From John Alabilikian to El Paso to Mehmet

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By Ismail Akbulut

On August 3, a hate-driven heinous mass shooting targeting immigrants in El Paso, Texas left 22 people dead and added another chapter to the saddest of American stories.

The tragedy made me reflect on the lives lost. They came to the US in search of a better future. Their deaths reminded me of the stories and tragedies of so many who look for the same thing.

I came to America over a decade ago with my young family. Both my wife’s and my family had emigrated from Turkey to Germany in the 1970s.The US meant opportunity for us. We were young and idealistic.

The history of the US is well-known. This country has traditionally been a shelter for the oppressed, a refuge for the persecuted, and a land of hope for people fleeing tragedies that range from discrimination to famine.

From 1892 to 1954, Ellis Island was the gateway for about 12 million of these people. They all went through a tough vetting process that included a myriad of tests and examinations, but about 98 percent of them were allowed in.

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A few weeks back, my family and I decided to visit Ellis Island as part of our first road trip to the East Coast. We are an immigrant family and we wanted to learn about those who entered the US a century ago.

We talked about how difficult it must have been back then to leave the only place you know by ship and travel for weeks under cruel conditions to a new land, hoping desperately that you’d finally find peace, freedom and prosperity upon arrival.

Our tour included audio stories from these men and women who took a chance on America so many years ago. To my delight, I saw that one of those stories belonged to a person from Turkey. His name was John Alabilikian. The surname gave away his Armenian background.

I was instantly curious about why Alabilikian came to the US in 1922.

As It turns out, Alabilikian’s story is heart wrenching. He was born in Yozgat, today’s Turkey, then part of the Ottoman Empire.

In 1915, when Alabilikian was 7, most Armenian men in Yozgat were rounded up by the Ottoman army and disappeared; that’s what happened to Alabilikian’s father. Then the same thing happened to his mother and sister. He lost his family because they were Armenian.

In order to survive, his aunt married a Turkish man. They adopted Alabilikian and raised him as a Muslim. Since his step-father’s family was well off, they could afford to immigrate to the US in 1922.

Alabilikian was able to celebrate his Armenian identity and heritage when he arrived in the US. In the Ottoman Empire, it was this very identity and heritage that got his parents killed.

That tragedy never left him, but he always carried gratitude in his heart for what the US gave him.

John Alabilikan’s story reminded me about a dear friend who also came from Turkey to the US. Let’s call him Mehmet. Of Turkish descent, Mehmet lived in Western Turkey until he was 15. He’s the third youngest of four children. His family enjoyed a comfortable life in Turkey. Mehmet moved at the age of 18 to pursue his education in the US.

But the good times didn’t last.

What started as the American Dream turned into a nightmare for Mehmet and his family on the night of July 15, 2016.

On that day, a faction within Turkish military tried unsuccessfully to overthrow the government, headed by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Much like Hitler’s reaction after the Reichstag fire, Erdogan called for a press conference while the coup attempt was still happening. He used the occasion to call this attempted coup “a gift from God” and, with no evidence, readily designated the perpetrators behind the failed coup as Fethullah Gulen and the famed Gulen Movement.

The Gulen Movement (GM) identifies itself as a peace movement that started in the 1960s in Turkey. it focuses on charity, education and dialog activities. The group initially supported the Erdogan government until he turned into an autocrat and shut down a corruption probe involving him, his family and his government.

Erdogan used the failed coup to target his political opponents. He’d already hollowed out much of Turkish civil society, including academia and the news media — incidents that have been thoroughly documented by international human rights groups and think tanks. Now he had the GM in his cross-hairs.

Like millions of other Turks, Mehmet and his family anxiously followed the coup attempt on TV and social media. Afterwards, a neighbor reported Mehmet’s father as a Gulen follower. This resulted in him doing five months in a concrete cell.

Then his father learned that the Turkish government had a search warrant out for him. He was accused of being part of a terrorist organization that tried to overthrow the Turkish government. He’d get 16.5 years in prison for that.

They gave zero evidence. But they didn’t have to since they ran the country.

Mehmet’s father didn’t give in. He knew that the police were torturing GM members as well as those accused of being participants or supporters. So he and his family went into hiding in a rural area, eventually becoming farmers.

Last October, Mehmet was driving on the highway when his mother called him and asked him to start FaceTime. He felt that something was wrong but kept his composure. He FaceTimed and smiled.

Then, in tears, Mehmet’s mother gave her 22-year-old son the awful news: his father just died in a tractor accident. He was just 56 years old.

His mother found out later that Erdogan’s government now had a search warrant out for her. They used the same baseless accusations. This forced her into perpetual hiding. First at a friend’s house, then to another friend’s house…and on and on…

Mehmet’s older brother and sister finally decided to flee Turkey because search warrants were issued for them as well.

His older siblings and their families, which included a three months old baby, fled to Greece by boat. To get there, they swam across the Evros River where they almost drowned. From Greece, his siblings managed to travel to Germany and the Netherlands where they filed for political asylum.

Mehmet prays every day that he’ll be able to rescue his mother and younger brother from Erdogan’s tyranny. They’re still hiding from authorities, on the run.

Mehmet is the only one in the family who has a decent job. He works as an IT specialist by day and drives a Lyft by night in order to provide for all his family members.

I’m grateful to be in the United States, to enjoy its privileges. The challenges we face today, including mass violence, makes me think about how we got here. I don’t have all the answers, but I know one thing: as a privileged member of society and a successful settler of this country, I am responsible for welcoming and assisting those who reach our shore in search of a better life.

They may be our friends. They might even have been our ancestors. We can never forget about them.

(Ismail Akbulut resides in Colorado, where he is President of the Multicultural Mosaic Foundation.)

 

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