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18 Sep 17

Turkey’s Academic Exodus is Destroying its Future

A self-imposed exile

The mass flight of freethinking academics is one of the damaging consequences of Erdogan’s purge, as it is robbing the country of its most talented and creative citizens.

A Turkish army soldier standing guard outside a court in Silivri, while protesters, demonstrate against the trial of journalists and staff from the Cumhuriyet newspaper, accused of aiding terror organizations on September 11. Photo: Emrah Gurel/AP

My phone rang in the middle of the night. My friend who currently lives in the US was calling me.

Still half-sleeping, I answered the phone and heard bad news. His father has passed away but he could not attend his father’s funeral because of his concerns about his security in Turkey.

If he tries to enter his own home country, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s police could arrest him or ban him from going abroad again. Both scenarios mean an end for him and his life.

I tried to calm him down and we talked for a long time. After I hung up the phone, I started to think about him and his life, which resembled my own story, and that of many Turkish citizens.

He graduated from a distinguished Turkish university and then he did his masters and PhD in a European university, which is ranked as one of the world’s best 20 universities.

After finishing his education, he came back to Turkey because he wanted to serve his country and people, especially the young.

But after the failed coup last year, he had to leave, just like I and hundreds of thousands of Turks who would not accept Erdogan's brain-washing, had to.

Now this patriot is a “a traitor” in the eyes of Erdogan and his supporters. He cannot even attend his father’s funeral. His only sin is his open opposition to Erdogan.

After the failed coup attempt, he was dismissed from his post like hundreds of thousands of academics, journalists, researchers and other free thinkers. He received no explanation for the decision.

They just listed his name in a hundred-page long state of emergency decree, alongside with thousands of others, and said all these names had links with terrorist organisations.

Public releases of these decrees have become the worst nightmare for Turkish citizens. Whenever a new decree is released, people spend hours sifting through them.

Everyone first checks the list to see whether his/her name is on it. Then they continue going through the list, looking for the names of relatives, friends and colleagues.

If your name ends up on the list, it is the end of the world as you know it: you now have lost your job, your future and the opportunity to work for a Turkish institution. The worst thing is you also are labelled a terrorist, or a supporter of terrorism.

If you are not banned from traveling abroad, if you know foreign languages and have enough contacts, the best option is to leave the country and find a job abroad.

Hundreds of thousands of people have done this already and many more plan to follow suit.

If you do not have this opportunity, and are still free, it is best to start a new life and a new career. No one will want to hire you because of the fear.

I know many successful academics, journalists or researchers who have been forced to take odd jobs and build a whole new life.

One friend of mine opened a furniture store, using his last savings.

Imagine a political scientist with years of experience having to sell furniture. It could only happen in a non-democratic country like Turkey.

One of my former professors – a well-known academic and expert on foreign policy – says he had a similar experience in previous times.

After the military coup in 1980, he lost his job after the military government terminated his service at the faculty.

“Don’t worry. These days will be over and you will be remembered as a freedom-seeker and the current leadership will be remembered as tyrants,” he told me after we all lost our jobs in Erdogan’s purge.

He said we should do whatever we could to earn a living because the situation will only be temporary.

He recalled how he sold pedigree dogs and cats to make ends meet after he lost his job in the 1980s.

Eventually, he got his job back. We all hope that we, too, will get our jobs and lives back when this oppression ends.

But, at the moment, there are no signs of when that will happen. In the meantime, the forced or voluntary migration of well-educated, free-thinking Turks continues.

Up until now, around 6,000 academics have lost their jobs in state universities. If we add in the closed private universities, the think tanks, the research institutions, NGOs, newspapers, magazines and TV channels, we can say that tens of thousands of free thinkers have lost their jobs.

Some of them remain free [if you can call it free], but others are in prison. Some are now abroad.

Academics who went abroad generally have gone to Europe or the US, where they can obtain political asylum, continue their education or even their jobs.

It is easy to find some jobs in the West, as governments are aware of Erdogan’s tyranny.

Only in Germany more than 8,000 Turkish citizens applied for political asylum since the failed coup attempt and most of them are academics and other free thinkers.

There are even special programmes and funds [not enough, but promising] for Turkish academics in the US and Europe.

One of my friends from the US told me that 15 out of 20 students in his PhD programme are now Turks, and that applications from Turkey were three or four times higher in 2017 than in earlier years.

This is good for those people who can continue their lives elsewhere, but it is bad news for Turkey, which is losing its human capacity and its future.

Of all the other things, this is the worst. A bridge country between West and East, which plays an important role in terms of security and political stability in the region, now is losing its future.

This is not only bad news for Turkey. It is bad news for the region and its stability. All international actors in the arena, Turkey’s old allies in the EU and NATO, and Turkey’s kin states, should be aware of this situation and react accordingly.

Otherwise, we all will lose even more in the long term.

Talk about it!

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