Turkish refugees in Canada say family members trapped, stranded overseas

Hundreds of refugee families across Canada are marking a heart-breaking anniversary Saturday of the coup attempt in Turkey that some say has left their family members trapped or stranded overseas in precarious circumstances.

Families torn apart mark anniversary of failed coup, ask Ottawa to help them reunite

A mother who fled Turkey dreams of the day she and her daughter can reunite with her husband in Edmonton. (CBC)

Hundreds of refugee families across Canada are marking a heart-breaking anniversary Saturday of the coup attempt in Turkey that some say has left their family members trapped there or stranded overseas in precarious circumstances.

One young mother who fled Turkey for Edmonton a year ago recalled the last moments with her husband, and her chilling prediction.

"I said 'Maybe I cannot come again to my country,' " the woman told CBC News, fighting back tears. "And it happened — we didn't come back to Turkey."

Maybe I cannot come again to my country.- Edmonton mother who fled Turkey

The woman left Istanbul and arrived in Edmonton in the spring, via the U.S.A The travel ban imposed by Turkish authorities prevented her husband, who had been in and out of detention, from joining them. He escaped to Greece shortly afterward.

CBC News is not revealing their identities or certain details due to their fear of reprisals.

On July 15, 2016, a deadly military coup attempt rocked Turkey, triggering a state of emergency and an ongoing government crackdown.

Prisons and courts remain swamped after about 50,000 Turks were arrested and many more detained. Those jailed include about 150 journalists, a dozen mostly pro-Kurdish lawmakers and a main opposition party politician, eight prominent human rights defenders and five Turkish-Canadians.

About half of those cases are now being addressed in the courts, Selcuk Unal, Turkey's ambassador to Canada, told CBC News earlier this week. More than 2,000 soldiers have been found not guilty, while others have been jailed for life, he said.

34,000 employees reinstated

Unal said 34,000 employees have been reinstated out of the 100,000 or so suspended or fired from the military, private sector and civil service, including many judges and lawyers. "It has been understood that they were wrongfully suspected," he said.

"Of course, it will be the courts who will decide who was a member, who has taken part and who is not guilty," said Unal. "And the figures that I give actually is, I think, an ample proof that this investigation processes have been ongoing with meticulous and utmost care."

Supporters of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, including those who took to the streets and thwarted the coup, insist the government's response is necessary to prevent another onslaught.

But in the fallout, advocates say violations of human rights and legal rights are widespread, while those fleeing face other consequences.

More than 30 refugee families in Edmonton have been torn apart, with one parent either trapped in Turkey or stranded overseas in precarious circumstances.

My daughter — she misses her dad very much and she's growing up without her father.- Edmonton mother who fled Turkey

"My daughter — she misses her dad very much and she's growing up without her father," said the Edmonton woman who spoke with CBC News, her voice strained with emotion. "And also my husband is struggling in Greece. He's not safe in Greece."

Human rights advocates have expressed concern that countries such as Greece and Malaysia are extraditing alleged dissidents back to Turkey, where their lives are at risk. 

Edmonton supporters are appealing to federal Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen to expedite residency applications that would allow refugees here to send for their loved ones.

The urgency of those calls were underscored this week when an Edmonton man returned to the region he fled to rescue his wife and small children.

Hussen's office did not respond to request for comment. Citizenship and Immigration Canada said the Edmonton man, whose identity CBC News is protecting, has not made a formal request to expedite his application, but supporters say the necessary documents were sent.

Allies become enemies

The refugees interviewed in Edmonton belong to the Gulen movement, known as Hizmet, which means "service" in Turkish.

Turkish authorities blame the group for last year's plot to overthrow the government, branding it a terrorist organization. Unal told CBC News members have "infiltrated and nested" in all public institutions as well as key sectors such as banking, health and media. 

The leader of the movement, U.S.-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, a former ally of Erdogan's, has denied involvement in the failed coup.

Some suggest the attack was staged to justify the government's consolidation of power and its purge of critics that has gone far beyond Gulen members to target Kurds, leftists and liberals.

Gulenists, who have established networks of schools, businesses and relief organizations in Turkey and worldwide, say their movement champions education, religious tolerance and western partnerships.

But critics say in their previous alliance with the ruling AK party, Gulenists, who occupied influential positions in the police, judiciary and government, operated in secret and abused their power to mute detractors.

Torture allegations denied

In the aftermath of July's attempted coup, both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International said they found evidence of torture and ill treatment of detainees and widespread human rights violations.

An October report by Human Rights Watch documented allegations of detainees subjected to stress positions, sleep deprivation, severe beatings, sexual abuse and threat of rape.

The watchdog said emergency decrees by the Turkish government had removed safeguards against torture, effectively writing "a blank cheque to law enforcement agencies to torture and mistreat detainees as they like."

But the ambassador insisted "there has been no mistreatment of any suspects from these files."

"If and when there is a concrete allegation regarding the mistreatment of any coup plotter … we always take them very seriously, and with the concrete information we investigate them in co-operation with other authorities," said Unal.

Asylum claims quadruple

In Canada, asylum claims from Turkey more than quadrupled in 2016 compared to a year earlier, to 1,303. And numbers from the Immigration and Refugee Board show claims continue to climb, with 590 in the first quarter of 2017.

Many say Canada is their last hope.

One recent arrival said it was a tweet from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau that strengthened his resolve to leave his wife and children behind to secure their new home in Canada.

"I left them because I wanted to save them," said the man, a teacher who was living abroad at the time of the coup attempt. 

The home government shut down the Gulen schools he ran, while the Turkish government froze bank accounts and blocked passport renewals, preventing staff from renewing visas to remain abroad.

Returning to Turkey wasn't an option due to the risk of being jailed, he said. He and his family took refuge in a third country, but only he had a visa that allowed him to make the journey to the U.S. and then on to Canada to claim asylum.

"I'm always worried about them," he said.

He rattles off all the fears that haunt him: his family members don't speak the language; they're not employed; they don't have health insurance; the kids can't go to school; and the country is not secure.
Minnak, rescued from the streets as a kitten, has become a symbol of a Turkish father's promise to bring his children to safety. (Supplied)

But the strain on the man's face lifts briefly as he shares cellphone photos of an eight-month-old black-and-white cat nestled in the arms of his children.

He smiles as he explains his daughter rescued the animal as a tiny kitten, hairless and orphaned, from the streets. They named him Minnak, which means "tiny and cute," and together the family took turns nursing him with a syringe and keeping him warm.

And when they fled, Minnak went with them. That's something the man reminded his tearful daughter as he left for Canada, promising the entire family would be together again soon.

"I didn't even leave a kitten behind, so I wouldn't leave you behind either — don't worry," he reassured her. "I promise I will get you to a safe place."



Andrea Huncar


Andrea Huncar reports on human rights and justice. Contact her in confidence at andrea.huncar@cbc.ca