Poland’s Allure for Tajikistan’s Exiles

Despite recent right-wing populist rule, Warsaw has become a base for the Central Asian country’s refugees and political opposition

Poland’s Allure for Tajikistan’s Exiles
Photo illustration by Joanna Andreasson for New Lines Magazine. Image source: Alex Ivashenko

For years, Asliddin Sherzamonov has been looking to escape the oppression and prejudice of his homeland, Tajikistan. When he moved to Russia, as so many Tajiks do, he thought he had found a solution and hoped to carve out a new life. But the ever-present corruption forced him to trade Moscow for Bishkek, the youthful, lively capital of Kyrgyzstan, and he soon enrolled at a university. Once there, he felt huge relief.

“I made really amazing friends,” the 31-year-old told New Lines. “I decided that it will be my home.”

But just when Sherzamonov thought everything had fallen into place, his world collapsed. Two years ago, he watched as his uncle was imprisoned by Tajikistan’s government, and a close relative and community leader was killed by the country’s military. “This psychological issue will be with all of the community for 10 or 20 years,” Sherzamonov said. “The community was broken and still is broken.”

Sherzamonov is a member of Tajikistan’s Pamiri minority, an ethnic group that has long been marginalized in the Central Asian country. Their unique religious and cultural ways are at odds with the homogeneous vision held by the country’s dictatorial President Emomali Rahmon, who has ruled, at times violently, for 30 years.

Pamiris make up fewer than 200,000 of Tajikistan’s population of around 10 million, and most live in the large, remote area of Gorno-Badakhshan, amid icy mountains and bright-blue lakes. The largely self-governing region covers all of eastern Tajikistan, surrounded by Afghanistan to its west and China to its east. Sherzamonov himself was born in Khorog, the region’s capital. After decades of repression the state continues to engage in the systematic destruction of Pamiri culture, and protests against Rahmon’s regime have been increasing.

Many Pamiris who fled the country have found an unlikely home in Poland, bolstered by the broader Tajik opposition movement that took up residence there some years before. From their perch in Warsaw, they are planting the seeds of dissent among Tajiks at home and abroad and planning a future after the Rahmon regime.

Predominantly Catholic, white Poland may seem an unexpected place for a Central Asian opposition group, but its comparatively liberal humanitarian visa rules and proximity to Germany, which tends to be more welcoming of Muslim migrants than other countries in the region, have made it attractive. The Polish language’s relative closeness to Russian, which many in Tajikistan speak, has allowed the refugees to carve out an unexpected niche for themselves within the growing ecosystem of non-European immigrants in the country.

A year and a half ago, Sherzamonov, now an artist-turned-activist, joined his exiled father in the Polish capital and a community of several hundred Pamiris who arrived in the country through various routes: some as refugees via the dangerous migrant path through Belarus, others as activists and human rights defenders who obtained humanitarian visas, and still others as students studying at Polish universities. Some Pamiri refugees choose to journey onward through Europe after making it to Poland in contravention of European Union regulations, which dictate that people apply for asylum in the first country where they arrive.

Drinking a beer at a dimly lit Warsaw cafe, Sherzamonov would not look out of place at an avant-garde underground show in the Bushwick area of Brooklyn. “Poland is an amazing country,” he told me, dressed in vintage clothes with his long hair in a bun and tattoos running down his forearms. “It’s a young country with a lot of opportunity.”

Pamiris speak their own languages, and unlike most in the Sunni Muslim-majority country, they practice Ismailism, a subsect of Shiite Islam. They also have independent leaders who often hold more sway in their villages than state authorities do — a form of autonomy that irks the Rahmon regime. During the country’s protracted civil war in the 1990s, following the end of the Soviet Union, Pamiris were singled out and killed in what Human Rights Watch has described as ethnic cleansing.

They celebrate holidays in ways that would seem strange to other Muslims, often with songs. Pamiris do not pray in mosques but rather at home or in cultural centers, and women in the community generally do not wear hijabs or cover their hair. During the holy month of Ramadan, they are not required to fast.

Protests erupted in Pamiri villages and towns following the alleged extrajudicial execution of a Pamiri man in late 2021, and the government began to violently crack down on protesters and community leaders the following year, in May 2022. It was during this wave of repression that Sherzamonov’s relative, Mamadbokir Mamadbokirov, was killed. Although the Tajik Interior Ministry claimed that he died as a result of a dispute with his supporters, Sherzamonov says he was gunned down in Khorog by masked men he maintains were working for the government, as drones recorded the assassination overhead.

Since then, Tajik forces have killed dozens of and imprisoned over 100 people. Sherzamonov was a particularly vulnerable target for Rahmon’s regime — not only is he Pamiri, but he is also the son of a prominent politician opposed to the government who had fled the country to Poland several years prior. Sherzamonov said his uncle was arrested because of this connection and faces a possible 18 years in prison.

He knew the refuge he found in Bishkek could not be permanent: Not only does Kyrgyzstan have extradition agreements with Tajikistan, but Russia, which dominates Central Asia politically and has extradited outspoken Pamiris to Tajikistan, frequently collaborates with Kyrgyz authorities.

“You’re paranoid that someone is looking for you,” Sherzamonov said, recalling the two-month period in which he hid in his apartment for fear of being abducted by state authorities. “My friends are coming, taking my dog outside, all the windows are closed, and I was not allowed to even look through the windows in case there are some special forces around.”

In July, well-informed confidants told him it was no longer safe for him in Bishkek. Through personal connections, he was able to arrange a secure military escort onto a flight to Turkey and eventually made it to Georgia, where it was easier for him to apply for a visa to EU countries. With the help of the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, a Polish nongovernmental organization that monitors violations around the world, he was finally able to come to Poland in September 2022.

Since 2015, when the Tajik government cracked down on several political parties in the country, Poland has quietly grown into a focal point of Tajik opposition activity in Europe, hosting political leaders, independent journalists and activists working against Rahmon’s regime.

“The door to Poland is wider than to other European Union countries,” said a Tajik woman who works at the Helsinki Foundation. Even from the safety of Warsaw, she spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing for her family back home.

When she first arrived some years ago, she still worked for a rights organization in Tajikistan, even receiving a salary. But since then, Rahmon’s screws have tightened. Now even those not directly involved in politics have begun to find their lives difficult or realized they are at risk of arrest. For the woman, this means finding work in Poland and becoming part of a group of “new activists who are trying to be here.”

“In the 1990s, families of people from the opposition would flee to Russia, where they got by quite well,” said Anna Cieslewska, a social anthropologist researching Central Asia and the South Caucasus at Collegium Civitas, a university in Warsaw. “For some time, Russia hasn’t been a safe country [for them], so they started to leave Russia and come to Europe,” she told New Lines.

The full-scale invasion of Ukraine, now in its second year, has also pushed would-be migrants away from Russia, fearful that they will be conscripted into Moscow’s fight. The mostly Muslim Central Asian countries spread from the Caspian Sea to China have long relied on Russia as a place to work, and their economies, particularly that of Tajikistan, rely on significant labor remittances.

As Russia began to extradite Tajik opposition figures, and later Pamiris, to Tajikistan, emigrants were forced to look for other options, especially after Rahmon’s 2015 crackdown when the government branded one of the main opposition parties a terrorist group and began arresting its members.

Despite its xenophobic reputation under the previous right-wing government, which clamped down on unregulated migration, Poland has counterintuitively embraced legal migration; between 2017 and 2021, Poland issued more first residence permits to immigrants than any other country in the EU. Since Moscow’s tanks crossed into Ukraine in February 2022, Poland has taken in the lion’s share of Ukrainian refugees, at nearly 1 million.

In recent years, immigration from Tajikistan to Poland — of all Tajiks, including Pamiris — has been growing steadily, with a notable spike in international protection applications in 2016, according to Polish government statistics. In 2023, these doubled from the previous year to over 2,200.

Asliddin Sherzamonov in Warsaw. (Michal Kranz)

Now, Sherzamonov finds himself lending a hand to others arriving and settling in the Central European country. Right before we met, he helped a Pamiri family legally enter Poland through a border crossing with Belarus.

Despite currently dealing with tribulations of his own within Poland’s immigration system as he seeks to extend his stay in the country, Sherzamonov always advises refugees that legal pathways are worth the wait.

“Learn the language, some skills, educate yourself, get your documents,” Sherzamonov said. “Do whatever you want to — but don’t break the law.”

In his apartment in Warsaw, he recently hosted a dinner party with flavors from home to welcome another Pamiri family. Women in the kitchen prepared handmade samsas (meat-filled pastries) before everyone gathered to play games together on carpets in the living room. “There’s Uzbek plov, Tajik plov, Kyrgyz plov and, especially, Pamiri plov,” Sherzamonov said jokingly, referring to the heaped plates of the pilaf dish that is found across Central Asia. There were also fruits, mounds of vegetables, tea and wine.

Sherzamonov comes from a prominent political family in Tajikistan; his father, Alim, was party chief of the center-left Social Democratic Party in Gorno-Badakhshan and left the country when the opposition’s fortunes began to turn. Alim came to Poland in 2017, claiming to be the first Pamiri political refugee in the country, settling in with the few Pamiri students and workers already there.

Speaking by phone in clear but measured Polish, Alim recalled how, starting in those earlier years, community members found ways to celebrate their unique holidays in their new home. Each December, Ismailis mark the birthday of their imam, known as Mawlana Hazar, who turned 87 last year. Every May Pamiris also mark the anniversary of his first visit to Gorno-Badakhshan in 1995.

The current Ismaili imam, who is better known internationally by the title Aga Khan, is Shah Karim al-Husayni, a wealthy business magnate and philanthropist and the head of a development network in various countries including Tajikistan. In his youth, the Aga Khan represented Iran as a downhill skier at the 1964 Winter Olympics. While most Ismailis live in Tajikistan, there are communities across the world, in Afghanistan, India, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and the United States.

Ismailis are united by their belief in this living “imam-of-the-time,” a hereditary title bestowed upon a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad through his cousin and son-in-law Ali ibn Abi Talib and his daughter Fatima. The current Aga Khan is the 49th imam.

“Two or three times, these holidays were held in a Polish restaurant, which is not a problem for us,” Alim recounted. “Polish food for us — without pork — works just fine.”

Today, Alim is the vice president of the National Alliance of Tajikistan, a diverse coalition of opposition parties and groups that was founded in Warsaw in 2018 and has members across the EU. In 2019, the alliance was branded a terrorist group by the Tajikistan Supreme Court, a move that was criticized by the group’s leaders as baseless, though it had been expected. Rahmon’s government has frequently designated dissidents to its rule as “terrorists,” including Pamiri activists in 2022.

Despite differences in ideology between the members of the alliance, Islomjon Saidov, a non-Pamiri Tajik member in Warsaw, said that what makes it successful is members’ shared focus on democracy, freedom and justice in Tajikistan for Tajiks, Pamiris and other ethnic groups alike. One of the goals of his work in the National Alliance is to speak directly to people in Tajikistan about a future after Rahmon, while also using Tajiks living and working in Europe as a conduit to educate people back home about the opposition’s agenda.

Islomjon Saidov in central Warsaw. (Michal Kranz)

The alliance runs several websites, a Facebook page and two YouTube channels, one of which has over 25,000 subscribers. Through these, the alliance highlights attacks by the Rahmon regime on literary figures, political activists, journalists and others, showcasing why such actions are detrimental to Tajikistan’s society. Saidov said that many Tajiks living across Europe, but especially in Russia, have gradually become receptive to the alliance’s message and are now ardent supporters of its mission.

Though an unlikely coalition, the alliance poses the only real opposition to Rahmon’s rule. One of the member organizations of the alliance is the Islamic Renaissance Party, which, upon losing its two parliamentary seats in Tajikistan’s 2015 elections, was banned by the government and designated a terrorist organization as part of its opposition crackdown. The party was accused by the Tajik state of being connected to a former deputy minister who was allegedly involved in a deadly attack on a police station, although the party has denied any affiliation with the politician. Following its invasion of Ukraine, Russia also banned the party in September 2022 at the request of Tajik authorities. In the years following Rahmon’s ban, the Tajik government arrested over 100 of the party’s members, leading many of its leaders to flee to Poland.

Saidov was one such exiled party member. After fleeing Tajikistan in 2015 for Russia, he arrived in Poland a year later via Ukraine. Having previously served as the representative of the Islamic Renaissance Party in Poland, since 2023 he has been the head of the bureau of the National Alliance of Tajikistan, while working a day job in a curtain business.

Sitting in his apartment in Warsaw on a rainy Sunday, he said his family never saw a need to go anywhere other than Poland. “The only thing we needed then was our safety, which was provided to us in Poland,” Saidov said over a generous spread of dried fruits and samsas as a Tajik-language TV program could be heard in the background. His wife later served plov, all while cup after cup of black tea was poured. “It’s good here. There is work and my kids are going to school.”

Poland may seem like an unlikely place for an exiled Tajik political operative from a party organized around Islamic values to find a home, even considering the democratic focus of the Islamic Renaissance Party. But Saidov and his family seem to have found their place in Polish society in Warsaw — his children now speak fluent Polish, and his eldest son Mukhammad, 17, who helped with translation during our interview, plays in a local soccer club.

But political organizations can only do so much, which is where independent media like Azda.tv, a Tajik news service based in Poland, comes in. Having been founded in Warsaw in 2019, Azda.tv has the largest reach of any Tajik exile news media in Europe according to Muhamadjon Kabirov, its founder and editor-in-chief, and freely covers topics domestic news outlets in Tajikistan cannot, including the government’s persecution of Pamiris.

“We are working because we feel [a] responsibility,” said Kabirov in Azda.tv’s newsroom, lamenting that he and his team have had to downgrade to a smaller office due to budget constraints. “Every day when we are under pressure, we think about quitting our job, but after a week we say no, we have to continue.”

“It’s very difficult without international support for us, not only because of financial problems,” he added, “but we have security issues or family and relatives back home who are being targeted.”

Having previously been based in Russia before his media organization was shut down by the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB), Kabirov and several of his relatives recently discovered that their names are on the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs’ wanted list.

Fears about family members in Tajikistan and the long arm of the security services, even internationally, are ever-present in the country’s emigrant community — especially so among Pamiris.

Following a recent meeting of community leaders, people of all ages began to pour into a nondescript community center in southern Warsaw for festivities. Although I was not allowed upstairs to witness the gathering by the volunteer Ismaili security guard, I saw older women carrying plates of food, young men holding acoustic guitars and fashionably dressed women chatting among themselves as they filed inside. As is customary, almost none of the women wore hijabs or head coverings of any kind.

“We agreed that this would be a place free from politics, just a place to meet, eat food and be together,” one man told me, declining to give his name out of fear of repercussions.

However, when approached about their thoughts on community life in Poland, everyone was quick to decline. “Why are you so interested in Pamiris?” one woman asked suspiciously.

“People think that always someone is after them — the KGB, the FSB [Russia’s security agency], so on,” Alim Sherzamonov said by phone, explaining that political activity in the community is taboo to the point that some Pamiris in Poland don’t even want to be photographed with him. “We have this paranoia.”

Yet when his son Asliddin thinks back to his days in Tajikistan, his heart remains torn.

“Every year it’s becoming harder for me to imagine how my hometown looked,” he said, somewhat ruefully. “Tajikistan, as a Pamiri — and my father is a politician — it’s not for me.”

“I will never go back,” he added. “Only when the regime changes.”

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