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“I went from running a school to being labeled a terrorist”

The travails of two Turks who worked at Gulen institutions.

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“Dad, when are we going to become a normal family again?” Every day, this question tortures M.K., a Turkish national who fled his homeland in fear of becoming a victim of the crackdown against dissidents after the failed coup in July last year. His wife and 8-year-old daughter managed to make it to the US. He had planned to join them there at a later time, but got stranded in Greece. “I go crazy whenever I think of my daughter saying those words,” he says – yet to this day he does not have an answer.

M.K. on the Thessaloniki seafront. He is one of several Turks who fled after the failed coup and nowlive in Thessaloniki. (Photo: ALEXANDROS AVRAMIDIS)

On the night of August 22, however, M.K. took the first major step in getting closer to his family, boarding a trafficker's speedboat in the Turkish coastal town of Marmaris, along with two compatriots. They came ashore on Stegnon beach on the southeastern Aegean island of Rhodes before daybreak, catching some sleep on the sun loungers as they waited for first light. When they presented themselves to the authorities, they were detained for illegal entry. They remained under administrative detention on Rhodes for 111 days and were released in December. An expulsion order was issued, but it will not be executed, pending a decision on their asylum request.

M.K. on the night he arrived in Rhodes along with two of his fellow countrymen.

Since then, M.K. has been on tenterhooks, waiting for this crucial decision. A few days before the April 16 referendum in Turkey, Kathimerini met up with him in the northern port city of Thessaloniki, in an apartment that a Turkish family of five had been renting for the last five months. They all admit to being supporters of Fetulah Gulen – the cleric who now lives in exile in the US and is being accused by the Turkish government of orchestrating the failed coup – but deny any involvement in the attempt to overthrow the Recep Tayyip Erdogan government and condemn the violence of that night on July 15, 2016.

More than 200 civilians were killed on the night of the failed coup, when certain members of Turkey's armed forces tried to block off bridges and buildings. (Photo: AP/EMRAH GUREL, BURHAN OZBILICI)

From that day and until the end of February, 236 Turkish citizens requested international protection in Greece, according to official statistics from the Greek Asylum Service, a significant rise from 2015 when there were only 43 such requests from Turkish nationals. A similar trend has been observed in other European countries as well, such as Sweden, where 738 Turkish nationals requested asylum in 2016, compared to just 253 the year before, according to statistics supplied by Swedish authorities.

Graphic: NOTIS RIGAS

Teachers in crosshairs

M.K. hesitated to share his story at first, but eventually agreed on the condition that neither his nor his host's personal information be made public, out of fear of retaliation against their relatives back home in Turkey. On the eve of our meeting, he sent the address to his apartment on my cellphone and wrote: “First we will eat a Turkish breakfast, then we will talk.”

Located in a building with no elevator, the apartment is simply furnished with two black sofas and cheap shelves. There is also a table, which is set. Though it's only 9 a.m., they've prepared stuffed vine leaves and roast lamb kavurma for their “guest.” “The story of my life is so complicated, I should write a book,” says M.K. once we've wiped our plates clean.

He is wearing a white button-down shirt with a blue jacket. He tells me he was a teacher at one of the dozens of educational institutions founded by Gulen. At first, he says, life was good. He had steady work, a house and traveled to at least 30 different countries for charitable activities – his old passport bears stamps from countries such as Tanzania and Uganda.

Once close allies, Gulen and Erdogan parted ways in 2013, with the rift between the two growing amid mutual accusations of corruption. Gulen's followers were later accused by the government of trying to set up a “parallel state” and then labeled as members of a terrorist organization. In the wake of the failed coup – which Gulen has repeatedly denied having any involvement in – the authorities unleashed a crackdown on dissent, prosecuting thousands of teachers, doctors, judges and journalists who have been fired or jailed. M.K. has been both.

Fetulah Gulen lives in self-imposed exile in the US. For the Turkish government, Gulen is the culprit behind the failed coup, an accusation the cleric firmly denies. (Photo: AP/CHRIS POST)

He was arrested twice well before the coup attempt, spending four and nine months in prison respectively. He was granted conditional release, having to report to his local police station, and he lost his job. “It was political persecution,” says M.K. He claims that on the night of July 15, 2016, he was at his parents' house, watching events unfold on the television in utter disbelief.

He decided to hide, frightened that if he appeared at the police station for his regular check-in, he would be put back in jail, as had been the case for thousands of other Gulen followers. He set off for Rhodes with a colleague, a civil engineer who worked in the civil service. Exactly one month later, two Turkish families landed on the same beach, with three children each.

Family escape

“We have a saying in our country: When you're in danger of drowning, you will even ask a snake for help,” says M.A., M.K.'s host in Thessaloniki, adding that he never imagined he'd have to turn to smugglers. He explains that he turned to the refugee trail after authorities in Turkey refused to issue passports to his family, preventing them from flying out.

He got in touch with a Syrian smuggler in Kusadasi, who charged double (2,500 euros per person) what he usually asked from refugees, claiming that the risk was greater due to their being Turks. M.A.'s family was one of the two who reached Rhodes in September.

Back home, M.A. worked as a director at a Gulen school before losing his job. He said that police raided his home and confiscated 25 books written by Gulen as evidence of guilt. “I went from running a school to being labeled a terrorist all in one night,” he says.

After arriving in Rhodes and until the end of the asylum application process, the two families spent 24 days in the jail of a local police station. The facility was not at all suitable for children, but they were able to go outside when meeting with representatives of NGOs. “They were good to us,” says M.A.

“When they gave us our papers to leave, we were crying and the policemen were crying with us.”

The detention center at the Rhodes police station where the two families were held. They had the right to request asylum and received assistance from NGOs.

Things were tougher for M.K., however, as he had was held even longer, possibly because his arrival in Greece came just a month after eight Turkish servicemen flew a helicopter to Alexandroupoli in the north and demanded protection. “They may have thought we were soldiers but one of us weighed 140 kilogras and the other walks with a limp because of an old car crash,” he says. “How could we be soldiers?”

The wait

M.K. and M.A have spent months waiting for a decision on their asylum applications. It is estimated that more than 10 pro-Gulen families live in Thessaloniki right now. Kathimerini was unable to learn from the Greek Asylum Service how many such asylum requests have been accepted and how may have been denied.

The asylum process is not much faster in other countries. Representatives of asylum services in other European countries tell us decisions typically take many months. In the US, the delays appear to be even greater. As Todd Pilcher, a lawyer who has represented many Gulen supporters or suspected supporters says, it can take up to three years for an interview after an application for asylum has been submitted.

“The US asylum system is overwhelmed and operating in crisis mode, primarily because of the large numbers of people that have been fleeing violence in Central America, crossing the border illegally, and requesting asylum. The US government detains these people and prioritizes their cases for removal proceedings,” says Todd. In every case, he says, the applicants must produce evidence of their relationship with the Gulen movement (such as witness statements from other members or certificates of education at Gulen institutions) and of the risk of remaining in Turkey.

Erdogan claimed a narrow victory at the crucial referendum on April 16th. (Photos: AP/ LEFTERIS PITARAKIS, EMRAH GUREL)

Before traveling to Greece, M.A. sold the family car and then used some cash he had set aside (his bank accounts had been frozen) to rent the apartment in Thessaloniki. He chose the northern port city because after Rhodes, he felt Athens was too chaotic.

“I understood that our lives started to become somewhat normal when my two eldest children began to go to school in November. Education is very important to us,” he says.

M.K. also settled in Thessaloniki due to the small Turkish community that's appeared there. He rents an apartment and is quite lonely. He has photographs of his daughter on his cellphone. “Here's one of her during a visit to NASA,” he says with pride, showing an image of her standing beside a space suit.

M.K. communicates with his family in the US every day. (Photo: ALEXANDROS AVRAMIDIS)

He is anxious for the day he will get his travel documents back from the Greek authorities so he can go to the US. He says he and his wife both have a US visa that is still valid but he's worried he might lose it.

“I'm worried I might also lose my mind the longer I wait,” he says. “I wake up feeling so sad every day.”

Reporting: YIANNIS PAPADOPOULOS

Photographs: ALEXANDROS AVRAMIDIS

Archive photos: AP

Graphic: NOTIS RIGAS

For Kathimerini and Kathimerini.gr.

wednesday 19.04.2017

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