Safiye is a teacher who fled Turkey a day before the July 15, 2016, attempted coup. She left to join her husband, who had already left in June and had settled in Seattle. With her eleven year-old daughter in another room, she explained with a pained, intense earnestness, “If we go back to Turkey, he will kill us. He has said, ‘I won’t even give water to the Hizmet volunteers.’ And he actually did cut the water source to some of our schools.” Safiye was referring to Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who had already begun to steer his country towards repressive authoritarianism even before July’s attempted coup. He had especially targeted those, like Safiye, involved in the Gülen movement, also known as “Hizmet” (Turkish for “service”). Hizmet is a civil society humanitarian organization inspired by the ideas of Turkish Muslim cleric Fethullah Gülen and mystical Islam, and it is committed to interfaith dialogue. It has opened thousands of cultural centers and science-focused schools in Turkey and around the globe. However, after a rift grew between Erdogan and Gülen in 2013, the Turkish president (then Prime Minister) pronounced, without any credible evidence, Hizmet a terrorist organization and launched a witch hunt against those even vaguely associated with the movement.
After the attempted putsch on July 15, 2016, Erdoğan’s government lost no time in blaming Hizmet, even though Gülen himself vehemently denies any involvement, declaring that those actually behind the events “committed treason against the unity of their country” and “caused hundreds of thousands of innocent people to suffer under the government’s oppressive treatment.” Immediately afterwards, Erdogan began to accelerate his course of harassment, detaining and arresting thousands in a sweep termed the “Purge.” The ensuing fear has increased societal divisiveness and paranoia. Amidst the chaos, Erdogan continues to posture as “Savior of Besieged Turkey.”
Safiye described the situation: “There is no law in Turkey, they are just putting people into jail.” Although traumatized, she and her husband are among the fortunate who left in time—thousands of passports of those currently trying to flee have been revoked by the Turkish government. The couple will now apply for asylum, and try to rebuild their disrupted lives in the United States, although how they will do so is unclear. While I have interviewed over twenty Turkish refugees, here I focus chiefly on Safiye and a few others. This article sheds light on the plight of Hizmet-affiliated Turkish refugees, and seeks to explain why and how they left, and what they will now do in their place of refuge. Those fleeing repressive regimes, whose lives have been upended by political events beyond their control, deserve to have their stories known.
Why Hizmet participants fled Turkey
The rift and government repression before July 15, 2016
Erdoğan’s AKP government is oppressing the Hizmet movement today, but both appeared to be allies of convenience for around ten years. In part, this was because both groups promoted freedom of religion in the public arena. Having suffering under decades of an aggressive form of secularism, supported by previous governments ever since Atatürk founded the Turkish Republic in 1923, the two parties found common cause in freedom of faith. Atatürk’s form of secularism strictly relegated piety to the home or mosque, and discriminated against the overtly pious, such as women wearing headscarves. However, the relationship between Gülen and Erdogan took an ugly turn after a series of events, beginning with Hizmet participants’ escalating dismay at the brutal way Erdogan handled the 2013 Gezi Park protestors, and his government’s connection to a corruption scandal involving smuggling gold to Iran to pay for Turkey’s fuel. Because Erdogan believed that Hizmet participants were directly involved in bringing that 2013 graft scandal to light, he angrily closed schools and tutoring centers linked to the movement, and began to arrest members of the judiciary and police whom he believed were Hizmet-affiliated and had exposed the scheme.
Part of Erdogan’s strategy to consolidate power has involved closing or taking over a number of media institutions and closing thousands of “college prep” schools, even those in disadvantaged areas, such as Kurdish regions in southeast Turkey. His government, run by the Justice and Development Party (AKP), also began to arbitrarily arrest and seize the assets of those perceived in any way as a challenge to his control of Turkey, including judges, educators, and businessmen. Those involved in the Hizmet movement and the Kurdish community are his primary targets, but his reach has gone beyond those two groups.
The Hizmet movement has focused much of its energy establishing and operating these educational institutions, which has left affiliated teachers, students, and their families acutely vulnerable to the government’s hostile focus. Safiye pointed out that before the rift, those supporting the AKP had also put their children in Hizmet schools. She insisted, “They [AKP supporters] know us, they used to know us very well, more than others in the rest of Turkey.” Yet in 2015, the government had the Ankara police department’s anti-terrorism units invade Hizmet-affiliated schools in Ankara as they had done elsewhere. She described the scene: “They tore the upholstery off of the sofa. We don’t even smoke, no one smokes in our schools. They were looking for drugs. They did terrible things. They brought 200 police to one single school.”
Similarly, Fatih, a single 26 year-old teacher, described three years of school inspections, as frequent as once a week. He explained, “The students were always scared by the black cars; they were scared the inspectors would close the school.” According to Fatih, these inspectors were seeking to find the smallest of infractions so they could shut the schools, but this widespread tactic, which began after the rift, also reflects a pattern of intimidation against the movement. Others told me similar stories—in several cases, these schools were raided by soldiers carrying machine guns during school hours, terrifying the children.
This pattern of overt harassment also extended to the media. After the November 2015 elections, the emboldened government began to take extreme measures. In March, 2016, it assumed control of Hizmet-run Zaman Newspaper, and later raided Koza-İpek, one of the major media corporations supporting Hizmet. Opposition television and radio syndicates were closed down or taken over (Hizmet-affiliated and otherwise), and by late October 2016, over 160 media outlets had been closed or taken over by the government. This number includes fifteen that were closed on October 29 alone. These were mainly Kurdish media outlets, found in southeast Turkey.
Erdogan also began arresting hundreds of Hizmet-affiliated bureaucrats, government employees, and businessmen in Turkey, in his effort to quash what he alternatively termed, as part of his smear campaign, “the parallel state” or the “Gülenist terror group.” By April, 2016, 2,261 participants had been detained, and 501 arrested.” These events led many in the movement to fear for their physical safety and the future of Hizmet in Turkey. Those that could afford to leave, fearing imminent arrest, fled Turkey for other countries, even before the events of July 15.
After the Coup Attempt: The Purge
Unduly condemned for attempting to overthrow the government, Hizmet participants’ situation rapidly deteriorated after the failed coup. Erdogan declared a state of emergency and decreed a three-month suspension of the European Convention of Human Rights, which he later prolonged for another three months (thus far). Doing so, he removed human rights safeguards, allowing his government to take actions against civilians that otherwise would be illegal in Turkey. His government has fired over 100,000 people, detained over 75 thousand, and arrested over 35 thousand. While many of those targeted are connected in some way to the movement, Erdogan’s scope has included anyone perceived as opposing his government. According to Human Rights Watch, many in jail have been subject to torture by the Turkish police. Detainees report being raped and sexually abused, held in stress positions, deprived of sleep, and beaten. Those suffering these forms of abuse will not find justice any time soon: government officials taking part in the torture have been absolved of responsibility by decrees released during the State of Emergency, even though international law clearly prohibits torture. Even in the unlikely case that some clandestine faction of the movement were eventually found culpable of the plot, this would not justify the government’s arrest and torture of those uninvolved Hizmet participants.
Those not arrested have found their lives disrupted in other ways. Over two thousand educational institutes were abruptly closed or taken over, leaving thousands of students in the lurch, having to find new institutions or unable to complete their degrees. Labeled “terrorists,” Hizmet participants find themselves treated as if they were radioactive by the larger Turkish society, and sometimes even by their neighbors, friends, and family members. Weary yet indignant, Safiye stated, “Everyone knows we are not guilty or terrorists. I haven’t ever used a weapon. The only time I have used a knife is in the kitchen.” In the fearful aftermath of the coup attempt, even those who might privately defend Hizmet, cannot do so publicly without fear of reprisal—or even worse, they might then find that others now associate them with the movement.
Conspiracy theories abound regarding who actually masterminded the events of July 15, but as of yet, the question has not been resolved. Observers of Turkish politics have noted that other possible architects include Erdogan himself, the secular ultranationalists, or an unknown anti-government alliance. Nevertheless, those minimally connected with Hizmet find themselves stigmatized and under a cloud of suspicion. Despite their ostensibly profound commitment to altruism, Hizmet members find themselves the brunt of bigotry, painfully ostracized, and alone.
In fact, they are not completely alone. Kurds, who make up 18% of Turkey’s population, have also felt the sting of his attacks in a number of ways, and the Purge also victimizes the Kurdish community. Only a small minority of Kurds belong to the militant Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has carried out terror attacks on Turkish soil towards the goal of an independent Kurdish state. Yet the larger Kurdish community, which has suffered decades of oppression in Turkey, is unfairly associated with PKK violence. Erdogan capitalizes on nationalist anti-Kurdish sentiment in Turkey, gaining support through his tough rhetoric and military attacks against the Kurds (not just the PKK); current social divisiveness has heightened xenophobia in Turkey. While many Kurds nonetheless support Erdogan’s AK Party, others belong to the pro-Kurdish HDP (The Peoples’ Democratic Party), which is fiercely critical of the government (but not militant). On November 4, 2016, the government arrested Selahattin Demirtaş and Figen Yüksekdag, co-leaders of the HDP, as part of a terrorism investigation. The HDP is the third largest political party in Turkey and unconnected to PKK terrorism—this move appears to be part of the president’s policy of muzzling dissent.
How They Fled
Many of those interviewed left because they feared impending arrest, and some left immediately after hearing that colleagues had been thrown in jail. Those with sizable wealth were more easily able to purchase tickets to move abroad, although some reported having to sell homes or businesses at a fraction of their worth, in order to liquidate assets. Those in the middle class told me they sold items such as their cars or laptops just to buy airfare. For example, Safiye explained that her husband had to give up his property to leave. She said, “He sold the house and car, and came to Seattle and waited for me. He said, ‘you’ll come to the US, and we’ll see how it goes.’ Unfortunately, other plans [the coup] happened.”
Fatih described becoming increasingly anxious about the political situation, and said, “I just got onto a plane and left with only two thousand dollars.” He was fortunate to have been able to leave, as was Safiye’s family. Soon after the attempted coup, the government revoked the passports of over 50,000 Turkish citizens to prevent them from immigrating.
Starting All Over
Almost all of the refugee families with whom I spoke planned to apply for political asylum, and then to open a business in the United States, even when they had no business experience. Some also related a desire to pursue academic degrees. While many speak some English, most will have to spend time sharpening their English language skills to be able find employment. I asked Safiye and her husband, Atilla, what they planned to do here if their asylum bid were successful. Safiye dreams of pursuing a Master’s degree in psychology, but for now would settle with opening a small shop. She laughed suddenly, overwhelmed, and said, “I don’t know, I can’t think.”
Her husband, Atilla, also plans to open a business. I asked him how he would do that, and his eyes got red and teary, and he abruptly walked away from the interview to compose himself. When he returned, he admitted he did not yet know how he would do that, having spent his life in the field of education. He explained, “Now we are zero. How can we start from zero? We will try to get to one. We will try to be an individual of the US. I want to be a good citizen of the US. We can’t leave here illegally. If we want to live here, we have to do everything by the law.”
A few asylum-seekers were too traumatized to think that far ahead, and might need to cope with their grief before trying to make a plan. Refugees are dealing with pain and guilt about loved ones at home, some of whom have been arrested before or during the Purge. The shock of having to leave their homes to escape before being detained, in some cases with little warning, left some refugees reeling. Fatih explained, “I can’t get stressed out. If I do, I get headaches and hair loss. I went to the doctor and he said, ‘do not get stressed.’ Here I am a nothing, I have no value. I don’t have a working permit. I don’t have plans about life. I can’t see my future, I can’t see in front of myself. I’m 26 years old, I’m educated, but here I’m nothing, I’m not a teacher.” Clearly, time and support are needed for him to recover and make a new life.
Any expression or action of support on the part of Americans for Turkish refugees is deeply appreciated and needed, especially in the current climate. After the 2016 presidential election, many Muslims in the United States are terrified that president-elect Donald Trump will carry out his threat to ban or deport Muslims, and that some of the Islamophobic statements he has made will embolden others to bully or intimidate Muslims. Of particular concern is the recent spike in attacks against Muslim women in America, whose headscarves make them particularly identifiable. That being said, in general, the recent wave of Muslim refugees arriving from places of political conflict (Syria, Yemen, Turkey) are even more acutely vulnerable than American Muslims with US citizenship. Safiye and her family, for example worry about receiving asylum, being seen favorably by other Americans, and having their daughter accepted—and not bullied—in her new school. Meanwhile, they also worry about finding permanent housing, employment, and friends with whom to create a new community.
Americans can help in a number of ways. They can offer to be allies and stand against Islamophobic bullying. They can assist in finding employment and housing, even by simply offering advice or contacts. They can donate to associations that aid refugees such as the International Rescue Committee (IRC) or the United Nations High Committee for Refugees (UNHCR). Even the simple altruistic gesture of offering a neighboring refugee a friendly cup of tea or coffee, goes far in making someone who suddenly finds him or herself in an unfamiliar environment, dispirited, alone, and disoriented, better able to cope.
Safiye’s family, like Fatih and many others, narrowly escaped being arrested for their association with the Hizmet movement. Despite choosing a career as a teacher in order to help others, Safiye finds herself rejected by her own motherland. She laughed bitterly at the end of her story, and told me that to her, a homeland is the place that provides for its citizens’ wellbeing. “Turkey doesn’t give us that,” she added, and stated, “if a country or a nation does not give you food, water, security, it is not your nation anymore.” Others I interviewed echoed her sentiment, and are resigned to settling abroad, perhaps permanently. Victims of Erdogan’s attempts to silence all opposition in Turkey, they now have to find their way in exile.