A Turkish coup, a family torn apart, a dramatic escape on foot: 'Can you believe the things we went through?'

A family, separated in the aftermath of Turkey's failed 2016 coup, has reunited in Edmonton following a woman's dramatic escape with her young children in tow.

A family has reunited in Edmonton, after years of separation in the aftermath of Turkey's failed 2016 coup

Father and daughter hold hands on Friday in Edmonton after fleeing Turkey and spending nearly two years apart. (CBC)

Leyla had a choice between two terrible options. 

She could stay in Turkey where she might end up imprisoned, at risk of torture and sexual assault, and separated from her young children. Or she could take them on a dangerous journey, with no guarantee of survival.  

Last week at the Edmonton airport, she knew she had made the right choice when she was reunited with her husband Mustafa, and their children raced into his arms.

"It's over, we are together," Leyla told her husband, dressed in a new navy blue dress and matching hijab as she hugged him at the airport. "Can you believe the things we went through?"

Their family was torn apart in the aftermath of Turkey's failed coup in 2016. CBC is not identifying the couple or sharing certain details because of safety concerns for relatives in Turkey. Leyla and Mustafa are pseudonyms.

Victims of a failed coup in Turkey

Over the past year, Mustafa has lobbied the Canadian government to expedite the approval process for his wife and children who were forced to flee Turkey. At one point, he even embarked on his own dangerous rescue mission.

They're one of countless families separated after Turkey's failed coup on July 15, 2016, that left 250 dead and sparked a state of emergency, mass arrests and accusations of widespread human rights violations. 

Like many who have fled, Mustafa is a member of the Gulen movement.

Turkish authorities accuse the movement's leader, Fethullah Gulen, a Muslim cleric based in the United States and former ally of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, of orchestrating the deadly plot to topple the government. Gulen denies the allegation.

Mustafa said they were treated as criminals, "even though we didn't do anything." 

It's over. We are together. Can you believe the things we went through?- Leyla , Turkish refugee 

To evade arrest, Mustafa, an academic who often travelled for work, flew to Canada on a visa and claimed asylum. He believed his family would be safe in Turkey until he could send for them.

Instead, Leyla and her kids were also forced to flee from Turkey. It would be another year before they could join Mustafa in Edmonton.

On Friday, speaking through an interpreter, the couple shared their story from their new home in south Edmonton which is sparse on furniture but filled with balloons, a bouquet of red roses, a Canadian flag and children's laughter.

Mustafa recalled those first moments, crying and hugging his family on Canadian soil when "something I saw as next to impossible was becoming possible."

Mustafa's little girl, dressed in a white eyelet dress and pink pearls, clung to her dad as Leyla recounted the pivotal moment when she was hauled into the police station last year for questioning.

Fearing her own arrest was imminent, Leyla agonized over her next step.

On the run

The sky was inky black on the morning Leyla and her children crept from their home, despite objections from her heartbroken family.

Their various modes of transportation included long stretches on foot, sometimes running to avoid detection. Memories of her children falling over on the rough terrain, their little legs scraped and bruised, still haunts her, Leyla said.
Mustafa spoke to CBC last summer before embarking on a risky mission to rescue his wife and children who were fleeing Turkey. (Rick Bremness/CBC)

Life was hard in the country they sought refuge. Despite the baking heat, and with no air conditioning or running water, Leyla hid the kids indoors to avoid identification checks by police. With a professional background in health care, she struggled to get the proper medicine to treat her childrens' bronchitis.

Early on, Mustafa embarked on a risky journey to meet them, hoping they could all return to Canada together. But his permanent residency wasn't approved by the time his visa ran out. The couple steeled themselves for another painful separation, knowing it was the only way.

Finally, Mustafa's permanent residency came through in May, allowing him to sponsor his family.

They booked flights that avoided countries which are known to extradite Gulen back to Turkey. Even now, they keep a low profile fearing information will be reported to Turkish authorities that could put their family in danger.

"There's no way I can thank (Leyla) enough for that kind of bravery," said Mustafa. "I believe because we are honest and good people, Allah helped us when we needed it most."

Torture, sexual assault in custody: UN

According to a United Nations report released in March, 152,000 civil servants were dismissed and nearly 160,000 people detained in the first 18 months of the continuing state of emergency.

The report documents sexual assault in custody as well as electric shocks and waterboarding.

The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights also identified "a pattern of detaining women just before, during or immediately after giving birth."

'Some were detained with their children and others violently separated from them.' - Zeid   Ra'ad  Al Hussein, UN High Comissioner for Human Rights

The UN estimates approximately 600 women with young children were being held in detention as of December 2017. Most were arrested as "associates" of their husbands, who were accused of links to terror groups "without separate evidence supporting charges against them," the report says.

"Some were detained with their children and others violently separated from them," the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein said in a statement.

"This is simply outrageous, utterly cruel and surely cannot have anything whatsoever to do with making the country safer."

Among those caught up in the arrests are journalists, lawyers, academics and a handful of Canadians, as well as human rights defenders such as Taner Kilic, the chair of Amnesty Turkey, who was detained on terrorism charges.

"It seems to be very politicized with a will to charge and convict people, no matter what," said Gloria Nafziger, a refugee campaigner with Amnesty Canada. "The charges seem to be frivolous based on absolutely no concrete, hard information whatsoever."

In a statement, the Turkish government condemned the UN report as biased and containing "unfounded allegations matching up perfectly with the propaganda efforts of terrorist organizations.

"It completely ignores the severe and multiple terrorist threats faced by Turkey," wrote the foreign ministry. 

Global Affairs Canada says the government has urged Turkey to respond to its security challenges in a way that upholds human rights and the rule of law.

Refugee claims soar

Meanwhile, the number of asylum seekers from Turkey keeps climbing.

In 2015, the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada received 295 refugee protection claims from Turkey.

In 2016, claims shot up to 1,103 and one year later that number soared again to  2,197.

As dozens of those families in Edmonton pray for their own reunions with loved ones, Mustafa and Leyla are embracing their new lives.

Mustafa works in a store, attends English language classes and hopes to teach again. Leyla plans to re-enter the health-care field. They are both planning for their children's future. 

"It makes me so happy that they will get the best education they can get," said Mustafa. "I love Canada a lot and I will do my best for my kids to love this country as well."

andrea.huncar@cbc.ca

@andreahuncar

About the Author

Andrea Huncar

Reporter

Andrea Huncar is an award-winning journalist based in Edmonton. She has also reported from Saskatchewan, Toronto and East Africa.