By Hans von der Brelie
When thousands of Turkish citizens lost their jobs or were jailed over suspected links to the Islamist Gülen movement, they chose self-exile to escape persecution.
Thessaloniki, in northern Greece, has turned into a place of refuge for many of them.
Then the President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan blamed his main political enemy, Fethullah Gülen for the attempted military coup in July 2016.
This was denied by the Turkish imam and businessman who exiled to the United States in 1999.
But multiple anti-Gülen raids in Turkey followed in 2016, triggering a brain-drain: the country is losing a huge part of its well-educated middle-class.
#thessaloniki the ancient city in northern #Greece turned into a safe harbour for political #AsylumSeekers fleeing #Turkey. They are sharing their testimonies on persecution, arbitrary detention and disastrous conditions in overcrowded Turkish prisons @euronews @euronewsinsidrs pic.twitter.com/sBCegI5Mup— Hans von der Brelie (@euronewsreport) November 21, 2019
But for Thessaloniki, the arrival of Turkish asylum seekers has led to a revival of start-ups and small business such as Turkish icecream-shops, shoe-shops, rental shops and restaurants.
It was heartbreaking, to leave my beloved home country
Musa Yücel Turkish refugee and entrepreneur
Musa Yücel, a Turkish refugee from the western Black Sea region has lived in Thessaloniki for a year and a half.
His Greek asylum application is still being processed but he already has a work permit. It took him 5 months to get all the paperwork together, allowing him to open his small restaurant earlier this year.
“It was heartbreaking, to leave my beloved home country,” says Musa, who, together with his wife opened the small restaurant, “Pita in the City” in the historic centre of Thessaloniki.
Now, the father of three serves mainly Greek clients, but also Turkish refugees, visitors and tourists from all around the world.
“I am sad about the silence in Europe regarding what happens in Turkey,” he says.
Before fleeing Turkey Musa was active in businesses, such as building and selling apartments and launching restaurants in different Turkish cities.
He owned several restaurants and learnt cooking on the job.
Musa was also involved in one of those many education companies linked to the Gülen movement, helping supervising school board decisions.
When the witchhunt against Gülen-supporters started, Musa was targeted too, although he did not take part in the failed military coup.
“I was accused of being a member of a terrorist organisation and financially helping and managıng the Gülen movement. I spent eight months in jail pending trial, because of those accusations,” says Musa.
“The situation in the prison was really difficult. We stayed there with 22 people in one very tiny cell. We didn’t have enough water and we did not get enough to eat.”
“No books were allowed, not even the Koran.”
Musa was released after a long time in custody because the judges had no material proof to sentence him.
But fearing a second arrest warrant following a second wave of persecution against “gülenists”, Musa decided to hide: for ten months he lived “underground” before leaving Turkey by crossing the Evros border river between Turkey and Greece.
When we were crossing the Evros. It was so dark and we had to carry our daughter, so we lost all our belongings.
— Ahsen Safiye Tozanoglu, Teacher and Turkish refugee
Ahsen Safiye Tozanoglu, a teacher and Turkish refugee, studied chemistry before joining a Gülen-linked school in Sirnak, close to the Turkish border with Iraq.
During the coup, she and her husband, who was also a teacher, told their students to stay peaceful.
Nevertheless, both lost their jobs and had to leave their country clandestinely.
“When we were crossing the Evros. It was so dark and we had to carry our daughter, so we lost all our belongings,” says Ahsen.
“When we arrived in Thessaloniki, we had nothing. So in this place here, we found some clothing and other basics for people in need.”
Ahsen now occasionally gets free food and clothes from a charity shop in the city, organised by the Gülen network.
She also has a small income from working as a translator for refugees at the “Irida Women’s Center.”
The NGO supports around 300 women from 35 nationalities who have ended up alone with their children, unable to speak the language.
Project manager Christa Calbos confirms that the number of Turkish women there is on the rise:
“Just yesterday we registered four new Turkish members,” she says. “Some of the main challenges we are facing here, that our community members are facing, are having their educational and job backgrounds recognised here in Greece so that they can start to live again here and have access to the labour market.”
“Additionally, the majority of our members are mothers, their children are going into Greek public schools and are facing struggles to learn the language.”
#MoJo filming in northern #Greece #Thessaloniki meeting families in need. It's not easy for #AsylumSeekers from #Turkey: many children are facing struggles to learn Greek language, #IRIDA Women's Center project manager Christa tells @euronews @euronewsinsidrs pic.twitter.com/Jg3HiA3ZeA— Hans von der Brelie (@euronewsreport) November 22, 2019
After the coup attempt, Ahsen and her husband were imprisoned for over a year, together with some 77,000 other alleged “terror suspects.”
She had to leave her daughter Neda, who was 15 months old at the time, with relatives.
“I do not think that there is an independent justice system existing in Turkey any longer,” says Ahsen.
“In prison. the most difficult situation was to see a woman with her 30 days old baby.”
“The emprisoned mother did not have enough milk. The baby was so tiny and meagre. It was not possible to give it enough food.”
Many thousands in #Turkey have lost their jobs or been jailed over links to the #Gülen movement. Thousands more have chosen self-exile. Mothers are jailed with their babies. Europe sees a rise in numbers of Turkish #AsylumSeekers: @euronews meets them in #thessaloniki in #Greece pic.twitter.com/aJfDZRW0sh— Hans von der Brelie (@euronewsreport) November 21, 2019
Ahsen’s husband eventually fled to Germany, close to Bonn, where he is waiting for a decision on an asylum application for the whole family.
If granted asylum in Germany, they will join him via family reunification procedures there. Ahsen has already started to learn some German in anticipation.
But Neda misses her father so much she needs psychological help.
I was dismissed from my job. I was labelled a criminal. I was not granted my rights to defend myself… I see Turkey today as a complete dictatorship.
— Bekir Çayir, Former computer teacher and Turkish refugee
Bekir Çayir lives in a rural village in Northern Greece with his children, five-year-old Faik and twelve years old Selma.
Previously he worked as a computer teacher at a Gülen-affiliated school.
After the coup attempt, he was among the 150,000 people dismissed from their jobs because of their alleged links with the Gülen network.
Greece grants him protection and his family of four gets a small amount of financial support from the UN Refugee Agency.
To supplement his meagre income, he creates websites on a freelance basis.
He is still working on his Greek, but he is able to communicate with neighbours and administration.
“On September the first 2016, I was dismissed following the presidential decree number 672, along with tens of thousands of other people.
“I was labelled a criminal. I was not granted my rights to defend myself. I was exposed to a kind of social death.
“After I was dismissed, two former lawyers of mine were arrested too.”
“Then in the area I lived, I called eleven lawyers. Out of those, ten bluntly refused to look into my case.”
“I see Turkey today as a complete dictatorship.”
Bekir knows the Koran by heart and reads 20 pages every day.
His deep faith runs alongside some of the values taught by Fethullah Gülen: priority to education, prayer and conflict management by dialogue.
“But I did not receive any specific Gülen training,” he stresses, “and I am not a member of any kind of inner Gülen circle”.
“When reading his books I felt close to Gülens ideas, that’s all. But above all, I consider myself just an ordinary, modest and open-minded Muslim.”
One of the books he owns about the prophet Mohammed was written by Fetullah Gülen.
“Those books are considered evidence of a crime right now in Turkey. Personally, when I was still in Turkey, I had to bury seven huge bags of books.”
“Many people who owned those books are in prison.”
We had arrest warrants issued against us, so we had no opportunity to go to any hospital.”“When you go to a hospital you are in their database and they can find and arrest you.
— Yasemin Atik Former student dormitory manager, Turkish refugee
Mother of four, Yasemin Atik is waiting to be reunited with her husband, who found protection in the US and works in a market and as an Uber driver.
Back in Turkey, she worked as a student dormitory manager linked to the Gülen movement. She also volunteered in several Gülen-labelled charity organizations.
All those schools, groups and NGOs were perfectly legal until the coup d’Etat.
When the anti-Gülen crackdown started, Yasemin was pregnant.
“The schools we were working for were closed down,” says Yasemin.
“We had arrest warrants issued against us, so we had no opportunity to go to any hospital.”
“When you go to a hospital you are in their database and they can find and arrest you.”
“To avoid those risks, we decided to give birth at home.”
“When the midwives arrived very early in the morning, they told me not to scream when giving birth. I told them: Yes, I know.”
“The following two years, every single day we were afraid of being arrested.”
Yasemin is now active on so-called social media, alerting people about the situation of imprisoned mothers in Turkey. Figures from early 2019 show there are about 864 jailed mothers-with-babies.
Yapmış olduğum röportaj benim değil onlarca annenin hikayesidir.Bize söz hakkı tanıyan @BOLDmedya ekibine tesekkur ederim. @cevheriguven https://t.co/416S5aUbfw— Yasemin Atik (@YaseminAtikTB) July 1, 2019
Of her time in Thessaloniki, Yasemin says she also gets a stipend from the UNHRC and that she has good relations with her Greek neighbours: a woman living nearby often drops by, donating fruit and vegetables. Yasemin brings her some of her favourite Turkish dishes and they exchange Greek and Turkish recipes.
Yasemin is a mother of 4. She is from #Turkey and got blacklisted for having links to the #Gülen movement. Being afraid of getting arrested in hospital after childbirth, she gave birth to Yusuf at home: "The midwife told me not to scream" she tells me. OnAir Friday @euronews pic.twitter.com/UoFLdBOQ7p— Hans von der Brelie (@euronewsreport) November 21, 2019
As a result of the persecutions, in 2018, around 25.000 Turkish asylum requests were filed in the European Union, a rise of 50 per cent on the previous year.
Germany, with some 10,000 applications filed in 2018, is the number one host country, closely followed by Greece with almost 5.000 asylum applications filed last year.
And the exodus continues. In the first four months of 2019, Greece received 1682 Turkish asylum applications.
Fearing arrest and with no belief in the independence of the Turkish justice system, thousands of teachers, managers, public servants and businessmen can no longer return to Turkey.
Saying good-bye to their home country, they try to start a new life elsewhere in Europe or overseas.
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