Nearly every day the news is awash with the unrest in Turkey and the instability that has crippled the region. From the recent coup attempt to the fight against ISIS at the Turkish-Syrian boarder, the world has been watching as the Turkish government has struggled to regain its legitimacy and permanence amidst the upheaval. Back in April, I sat down with a man whose insights and experiences add another dimension to the multitude of complex issues plaguing the tumultuous region – Kurds in Turkey.

Huseyin Ates grew up in a small town in Turkey, unaware of his ethnic background. In high school, Ates came to the shocking realization that he was Kurdish, and in that moment of clarity, Ates knew that his life would never be the same. Now a refugee residing in Boston, Massachusetts, Ates wants the world to know his story. His opinions are a refection of his intensely personal and painful journey as a Kurdish refugee and provide a lens through which to view this often overlooked and misunderstood human and political crisis. There were no constraints placed on this interview, and his answers were unbounded and unrestrained. Ates’ deeply felt convictions are clearly on display and are widely the result of his life in a country that is afflicted with political unrest, religious prejudice, economic uncertainty, and criminal persecution, as well as his physical displacement, which was necessary to prevent years of imprisonment as a consequence of his birthright. His story provides a glimpse into a world apart that few of us can barely imagine, and his opinions are a refection of his sadness, disillusionment, anger, and very personal view of justice and world order.

ates-pictureWhile in a refugee camp, Huseyin Ates kneels next to a smiling child


Hale:

Why don’t you begin by telling me your story? Start from the very beginning.

Ates:

So I grew up in a small town in the south part of Turkey. When I became about five years old, my family moved to another state in the south part of Turkey, which was much better than my other city, because in this city much of the people support the Kurdish movement. So I began school. I studied in a private school in a small village. Actually, I learned that I was Kurdish, as ethnic, in high school. Before this, my family, they always hide this from me and from everyone because if you learn this, you are going to start to struggle. So, and you have two choices in front of you. Am I going to die or am I going to go to prison? So they always hide this from us – our culture, who I was, my ethnic identity. So in high school I began to understand who I was and the policy of Turkey. I learned about the clash between the Turkish government and the Kurdish movement. Some of my friends joined the Kurdish movement. You know PKK?

Hale:

Yes, I do.

Ates:

Well they wanted to join to the PKK. So thenI began to lead this struggle with my friends. After high school I went to university. I tried to keep myself apart. My family does not have good economic background, so I wanted to work hard to make a better life for my parents. I studied German and English language. I was really the first success coming out of my high school. I was given opportunities to travel. But in the first year, at the university, there are already a lot of activists. Lots of people who have many ideologies fighting for what they believe. I always wanted to do something but I always thought about my family. And then, one day, there was a celebration at the university. I saw some people with instruments. They were singing and dancing. It looked fun! I like dancing! (Laughs) I wanted to join them. And I danced with them. And there were some police around but they didn’t say anything like it was forbidden or we shouldn’t do it or something. And two months later after the dance someone from the police station called me and said that I hadto come to the police station. I said, “What’s the problem? Did I do something wrong?” The police, they kill our families. So it is always scary when they call. So I went to the station and they asked me if I was at this place at this time, do you know these people? Were you dancing with them? You were singing a song in Kurdish? Do you know it is not allowed in University to sing in Kurdish? You shouldn’t do this. They began screaming at me, asking me the names of my friends and if I was a part of the PKK. Anyway, I told them everything they asked and I signed some papers. Then I went back home, but three months later I received a letter from the government with a court date. I had to go to court in 2014. I went there and there were eleven other students with the same punishments. I tried to ignore them. I went and the judge asked me if I knew these people. Did you dance with them? Are you in support of terrorist propaganda? They had police record a video of the dance and if you look at the video, I wasn’t even singing. The judge said the decision was that I will have punishment of one year eight months jail, but because of my clean past they said I would not go to prison unless within the next year I was caught again. This made me very angry. That is when I decided I was going to fight. I joined an association at my university and acted as an activist for students. I did research and read lots of Kurdish books. And as time went on, my feelings became stronger. In my second year, I was elected as the president of my faculty. I organized a group that traveled to the war torn regions of Syria to help. I knew at any moment I could be caught by police. But I decided to join the Kurdish forces. I wanted to join and fight. The things I saw were terrible. You know Stalingrad?

Hale:

Yes.

Ates:

People were saying it was like the Stalingrad of the twenty first century. So anyway, when I came back from fighting, some problems had happened between the faculty at my university and the police. An organization of Kurdish activists had a flag on a wall, and police asked them to take it down. I wanted to help. I did. I spoke with the activists. A few months later, three months later, I think, it was the summer, I was working at a five star hotel in the west part of Turkey, I was staying in staff housing. The soldiers came and arrested me. They came to the staff housing and took me to the police station, registered me and then showed me a picture of the flag and asked if I had put it on the wall of the university. They asked me lots of questions and then let me go. A few months later I got another letter from the government. But if you remember, if I was caught within a year I would go to jail. So I fled, and in
January of 2016 I arrived in the US.

Hale:

Wow. That is unbelievable. Is your family still in Turkey?

Ates:

Yes, yes they are.

Hale:

Do you want to be here permanently?

Ates:

I ultimately want to go back and fight. Maybe in Syria. But my main aim is to get my story out there. I want people to know. I want US to do something.

Hale:

How do you think we are going to fix this issue?

Ates:

You know what I want? I know this is my story but I don’t want you to tell my story. This is the story of my people. My people are dying. We need policy. We need policy. I want to let the US know what is going on. I’ve decided that right now I will do more good for my people alive and sharing our story. I will fight, but right now I just want to talk to people. Everyday people are getting arrested. The US is the only people that can save us. It would be better if you don’t write about my personal story. Write about Turkey. I want to make a statement.

Hale:

So, Huseyin, what is the message you want to share with the American people?

Ates:

Kurdistan, actually Syria Kurdistan is the most democratic and humanist place of the Middle East and Anatolia. When I came here I was thinking to go back and fight against those enemies but during my time in US I learned that I don’t have to die and nobody is going to be saved with me dead so I understand that the solution is not war the solution is policy that will save thousands of lives and I will work for this even if it looks impossible. I hope the US will too. US is our best partner now against ISIS and US had been like saver in 1990s against Saddam Hussain so attention of the Americans is one of the most important topic for us so we appreciate anybody who provides people to take this attention so on behalf of myself and my people I thank you so much.