Student escapes from Turkey’s social issues

As a first grade student, Saba Aydiner attended Southdale Elementary School in Cedar Falls and was immersed in American culture. That lasted for six months, while her dad was a visiting professor from Istanbul, Turkey, at the University of Northern Iowa.

“At first there was a cultural barrier, but when I moved back to Turkey, I always wanted to come back to America,” Aydiner said.

She came back to America, but not in the way she planned. Political upheaval in her native Turkey led her family back to Cedar Falls.

On July 15, 2016, there was an uprising against the government of Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Erdogan has long been a public figure in Turkey, as prime minister from 2003 to 2014 before becoming president that year.

Erdogan blamed Fethullah Gulen, an exiled Islamic cleric who lives in Pennsylvania, for orchestrating the coup. Gulen was actually an ally of Erdogan until 2013, but then Erdogan rejected him as political rival.

According to Aydiner, Gulen is the head of a movement “which is based on giving education and peace around the world. It is charity and volunteering. It represents schools also, which one of them I went to when I lived in Turkey,” she said.

“Erdogan was power hungry. and since there were a lot of people in Turkey believing in the Gulen movement and not the president, he wanted to get rid of the movement,” Aydiner said.

In the aftermath of the coup attempt, Erdogan declared a state of emergency and detained over 125,000 Turkish citizens he branded as enemies of him and his AKP political party. According to Turkey Purge, a website that chronicles Turkey’s post-coup purge, more than 58,000 people have been arrested, over 8,000 academics lost their jobs and more than 2,000 schools and universities were shut down.

This is when the problem started for Aydiner’s family. Her father was a president of a Hizmet university, which is affiliated with the Gulen movement.

“One night we were just having our family time on a Friday night,” Aydiner said. “I had my cat on my lap, my parents were together and my brothers were playing with Legos on the floor, so we were really having a peaceful time, but then my grandfather called us. My mom answered the phone, and she started crying after seconds. That night a lot of people I know from the Gulen movement got arrested. I didn’t even know what was happening. My mom and dad didn’t even know what was happening, so that was really hard. My school was shut down, and everything was gone.”

Anyone associated with the Gulen movement was immediately in danger. “The thing that I was scared about the most was the thought of losing my dad, that was the hardest thing for me. I thought anything can happen to me, but nothing to my dad,” Aydiner said.

Aydiner and her family had to flee the country immediately. Aydiner’s family made it back to Cedar Falls in early 2017.

Now in Cedar Falls, Aydiner can live a more relaxed life away from the political upheaval. “I always said that I want to do high school in America, and here I am, whether it was fate or not,” Aydiner said. “I consider Cedar Falls as a cute, friendly, nice, kind town. I love Cedar Falls so much. I really want to finish high school here,” she said.

Although Aydiner is happy in Cedar Falls, she still feels a loss for what she left behind. “Of course, I do miss my country. I miss my relatives, my grandfather and grandmother and all my friends. But I came here heartbroken,” she said.

“I would love to go back to my country eventually, but probably after these political issues pass. Not right now, at least because my dad would get arrested and my mother would get arrested,” Aydiner said.

Aydiner has been invited to tell her story at a conference in Chicago in October. “I am going to speak about this issue to as a representative of the Turkish Community in America. I am going to be the youngest speaker there.”

Turkey is one of the biggest countries in the world, yet Aydiner feels like its move toward dictatorship has gone mostly unnoticed.

“The biggest factor of me getting nominated was on my experience coming to America. Now that Turkey is going through a difficult political situation, people are being very ignorant about it,” Aydiner said.

“Because it is happening in Turkey, I feel like no one in the media or in real life talks about it. No one knows anything, but there is a big issue I feel the public needs to be informed about,” she said.

Even though Aydiner is just a sophomore at Cedar Falls High School, she said she feels ready to tell people about Turkey’s situation. “I think I should start talking about these issues now because being an activist doesn’t have a set age,” she said.

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