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Edmonton refugee families torn apart in Turkey's crackdown long to reunite

July 15, 2017 11:29 AM
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Edmonton refugee families torn apart in Turkey's crackdown long to reunite

Families ask Ottawa to help them reunite on one-year anniversary of failed coup in Turkey

It's a heartbreaking anniversary for a young mother who fled Turkey a year ago, recalling the last moments with her husband, and her chilling prediction.

"I said 'Maybe I cannot come again to my country,' " the woman told CBC News, fighting back tears. "And it happened. We didn't come back to Turkey."

It's been a year since the woman left Istanbul, arriving in Edmonton in the spring, via the U.S. A travel ban imposed by Turkish authorities prevented her husband, who had been in and out of detention, from joining them. He escaped to Greece shortly afterwards.

CBC is not revealing their identities or certain details due to their fear of reprisals.

Six days after her departure on July 15, 2016, a deadly military coup rocked Turkey, triggering a state of emergency and ongoing government crackdown.

One year later prisons and courts are swamped after the arrest of about 50,000 Turks and many more detained. Those jailed include about 150 journalists, a dozen mostly pro-Kurdish lawmakers and a main opposition party politician, eight prominent human rights defenders and five Turkish-Canadians.

About half of those cases are now being addressed in the courts, Selcuk Unal, Turkey's ambassador to Canada, told CBC earlier this week. More than 2,000 soldiers have been found not-guilty, while others have been jailed for life, he said.

Unal said 34,000 employees have been re-instated out of the 100,000 or so suspended or fired from the military, private sector, and civil service, including many judges and lawyers. "It has been understood that they were wrongfully suspected," he said.

"Of course it will be the courts who will decide who was a member, who has taken part and who is not guilty," said Unal. "And the figures that I give actually is I think an ample proof that this investigation processes have been ongoing with meticulous and utmost care."

Many in Turkey, including those who took to the streets and thwarted the coup, insist the government's response is necessary to prevent another onslaught.

But in the fallout, Edmonton human rights advocates say more than 30 local refugee families, and hundreds more across Canada, have been torn apart with one parent either trapped in Turkey or stranded overseas in precarious circumstances.

"My daughter — she misses her dad very much and she's growing up without her father," said the Edmonton woman, her voice strained with emotion. "And also my husband is struggling in Greece. He's not safe in Greece."

Human rights advocates have expressed concern that countries such as Greece and Malaysia are extraditing alleged dissidents back to Turkey where their lives are at risk.

Edmonton supporters are appealing to federal Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen to expedite residency applications that would allow Canadian refugees to send for their loved ones.

Hussen's office did not respond to request for comment. Citizenship and Immigration said the Edmonton man has not made a formal request to expedite his application but supporters say the documents needed for such a request were sent.

The refugees interviewed in Edmonton belong to the Gulen movement, known as "Hizmet," which means service in Turkish.

Turkish authorities blame the group for last year's plot to overthrow the government, branding it a terrorist organization. Unal told CBC News members have "infiltrated and nested" in all public institutions as well as key sectors such as banking, health and media.

The leader of the movement, U.S.-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, a former ally of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has denied involvement in last July's failed coup.

Some even suggest the attack was staged to justify the government's consolidation of power and purge of critics that has gone far beyond Gulen members to target Kurds, leftists and liberals.

Gulenists, who have established networks of schools, businesses and relief organizations in Turkey and worldwide, say their movement champions education, religious tolerance, and western partnerships.

But critics say in their previous alliance with the ruling AK party, Gulenists, who occupied influential positions in the police, judiciary and government, operated in secret and engaged in the abuse of power they now criticize.

Their alliance unraveled quietly but erupted publicly in a series of incidents in 2013, including the launch of an investigation into government corruption by prosecutors associated with the Gulen movement.

In the aftermath of July's attempted coup both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International found evidence of alleged torture and ill-treatment of detainees, and widespread human rights violations.

An October report by Human Rights Watch documented allegations of detainees subjected to stress positions, sleep deprivation, severe beatings, sexual abuse and threat of rape.

The watchdog said emergency decrees by the Turkish government had removed safeguards against torture, effectively writing "a blank cheque to law enforcement agencies to torture and mistreat detainees as they like."

But the ambassador insisted "there has been no mistreatment of any suspects from these files."

"If and when there is a concrete allegation regarding the mistreatment of any coup plotter … we always take them very seriously and with the concrete information we investigate them in cooperation with other authorities," said Unal.

In Canada, asylum claims from Turkey more than quadrupled in 2016 to 1303, compared to a year earlier. And numbers from the Immigration and Refugee Board show claims continue to climb, with 590 in the first quarter of 2017.

One recent arrival said it was a tweet from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau that strengthened his resolve to leave his wife and children behind to secure their new home in Canada.

"I left them because I wanted to save them," said the man, a teacher, whose world fell apart after July's attack even thgouth he lived abroad.

The home government shut down the Gulen schools he ran, while the Turkish government froze bank accounts and blocked passport renewals preventing staff from renewing visas to remain abroad.

Returning to Turkey wasn't an option either due to the risk of being jailed, he said. He and his family took refuge in a third country, but only he had a visa allowing him to make the journey to the U.S. and then on to Canada to claim asylum.

He rattles off all the fears that haunt him: his family members don't speak the language, they're not employed, they don't have health insurance, the kids can't go to school, and the country is not secure.

But the strain on the man's face lifts briefly as he shares cell phone photos of an eight-month-old black and white cat nestled in the arms of his children.

He smiles as he explains his daughter rescued the animal as a tiny kitten from the streets -- hairless and orphaned. They named him Minnak, which means tiny and cute, and together the family took turns nursing him with a syringe and keeping him warm.

And when they fled, Minnak went with them. That's something the man gently reminded his tearful daughter as he left for Canada, promising their entire family would be together again soon.

"I didn't even leave a kitten behind, so I wouldn't leave you behind either — don't worry.," he reassured her. "I promise I will get you to a safe place."


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