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Turkish refugees describe the toll taken by Erdoğan’s conflict with the Hizmet movement  

President Erdoğan has been trying to drive the Islamic movement out of Turkey. Two anonymous Hizmet supporters talk about fleeing the country and seeking refuge. 

Going home after a long day of work, Michael glances at his rear-view mirror and notices what he believes is a discreet undercover police car tailing him. He turns around the block and confirms that the car is really following him. Michael makes the decision to go to a friend’s house to lure the police elsewhere. He stays there frightened, thinking about what could have happened if he had not noticed the car and drove home to his family.  

Michael is one of millions of Turkish citizens who are part of the Hizmet movement—an Islamic organization that was once allied with Turkish president Recep Erdoğan, but which has since been labeled a terrorist group. 

After a police investigation in 2013 into corruption proved embarrassing to him, Erdoğan stated that he would drive the Hizmet movement out of the nation.  

Michael and Emma, members of the Hizmet movement who wish to remain anonymous sat down with 8forty and discussed fleeing the nation and seeking shelter. 

Emma and Michael both describe their experience as traumatic. Michael had to leave his family for 3 years and live in a whole new country by himself, and Emma had to take her family from one border to another border until she was sure that they were safe. 

The Hizmet movement, also known as the Gülen movement is a community of volunteers living an Islamic lifestyle that teaches the values of tolerance and dialogue. Tolerance in Hizmet refers to being able to appreciate other religions and spiritual beliefs, and dialogue is defined as being cooperative and interacting positively with people from various religions and beliefs.  

The movement has opened schools in every city of Turkey and in 170 countries around the world. 

After the students who graduated from Gülen’s education institutions around 2000 started to take jobs in the government positions and private sectors in Turkey, they inevitably formed a strong network within themselves.  

When Erdoğan came to power in 2002, he worked together with the Hizmet movement cadres until 2008. In later years, he gained more power, he wanted his activities to be ignored. Between 2008 and 2013, this problem continued between the two groups without being mentioned in the media.  

On December 17, 2013, a massive corruption investigation was carried out by the police, involving Erdoğan himself and his children, as well as the Cabinet ministers and their children. CEO of the state-owned Halkbank, Aslan was found with $4.5 million in cash stocked in shoeboxes in his house and Zarrab, an Iranian businessman involved in $9.6 billion worth of gold trade, who in 2017 implicates Erdoğan. The audio recordings of Erdogan conversating with his son, Bilal, was published on social media. The recording has Erdogan telling his son to get rid of the money in their house as fast as possible and Bilal, in quite detail, explaining how exactly he is planning to get rid of the cash with the help of his sister. In another call, Bilal explains how he got rid of most of the cash and was left with €30 million cash. 

In a few days, Erdoğan fired the police, judges, and prosecutors who carried out this investigation and closed the files. After this incident, Erdoğan shut down all the educational institutions of the Hizmet movement and started lawsuits against its leaders. In this process, tens of thousands of teachers from the Hizmet movement became unemployed. Until 2015, these lawsuits and these oppressions continued to increase. 

On July 15, 2016, a failed coup, the organizer of which is still a mystery, led Erdoğan to change Turkey’s administrative structure giving himself dictatorial powers..  

Afterwards, the dormitories, schools, universities, and companies belonging to the Hizmet movement were all shut down by the state. Hundreds of thousands of people working in the state, their name on lists prepared beforehand for being associated with the Hizmet movement, were fired within a few days.  

To date, approximately one and a half million lawsuits have been filed against members of the Hizmet movement. Some examples follow from the Turkey Tribunal: Meltem Oktay, a Kurdish journalist, was jailed for three years with “membership of a terrorist organisation” chargeds for her news pieces; Eren Keskin, human rights activist and lawyer, arrested and imprisoned for her human rights activities; Barbaros Şansal, famous fashion designer, LGBTQ rights advocate and an anti-war activist, charged with inciting hatred from social media after his criticism of Erdogan.  

Currently, hundreds of thousands of people, children included, are in prison. In addition, tens of thousands of Hizmet members were forced to leave Turkey and take refuge in other countries.  

Michael, who has been a member of the Hizmet movement for more than 20 years, talked about his experience leading to his departure from Turkey. He worked as a teacher for several years at the educational institutions of the movement. But since the dismissals of the teachers working at these schools took place, he realized that finding a job was becoming increasingly difficult. The propaganda through the media was also affecting his family since he was affiliated with the Hizmet schools.  

Michael says “police dressed as civilians” were looking for him at his family house.  

“I was tailed by a police car. I realized my safety was at stake,” said Michael.  

The increasing persecution and being unable to find employment made him decide to leave Turkey. He travelled to the U.S. and crossed the Canadian border where he sought refuge. Michael waited three years for his family to be able to escape from Turkey and join him in Canada.  

Emma was also a teacher before getting dismissed. She has a husband and three kids. After the 2016 coup, they went into hiding for two and a half years. Emma described this experience as “financially and psychologically challenging times.” Even though Emma and her partner had a passport and an American visa, they could not easily leave Turkey because their children did not have passports.  

Emma and her partner decided to escape the country via illegal means.  

The most common way to illegally flee from Turkey is to cross the Maritsa River that is between Greece and Turkey. However, it is an extremely dangerous method. There have been more than approximately 1500 deaths crossing the river, reported the Ahval

“I would either go to jail and be separated from my children or we would all take the risk and go abroad. We chose the latter,” said Emma.  

Before escaping, they needed to get passports for their kids. They arranged a proxy to represent them. In the process, they never visited any kind of government agency. By utter luck, their kids got American visas along with their passports.  

On a February night in 2019, night, Emma and her family met up near the Maritsa River with a smuggler.  

“It was night, it was very cold, the ground was muddy,” she described.  

They had two backpacks with them; they had to leave all their belongings behind. A plastic boat was waiting for them. They did not have life jackets or anything else that could keep them safe.  

After a very rocky ride, Emma and her Family finally crossed the border. They walked in the rice fields for 4 hours with a flashlight.  

“The most challenging thing was to carry the little child, and to try to protect the psychology of other children. My little girl cried, ‘I’m scared. I miss my red bed. We’re lost here.’ I can never forget her saying that.”  

Three Greek soldiers found them. They made a stop sign with their flashlight.  When they saw the children, they gestured to come with their hands. “They told us in Turkish ‘Come neighbor, do not be afraid. You are safe here.’”  

“I met eyes with my partner. Maybe because of the old historical events that happened to the Greek people before, they were always told to us as enemies. But we were very surprised to hear the phrase ‘don’t be afraid, you are safe here’ from the first Greek soldier we encountered. We were very emotional.”  

Because they entered the country in illegal ways, they were in jail for 3 days with their children.  

“The jail was our salvation,” said Emma. After they got out, they stayed in United Nations camps for 4 days. They were under surveillance for a total of 7 days, then they were told they could go anywhere they wanted. They stayed with a friend for a week and travelled to the US, where they crossed the border to Montreal, Canada.  

“For the first time, I witnessed hail. We didn’t know what we were going to encounter in Montreal. We were just grateful that we could make it. We were free.”   

The dispute between Erdoğan and the Hizmet movement continues to this day and has made millions of families miserable.  

Gülen states, “Erdoğan’s accusation is no surprise, not for what it says about me but rather for what it reveals about his systematic and dangerous drive toward one-man rule.” 

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