My new friend is a refugee.
But I can’t say his name.
Or show his face.
On a glorious day in June at the Forks, over a cup of coffee, my new friend shared his personal story of how he and his family went from being leading citizens in their Turkish community to be labeled as terrorists and escaped to Canada via Zambia.
Having graduated with a Masters Degree in English from Çukurova University Social Sciences Institute in 2006, my friend worked for 10 years at a Gülen movement school in Turkey. During that time he published 60 English supplementary textbooks for primary and secondary school students and coordinated 1200 local teachers who taught english throughout Turkey. It was 2016 and both he and his wife were seen as leading citizens in their community.
It is important to note that in 2013, three years earlier, there was tension between the President of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the police due in large part because the police were investigating a number of Turkish Government Ministers for corruption.
President Erdogan felt this was more of a coup attempt on his position of power than an investigation, and because of this period of chaos, along with various other elements of the Turkish society, Erdogan began to focus on the Gülenist movement. When an actual coup attempt against Erdogan took place in July of 2016, he determined the enemy was the Gülenist movement. Thousands of members of the Gülenist movement were purged by the thousands in a wave of arrests and dismissing of jobs. My friend and his wife were advised to leave the country immediately or like a number of his colleagues, risk being put in prison.
My friend explained that the Gülen movement is a well organised community of people-not a political party- named after US-based Islamic cleric Fethullah Gülen who is regarded by followers as a spiritual leader and sometimes described as Turkey’s second most powerful man. The imam promotes a tolerant Islam which emphasises altruism, modesty hard work and education.
When he fled to Zambia, a country that has relations with Turkey, my friend found work as a manger of a school for children. The school, associated with the Gülen movement was suddenly closed and according to my friend, there was big pressure placed on the government of Zambia from the government of Turkey to close the schools because they were associated with the Gülen movement. After the school was taken over by the government, it was clear that his family, through association with the Gülen movement were once again in danger.
Due to the risks for his family and others associated with the Gülen movement, all Turkish refugees in Zambia were taken under the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) Resettlement Program. This was crucial as a number of refugees were being kidnapped and returned to Turkey against their wishes.
For my friend, it was time to take his family and seek refuge in Canada. When I asked my friend if he feels like a refugee, in his words, he said “when I started my flight from Zambia to Canada, I did feel like a refugee because Turkey should be my home but I found myself travelling from Africa to make my home in another country.”
I stated at the outset that for security and safety reasons I would neither show my friends face or use his name in this blog. But during the hour we spent together, I learned that his first request is to become employed so he can get buy a small home for his family. In his words “Canada has opened its’ gates to my family and me. Canada is offering me hope through a new beginning and an education for my children at the highest level. I want to work hard, participate in donation programs, volunteer programs and I will ask my children to do their best to contribute to the community by being good citizens.”
In closing, my new friend told me when he is able to get his Winnipeg family home, I am invited over to experience an authentic Turkish meal. To my new found friend, when you read this, thank you for spending your time with me and teaching me how remarkable and unbreakable the human spirit can be.