The "Home Within" Project:

Exile from the Caucasus

Created by Dr. Şölen Şanlı Vasquez

The "Home Within" Project

This project aims to share my family history of exile and personal experience with immigration, informed by my sociological training.

The Home Within project aims to bring migration stories to a wider audience, with an eye on the socio-historical causes of the migration from "home," the circumstances the migrant populations face upon arrival in the host country, and their sense of memory, home, belonging, language, and culture.


I aim to convey to the reader the challenges and joys of migration, to build bridges of solidarity, commiseration and greater understanding, in a world where an ever greater number of people are leaving their homes to escape difficult conditions and to look for a better future for themselves and their families.


The first installment of the project is "Exile from the Caucasus." Here, I tell the story of my people, Circassians (or Adyghe in their native language) who have been exiled from the Russian Empire to the Ottoman Empire (predecessor to modern Turkey) in the second half of the 19th century.


Please stay tuned for more migration stories. Start by sharing yours below.

Who am I and why am I telling this story?

My grandmother, Müzeyyen Gürsoy in Kayseri, Turkey, 1938

A personal story

This is, first and foremost my maternal grandmother's story. For more, please view the section Stories of Exile: My Family's Story

Me, Şölen Şanlı Vasquez in San Francisco in 2020

Why I'm telling this story

I have a Ph.D. in Sociology and teach at the Santa Rosa Junior College in California, USA. I have created this project as a Stanford University EPIC Fellow. It is designed as a teaching tool to make migration come to life for undergraduate college students. For more on who I am, please see here.

Watch this Google Earth video to catch a glimpse of my ancestors' journey. To study this Google Earth project more deeply, please go here.

And here is my introduction to the project (also available with Turkish subtitles)

Many Circassians ended up settling in Jordan (in the section Stories of Exile: The Khutatzade Family, I explore the story of a Circassian family that settled in Amman). This fascinating documentary chronicles the journey Jordan's Prince Ali bin Hussein took on horseback from Jordan to Caucasia to travel the Circassian exodus in reverse (with Turkish subtitles, some parts in English). For Circassians' role in building Jordan's capital Amman, you may also see Hamed-Troyansky (2017).

Migration: Key Concepts and Numbers

Why do people migrate?

Push and Pull Factors: Why people leave their home countries and why they're drawn to other places

Source: "What Does it mean to be an American" Project, Stanford University,

Voluntary vs. Involuntary (forced) Migration

The question of whether some people migrate across national borders involuntarily whereas others migrate voluntarily makes two fundamentally flawed assumptions:

  1. It takes the legitimacy of borders for granted. Historians such as Benedict Anderson and Eric Hobsbawm have shown that nation-states are 19th century inventions that do not contain a naturally existing group of people (a "nation") but may haphazardly bring groups together (or exclude groups) who may or may not have ethnic, religious, linguistic, and cultural ties to each other (see also the Eduardo Galeano quote below).

  2. Even when people leave their home countries voluntarily due to economic reasons (labor migration), this is often not a choice freely made between many available options. We need to keep in mind that the decision to leave one's home to make a better life is more than a personal decision. Factors like global economic inequalities, histories of colonialism, and the existence of smugglers who help migrants cross borders for a fee all play a role.

Take what Eduardo Galeano writes about the creation of Middle Eastern countries like Jordan, Iraq, and Lebanon by European colonial powers like Britain and France.

“Jordan was an idea I had one spring at about four-thirty in the afternoon.”

Winston Churchill

Definition of Refugees vs. Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs)


According to the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees, a "refugee" is a person who,

"owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or ... is unwilling to return to it."

A crucial requirement to be considered a "refugee" is crossing an international border.

Internally displaced persons (IDPs)

Internally displaced persons (IDPs) are "persons or groups of persons who have been forced or obliged to flee or to leave their homes or places of habitual residence, in particular as a result of or in order to avoid the effects of armed conflict, situations of generalized violence, violations of human rights or natural or human-made disasters, and who have not crossed an internationally recognized State border” (Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, 1998).

The key elements of this definition are:

1) The involuntary character of the movement.

2) The fact that such movement takes place within national borders. IDPs include both citizens as well as other habitual residents of the country in which they are displaced, which may include, for example, stateless persons.


Forcibly Displaced People of the World Today, by Numbers

Today, exile and forced displacement continue to be major global problems.

Syrian Refugees in Turkey

Note how Turkey and Syria top the charts above. About 6.6 million Syrians are either internally displaced or refugees. Approximately 3.6 million Syrian refugees live in Turkey. Thousands of refugees from Syria, African countries, and Afghanistan die every year attempting the perilous journey across the Mediterranean Sea to reach Europe. They aim to seek asylum in Europe or other rich nations like the U.S., Canada, or Australia. However, asylum seekers are often kept in refugee camps while they put their application together and await the decision, a process which can take years. About 50,000 Syrian refugees are living in refugee camps in harsh conditions on Greek islands, on the outskirts of Europe. These refugees have been left in limbo by the European Union countries who have been slow in their response to one of largest refugee crises of our day.

Turmoil began in Syria in March 2011, initially with protests against Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad. In the ensuing civil war, "in Syria, whose population was 22.4 million in April 2011, at least 465,000 people have lost their lives since 2011, hundreds of thousands of people have been injured, and more than 6-7 million Syrians have been displaced within the country. The chaotic environment in Syria has resulted in the most serious refugee exodus in the world’s history. According to UNHCR data, the number of Syrian refugees who have sought asylum and been registered in the five neighboring countries is 5,626,914 as of August 2019, of which 3,643,870 reside in Turkey" (Erdoğan 2019).

Kurdish IDPs in Turkey

The second major group of forcibly displaced people in Turkey is internally displaced Kurdish people. It is estimated that 2-3 million Kurdish people have been internally displaced in Turkey due to the depopulation and destruction of thousands of Kurdish villages, under suspicion that the villagers were cooperating with the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party), a terrorist organization according to the Turkish state. The Kurdish IDPs live in overpopulated urban centers and suffer from poverty, unemployment, and discrimination.

Forget-me-nots growing wild in the Bay Area. Photo: mine.

The Armenian Genocide

In The Great Catasrophe, Thomas de Waal writes: "In 1915, shortly after the Ottoman Empire entered World War I, the Young Turk government ordered the mass deportation of the Ottoman Armenians from their homes to the deserts of Syria; many were massacred; great numbers died on the marches; their culture was erased; a few years later, in the Republic of Turkey, barely 10 percent of them remained" (de Waal 2015).

It is believed approximately 1 million Armenians were massacred and forcibly displaced from their homes during World War I. However, this history is widely contested by Turkey, which does not believe the massacres were systematic but rather, a result of war conditions and a response to the suspicion that Armenians were working for Russia.

April 24th has a special meaning as Armenian Genocide Memorial Day. On that day in 2021, I went on a hike with my family near San Francisco and found wild forget-me-nots growing on the side of the trail. It was an emotional moment. Here I was, trying to empathize with my ancestors who were massacred and exiled. How could I not empathize with the Armenian people who lost their homes, memories, culture, and in many cases, all of their loved ones? The Turkish government denies the genocide by alleging falsified documents or painting the genocide allegations as a European ploy against the Ottomans. This denial is nonsensical as the historical and academic evidence for the genocide is staggering. So, how can we help the Armenian people heal? The recognition of what happened to them is the first step. On April 24th, 2021, President Biden became the first American president to recognize what happened to Armenians as "genocide." Previous governments shied away from this recognition due to fear of hurting their relations with Turkey. Biden's recognition has been hailed by the Armenian diaspora as a welcome but overdue development.

Other Forcible Displacement Events in the Ottoman Empire and Turkish Republic in the 20th century: "Turkification" attempts of the Balkans and the Southeast

Greek-Turkish Population Exchange

A compulsory form of population exchange was legally sanctioned with the Lausanne Treaty of 1923, which sanctioned the expulsion of all Christian Greek populations living in the territories of the newly formed Turkish Republic from Turkey to Greece, and Muslim Turks living in Greece from Greece to Turkey. The goal was to create religious and ethnic homogeneity in each country. Approximately 1.6 million Greeks and Turks had to leave their homelands, in an attempt at demographic engineering. Source:

Deportations of Greeks

"It was on March 16, 1964, that the Turkish Parliament passed a decree leading to one of the largest and most traumatic episodes of forced migration in its recent history. This had been a long time coming: The course of anti-minority policies, aka Turkification, was intensified as it turned against the Rum Polites in the context (or pretext) of the civil strife in Cyprus. With a decision to annul a 1930 treaty unilaterally, Turkey paved the way to an accelerated expulsion of some 12,500 Greeks within a few months – a number that would quadruple over the next two years." (Ors 2021)

An Ongoing Tragedy: Nakba, Palestinian Exodus of 1948

"The 1948 Palestinian exodus occurred when more than 700,000 Palestinian Arabs – about half of prewar Palestine's Arab population – fled or were expelled from their homes, during the 1948 Palestine war. The exodus was a central component of the fracturing, dispossession and displacement of Palestinian society, known as the Nakba, in which between 400 and 600 Palestinian villages were destroyed and Palestinian history erased, and also refers to the wider period of war itself and the subsequent oppression up to the present day." (Wikipedia 2021).

5.6 million Nakba refugees and their descendants are currently under UNRWA's mandate.

In May 2021, tensions between Israel and Palestine were elevated as Israel attempted to evict "dozens of Palestinians in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of Jerusalem to give their homes to Jewish settlers, which the United Nations has described as a possible war crime" (Democracy Now, 2021). Some Palestinian activists call what's happening in the occupied territories "ethnic cleansing" (ibid.).

The Major Forced Displacement Events in U.S. History:

The Atlantic Slave Trade and the Trail of Tears

"Between 1525 and 1866, according to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, 12.5 million Africans were shipped to the New World. 10.7 million survived the dreaded Middle Passage, disembarking in North America, the Caribbean and South America" (Louise-Gates 2013). In the background, you see the diagram of the slave ship, Brookes. Please pay attention to how little room there is for each person. No wonder close to 2 million perished during the journey.

The Trail of Tears, 1830s

The forced removal of five major Native American tribes from the Southeast to the west of the Mississippi. Approximately 100,000 Native Americans were forced to leave their native lands by land and water. It is estimated 15,000 of them died along the way.

"The roots of forced relocation lay in greed. The British Proclamation of 1763 designated the region between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River as Indian Territory... In 1829 a gold rush occurred on Cherokee land in Georgia. Vast amounts of wealth were at stake: at their peak, Georgia mines produced approximately 300 ounces of gold a day. Land speculators soon demanded that the U.S. Congress devolve to the states the control of all real property owned by tribes and their members. That position was supported by Pres. Andrew Jackson, who was himself an avid speculator. Congress complied by passing the Indian Removal Act (1830)."

Pauls, Elizabeth Prine. "Trail of Tears". Encyclopedia Britannica, 11 Nov. 2019,

Why are Populations Forcibly Removed?

Greed, Power, and Demographic Engineering

The Atlantic Slave Trade was motivated by greed and economic profit. The slaves were plucked away from their homelands, without their consent or control and shipped to the "New World" for 350 years.

The economic benefit of slavery to the U.S. economy is indisputable:

"The bodies of the enslaved served as America’s largest financial asset, and they were forced to maintain America’s most exported commodity. In 60 years, from 1801 to 1862, the amount of cotton picked daily by an enslaved person increased 400 percent. The profits from cotton propelled the US into a position as one of the leading economies in the world, and made the South its most prosperous region. The ownership of enslaved people increased wealth for Southern planters so much that by the dawn of the Civil War, the Mississippi River Valley had more millionaires per capita than any other region" (Lockhart 2019).

The Trail of Tears and other forced expulsions of Native Americans happened to make way for white settlers and to economically benefit them.

The deportations and expulsions in the Caucasus, Balkans and Anatolia have largely happened due to demographic engineering, which also has greed, money, and power at its heart. The Ottoman Empire attempted "Turkification" of the Balkans and the Southeast through refugee settlements. Settling Circassians, a Muslim refugee group, in areas of high religious diversity or a challenging population was one way to make sure the balance of power was in favor of the Ottoman state.

Exile Routes and Resettlement of Circassians

It is estimated that at least one million refugees were forcibly displaced from Northwestern Caucasia and arrived in Ottoman territories 1860-1914 (Hamed-Troyansky 2018). Just in the 1863-1864 period, 80 and 90 percent of the western Circassian population had left Russia, and up to a quarter of the refugees died before reaching their new homes in the Ottoman Empire, constituting a devastating refugee and humanitarian crisis (ibid.).

This Slate article asks the question: Was Sochi (the site for the 2014 Winter Olympics and Circassians' homeland), "the site of modern Europe’s first genocide, a crime against humanity that presaged many of the worst atrocities of the 20th century"? I will go deeper into this question in section The Great Circassian Exile - Büyük Sürgün.

Resettlement of Circassians in the Ottoman Empire. Wikimedia Commons.
Circassian flag, representing the twelve tribes.

Who are the Circassians?

Circassian (Çerkes) is an umbrella term used in Turkey to refer to the peoples of Northwestern Caucasia. There are twelve Adyghe tribes: Abzakh, Bzhedugh, Hatuqwai, Mamkhlegh, Natukhai, Temirgoi, Yegeruqwai, Zhaney, Shapsugh, Ubykh, Besleney, and Kabardin. To the south of Circassians, down the Black Sea coast, lived Abazins and Abkhaz, or Abkhazians, referred to as “Abaza.” (Hamed-Troyansky 2018). The peoples of the Northcentral Caucasus, Ossetians, Ingush, and Chechens are also often considered Circassian in contemporary Turkey (for its political significance, see Alankuş 2011).

Why "home within"?

I believe many of us have a specific place we think of when we use the word "home." For me, it's my childhood home in Istanbul. I suspect, for my grandmother, it was the Circassian village she grew up in, Hatıp Köyü. But home is more than a place, it is the language we speak, the customs we follow, the people that surround us, the feeling of safety. For some of us, it's a childhood home (if we're lucky). For some, we search for that safe home forever (think refugees).

I believe we all carry that sense of a warm and safe home, within us,

whether that would be a real place or a place we aspire to one day have ...

In San Francisco where I live, there is a local agency called "A Home Within" that serves foster children. Foster children or children who have been subject to abuse in their own homes may fall in the latter category.


The Home Within project is an exploration of our definition of "home". In my mind it's a magical long-lost place that belongs to childhood. It is the place we think of when we are homesick. What is it to others?

What does it mean to never be able to go "home" again, because home has been destroyed by war or a natural disaster?

What if your home is still there but the territory has been occupied by a hostile group and it is not safe to return?

What if it's not safe to live where you consider home because you happen to be LGBTQ?

I consider myself a student of Circassian culture. My goal is to build bridges between communities who have never left their homes, those who always carry their long-lost homes within, and everyone in between. My vision is to collaborate with anyone who is willing to deeply engage with their ancestors' migration stories. If you're interested in collaborating, please communicate with me by using the form below OR by emailing me.

"Les Voyageurs" by Bruno Catalano.

I believe migrants are exactly like Bruno Catalano's "Travelers." To me, my journey away from home always felt like this: like losing or missing a body part. This is despite all my privileges: the fact that, I've chosen to emigrate "by choice" (more on this later), I was supported by an economically stable family, both financially and spiritually, the fact that I spoke the language of the county I immigrated to (first, the UK, then, the U.S.), the fact that I was highly educated, and the fact that I had my "papers." What are others' experiences like? I'd like to explore that question. Here is a short essay I wrote on being an immigrant.