By David Kitz

What do the faces of present-day persecution look like? They look remarkably like the faces of the boy and girl pictured here.

Turkish children who fled persecution.
Credit- David Kitz

After fleeing arrest in their hometown in Turkey, this family risked their lives in a daring midnight dash across a rain-swollen river that marks the border with Greece. Currently, these children live with their mother and four other refugee families in a crowded apartment in Athens. They subsist on funds sent to them by their father, who has gone ahead of them to start a new life in Canada, working as an Uber driver in Ottawa.

So what heinous crime did they commit? Their mother was a teaching assistant at a Hizmet private school. That was their crime.  

As for those two refugee children that I met in Athens, they and their mother are still waiting to be reunited with their dad in Ottawa. Will Canada open the door or slam it shut?

The Hizmet movement is a Sufi Muslim religious sect that advocates for peace and interfaith dialogue. Hizmet means service, and the movement has been particularly active in the field of education.

Hizmet was founded by Fethullah Gülen, and he initially supported Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s election and rise to power in the early 2000s. However, by 2013 Gülen had withdrawn his support as corruption, rights abuses and strongarm tactics within the Erdoğan regime became evident. (Details in our companion piece, “Turkey’s Democratic Suicide“).

Following the coup attempt of July 15, 2016, all Hizmet schools were shut down by order of President Erdoğan. But the Turkish government was not content with simply closing the schools, firing the teachers and revoking the teachers’ licenses. In the weeks that followed, Erdoğan blamed Gülen for the coup, and the government began to systematically arrest and imprison all Hizmet-associated teachers.

On a trip to Athens in late June of this year, I met with several Turkish refugees and heard their first-hand accounts.

Most of the refugees who escape to Greece from Turkey have been fugitives in their homeland for more than a year. Often, to avoid arrest, they have been secretly staying with relatives or friends. But their presence is a burden that endangers the lives of their hosts. Since there is a nationwide warrant for their arrest, they are unemployable.

They see escape to Greece as the only way out of the predicament in which they find themselves. Frequently, they hire human smugglers to act as guides to avoid arrest.

The Turkish refugees fall into three broad categories: journalists, teachers and intellectuals.

Upon arriving in Athens, my first interview was with a senior-level journalist with Zaman, the biggest daily newspaper in Turkey. In 2013, Zaman reported that truckloads of armaments were crossing from Turkey into Syria in support of ISIS fighters.

The Erdoğan government’s response was swift. They did not want this dirty secret revealed to the world. The newspaper’s assets were seized and the journalists were arrested.

The next day, I met with a university professor and engineer, Yunus Karaca. Karaca patented an award-winning system for separating glass, metal and plastics for municipal recycling. Yet despite numerous accolades, including an award from NASA, his career has been stifled. His passport was cancelled by the Turkish authorities, and fearing arrest, he fled with his young daughter to Greece.

But my most gripping interviews were with teachers, some of whom were imprisoned for a year or more, with as many as 28 men crammed into a cell.

The leader of a Hizmet-affiliated teachers’ union told me that after the coup attempt, the 30,000 members of his union lost their jobs, and then they were systematically arrested and imprisoned for being members of a terrorist group.

For most of his career, this man worked as a teacher to deaf children. Now the Turkish government sees him as a terrorist.

On my last day in Athens, I had breakfast with another family with three children. For the safety of family members who remain in Turkey, they wished to remain anonymous for this story. The husband had been a teacher in Turkey. After a delicious meal they began to tell a shocking account of government-sponsored terror and torture. It all centred on their youngest child, a daughter.

After the coup, in order to avoid arrest, the family went into hiding. But the wife soon realized that she was pregnant. Under normal circumstances she would see her doctor for prenatal care. But a doctor’s visit would reveal her identity and trigger her husband’s arrest. The pregnancy proceeded normally, but in the final weeks she experienced bleeding. Fearing that she would lose the baby, she made the fateful decision to see a doctor. A caesarean section was scheduled for the following week.

The procedure went well, resulting in the birth of the healthy baby girl. But the mother awoke in the recovery room surrounded by four male police officers who demanded that she sign a confession that she was a member of a terrorist organization — the Hizmet movement.

The mother refused to sign. What followed was 36 hours of intense interrogation, intimidation and torture. At one point the police insisted that she be taken in for further questioning.

Despite the pleas of the doctor and medical staff, the mother was forcefully removed from the hospital. Her stitches were ripped as she was transported in a paddy wagon to the police station.

Later they threatened to transport her in this condition to a city five hours away, where the warrant for her husband’s arrest was originally issued. Fortunately, the direct intervention of a courageous member of the Turkish Parliament prevented further abuse.

It was a delight to see mother and baby united and healthy with the whole family safe and sound in Athens. They too made a daring midnight escape from Turkey to Greece.

Dr. Markos Karavias, the head of the Greek Asylum Service, explained the difficulties that Greece faces in accommodating this new wave of asylum seekers. Over a million refugees from the Syrian conflict poured into Greece between 2015 and 2017. But a second wave of Turkish asylum seekers is now arriving as Turkish nationals flee arrest by the authoritarian Erdoğan regime.

“Our greatest need is for competent Greek/Turkish translators, so these new arrivals can get a proper hearing to determine their eligibility for refugee status,” Dr. Karavias commented.

What has been the Greek response? In many respects, it has been identical to our federal government’s response. When refugees land on Greek soil, they contact the Greek police so they can be registered as asylum seekers and begin the long wait for their case to be heard. In the meantime, they need housing and gainful employment.

The responses of the Canadian and Greek government are identical because both countries are bound by the 1951 International Convention on Refugees. But make no mistake — Greece and Canada are in a very different situation. The Greek unemployment rate sits at 20 per cent compared with Canada’s 6 per cent. Greece is a small, densely populated country while Canada is able to absorb larger numbers of refugees.

In the first six months of this year, just over 10,000 asylum seekers have arrived in Canada. Some say this is a crisis. Others believe it is a tempest in a teapot that a few politicians on the right are exploiting for political gain.

Former cabinet minister and international human rights advocate David Kilgour sees this ‘crisis’ differently. “For a country as big as Canada, this is a small problem, and it comes with a silver lining. We need more people, not less. Many of these refugees – the Turkish refugees fleeing the tyrant Erdoğan – are highly educated. They appreciate democracy and human rights.”

As for those two refugee children that I met in Athens, they and their mother are still waiting to be reunited with their dad in Ottawa. Will Canada open the door or slam it shut?

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