“I will come back one day”
The refugee route is not just the fate of Syrian refugees. In recent years, more and more journalists from Turkey have been trying to flee to Europe via Greece. What drives them to follow this dangerous path and what awaits them when they arrive. A contribution by Cagdas Kaplan.
It may sound like a cliché, but my story and that of many other people from Turkey can only confirm this cliché. “Geography is fate”. To understand exactly what I mean, we have to start my story from the very beginning. But don´t worry, I won´t tell lengthy pages about my childhood. I just want to clarify the events that lead me to take a risky path as a refugee.
I was born as a child of a mixed marriage, my mother was a Turk, my father a Kurd. From an early age, I asked myself what language my father spoke to his own relatives. And why does he speak to us in another language? It becomes problematic when you start asking why this language is not spoken on the street or at school. You also don't understand why the teacher reacts nervously when asked these questions. Before you understand what all of this is, you are politicized early on and become aware of a problem that will accompany you throughout your life. Over the years, you understand that there is actually a war in their country, but it is not described as such. You become aware of the injustices and denial that are ignored by most people.
Like the other teenagers, I had dreams. It was my dream as a journalist to make my contribution to a better and democratic country. I think this is a very harmless dream, but I quickly realized that some others did not see it that way. As a student, I started to gain my first experience as a Journalist. My first article for the Kurdish newspaper Özgür Gündem still hangs over my bed. I ran young and energetic from one topic to another.
As a journalist, you learn something new every day, and reality forms anew every day. The truths I learned sometimes brought me to the edge of the tolerable. I got angry and outraged because some of what I experienced shocked me. However, as a good journalist, I always tried to keep my nerve and control my emotions. Nevertheless, it is impossible to report on the "Kurdish problem" and not to be exposed to the security authorities.
So what happened had to happen. I was arrested in 2011 along with 42 other colleagues from a Kurdish news agency I worked for at the time. It became standard that the police show up at the door in the middle of the night. This was followed by the police station, trial, arrest warrant and detention. Almost every journalist in Turkey now knows this process. Those in power classified my contributions, interviews and statements as “dangerous”. So I had become dangerous in her eyes. I was accused of "damaging Turkey's image" with my articles. After a year and a half, I was released. However, I did not do what was expected of me. Ultimately, the detention should lead to journalists looking for another job or reporting on the weather or sport. No, I continued where I left off. However, I was now on the blacklist of the authorities. This was followed by further interrogations, short-term detentions and court cases.
In December 2018, I now had four parallel accusations. I could have imprisoned for several years at any time. It was only a matter of time before another warrant was issued. It was time to take a decision.
I had to choose either to spend valuable years of my life in prison because of my journalistic work, or to live as a refugee in a foreign country whose language I did not speak. Although it was clear what would happen if I stayed in Turkey, it took many days to take courage. The decision to flee is not an easy one. Neither yesterday, nor today or tomorrow.
My fate is that of a journalist from Turkey and therefore nothing special. Death, prison or exile have always been the fate of these people. I had chosen this path years ago, so I had to live with the consequences. My plan was to flee to Greece first, and then travel to Western Europe after a short time. If you have worked as a journalist in Turkey in the past few years, you know whom to call if you wanted to go to Greece. Contacts with people smugglers are not only circulating among Syrian refugees but also among journalists.
It was January 3, 2019. Two smugglers accompanied me to the Meric / Evros border river, from there it was only a few minutes in an inflatable boat to Greece. Before I got in, I looked back one last time towards Turkey. Should I really do that? Or go back? Even if you had gone through the scenario several times in your head: When the moment comes, in such a situation you get weak in the knees. I hoped to come back sometime.
How many people have probably gone this way before me? How many will take this dangerous path after me? Who were these people? What were the reasons for leaving their home? As a journalist, I would actually write the stories of these people. Now I was on the run myself.
After a few minutes, I was on the opposite bank, in the "Promised Land" Europe. The smugglers did not even bother to get out, they turned right back. Now I was there. What now? It was in the middle of the night and there was heavy fog. I called my family and friends first. They should not be worried. Thanks to the GPS function of my cell phone, I made my way to the nearest village.
When I got there after a one-hour walk, it was three o'clock in the night. My plan was to spend the night somewhere and take the bus to Thessaloniki the next day. When it started snowing heavily, I looked for dry shelter. However, where could I ring the bell in this godforsaken area in the middle of the night? In the distance, I saw lights shining in a house. I approached and I see an older man inside who was making coffee. I knocked softly on the window so as not to scare the man. I don't think I was the first foreigner to wake this man up in the middle of the night. He made a calm impression as if he always had a stranger outside the door in the middle of the night. He later made it clear to me that residents of the border region had gotten used to refugees. Since he spoke some Turkish, we were able to communicate. I was grateful to be dry and warm.
A few hours later, when it was getting light outside, I said goodbye to the old man and went to the bus station hoping a bus would come to take me to the nearest town. But before the bus came, I made my first contact with the Greek security authorities. Two patrol officers stopped and asked who I was and what I was doing there.
If you are a refugee, you have not only left your home behind. You also have to constantly explain why you are on the run. Actually, the police do not care where you come from and what you have experienced. The "Kurdish problem" is just as irrelevant to the Greek state as it is to the Turkish one. However, you still have to prove what drove you to flee. This is what the bureaucracy wants. You also have to show their gratitude that you are not being sent back. Very soon, you will be made aware of the rules you have to follow.
The two police officers who picked me up at the bus station interviewed me there for almost an hour. I should finally tell them where the others from the group are, otherwise, they would immediately deport me to Turkey. Even though I kept reassuring them that I had come alone, they insisted on telling me that there must be more refugees. This disturbing questioning and the threatening backdrop should prepare me for what was to come to Greece.
The two police officers took me to the nearest police station, then to a refugee camp in the border town of Feres. The hygienic conditions were miserable; the conditions were more like work camps in authoritarian regimes than a camp for refugees in a European country. The authorities did not specify how long they wanted to keep me there. I took this information from the writings on the walls. Former “visitors” to these cells had noted that they were released after ten days. Therefore, I encountered these circumstances when I arrived in Greece.
After a stop at the UN refugee camp in the city of Orestiada, I went to Thessaloniki with the necessary documents. There I met a Kurdish journalist who had fled to Greece for similar reasons. With his help, I requested an appointment with the immigration office because I wanted to apply for asylum as a political refugee. In addition, yes, I got an appointment: in June 2023! I had already noticed that the mills of the Greek bureaucracy were grinding slowly, but an appointment in four and a half years left me stunned.
What should I do till then? I have no official status or alternative option until my appointment. Where, and especially from what should I live? Of course, there were no answers to these questions. After all, I should be grateful that I was not deported. Indirectly, the Greek bureaucracy with its clumsiness actually offers you another option: without saying so, you are advised to pay smugglers another thousand euros so that they can bring you to Western Europe.
Thanks to the financial help of my friends and family, I was able to survive for the first few months. I looked through journalists´ organizations for legal ways to move to a western European country where I could have done my job as a journalist. However, every time I came across an invisible wall of bureaucracy. Illegal attempts also failed.
Nevertheless, I was a journalist and journalists have no home. They can write from anywhere. I could not just sit there and wait for a miracle to happen. Stories that needed to be told were existing also in Greece. Therefore, I decided to write down the fate of the refugees. The rest of the world should know their stories. I have been in Greece for almost a year and a half now and I am still trying to stay alive by writing.
However, I also made new contacts. Thanks to the support of a Turkish journalist who has been living in Greece for years and whom I admire for his works, I met the Greek writer Yorgo. Yorgo entrusted me with an office space and we became friends. I have met many other people whom I now refer to as friends: journalists who, like me, fled Turkey or Greek colleagues who show solidarity with us.
The best thing was still to come: I even found my love Bercem here in exile. She is the daughter of a Kurdish family who fled to Greece two decades ago and has lived here ever since. So now, I have a companion without whom life in an uncertain exile would be even more difficult to bear.
I have not lost my hope. Sometimes I remember when I vowed to return one day. I still have this hope.
Translated by : Aret Demirci