Not Searching for Heaven, Just Escaping from Hell
My father was a teacher who had dedicated himself to his students. After his retirement, he founded an association to provide scholarships for poor children. Simply because of his political opinions, he has been accused with terrorism and put in prison since May 2016. We know that his friend was tortured under police custody and we fear the same thing happened to my father, too. He denies it, possibly not to upset us, but we read all about the maltreatment and torture my father went through in his appeal to the European Court of Human Rights.
My mother faced the prosecutor who charged my father with terrorism, and asked him what evidence he has to imprison and torture her husband. His response was simply blood-chilling: “I will never release him because he betrayed his country, and he will learn to obey. My advice to you is to divorce your husband because you will never see him again.” Could you imagine that moment? My mother lived through that and tried to be strong in spite of it.
All of a sudden our neighbors turned into spies and voluntary investigators to harass us, such as our next door neighbor who raided our house one night and accused me of being a traitor. Why? Because I borrowed their laptop to write my fellowship application to the US (all the computers in our house were confiscated by the police as evidence), and he had it translated to see what I wrote in my application letter. This man, who was a close friend of my father at a time, was now threatening to kill me because I complained about my country’s situation in my fellowship application letter. After the arrest of my father, the police raided our house once again because of my father’s tweets against the government. This time my mom could not take it anymore; she fainted and stayed in hospital due to an unknown sickness for five months.
As we were occupied with her treatment in the hospital, I got detained in January 2017 with the same accusation and I spent 5 horrible nights under police custody. On the first day of my detention, I had an asthma attack and cried very loudly. Then a police officer came and yelled at me, saying “you are a terrorist, stop acting like an innocent victim!” It was 3 am, and I heard him beating the other detainees in the nearby cell. Then they turned off the heater during a freezing night in January. Luckily, I survived that night, and the next day we were transferred to another city where the case was opened.
I cannot tell anything about the 5 days I spent under detention, because I am embarrassed of myself to remember how weak I was. I had thought myself to be a strong person, a human rights defender… But the accusation of terrorism and the treatment we had under custody was so heavy that I could not remain calm, or say the words I wanted to say. I was being accused of terrorism but all the questions I was asked by the prosecutor were about my legal everyday activities, such as my bank account, my media subscriptions, my residences during college years… These had nothing to do with terrorism, but only marks of affiliation with a legal social network that all of a sudden was declared to be a terrorist organization by the government authorities. I was again, “lucky” to have a heart disease and asthma report that got me released from detention, but my friends from college were arrested and they have been in prison since then.
Soon after, my husband was fired from his job as a research assistant at a public university, without any legal process. It was simply because of being married to me that he lost his job and all his financial rights and benefits. The rule of law in the country was totally missing, and we saw no other way than leave the country. But obviously, we could not do it the normal way.
We searched for ways of exit, and found one. We were going to walk across the border with a guide, I mean, a smuggler! As he was driving us to the border city, he asked us if we were political dissidents or ordinary criminals. He said, if we got caught at the border the police officers would release the ordinary criminals but arrest the “terrorists” like us. That made me realize that political opposition is a bigger crime than murder or burglary. How sad!
Then we came to the most difficult part of our escape: crossing the border by boat. In recent years, I had read and heard a lot of stories about refugees desperately making a life-threatening journey, mostly the Syrian refugees. But now, it was me who was taking this journey. There were only two options for me at that moment: stay and be imprisoned, or cross the border and be free. It reminded me a phrase I read at an article: refugees don’t escape to have a heavenly life, they just escape from hell to anywhere.
We walked for one hour to reach the bordering river. It was raining, I was praying, and my husband and our guide were inflating the boat. The guide said “be careful because after a few minutes the gendarme will come here with dogs for patrol. We must be ready to hide when we hear their voice.” We must be ready? How could I be ready? But God’s mercy was with us, as He covered the sky with dark clouds for us so that we were able to inflate the boat in forty minutes without being seen. I felt the serenity when the moment came to board the inflated boat to say goodbye to my country in a condition that I had never imagined in my life. Despite the darkness, I could see everything, hear the singing of the birds, smell the earth and the flowers. I remembered, and uttered the same words Prophet Muhammad said when he was forced to leave Mecca, his beloved city: “I would have never left you if they had not forced me to leave!”
We crossed the river, and walked for four hours to arrive in Greece. The rest was easy because we had visas for Europe and USA. We were able to safely board the plane to the US and come to Chicago, where we are settled now. Thankfully, we are safe here from government persecution, but my loved ones are still back in Turkey having to live under that persecution. Soon after I came. here, my mom was detained and stayed under custody for five days, released with a pending trial. There is no way for her to leave the country unless she takes the same dangerous journey I took, and she is not physically healthy enough to do that. Also, she cannot leave my father behind, who is still in prison. My brother, on the other hand, was quick enough to fly here and live with me when his classmates from college were arrested. He had to quit law school in order to live without the fear of being arrested anytime.
Despite all that happened to us, we consider ourselves among the lucky ones because we were able to escape from that hell, which is still home to many of our family members, friends, neighbors, and colleagues. Behind the numbers, are lives that are destroyed. My story is only one of them, and not the worst one yet.