I could hear his end of the conversation and I heard him saying “Oh, they are here now? Oh dear!”. He ended the call, turned to me and said, “We have to leave, NOW!” To the bewilderment of the visa office director, we got up and abruptly left the office. B. led me outside and explained that he just got the news that I was on the same list as my other colleagues and was liable to be deported and possibly detained; they advised that I should leave the country and the sooner the better.
An excerpt from a spy thriller? No, it’s the events that actually happened to me and led to us leaving Turkey earlier than planned.
It’s hard to decide where to start explaining the events that led up to this – as my friend Olya said, do I HAVE to read the history of Turkey from the beginning of time before you tell me what happened? Also, I am wary of straying into another country’s politics seeing as how it’s the whole reason I had to leave. So I won’t go too much into the background- you can find more information in this New Yorker article.
But as for our own background to the story, when we first came to Turkey, Michael and I started working in two different universities. My university was once a prestigious private university. I had a well-paid job, working alongside many other foreign teachers and brilliant local staff. The very same year I started working there, Abdullah Gul, the newly retired former president of Turkey came to the official academic year opening ceremony hosted by university. The university grew and developed – the year I started working there, it saw its first crop of graduating students. My colleagues and I worked hard, teaching English to students who sometimes didn’t want to be taught. It wasn’t always easy, but we were well rewarded for our efforts. This job contributed immensely to my professional development and helped me meet some friends who I hope will remain in my life forever. When people asked what I did, I proudly said I was teaching at Meliksah University and people nodded respectfully and called me Hocam (Teacher in Turkish).
Fast forward to 3 years later, the summer of 2016 and the night of July 15. It was a Friday and I had gone to bed early before being woken up by Michael around midnight – he was browsing the Internet when he saw somebody on Facebook asking if everyone in Turkey was ok and from there he discovered what was happening. “Wake up! There’s been a coup attempt!”. I automatically reached for my phone and found messages from fellow expats asking what I knew and my students telling me not to worry. We don’t own a TV so we couldn’t watch the news – instead we turned on our respective laptops and started frantically read the news reports and text and call our friends. A Russian friend from Istanbul said she could hear gun shots and jets flying low over her building. Some students said they were going to the main square of the city to defend democracy at the urging of the president. The mosque loudspeakers were playing the national anthems and loud announcements, urging people to congregate in the city centre. In utter disbelief, we read the news reports to each other – tanks! explosions! jets! machine guns! At some point we started worrying about a civil war breaking out and went to pack an emergency getaway bag. We discussed how we`d smuggle our dog Jackie out of the country. She could sense our distress and whined softly as she followed us from room to room in our packing frenzy. We stayed up most of the night, until it was clear that the coup failed. It seemed that life could now back to normal. Little did we know that it was only the beginning…
The first measure that directly (almost) affected us was that in the wake of the coup all university staff were banned from leaving the country. In addition, all leave was cancelled for state workers, including the state university staff. Michael was working for a state university, so he was facing the same travel ban – and he had tickets booked to go see his parents who were in Macedonia at the time! People were being stopped at airports and prevented from leaving.
Eventually, the travelling ban was lifted for foreigners – the very same day Michael was flying out. Despite the ban being lifted, I worried that I wouldn’t be able to go to Bulgaria where I was to spend a month on a DELTA module 2 course, so I resigned from the university. In the next few days the university was closed down because of its connection to the man and the organization blamed for the coup. It was certainly not the only university to be shut down in the post-coup crackdown. According to a Wikipedia page called 2016 Turkish Purges, “By far the greatest purge was in the Ministry of National Education, where 15,200 teachers were suspended. The licenses of 21,000 teachers in the private sector were also cancelled. The Council of Higher Education asked all deans of state and private universities, numbering 1577, to resign. 626 educational institutions, mostly private, were shut down. In addition, a travel ban was placed on academics, preventing them from leaving the country. On 23 July 2016, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan shut down 1,043 private schools, 1,229 charities and foundations, 19 trade unions, 15 universities and 35 medical institutions in his first emergency decree under the newly adopted emergency legislation.”
This BBC article further discusses the impact of the purges on the Turkish people: “Those dismissed in the purges cannot apply for any other state job… As a suspected terror supporter, Prof Badem has no chance of being employed in a private university, either. And his passport has been taken away, so he cannot travel abroad….More than 37,000 have been arrested as well as sacked and they will be tried in due course – but many fear that under the current state of emergency the process may not be fair. The work of defence lawyers has been restricted – and more than 3,800 members of the judiciary have also lost their jobs.”
In August, I went to go to Bulgaria. While there, worried about my friends and colleagues and unable to concentrate on my coursework, I clicked on a link to the news report somebody had sent me and watched in open-mouthed horror as around 80 people from the university were led to the courthouse in handcuffs. There went the rector, who only recently came to the radio show I presented with some of my brightest students and who proudly told us of his great plans to make the university as great as MIT. There went the professors I always chatted to at lunch.
Two weeks later, most of the people arrested were released, the rest of them jailed. Since the state of emergency was declared, there is no due process and nobody would tell me what it means that they were jailed – were they actually sentenced, and if yes, on what charges and how long for. Among those remaining jailed is my former office mate whose innocence I have no reason to doubt and I often think of her and hope for her release. She is one of the hundreds of thousand people that have been arrested since the purges started.
After the university was shut down, the campus was given over to the state university to use. The thousands of students from the university had a hard time getting transferred to other universities, even though they were supposed to go to the state university in the event of university closure. Many of the foreign students were deported. The bank which held our salaries and savings was closed down, its funds frozen. Despite all this, it seemed that the foreign teachers were safe from persecution, aside from being blacklisted for future work in universities across Turkey. Upon my return from Bulgaria, things seemed to go well. Mike continued to work at his university. I applied for a residence permit and started teaching at a private language school. My best friend came all the way from Russia for a visit and we had a wonderful weekend trip to Cappadocia.
Our calm was shattered when a former colleague called me and said that 3 other foreign teachers that worked at our university were detained and awaiting deportation because of their association with the university. These people were from 3 different countries, one of which was the US. Two of the people were a married couple; they spent about 9 years in Turkey and owned land and were in the process of building a house; the third person was married to a Turkish citizen and had a child there. It seemed that none of this mattered – these people were labelled as ‘dangerous for the country’ even though, like me, all they ever did, was teach English and worry about syllabus design and assessment validity and whether we should continue teaching discrete skills or switch back to the integrated approach. The couple was held in the detention centre, which they said is essentially a prison for about a week.
What followed next will read like a chapter from a spy thriller. I don’t want to put names or identifying details here lest it has negative consequences for anyone so it might get a bit confusing but here goes:
Upon hearing the news, we asked B. to help us find out if I was in a similar predicament. B. used his connections and reached out to the very top – the city governor and the visa office director. The latter said that we should come to the visa office to clarify the situation. I was wary – the 3 other people were detained precisely when they went into the visa office – it seems the only reason they were called there was to get them, but we were promised a safe hearing. I showed up at the visa office, accompanied by B. We were shown into the visa office director’s office. As soon as we sat down, B. got a call on his mobile. I could hear his end of the conversation and I heard him saying “Oh, they are here now? Oh dear!”. He ended the call, turned to me and said, “We have to leave, NOW!” To the bewilderment of the visa office director, we got up and abruptly left the office. B. led me outside and explained that he got the news that I was on the same list as my other colleagues and was liable to be deported; they advised that I should leave the country and the sooner the better. He was worried that as soon as the people at the visa office realize who I was, I’d be detained as well. He returned to the office, presumably to apologize for leaving and I went off to find Mike, who had just arrived to pick me up. A few minutes later B. called, saying he wanted to say goodbye to me. Feeling very conspicuous, we ducked into the nearest cafe and said our goodbyes.
We drove home, where my friend had already started packing my things. I was going to Siberia where it had already been snowing for a few weeks now – I needed my winter clothes and boots among other things. Mike went on the internet to buy tickets. He wanted me to leave as soon as possible – he thought the immigration officers might show up any minute. A few hours went by in a blur as my friend, my guardian angel, packed my things and I fell apart and alternated between squeezing Jackie, our Labrador, burying my face into her soft golden fur, hugging Dobby, our foster dog and crying that I will never see him again, and running around the house trying to figure out what I might need. I don’t even remember, but Mike said that at some point I was looking in the food cupboards for things to pack. Our friends and neighbors came by and stood by helplessly, promising to look after Mike and help in any way they can and crying along with me. All too soon it was time to go the airport.
Mike stayed up until he heard I went through the passport control in Istanbul, which happened around midnight. This was a moment we were worried about – had the border passport control been informed about the pending deportation? Will I get into trouble for having worked at the university? Turns out, neither but I still appeared to be suspicious – their system showed that I had been issued a Turkish ID number but I insisted I didn’t have one (which is true – my old one expired, my new one was never granted) – suspecting that I was trying to hide overstaying, I was asked to talk to the police and to the visa violation office. Finally, about an hour later, unable to find any wrong-doing on my part the passport control officers ushered me through.
Three flights and nearly 24 hours later I was home. As the plane was approaching the snow-covered Siberian land, I was thinking dramatic thoughts about my paternal grandmother’s family being sent to Siberia as punishment. My parents were understandably worried, having received a message saying I`d be coming home the following day, hastily sent on the way to the airport. I have to say, coming back to Siberia at the beginning of the winter was a bit of shock to my system – on Sunday I was worried that I forgot to bring sunscreen and eating the last of the grapes straight from the vines in a beautiful valley in Cappadocia, and on Tuesday I was looking down on the snow-covered fields as my plane descended.
This, however, it a minor inconvenience. We have many blessings to count. We are very lucky – that we both have such loving and supportive families in the US and in Russia, that my best friend was there to help me and provide support to Mike at this crazy time. I was able to find a job right away, thanks to my past contacts and to my wonderful friends. Not only did I find a job teaching English but I am also stepping into two new areas I have always been interested in – teaching Russian as a foreign language and teacher training. I am able to spend time with my family before we leave on out next adventure and reconnect with old friends. As I was writing an email to friends and family to explain what was happening, Mike and I were saying that this would make an exciting blog post and my friend was saying it was a holiday she’s unlikely to forget – can you imagine coming to see your best friend for the first time in 5 years, only to see her flee the country and then spend another 5 days in her house packing up her entire life? Not only that, but my friend ended up taking a big bag of my belongings back to Russia with her, figuring it’d be easier to get it to me rather than sending it by mail.
The worst thing about this is being separated from Mike and Jackie. Mike is in the US right now together with Jackie. He had to leave Turkey before the end of his contract because he no longer felt safe there considering what happened to me. He had a few very stressful weeks following my departure, having to sell the car, organize Jackie’s trip and pack up our belongings by himself. He needs a visa to come to Russia but we are hoping for a swift reunion.
Here are some photos of Jackie sent by the shipping company. They were great as was Lufthansa Cargo!
And so ends our Turkish adventure which lasted 3,5 years. Perhaps not surprisingly, the many people from around the world I talk to, are unaware of what is happening in Turkey. The day I went to a friends’ housewarming party, which was the first time I saw many of my friends since coming back, Whatsapp was blocked in Turkey following the arrest of 11 Kurdish-backed politicians and my communication with Michael was spotty. When I explained this to the person I was talking to about the situation in Turkey thought I was exaggerating – it can’t be that bad, surely? Even some of the Turkish people I mentioned this to didn’t know about the recent round of deportations of foreigners and jail sentences for their own people. My friend aptly said that many look away in self-preservation; business as usual until it isn’t.
As I wrote earlier, I`ve always been wary of writing about politics – until I came into direct contact with the consequences of purges. Leaving Turkey, a country where my husband and I made a home, without being able to say goodbye to our many friends, without taking one last walk in the canyon, packing up all our things, and of course, being separated from my husband and our dog for several months was traumatic and shocking. To quoute another friend, who said in response to this post, “We do so much to build a life. Move mountains to build a home and then something as stupid as a chosen employer can bring it all down”. But I am trying to separate the feelings of hurt and anger from the happy memories of our life there.
Thank you to everyone who made our time there so special! Our friends from Turkey, and our friends from all over the world that we met in Kayseri, of all places – you made me manti and taught me to make Turkish coffee, you helped me fall in love with yoga, you taught me how to present at conferences, you showed me a good place to have my hair cut, you listened to my rants, you answered my questions, you invited us into your homes. I will miss all of you as well as a million of other random things like our beautiful canyon where I walked the dogs every morning, the friendly pharmacist who always made us tea and gave me her baby to hold, my sunrise walking friend who brought me eggs from his own chickens, the smell of frying sucuk before it’s put between two slices of fresh white bread, my students, who are unlike any other students I have ever had, the sight of Murat running with his pack of dogs… I must stop here before I get too sentimental. Goodbye, Turkey!