Turks abroad turn their backs on home after elections

Two weeks presidential elections dubbed “the most pivotal in Turkey’s history”, most of the population seems to have shrugged off the results as though nothing happened.

The legacy of a frantic campaign and a heart-wrenching election day has been dealt with in the same way that Turkey has reckoned with years of disappointments, tragedies and triumphs: “Let’s get over it, life goes on.”

It is easy for those who voted to re-elect President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, watching the triumphal inauguration and the beginning of the long-sought presidential republic. But it is also easy for those who believed the opposition had a real chance to win. The crushing defeat at the ballot swept away most hopes of change. The only way is to learn to live with it.

But for those who left Turkey because they signed the wrong petition, enrolled in the wrong university, wrote the wrong article, or lived the wrong lifestyle, the results meant that they would not return home.

“I love visiting Turkey for a week and seeing my family and friends,” said Bulut, a 28-year-old PhD student from Ankara now living in Europe. “But I definitely do not plan to go back to Turkey. I would not be happy there … It is becoming increasingly difficult to lead a life that does not comply with the conservative values of Turkish people.”

Still, the main reason is not about lifestyle. “I want to be a professor in social sciences,” he said. “Social sciences require a lot of critical reflection and freedom to express these reflections. In Turkey, there is a tendency towards silencing different views.”

The government crackdown on academia and the chilling effect on critical thinking of prosecutions for perceived insults to the president are not abstract concepts; they affect daily life in Turkey.

“I love my country,” Mergen, another PhD candidate living in the Netherlands, said passionately. “But I believe what makes a country is the people who live in it, sharing a culture and understanding, having common values and goals. I would love to go back to the Turkey I grew up in, to be with the people I love and to share one more laugh at a nonsensical joke that only someone from my own culture would understand. But I know I have no chances of being happy if I go back to the Turkey that I see today,” he said.

Deniz, a 29-year-old from Istanbul now working in a Baltic country as a marketing specialist, went back to Turkey in the wake of the 2013 Gezi Park protests, the biggest anti-government demonstrations since Erdoğan came to power in 2003.

“I was already living abroad, but then Gezi happened and I was really impressed. I thought something could change in the country,” he said. He volunteered for an NGO working with young people. “I had a chance to travel all around Turkey to meet young people. But eventually the feeling of not belonging there won and I moved out once again, after the referendum.” The 2017 referendum narrowly approved changing Turkey into an executive presidential system.

“I was wrong. Nothing changed. It got worse. So, I decided to leave Turkey again. I guess it is for good this time,” Deniz said.

Not all the exiles from Turkey had a choice. Ceylan, a 28-year-old Kurd, has no illusions. “Turkey has never been a truly democratic country and perspectives are not encouraging. With this latest victory Erdoğan will impose an even stricter rule under his control, a kind of caliphate, an authoritarian-Islamist regime,” she said.

Ceylan left Turkey as a teenager and obtained asylum in Europe. “I was sentenced to life in prison when I was still a minor. The final sentence came in 2009, when I decided to leave my country after being jailed three times.”

She pointed to the pro-Kurdish opposition Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) as the only party that increased its vote share after the last general election. “It’s a great success despite arrests, repression, censorship,” she said.

“These elections have encouraged people to return to the streets, during the campaign and then to celebrate the great result of entering parliament.” But, she said, “we don’t hope for things to fall from above, we need to fight for our rights.”

Hope is something hard to find.

“I don’t know what to hope. I might sound pessimistic, but, well, I prefer being realistic” Deniz said. “In my eyes, Turkey lost a few generations due to the bad rule of the last 16 years. It will take 30 to 40 years to fix the country.”

“I was not surprised with the results, but I felt devastated for a few days afterwards. I think the main reason was the hope I had even though I knew that nothing would change,” said Mergen.

“It feels like a theatre play where we all know how it ends, yet we still hope that it would end differently each time we play it,” said Deniz.

Mergen said he disliked the tension he felt when visiting Turkey.

“The second I stepped into the bus to the city centre I felt the indescribable tension in the air. Everyone was looking at each other only to understand whether they were on their side or the opposition. This was the first time I truly understood how divided Turkey is today and how I cannot be happy living in such a community where the tension was almost visible to the naked eye,” he said.

That made living outside Turkey more bearable.

“It is not easy to live in a completely different world where some people look down at you with disgust simply because of your skin colour and your nationality, but it is better than being hated by people of your same colour and language, simply because of your beliefs and your lifestyle. It is easier to be shunned by others than by your neighbours.”

All the names have been changed.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.