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Immigrant Stories: Turkey

Bayram, Turkish Refugee

Bayram grew up in Turkey and, as an adult, enjoyed sharing his love of physics with his students as he believed education was essential for all people to live meaningful lives. In fact, he says one of his fondest memories is when he began teaching. Unfortunately, however, Bayram’s desire to teach and inspire students placed him in a potentially perilous situation. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, currently Turkey’s serving president, has been slowly grabbing onto power and taking more control over the government as well as eliminating political opponents and arresting those he considers an obstacle to his vision for Turkey. Secular-minded teachers, especially those who did not support him, were some of those to earn his disfavor.

Bayram says, “In 2002, everything was okay. But in 2013, the corruption in the government (was) revealed. So the president was not very happy about this… because he was somehow involved.” Afterwards, Bayram explains that Erdogan had instigated a nationwide “witch hunt” for scapegoats and those who opposed him. Such targets included the police, journalists, political opponents, civil servants, educators and followers of the renowned cleric Fetullah Gulen. Gulen became famous for starting the Gulen Movement, which championed education and interfaith dialogue. It just so happens that Bayram’s teaching job in Turkey was closely linked with Gulen’s congregation, making him a possible target by the government.

After some of Bayram’s fellow colleagues were unjustly arrested, Bayram decided it was time to leave Turkey before the same should happen to him. He and his family moved to one of the Balkan countries for 5 ½ years, but due to his inability to speak the regional language, Bayram could not continue teaching as he had wished.

Turkey has abducted many alleged members of the Gulen movement from other countries including Balkans in recent years. Hoping for a better life elsewhere, Bayram applied for a green card lottery so he could go to the United States. Luckily, he and his family won, but there was one issue. When Bayram won the green card lottery, his wife had recently given birth to a girl and they could not immigrate unless the newborn had a passport. They tried to get her one from the Turkish embassy who refused to cooperate since he had had been connected with Gulen’s network. It wasn’t until Bayram tried the US Embassy that he was able to secure a passport for his daughter and finally make his way to the United States in the winter of 2017.

Once in the United States, Bayram says he was immediately “embraced and welcomed” by the Turkish community in St. Louis. “I felt like I belonged and was a part of the community. This was the one thing that really helped me adjust and not struggle a lot.” He also admits being pleasantly surprised by the way in which he was welcomed by the wider St. Louis community: ‘When new immigrants ask for help, St. Louisans try to help and I’ve seen all this,’ he smiles. ‘I see they are really trying to help… I was surprised when I came to St. Louis because I’ve been religious since I was a little kid in Turkey. When I was in Turkey, I believed we were the religious people. When I went to another country, I started becomingmore open-minded and I saw that we are not the only people who give importance to religion. In St. Louis, I saw it even more that the people really value their religions and have all these common values. Everything! I think I’m getting more open-minded.’

Despite this warm hospitality, Bayram still faced and continues to face some difficult challenges, specifically the language barrier. “I didn’t know any English. I got my education in Turkish in Turkey so this was my biggest challenge. None of the education I had mattered here because I didn’t have the teaching license or enough language to express myself.” Nonetheless, this obstacle has not discouraged Bayram from climbing towards success in America. He’s been taking English classes at the International Institute in hopes of reaching fluency while also working to provide for his four children.

In regards to his future, Bayram explains, “The biggest concern I have is getting my children the best education because America really provides all opportunities for a good education and I believe my kids will be successful too. Their education and their futures are important for me. What I need to do is learn the language better and find a better job. Maybe [I can] start my own business or maybe find somewhere where I can work well and provide a good future for my children.”

As a last remark, Bayram wants all Americans to know that refugees want to come to America because they hear it is the most democratic country in the world and they do not feel safe in their own countries.  He really hopes that the United States can embrace open-mindedness as he has and give these people the opportunity to succeed.

Facts about Turkey

Turkey, centered between Europe and the Middle East, is a country enriched in empirical history. Once the commandant of the Ottoman Empire (1299-1922/1923) and the birthplace of Kemalism, Turkey is now not only a cultural and historical earmark, but also a country of internal political agitation. Since his entrance into Turkish politics, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, now the serving president, began closing his hold on power with very mixed political opinions on his reign from the constituent population. Following a failed coup in 2016, Erdogan ordered the arrest of thousands of people opposed to him, which has led to growing fear amongst citizens who do not support him. Even before the failed coup, various political parties and institutions including education and media have sustained scrutiny and setbacks inflicted by Erdogan and his affiliates. Additionally, Turkey has been experiencing issues with terrorism, particularly with the PKK, as well as experiencing a large influx of displaced people flowing into the country from neighboring, war-torn countries such as Iraq and Syria.

Population: 80,845,215

Location: Located between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean Sea, separating Europe from the Middle East.

Languages: Turkish (official), Kurdish, other minority languages

Religions: Sunni Islam (99.8%), predominantly Christians and Jews (0.2%)

Ethnic Groups: Turkish (70-75%), Kurdish (19%), other minorities (7-12%)

Refugees and Internally Displaced Person Residing in Turkey: refugees (country of origin): 3,564,919 (Syria); 169,000 (Afghanistan); 142,000 (Iraq); 36,000 (Iran); 5,000 (Somalia) (2018); IDPs: 1.113 million (displaced from 1984-2005 because of fighting between the Kurdish PKK and Turkish military; most IDPs are Kurds from eastern and southeastern provinces; no information available on persons displaced by development projects

Information from the CIA World Factbook