The Magic Letter

My husband and I moved back and forth between Turkey and the United States to pursue our graduate degrees, starting in 2000. We got our master’s degrees in 2003 at Kent State University and returned to Turkey. In 2005, we came back to the United States to get doctoral degrees at the same university. In 2009, my husband graduated, but I still needed to collect data in Turkey and finish my dissertation. So, we moved back to Turkey in 2010. Five years later, in the summer of 2015, I received a letter from Kent State informing me that I had until the end of the year to complete the doctoral program; otherwise, all of my progress would be lost. After serious consideration, we decided that we should return to the United States so I could complete my degree and graduate.

This was a challenging decision for us, given that neither my husband’s parents nor my parents supported the idea of leaving our country. We respectfully disregarded their objections and moved forward with our decision to return to the United States. We took unpaid leaves from good jobs, gave up a middle-class life in Turkey, and left everyone and everything behind without any long-term plans for our future. At the same time, we also were well aware of the Turkish government’s shift from democracy to a dictatorship. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was starting to consolidate his power and oppress anyone who disagreed with the direction in which the country was headed. It was a slow and steady but obvious move toward authoritarian rule.

We told our children and our friends in Turkey that we were going to our second home. We packed up what we could and moved to Kent, Ohio. We had some cash that we used upon our arrival to buy a car and put down about three months of rent. We started living on the stipend that I received as a research assistant while finishing my dissertation. After several months, I completed and successfully defended my dissertation. In the meantime, my husband applied for teaching jobs at both local and out-of-state universities, one of which was SUNY Plattsburgh, where he was offered a job.

Everything was flowing so wonderfully and with blessing. We were about to move to Plattsburgh in the summer of 2016 when I learned that my mother needed heart bypass surgery. Her condition was dire because she also had severe diabetes. I was so worried about my mother that I went back to Turkey to see her, even though I was six months pregnant with our fourth child at the time.

My sister and her family had planned to visit us in the United States that summer. My mom’s health issues meant that we had to alter our plans. We all decided that because the tickets had already been purchased, my brother-in-law and their two children would come to the United States, and I would go to Turkey to be with my mom and my sister.

After the surgery, I made sure that my mom was okay, and then returned to the United States. Unfortunately, it was merely one week later that we received some devastating news; the night of July 15, 2016, an attempted coup d’état in our home country had evoked fear and terror throughout the country. A state of emergency was declared; all the borders were closed. Many people were suspicious that Erdogan and the National Intelligence Service played a role in staging the coup. Although the coup was short-lived and was likely plotted by the state itself, the aftermath was most concerning. The Turkish government purged and detained more than 200,000 state employees. The post-coup crackdown included not only military officials but also anyone whose views differed with those of the government, such as journalists, judicial officials, police officers, academicians, and teachers.

So many tragicomedies could be found in the July 15 coup. Here is one of them. Remember, my brother-in-law and their two children were still visiting us in the United States when the coup took place in Turkey. My brother-in-law decided to go back to Turkey immediately to help save his country and help the Turkish people. He thought he might be helpful, as he was a helicopter pilot at the Turkish National Police. The government saw it differently. Upon his return to Turkey, he was detained for orchestrating the coup.

The predominantly Muslim people of Turkey believed in President Erdogan, a man who used religion as a primary ideology and for deception. As indicated in a commentary article, some rulers, including Erdogan, use the cry of “By the grace of God!” to explain why certain events happen and why they play out as they do. They will argue that God has bestowed his grace upon the rulers in allowing the events to happen. Two events mentioned in the same article—the Reichstag fire in Germany on February 27, 1933, and the military coup attempt in Turkey on July 15, 2016—illustrate the devastating consequences that such twisted logic can have on the lives of ordinary people. Adolph Hitler told the German Chancellor, “This is a God-given signal” to crush Communists (and later, opponents of Hitler). Immediately after the failed military coup, Erdogan proclaimed that the event was “a gift from God” and justified his move to cleanse the military (and later purge his opponents). Many happened afterward:

Numerous sad and tragic events that we did not see, experience, or encounter directly most likely occurred as well. The decision my family and I made after receiving the magic letter from Kent State University was complicated for multiple reasons, but it enabled our family to stay whole, pursue a better life, and remain far away from the chaotic situation in our home country. At the same time, we cannot fully enjoy the result of the magic letter because hundreds, thousands, maybe millions of people in Turkey still suffer under Erdogan’s oppressive rule. I wish I had the power to send all of them a magic letter of their own.

Arzu Gul, Ph.D
Arzu Gul, Ph.D
Arzu Gul, Ph.D. is currently the ESL Program Coordinator at the State University of New York (SUNY) in Plattsburgh. She has a master’s degree in Teaching English as a Second Language (TESL) and a doctoral degree in Curriculum and Instruction, both from Kent State University. She has experience in teaching ESL courses both in Turkey and the United States over 30 years. She worked in the Ministry of National Education in Turkey and served on the committee that wrote the textbooks for English language learning used in Turkey’s public middle schools. She has been tutoring and co-teaching conversation sessions for adult language learners for Literacy Volunteers of Clinton, Essex, and Franklin Counties of New York State.