This article was first published on Meydan TV. An edited version is republished here under a content partnership agreement.
The Yevlakh region of Azerbaijan, a central transport hub of railways and roads, is located 280 kilometers from the capital Baku, above the Kura River.
Walking along the streets that stretch from the old bridge over the Kura river to the Yevlakh railway station, you can meet people who stand out among the locals with their different dialects, appearance, and way of life.
Although most call them “Gypsies,” they call themselves “Ajem Kurds” and say that their ancestors moved here from Iran in the 1940s and 1950s. In the Yevlakh region, they settled on several streets, which the locals dubbed the “Gypsy Quarter.”
The ethnographer Emil Kerimov told Meydan TV, that the people living in Yevlakh might be, in fact, gypsies or Roma, as they are called in Europe. In the 14th century, representatives of this ethnic group moved from India and spread throughout Europe.
It is difficult to determine exactly how many Roma currently live in Azerbaijan as not all of them have ID cards. But according to unofficial data for 2012–2014, there were about 10,000 Roma living in Azerbaijan.
In Yevlakh, state data indicates there are 2,500 gypsy residents. And yes, this community is referred to as “gypsies” in official state statistics.
And yet, the language spoken by the community is Kurdish. This was confirmed to Meydan TV by the Chairman of the Association for the Preservation of Roma Culture, Shukru Pyundik, who heard the audio recordings made by Meydan TV's film crew in Yevlakh. Among the Roma, some speak Kurdish. And in general, Roma has Kurdish, Alevi, and Abazi branches.
According to residents of Yevlakh, these people came from Iran and are Muslims. Therefore, the ethnographer Emil Kerimov suggests that already at the time of their resettlement from Iran, they were presented not as gypsies/Roma, but as Kurds.
In general, Azerbaijan is considered a long-standing place of residence of the Kurds, including the Ajem.
Up until the first Karabakh conflict in the early 1990s, Kurds traditionally lived in Eastern Azerbaijan and the Nakchivan Autonomous Republic. At present, there are at least 60,000 Ajem Kurds. Most of them identify as Shiite Muslims.
History of the Karabakh Kurds
The arrival of the Kurds in Azerbaijan, and in general, in the South Caucasus, took place in different periods. The first mention of the appearance of the Kurds in Karabakh is associated with the Mongol invasion in the 13th century.
The Kurds, who came here with the Ottoman army in 1589 during the Safavid-Ottoman war, settled in the territory of present-day Eastern Azerbaijan.
As a result of the wars that took place in this region in 1918–1920, some groups of Muslim Kurds living in Azerbaijan moved to Armenia.
After the occupation of Karabakh, the Kurds were forced to move to other regions of Azerbaijan.
According to the results of the 2009 census, 6,100 Kurds lived in Azerbaijan. According to Western experts, Kurds make up approximately 2.8 percent of the population of Azerbaijan. It is assumed that more than 200,000 Kurds currently live in Azerbaijan.
Back in the settlement, the living conditions and complaints by the community speak to the burden of life here. There is no running water, sewage, or roads. Rubbish bins overflow with garbage.
The local residents who did agree to speak with Meydan TV complained about the lack of services overall. In addition to water and sanitation issues, there is no gas or electricity in some parts of the neighborhood.
Local officials say they have not received official complaints but that they will look into the issues now that they have been made aware of them after Meydan TV's inquiry.
Poor living conditions and lack of employment opportunities are not the only problems the community faces. Many of the children growing up in that community are not sent to school and have no formal education.
Here too, local authorities say, although they have tried in the past to convince the parents to send their children to school, they have not listened. Parents who spoke to Meydan TV said they were unable to afford school costs.
According to lawyer Samad Rahimli, regardless of traditions, customs, and financial situation, secondary general education in Azerbaijan is mandatory:
The executive branch can achieve this with the help of the police. First, it is necessary to carry out educational work. If the parents continue to resist, individual measures can be taken against them. There is administrative responsibility for obstructing a child’s education, and a fine of 100 manats is provided for individuals. And for coercion to begging, 15 days of arrest are required. If parents behave this way on an ongoing basis for a long time, then they may be limited in parental rights. In this regard, the executive branch should go to court. But this requires political will, which the executive authorities do not have.
Unlike Azerbaijan, in Europe, the rights to integration and education of the Roma living there are generally respected. They are free to observe their traditions and customs, explained lawyer Rahimli. In addition, in Europe, the state provides financial assistance to families so that children can study, added Rahimli. In the case of Azerbaijan, the Council of Europe has placed an obligation on the country to ensure the rights of its ethnic minorities. The country also adopted the UN international covenants on civil and political, economic, social, and cultural rights and acceded to the 1965 convention on the abolition of all forms of racial discrimination.
And yet, discrimination is what the local residents face. During the visit to the neighborhood, one resident was caught on cameras yelling, “they [the gypsies] dishonor Yevlakh throughout the country.”
The residents of the “gypsy quarter” in Yevlakh, feel differently. They consider themselves part of Azerbaijan and the Azerbaijani people. And yet, they are poorer than the majority of the local population, are less likely to find work, and thus far, not a single state structure has responded to their appeals. Find a full video explaining the situation of the Ajem Kurds below.