Educated Turkish émigrés seek fortune and freedom

Turkey's worsening economy, problems in the education system and increasing restrictions on freedoms mean many educated Turks are leaving the country in search of a better life abroad.

According to the most recent figures released by the Turkish Statistical Institute, the number of people who migrated from Turkey in 2017 increased by 42 percent year-on-year to 250,640. The primary age group of those who left was 25-29. Twenty-nine percent of those who left last year came from Istanbul, the country’s financial and cultural hub.

Halil Ibrahim Yenigün is a visiting post-doctoral fellow at Stanford University’s Center for Islamic Studies. While working at a university in Istanbul, he was one of more than 2,000 academics to sign a petition that started in January 2016 calling for a peaceful end to the country’s Kurdish conflict. Like many of those who signed the Academics of Peace petition, Yenigün lost his job. Scores of the petitioners are currently being prosecuted on charges of making propaganda for a terrorist organisation.

“It’s enough for me if I can do things like thinking, reading, and writing as I want in to be in a free environment and for me to do this with other people who can do the same things,” said Yenigün. “I think that what makes the U.S. so different from the rest of the world is that it provides the breadth of freedom of thought and expression compared to other places in the world and the ability to gather those new and original ideas and to brainstorm."

Freedom of thought and expression, he said, “are necessities like bread and butter for universities.”

The crackdown on campuses has led to a 28-percent year-on-year downturn in research output in 2017. Ulaşcan Sarıca, a Ph.D. student at John Hopkins University, said his academic career would have suffered in Turkey due to a lack of research opportunities.

“I’d be in quite a different spot. The research opportunities I found in Turkey were shallow because the funds that are allocated to research are insufficient. Most of the people in Turkey – including researchers – are looking at their jobs with an eye for tenure. They lack the impulse to push themselves out of their shells, and they are acting on an already laid out plan," Sarıca said.

But, Yenigün said, Turkey’s loss was the West’s gain.

“Academics of Turkish origin who come here to settle will start to be seen as leading scientists in their fields,” he said.

Barış, 29, gained his master’s degree in Barcelona and currently works in Madrid.

Spain, he said, “is much freer. It's a society that's open to diversity as people from many different countries live here. People are more understanding and more respectful toward each other”.

Before taking a job in Madrid, Barış also worked for a while in Turkey, but returned to Spain for a better standard of living.

“I can go on a small weekend getaway one a month, and I’m able to shop for the things I think I need without using a credit card. It seemed excessive, but it’s actually normal. Economically speaking, there's a system in place in which I can live the life I want,” he said.

The Turkish lira has lost some 40 percent of its value against the dollar this year, fuelling inflation and unemployment.

Barış said that while economic reasons and wanting to live overseas were significant drivers in his decision to relocate, “the main reason is that I could not see a future for myself in Turkey”.

Moving back to Turkey is not on the cards, he said, despite the drawback of being far from family and friends.

"If there are no serious family reasons or health problems, I would like to establish my life here. Maybe after 10 years, I will think of returning to Turkey when there's less social concern and tension," he said.

When asked if he plans to return to Turkey, Sarıca said: “When I left, I had no intention of going back – I still have no intention of doing so. Turkey doesn’t offer a wide range of research opportunities or a productive working environment. This is also true in social terms; if a person struggles all day to earn a living for their family, where can they find time to imagine and produce innovative projects?”