BERGEN COUNTY, N.J. – On the run in Turkey, Yasin Atik changed apartments four times, pulled his children out of school and avoided parks and hospitals where officers might ask for his identification. In his government's eyes, he was a supporter of terrorists.
Last year in July, Atik escaped with his wife and four children on a small wooden boat across the Meric River, crossing into Greece, then trekking for six hours to safety.
“I thought of myself behind bars, my wife behind bars, the kids by themselves,” said Atik, speaking at a Clifton, New Jersey, apartment he shares with two roommates. All fled Turkey. “It was unthinkable. So for two years, we kept moving.”
The former philosophy teacher spends his days fixing cellphones and learning English in suburban northern New Jersey, waiting to reunite with the rest of his family, who remained in Greece but will soon come to the USA.
Atik is one of thousands of Turks who fled a government crackdown targeting followers of Hizmet, a social movement inspired by Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen. Many have come to northern New Jersey, home to a large Turkish American community that is less than 100 miles from where Gulen has lived in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania's Poconos region since 1999.
Among them are teachers, lawyers and journalists who were labeled terrorists or enemies of the state in a purge under Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who blames Gulen for a failed coup attempt in 2016. In the USA, they wait and hope for democratic reforms in Turkey and watch worriedly as President Donald Trump builds an uneasy relationship with Erdogan.
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“When you criticize the government, it’s unfortunately very difficult to live in Turkey,” said Murat Kaval, president of Advocates of Silenced Turkey, a global human rights advocacy group based in Wayne, New Jersey. “You’re labeled a terrorist.”
Erdogan faces international condemnation after launching a military campaign against Kurdish forces in northern Syria. The Trump administration threatened economic sanctions, although the president said Tuesday the fight between Turkey and America's Kurdish allies "has nothing to do with us."
Kaval estimated about 500 Turks have come to New Jersey since the coup attempt July 15, 2016. Erdogan blamed Gulen for masterminding the coup, although the influential preacher has denied involvement. Turkey has since detained thousands with suspected ties to Hizmet, which it calls the Fethullah Terrorist Organization, as well as citizens who challenged the government's increasingly authoritarian rule.
Organizations including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the United Nations and the U.S. State Department have documented claims of arbitrary arrest, torture and severe limits on the free press and protesters.
A State Department report last year noted findings by human rights groups that many of those arrested "had no substantial link to terrorism and were detained to silence critical voices or weaken political opposition."
Turkish Embassy officials did not respond to requests for comment about alleged human rights abuses. Erdogan has pushed the United States to extradite Gulen and shut down a network of charter schools around the nation founded by individuals linked to Hizmet. The administration has resisted.
‘We did nothing wrong’
Atik, 39, taught high school philosophy and psychology and volunteered for an organization that raised scholarship money for Hizmet schools.
Hizmet – "service" in Turkish – has millions of followers around the world who have built businesses, media outlets and educational institutions. To supporters, Gulen is an enlightened leader who champions education, interfaith dialogue and tolerance. To critics, he is an enemy whose adherents tried to take over the Turkish state by infiltrating the military, police and judiciary.
When Atik learned there were indictments accusing him and his wife of supporting terrorism, they decided to flee with their children. “We understand they would not give us any freedom,” he said. “But we were confident we did nothing wrong.”
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His wife was pregnant. Terrified of going to a hospital for fear of arrest, she gave birth to their fourth child in their living room with help from a nurse. She stayed silent, worrying neighbors would call police if they heard noise.
“Seven hours of labor. She didn’t scream or yell or anything,” Atik said, tearfully remembering the day Yusuf, now 1½, was born.
Atik arrived in the USA a year ago and has been granted asylum. He works part-time at the Turkish Community Center in Clifton, which helped him find a second job at a cellphone repair shop. Several times a week, he takes English lessons at Bergen Community College and at the Crossroads Church in Clifton.
Life has been "very hard," he said, struggling to pay rent and send money to his family in Greece. Tuesday, he said the United States approved his request for family reunification. He expects they will arrive in a month.
"I intend to live in peace in this country," he said. "I want to live together with my family in this country. I want my children to learn English and get good education."
‘My neighbors didn’t greet me back’
Tugba, 37, did not want her last name used for fear of retaliation against her family in Turkey. She was born in Russia and moved to Turkey in 2004 after she married her husband, Faruk. The school where she taught English was closed when Erdogan declared a state of emergency after the coup.
The worst part, she said, was the isolation she and her family faced as authorities singled out Hizmet as a terrorist movement. The landlord kicked them out, and some relatives stopped calling.
“Kids from the neighborhood stopped playing with my children,” said Tugba, who lives in Garfield. “My neighbors didn’t greet me back. It hurts when you feel everyone turns their back to you and your family.”
Her husband, a principal of a Hizmet school, had a tourist visa and fled to the USA. Tugba, as a Russian citizen, was able to leave via her home country and came to the USA in 2018 via the Mexican border.
Faruk, whose asylum has been approved, works delivering goods for a bakery. Tugba's asylum was approved last week.
Tugba's children, ages 5 and 10, go to public school in Garfield. Her oldest, 15, a student at a charter school, is a talented artist who hopes to study animation in college.
American immigration courts may grant asylum to people who prove they face persecution in their homelands based on race, religion, nationality or social or political affiliations.
The State Department's Turkey 2018 Human Rights Report says Turkish authorities dismissed or suspended more than 130,000 civil servants, arrested or imprisoned more than 80,000 citizens, and closed more than 1,500 civic groups on terrorism-related grounds after the coup attempt.
At home in New Jersey
Turkish asylum seekers have been drawn to northern New Jersey because of its long-standing Turkish American community with cultural centers, organizations, stores and restaurants, and because they have family here.
Nearly 194,000 people of Turkish ancestry live in the USA, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, including about 17,000 in New Jersey.
New Jersey is home to Gulen followers and organizations, including Peace Islands Institute, which promotes inter-religious understanding. The Alliance for World Values, which speaks for Gulen, has an office in Clifton, and its president lives in New Jersey.
Asylum seekers in New Jersey try to make others feel welcome.
Tugba said she brought dinner to a family who moved to her neighborhood eight months ago. The husband had been jailed, and his wife still felt afraid.
"She asked me, 'Are you able to speak freely? Are you able to tell people you're from Turkey?' I told her, yes, it's free here. I told her she shouldn't be afraid," she said.
Follow Hannan Adely on Twitter: @AdelyReporter
This article originally appeared on North Jersey Record: Turkish Gulen supporters fleeing crackdown seek asylum in New Jersey