“My name is Hakan,” he wrote. “In 2016, I was forced to leave Turkey, my home country of my family and friends, as a result of the political climate. I was worried about my safety, about further unfortunate things that might happen...I decided that I could never return home.”
That’s a portion of the email Ohio University Ph.D. student Hakan Karaaytu sent to several journalists, hoping they would listen. His only aim: “to say the stories of thousands of people who have lived the same fate.”
Seeking a platform to elevate his story — a similar story to so many in Turkey — Karaaytu reached out to several reporters and publications. Subject line: asylum seeker. After Karaaytu fled Turkey as a result of the crackdown by the oppressive Erdogan regime, he eventually sought asylum in the U.S. as a political refugee.
Along the way, Karaaytu had to figure out how to continue his education and communicate with his family, all while trying to learn a new language and culture with little money to his name.
“All the problems forced me — I had to survive,” Karaaytu said.
But survival is not a new skill for Karaaytu. Long before he came to the U.S., he was working every day to keep himself and his family alive among political unrest in Turkey.
Karaaytu describes the culture of Turkey as always witnessing some struggle of power with the states, from the first day of its establishment to the present day. In July of 2016, there was an unsuccessful military coup by the Gulen Movement – a group that emphasizes altruism, modesty, hard work and education.
Due to the failed coup and Erdogan’s oppressive regime, hundreds were killed, thousands were injured or arrested and over 100,000 were fired from their jobs. In addition, several universities shut down – including Zirve University, which Karaaytu had left just three weeks earlier to continue his studies as an exchange student for 10 months at Niagara University in New York.
“I remember that day,” Karaaytu said. “I was in the New York Public Library. I was looking at the news and seeing something happened. Very surreal things – military in the streets. In history we’d had military coups…but I had never seen [them] because I was born in 1991. The coup was very serious, then everything changed. My life changed, my family’s life changed.”
Turkey was in a state of emergency. Karaaytu’s brother was arrested and jailed for two and a half years and his family was in the midst of chaos. Karaaytu had to figure out what he was going to do, as his exchange program would be finished in under a year. Niagara offered him a transfer student position to extend his stay, so that bought him a little extra time.
After that, he had two options: get married or apply for political asylum. The more ideal option was political asylum but Karaaytu was nervous, as it can take years for those cases to be approved and applicants can be sent back to their country in the meantime.
In Turkey, Karaaytu was being claimed by a terrorist group as one of their members solely because he stayed in the house of a religious group due to the cheap rent when he got his first college degree. This proved an issue because if someone has any association with a group like this, they’re not given the right to defend themselves in a court of law. Political asylum was his only solution to remain safe and out of Turkish prison.
“I said, ‘I’m going to take this risk,’” Karaaytu said. “I applied and my case approved in just four months because my case was very strong.”
He not only had the false accusation of terrorism, but he also had many death threats sent to him when publishing his broadcast journalism work on the social media app Periscope to back up the approval of his case. After earning political asylum status in 2018, he had to wait one year and then he applied for his green card, which is now on its way into Karaaytu’s possession.
When he finished up his master’s degree, he decided to continue his education with a Doctoral Degree in Mass Communication and Journalism at OU. In the Fall Semester 2020, he taught the Future of Media course with Eddith Dashiell, director of the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism.
“He was a very good TA,” Dashiell said. “I was amazed when he told me that he had just learned the language in four years. He’s basically fluent in English because he needed to; he had to be, and he was able to do it in four years.”
He decided to pursue journalism because of the unique nature of the profession, and the endless amount of stories in his reach.
“Writing is the best job in the world; being a journalist now is so exciting,” Karaaytu said. “All the country’s destiny can change with your work.”
Karaaytu can’t help but reflect on where he started to where he is now: landing at JFK airport with two suitcases and a massive language barrier, to getting his green card and working toward a doctoral degree. Though he’s content living here and working in the U.S., he misses his family after not having seen them for over four years.
“I hope I can go back to Turkey and just visit my family and friends as soon as possible,” Karaaytu said. “My family is much, much better. We are talking every day, but we didn’t have any memory, any dinner, any vacation in the last five years.”
Karaaytu still occasionally withstands a recurring nightmare where he’s back in Turkey and the Turkish government is looking for him while he fights to escape. But when he wakes up, all he feels is happiness that his reality is better than his dreams: he’s safe in America, pursuing his dream education.
“When you’re an asylum seeker, you’re so sensitive,” Karaaytu said. “You are feeling you are foreign; you are feeling that you’re different. When I got approved for political asylum, everything started to be easier. I am humbled. I’m not too much emotional now, because I feel like I’m part of here. I’m so happy for being here. I’m a lucky person.”
Photo provided via Hakan Karaaytu.