Interview series with Turkish political refugees (2): Attorney Elif Buyukozturk
Elif Buyukozturk: She left Turkey by crossing through the Maritsa River. She was able to leave Greece, where she lived for nine months, on her 17th attempt and finally reached Germany, where she currently resides.
In this interview series, we will be compiling the stories of people who left Turkey for various countries across the world as political refugees, exploring their lives before and after their migration. We will talk about the significant breaking points of their lives as Turkish citizens who were forced to migrate as political refugees.
Rachel Hebun Ozdemir and attorney Elif Buyukozturk discuss her story.
Elif Buyukozturk studied at Istanbul University College of Law. Having graduated in 2014, she returned to Osmaniye where her family resided to begin her legal internship. From 2015 up until she left Turkey in 2018, she was employed as an attorney at law licensed by the Osmaniye Bar Association.
What was the most important breaking point of your life and when did it take place?
On August 3, 2018, I took one last look at my country from the shores of the Maritsa River. Nothing would ever be the same…
You were working as an attorney in Turkey. What was your life like before the July 15, 2016 coup attempt? *
My ex-husband and I had a little world of our own. We would work, spend time with loved ones, and plan our future. I see now that we were lucky people who had not yet been injured by life…
What did you experience afterwards, can you talk about that period of your life? What exactly were you and your husband accused of? Why did you have to leave Turkey?
The coup attempt’s first impact on our lives was my then husband’s dismissal from his job as a public servant by way of the September 1 KHK.** He later found employment as an engineer, and we tried to settle into a new life.
Soon after that, a warrant for his arrest was issued based on an alleged use of the Bylock*** application. I had been appointed as attorney in many similar cases per the requirements of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CCP). After July 15, nothing in the judiciary was the same as it was. The implementation of the law was rather different from what we had studied and learnt during our years at law school. We made a decision. We would refuse to surrender to this twisted system, to the so-called justice of the powerful.
And so began a year-and-a-half-long period of hiding from the police. I was pregnant during this time, and we were expecting a girl. We started each new day with the hope that something might have changed in the unjust system in which found ourselves. In this manner passed a year and a half. When our daughter turned one and we had finally despaired of our people and of our country, we decided to move abroad. Such were the beginnings of our life in exile.
When and how exactly did you leave Turkey? When you look back on those days, what can you say you experienced? What sorts of difficulties did you come across during the course of your departure?
On the night of August 3, 2018, with a backpack each and our daughter in our arms, we crossed into Greece as the hour was nearing dawn. After a period of detainment and a stay at the camp facilities, we reached Athens after nine days. We did not have the possibility of establishing a permanent life there and so we tried to come to Germany. We succeeded in reaching Germany on our 17th attempt. This took us nine months and four days. Those were the most difficult days of my life; having to move around countless times with a baby, living in the same space as multiple families, going to and from the airport many times only to be taken into custody before returning home, my daughter being left hungry or sleepless while in custody… These are moments in my life that seem so foreign to me as I talk about them, that I dissociate from reality and find myself questioning whether they really happened.
Can you talk a little about your new life as a political refugee? If we look back at the first step you took into this new life, what did you feel, what kinds of emotions did you experience?
By May 2019, we were finally in Germany and our asylum-seeking process began. I had been thinking that I had exhausted my quota for suffering, and was hoping that some things in my life would start going to plan. It did not pan out as I expected. I lived in camps and heims for two years and obtaining residency took me three years. I squeezed a divorce and multiple relocations with my daughter into this trying period. I had many reasons to feel bad, but the Creator’s biggest gift to me was the incorrigible joy and hope He placed inside me. I calmly resigned myself to my losses and focused on rebuilding my life.
How were the first stages of life as an immigrant in this country and how is it now? What sorts of cultural problems did you experience? Were you able to get accustomed to life in the country you now live in?
I must admit that I really struggled for the first two years. This had a lot to do with my divorce process and the physical conditions I found myself in. But I can now see the light at the end of the tunnel. My daughter and I have a happy, humble life years later in a home of our own. I cannot say that I experienced a lot of difficulty in adapting to the culture. In fact, I realized how exhausting, difficult, coercive our own culture could be at times.
What do you do nowadays? What are the difficulties surrounding building a new life? What has changed in your life and what are your plans for the future?
When starting life anew in a different country, you not only have to find a new job because you have lost the one in your home country, but you are also as illiterate as you were on the day of your birth. Despite this, the values you carry over from your old life increase your confidence and support you as you work to succeed in your new country.
Throughout this time, I learned German at the B2 level, and completed a program at the Oldenburg University called “Pedagogic Sufficiency in An Immigrant Society.” My language education is ongoing. While I do not exactly know where to start, I do know that there is a lot I want to do.
What do you see when you look back at Turkey? What sort of country were you imagining, did your perspective on your home country change after all you’ve been through?
My friends and I who had to leave Turkey after July 15, we were Turkey’s untested children. In many ways, I was blind to so much suffering due to my rather sheltered position up until I was also made to be the “other.”
I hope that everything I have been counts as my retribution for the sufferings of all of Turkey’s “othered” children, sufferings that I could not share in alleviating because I was entirely unaware of them. I find the struggles of the last six years and this bitter experience to be valuable, even if it is just for the sake of this awareness. And yet of course, the heart wants what it wants — that this is the last of it, the last…
Would you consider returning to Turkey if democracy and justice were reinstated?
I think I have lost any sense of belonging I had with Turkey. I wish only for my loved ones to be well, for everyone to be well, for them to live in peace and harmony. I do not know, perhaps I am saying this because my wounds are tender yet. I am heartbroken with the system that left me and thousands like me without roots or ties. Systems change, but our people never will. I fear that even in the optimum circumstances, they would not know how to be better...
Is there anything you’d like to add or say?
I hope that we have healed my wounds, which I had been observing from a distance almost as if they were scenes from someone else’s life, by way of reopening and sharing them. Thank you. All my best.
* The July 15 Coup Attempt, the 2016 Turkish Military Coup Attempt, or “Operation Lightning” and “Operation Peace at Home,” as the responsible parties call it, was a military coup attempt in Turkey between July 15-16, 2016 by a group of soldiers within the Turkish Armed Forces who define themselves as the Peace at Home Council.
** Generally speaking, emergency decree laws, abbreviated as KHK, are based on the legislative body’s law which defines the subject, duration, and purpose or are based on the authority it receives directly from the constitution, are decrees enacted by the government which have the power of law in the material sense, and in the form and organic sense with the approval of the parliament. After the 2017 constitutional amendment referendum measure passed and after the 2018 presidential election in which Erdogan won the popular vote, he repealed the 91st Article of the Constitution.
*** Bylock was an application that allowed anonymous users to send end-to-end encrypted messages. It was available for consumer usage after 2014 on the Google Play and App Store platforms.
**** CMK is the abbreviation of a term that means Code of Criminal Procedure.
*Rachel Hebun Ozdemir
Trans woman journalist in exile with an International Press Card. Author, political refugee, conscientious objector, antiwar activist. Journalist since 2005 in Turkey. Focuses on stories of people, wars, conflicts, intelligence, diplomacy, human rights, the climate crisis, migration. Left Turkey following the constitutional amendment referendum in 2017 and had to migrate to Germany. Tried for TCK 318. Has four published books. Presents special reports, documentary content, interviews, and news from earth on YouTube.