Advocates for peace in their home country, Turkish academics now live in limbo abroad

Halil Yenigün was supposed to be at the press conference that led to his friends’ arrest, but had to cancel at the last minute. Yenigün is one of more than 2,000 signatories of a petition to the Turkish government by a group called Academics for Peace. The January 2016 petition called for the end to state violence against Turkey’s Kurdish citizens. Almost immediately, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan began denouncing the signatories, insinuating that they were equal to terrorists. In March 2016, three academics, friends of Yenigün who had signed the petition were arrested days after they held the press conference that Yenigün had planned to attend.

They would not be the only ones; more than 1,000 signatories are subject to legal consequences. Many others have left Turkey, and now have to rebuild their lives.

Yenigün was one of the first to feel the impact of his support for the petition. On Jan. 15, Yenigün was suspended from his position at Istanbul Commerce University and on Feb. 22, he was fired. That was a signal to any other university or organisation thinking about hiring him. He was disinvited from panels and speaking engagements in the wake of the university’s decision.

Yenigün got the message as well. In April, he accepted an invitation to lecture at the University of North Carolina and secured a post-doc position in Germany for the autumn term and planned to return to Turkey on July 19 to obtain a German visa. But on July 15, 2016, tanks rolled onto the streets and helicopters shot at civilians in an attempted coup the government says was carried out by followers of U.S.-based Turkish preacher Fethullah Gülen.

Yenigün knew his association with Academics for Peace would make him a target in a post-coup crackdown. He was forced to leave the United States, but not wanting to return to Turkey to obtain a visa for Germany, managed to obtain a visa in Germany.

July 15 was a turning point for all of the signatories of the Academics for Peace petition that Ahval spoke to. A doctoral student at a Canadian University who declined to be named said he signed the petition “because it made a statement about how we should be able to criticise the government.” In an unfortunate coincidence, he landed in Istanbul just hours before the coup attempt on July 15.

Like Yenigün, he knew the crackdown on political dissidents would be ratcheted up in the wake of the coup attempt, and so left the country just a few days later. He does not know when he will return, as every time he enters the country, he runs the risk of having his passport cancelled, like tens of thousands of Turkish citizens since the coup attempt.

Maya Arakon was not only a professor of international relations and political science specialising in terrorism, conflict resolution and the Kurdish problem, but a TV personality with her own show. She was rendered unemployed on both fronts shortly after the coup attempt, when the government closed dozens of Gülen-affiliated institutions. Arakon is not a member of the Gülen movement, but both the university and the television station she worked for were associated with the secretive sect.

Living with the daily expectation that she would be arrested, Arakon left Turkey with her American boyfriend, now husband. She expected that she would soon be able to return to her old life. But as the arrests snowballed, her lawyers warned her not to return. Even in the face of such obvious threats, it was not easy for Arakon to stay away. “There were times I really cried, that it was like a nightmare and I said ‘that’s it, I am going back,’” Arakon recalled. However, soon after leaving Turkey, Arakon found out she was pregnant. More for her child than for herself, Arakon stayed in the United States, and is now trying to rebuild her academic career. She was offered a position at a college in Ohio, and after months of waiting, received a work permit just a few days ago.

In the United Sates, many have applied to organisations that aid academics facing threats to find temporary positions. One of the largest is Scholars at Risk. According to its data, the organisation has received a total of 739 applications from Turkish academics since it was founded in 1999, 716 of which have come since January 2016, since the Academics for Peace petition. Scholars at Risk received applications from 438 Turkish scholars in the 2017 financial year, but was only able to place 84 of the applicants. Unfortunately, the organization cannot place every academic that applies.

Those who procure a temporary position have only earned a short reprieve from their legal and financial worries. The visas they are issued expire at the end of their contract, and often come with the stipulation that they must afterwards return to their home country for at least a year. Those who have legitimate fears about returning home have a few options, including applying for asylum. But the asylum system has become more complex, and uncertain, under the current U.S. administration.

Nalan, a PhD candidate at a mid-western university, is the only Academics for Peace signatory from Turkey at her school. Although her professors where Nalan works are aware of her situation, and fully support her, the university administration has not been particularly helpful. Nalan is planning on defending her dissertation by the end of the Summer. She hopes to obtain a position in the United States, but does not know what her legal status or options will be if she does not. Nalan will not travel outside of state where she lives, fearing her passport has been revoked by Turkish authorities, and that immigration authorities might detain her.

Eda Erdener was formerly an assistant psychology professor at a university in the Kurdish region of Turkey. She was forced to resign from her university and after a year was discharged from public service because of her support for the Academics for Peace petition, and obtained a one-year fellowship at a university in California through Scholar Rescue Fund. After her fellowship was over, she applied for political asylum.

“I can’t work because of the 150 days asylum-waiting rule for getting employment authorisation. However, this 150 days has turned into 250 days, and still I haven’t heard anything from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services,” Erdener told Ahval. “I can’t draw any government benefits, can’t get a state ID. I learned that the implementation of refugee laws had been changed and you cannot get a state ID until your asylum is granted. This can take two or three years.”

Erdener was even initially denied a library card because she could not provide a permanent address due to her legal status. Every time she needs to show ID, she must show her Turkish passport with her expired visa. “I have to explain every time, when they ask me, why is your visa is overstayed. I am an asylum applicant,” she told Ahval. Erdener also feels the U.S. can be a hostile environment for asylum seekers and some people have threatened to report her to immigration authorities.

Like Arakon, Erdener expected she would be able to go back to Turkey once the political situation had cooled off. However, she now feels she has no choice but to try to make a life outside Turkey. 

Many of the Turkish academics Ahval spoke to expressed concern that the Trump administration’s immigration policies would negatively affect their chances of being able to stay in the United States.

“Historically, political opinion has been a strong ground for claiming asylum,” Jaya Ramji-Nogales, a professor at Temple University’s Beasley School of Law, told Ahval. “But I really don’t know how things are going to play out under this administration. You would hope that adjudicators would see that these Turkish academics are people who are standing up for political freedom. But when people express concern [about their immigration cases], I have to acknowledge that these concerns are valid and legitimate.”

Attorney General Jeff Sessions is slowly but surely trying to remould the Executive Office for Immigration Review around the priorities of the Trump administration. For example, in prepared remarks delivered to an assembly of members of the office on Oct. 12 last year, Sessions spoke at length about the asylum system. He said, “the system is currently subject to rampant abuse and fraud”, and many, if not most, undocumented immigrants are using the system to escape deportation. He called adjudication process “broken” because the Department of Homeland Security found that in 88% of cases, an asylum seeker indeed had credible fear that he or she would be persecuted if returned to his or her country of origin. Sessions concluded by saying the administration planned to “impose and enforce penalties for baseless or fraudulent asylum applications and expand the use of expedited removal”.

Arakon said that policy changes like those the administration is proposing would be devastating for exiles like her. “I am not guilty of anything. I simply can't go back because I was a human rights and peace activist who wanted peace in her country. I happened to work at a Gülenist university, but that was a job for me like any other. I want the United States to be more open to people like me who don’t have any country, any state anymore. We are basically homeless, in a huge universe.”


*Arakon is also a contributor to Ahval