Turkish refugees in Greece – out of sight, out of mind
Since 2015, Greece has been the focal point of what became known as the "refugee crisis" – which was in reality a crisis of millions of people fleeing escalating violence in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and other nations. In Greece, many responded with solidarity and empathy to the arrival of these individuals, most of whom risked the dangerous sea route from Turkey. But under E.U. pressure this initial welcome was followed by a very different approach, involving the sealing of borders, violent deportations ("pushbacks") and the construction of notorious camps like Moria, now an established symbol of the bloc’s failed refugee policy.
But in her debut film "Invisible", presented to the Greek public at the documentary film festival in Thessaloniki, Marianna Kakaounaki shines a light on a very different group of refugees rarely afforded any real attention: Turkish followers of Fethullah Gulen forced to leave their country after the coup against Erdogan in 2016, people who remain largely invisible in Greece.
In her capacity as a journalist with the Greek newspaper Ekatherini, Marianna Kakaounaki conducted thorough research on their situation. As the idea for a documentary took hold, it was not her aim to make a film about the exceedingly complex background to the Gulen movement, its involvement in the coup, or the persecution of each and every member of the opposition in Turkey accused of being a Gulenist.
Instead, Kakaounaki profiles two individual cases and relates their very personal stories: on the one hand there’s Ahmat, who was among the first Turkish refugees to arrive in Athens. In Turkey, Ahmat was an emergency doctor until he lost his job over accusations of terrorism. Despite fleeing his homeland against his will, he settles well in Athens, learns Greek, is keen to integrate and rebuild his life.
The second family profiled in the film is at the other end of the scale. Gonca and Ebubekir Kara were also persecuted due to their associations with the Gulen movement; Gonca spent several months in prison while pregnant with the couple’s youngest son. They risked the sea route – with catastrophic consequences. The viewer has an inkling of the outcome; these fears are confirmed over the course of the film.
"These people didn’t want me to write about them at all, never mind make a film," says Kakaounaki in conversation with Qantara.de in Thessaloniki. "That only fuelled the feeling that I had to tell these stories." Initially in the capacity of journalist; later as filmmaker. Using the portraits of her protagonists as a vehicle, Kakaounaki has made a film about many subjects: she herself sees the "loss of an entire life, the loss of freedom" at its core.
In the case of Turkey this cuts especially deep, she says. "Because these refugees are not fleeing a nation at war; on the contrary, at home the life they have potentially lost forever is carrying on as normal." There are two sides to their invisibility, she adds: on the one hand in Turkey, where Erdogan has destroyed their livelihoods; and on the other in exile, where the refugees don’t want to show themselves out of fear.
Forced to flee following the attempted coup
The movement, led by the U.S.-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, was categorised as a terrorist organisation by Turkey after the 2016 coup. But for a long time, Erdogan was himself allied with the Gulenists and helped them to consolidate their huge influence within the Turkish state. Ahmat explains: "We supported Erdogan for a long time – but when the relationship broke down, we were strenuously persecuted."
Hundreds of thousands of people in Turkey were placed under suspicion of terrorism due to alleged or actual affiliation with or sympathy for Gulen. These accusations were used as a pretext to persecute human rights activists such as Taner Kilic, convicted of alleged terrorist offences using falsified evidence. As we learn from the film credits, by the end of 2020, Gulen supporters had made almost 80,000 asylum applications in the EU.
Among them several thousand in Greece. Of all places Greece – Turkey’s traditional foe. For centuries, Greece was part of the Ottoman Empire. Until a population exchange in the year 1912, as many as 400,000 Turkish-heritage Muslims lived in Greece and up to one-and-a-half million Greeks lived in Turkey. "To this day, there are still many prejudices on both sides," says the filmmaker.
The refugees that come to Greece in search of freedom are not immune. Most want to reach Europe, but would prefer not to remain in Greece. But after arriving on the island of Chios, Ebubekir and Gonca suddenly recognise a whole host of commonalities: people embrace each other in the same way as in Turkey. The weather, the food and the music are also very similar.
Nevertheless, the family is keen to leave Greece: the chances of success in the Greek asylum system and of support from the Greek government are just too small. But above all, Greece is a place of profound trauma for them: the boat from Izmir to Chios capsizes, most of the passengers can’t swim, there aren’t enough life jackets. Of the 19 people on board, seven drown in September 2019, including their son Mustafa and their daughter Gulcan.
No outcry against the EU's inhumane refugee policy
It should have been enough for an outcry, for a change in refugee policy, for the protection of people – if, yes if this catastrophe hadn’t become a shocking normality meriting an understated news item at most, now long forgotten under a pile of subsequent catastrophes. Only in the few, short moments in which the "refugee crisis" truly hits home, as in the case of the emblematic Alan Kurdi, does this incomprehensible horror take on some sort of form.
Just as it does in Kakounakis’ film with Gonca’s and Ebubekir’s fate. How it is possible to deal with such a severe trauma in a film? "At this time, the family was in pure survival mode," says the director. And she herself in a professional mode, otherwise she – herself a mother – would have struggled to complete the film. Gonca’s and Ebubekir’s life in Greece is focused entirely on overcoming trauma – and the attempt to at least be able to facilitate a new life in freedom for their surviving son Ali Ihsan. They travel once more to Chios, to the scene of the horror, before they try to leave Greece forever. That is only possible through illegal channels. They initially fail; after seven attempts they finally reach a new, safe place.
Anyone applying for asylum here, says a lawyer in the film, can expect his or her interviews in the year 2026 or 2027. "We’re pawns in a political game," says Ahmat. After all, relations between Greece and Turkey have already been put under immense strain in recent years regarding other matters – first and foremost the row over Mediterranean gas deposits. Prominent cases such as the senior Turkish military leaders who applied for asylum in Greece in the year of the military putsch, have exacerbated tensions.
The Greek government is consequently reluctant to help the Turkish refugees: there is evidence that some have already been sent back to Turkey in contravention of international law, despite having reached a safe country upon arrival in Greece.
Kakaounakis’ documentary film does not provide solutions to this problematic situation. But it is a valuable film on universal questions of flight, trauma and loss and the currently forgotten Turkish refugees in Greece who face a bleak future: In Europe just as much as in Turkey. An aspect that plays a negligible role in European discussions with Turkey on the refugee question. Kakaounaki at least succeeds in pulling them out of their invisibility for the duration of a film.
© Qantara.de 2021
Translated from the German by Nina Coon