azerbaijan’s recent victory over the Nagorno-Karabakh region earlier this month, where the country reclaimed most of the territory following 27 years of frozen conflict, Telli remains elated at the ability for her family to revisit their old home and hopeful for a better future. She quotes her father as reminiscing the days before the war, where Armenians and Azerbaijanis in Karabakh lived in peaceful coexistence as neighbors. She says that during the height of the war’s interethnic conflict, her uncle’s family hid Armenians and allowed them safe passage. Moreover, she notes that the family in Belarus who had checked in on their Soviet refugee paperwork was Armenian, and that her father’s best friend when he later relocated to Colorado was an Armenian from Baku. 

Telli acknowledges my concerns over the current state of affairs between both peoples, particularly damaged by decades of conflict. But in addition to the numerous reports of cultural desecration, treatment of POWs, and nationalistic rhetoric from both sides, she also points to more reassuring stories. “Did you see the video of the Armenians taking care of the gravestones of the Azeris who used to live there waiting for them to come back?” she messaged me, with a cry emoji. “And the Azeris taking care of the church and their old bibles?”

The video in question is a Russian-language clip showing how during the de facto population exchanges of Armenians and Azerbaijanis into their respective polities, Armenians in a village in Armenia took care of Azeri gravesites which were depopulated of its ethnic Azeri population. It also shows Azeris in Azerbaijan safeguarding the Armenian church in Baku with its vast library.

When I in turn sent her the video of an Azerbaijani military officer speaking cordially with Armenian villagers in the recaptured Aghdam region – where he offered them the ability to remain as full Azerbaijani citizens, or else to assist them in moving their belongings if they preferred to relocate – she likewise responded with the same emotion, saying that she wishes for them to stay and looks forward to a day of rekindled relations between the respective communities in Karabakh. 

About the Author
A Brooklyn native, Daniel Edelstein is a Jewish issues writer, prospective law student, and Brooklyn College graduate, where he majored in political science.