October 9, 2016

For Turkish exiles in NH: No way back

A Turkish family of four has settled in New Hampshire, fleeing a crackdown in their homeland that has led to the arrests of thousands of civil servants.

They can't go home but they can't stay here forever; the tourist visas that brought them here will expire. So they wait, and they worry.

The family, and a 19-year-old college student caught in a similar predicament, sat down with a reporter and an interpreter at the Turkish Cultural Center in Manchester last week to talk about what has happened in their country since a failed coup in July. All used pseudonyms to protect family members who remain in Turkey, some of whom have already been arrested.

They are followers of the Hizmet movement, a progressive Islamic organization founded by Fethullah Gulen, who lives in self-exile in the United States.

Turkey's leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, blamed Gulen and his followers for the coup attempt, and in the months since, his government has targeted the education, media, military and justice sectors. A state of emergency persists and schools and media outlets have been closed, prompting warnings from human rights experts at the United Nations.

"Ahmet" is a 36-year-old school principal; he and his wife and two small children fled to the United States using tourist visas they had obtained six years earlier.

On July 22, during a staff meeting to plan for the upcoming academic year, police raided his Hizmet school and closed it down.

Many of the teachers were jailed and the students were sent to government schools. "But when they arrived, they were called terrorists because they attended a Gulen movement school," he said.

What is happening in Turkey shocks and grieves these exiles. "We felt like we had democracy before this happened," said Ahmet. "We had freedom."

But now, he said, "Turkey has become the world's largest prison."

Ahmet left first; his wife, "Zeynep," a teacher at the same school, followed a few weeks later with their son, a first-grader, and daughter, who is in kindergarten. The kids are attending school in Hooksett.

It hasn't been an easy transition.

"Zeynep" said after she put her children to bed one night, she lingered outside the door of their shared bedroom. She heard her little girl tell her brother, "We should go to Turkey with a plane to save Gramma and Grampa from the bad guys."

"What if they get us?" her brother wanted to know.

The memory brings her to tears.

"Mustafa," the college student, came to the United States on a tourist visa on July 10, the interpreter explained. "He was planning to go back but the events of the attempted coup made it impossible to go back."

He hasn't been able to contact his parents; they move every night to avoid detention. His older brother attends college in Bosnia, but authorities took his passport, so he had to remain in Turkey for this, his senior, year.

Five family members - two police officers, an Army officer, a teacher and a nurse - have been arrested, Mustafa said.

The family's crime? They have the same name as the Hizmet leader; it's a common name and they're not related.

Ahmet became a teacher after he got a Hizmet scholarship to attend college. He's an educator, he said, not a political person.

"How could a principal be a terrorist, someone who dedicated his whole life to children?" he asks.

His school was one of the most successful in Turkey, he said; its graduates attend MIT and Harvard. Its students represented Turkey in the International Science Olympiad, he said.

Zeynep recently asked her daughter what she wants to be when she grows up. "I will start the same exact school in a hidden place so the bad guys don't come and close it down," the little girl replied.

Zeynep tries to hide her own fears from her children. But she said, "Every time the phone rings, I am afraid my father is in prison or someone has died."

The couple is learning English. But they can't get jobs on a tourist visa, and they worry that their money is running out. "The realities of life are slowly hitting them," the interpreter said.

Their best hope is that Congress will pass an asylum measure to allow Turks in their situation to remain here. "It's their only hope, really," he said.

Ahmet and Mustafa traveled to Washington, D.C., recently to tell their stories; they said they met with legislative staff for Reps. Ann McLane Kuster, D-N.H., and Frank Guinta, R-N.H., and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.

Brendan Thomas, communications director for Guinta, said the staff has been in touch with several Turkish families living in New Hampshire. And he said Guinta is in close contact with the House Foreign Affairs Committee "to develop a solution to Turkish citizens trapped abroad."

"He's extremely concerned about their plight and instability in the Middle East," Thomas said.

Mustafa said the Gulen movement offers solutions to problems such as poverty, division and lack of education. Its followers run schools worldwide, support disaster relief, and encourage dialogue. "We did nothing wrong," he said.

What keeps his spirits up?
"Hope," he said. "We still love our country. One day we want to go back."

But Ahmet no longer wants to return; he hopes to raise his children here, in safety and freedom.

It wouldn't be easy to be a laborer after so many years as a school administrator, he said, but "we will have to do whatever we can to survive.

"I have faith I will be successful in this country."

Published on New Hampshire Union Leader, 8 October 2016, Saturday