You’ll see them at your local farmers’ market, coffee shop and playground, and also in the waiting rooms of foreign embassies in Athens. Turkish political refugees – academics, high-ranking civil servants, doctors, engineers and sundry other qualified professionals – are a reality, as it is estimated that between 600 and 1,000 families from Turkey have settled in Athens and Thessaloniki in recent months, following a crackdown by the government of the neighboring country in the wake of the attempted coup in July 2016.
Their ideological backgrounds vary – some support exiled cleric Fetullah Gulen, others are leftists or Kurds – but all are considered enemies of Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s regime.
“Right now, 65,000 civil servants have been imprisoned in Turkey, while 152,000 have been fired,” says Aishe, a former public sector worker whose husband spent months in prison. As soon as he was released, the family of four arranged to be smuggled into Greece.
“We shuttered our house in Ankara and sold all the furniture and equipment so we’d have some cash,” she says. “Most of the people who fled did the same.” The money they managed to get out of the country is fast dwindling, however, laments Aishe. “We have money in the bank but we can’t get at it.”
Once in Greece, Turks with shared ideological backgrounds tend to stay close, forming information and support networks. Many of the doctors and psychologists among them offer their services to their compatriots for free. Their help is critical, as Turks who are in Greece without papers are not eligible for healthcare and many have suffered serious psychological and even physical trauma before arriving here.
The first order of business on arrival is finding shelter. “Airbnb is basically our only option, so we’re constantly on the move,” says Murat, expressing concern about what will happen once the tourist season gets into full swing.
“Some owners are skeptical but they assume we have money and sometimes try to charge us even more,” he says, adding, however, that the help they have received from most Greeks has been significant. “Some have vouched for us and others have even put us up for free.”
Greece is not the destination, however, merely a part of the journey to countries such as Germany and Sweden, which have large Turkish communities. Many of the fleeing Turks use this downtime in Greece to learn the language of the country they are aiming for.
“I spend all day on my laptop, either looking for houses in Athens or for work abroad,” says Murat, who was recently accepted for a job in the United Kingdom, and by an employer willing to pay for the family to move, but still needs visas.
The process is proving tedious as the information he has received from the Greek authorities and foreign embassies is contradictory, says Murat, expressing frustration. “I am running out of patience and thinking of leaving alone, as my children don’t even have passports,” he says.