Uprooted by Turkey Coup, a Cadet Seeks to Rebuild His Life in Canada

Traumatized by the coup, purged by the military, the young cadet M.K. went through all sorts of odds and obstacles in his young life. Now, he seeks to rebuild a new future far from home, in Canada.

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A picture of abandoned weapons after soldiers surrendered to police and pro-government protesters on July 16, 2016.

Three years on, Turkey’s most enigmatic and puzzling coup has left an indelible mark on a generation. The ill-fated coup tore apart families, divided friendships, sent tens of thousands of people, majority of whom innocent, to jail, ripped apart many communities, snuffed out space for civil society, academia and media, and sparked a sweeping purge of perceived critics from the ranks of public service.

For promising cadets of Turkey’s Air Force Academy, it proved a moment of disaster that has upended their lives and freedoms ever since. M. Kaya (who goes with a pseudonym for his security) was one of the cadets who were in a camp in western Turkey when then-Air Force Commander Gen. Abidin Unal paid a visit to the country’s future pilots to boost their morale and share his experiences during his presence there.

The summer camp was in the western province of Yalova. Everything, for M. Kaya and his fellows, was progressing smoothly and according to the schedule. But a sudden call from commanders to attend what was supposed to be an exercise in Istanbul changed their lives forever, and beyond recognition and repair.

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They found themselves between coup plotters and pro-government supporters in several locations in Istanbul, including two bridges and several entrance points. What transpired thereafter was captured live on TV as angry people lynched several of the cadets on two bridges. Even three years later, the chaotic and bloody episodes of the mob lynching of cadets perpetually hover in the collective consciousness and memory. The tragedy still remains a stain on the public conscience.

This past July 15 marked the third anniversary of Turkey’s coup attempt. Some commemorated it as a triumph of people’s resistance against the coup attempt and as an embodiment of their unassailable commitment to democracy. But others, like M. Kaya, regard July 15 as the dawn of another coup (by civilian authorities) and as an act of betrayal of soldiers and cadets by their own commanders and people.

What makes his anguish more painful and unbearable is a raft of convictions rained down by politicized courts as 259 cadets were sentenced to life in prison. In the aftermath, he hardly regained his footing again, looking confused and adrift, and perpetually seeking to find his composure and compass amid the maelstrom of Turkey’s post-coup crackdown and witch-hunt.

Uprooted by the coup, M. Kaya found himself scrambling to build a new life from scratch. He was, as were his friends, dismissed from the military. He faced an investigation, which was later dropped. Hardly knowing what to do, he enrolled in an Istanbul University a year after.

But his military past never left him, repeatedly creating obstacles and perils during his fluctuating civilian life. He was never drawn to the university and the mundane nature of student life, something that was unmistakably different from the colorful climate of the military academy.

Perennially haunted by the painful memories of the coup, M. Kaya went through a punishing ordeal in Turkey before finally settling down in Canada, where a small Turkish diaspora community began to thrive, in a quest to build a new life from ruins.

Air Force Academy: An Interrupted Dream

In a telephone interview (and later via a detailed emailed statement), M. Kaya offered a portrait of a young, idealist man striving to realize a fancy dream of being a pilot in NATO’s second-largest military.

His life, as he portrayed in his sketchy and brief story, starts from a rural village in southeastern Turkey where Turkish is people’s second language, something they have to learn, but not until the school time. To climb the social ladder and to be promoted in business and politics, many aspirant people from the region see speaking Turkish without an accent a must for a successful career in Turkey’s social fabric. For an aspirant pilot from the region, and given the nationalist character of the Turkish military, this has become all the more so.

M. Kaya proudly rose to the occasion and embraced that challenge. He even mocks that domineering culture.

The former cadet vividly remembers the days in the Academy and he fondly speaks of his former commanders now serving in jail over coup charges. His only wish is to see the release of his friends and former commanders.

His academy education came to an unexpected halt in 2016 as the country was rattled by a putsch. Needless to say, M. Kaya and his generation have emerged as the biggest victims of the post-coup crackdown. A large segment of a generation of cadets was brutally beaten by a mob, then swept up by law enforcement and sent to jail en masse over charges of coup involvement. But life sentences to 259 cadets, for the majority of Turkey’s people, except some die-hard followers of the ruling party, were nothing other than a blatant miscarriage of justice. The disproportionate punishment became all the more disturbing when some senior commanders managed to get lenient sentences, all the while cadets have been left to languish in prison for the rest of their lives.

There is ample reason to regard post-coup trials as sham trials amid the undeniable signs of political interference in the judicial process. In a country where 3,500 judges and prosecutors were arrested, there was scant hope for people like M. Kaya to get a fair trial in Turkey’s politically-dependent courts.

After a career interrupted and a life turned upside down, M. Kaya found himself among several choices, all unpalatable and unappetizing than the other — the prospect of jail in Turkey or a new thrust abroad. With no viable alternative available at hand, he was made to choose the second path.

He went to Canada.

A Young Enthusiast Seeks to Find His Footing in Business (and Life)

When he first set foot in Canada, he undertook some mundane works.

In this new country, life is as challenging as it was in Turkey, given the existence of odds and barriers that govern the lives of a diaspora community. He learned this from his first foray into the shaky world of online commerce.

In Toronto, his life began to be tugged by the pull of different dynamics animated by the unforgiving demands of the modern economy where immigrants or asylum seekers find themselves on an unequal footing with the native citizens of the country.

Yet, one debacle after another, one blunder after the next one, he is still undeterred by the prospect of new failures as he now began to establish himself as a young entrepreneur in online commerce. It is an evolving career shaped by trial and error, learning and patience.

“I began to purchase different products from China to sell them to customers around the world, from Bahrein to Israel, from the U.S. to Australia. First business ventures may end up in failure. I was no exception,” he told me, offering a glimpse into his new career.

At first, he entered the fob-key business. When the machine he bought from China failed to operate adequately, the initiative went bust.

“While in Turkey, when I was overwhelmed by stress due to what we went through, I tried to occupy myself with exigencies of the business life. There I began to take interest in philography paintings, for thinking that it may work out due to a small number of experts in the field. But that tumbled, too.”

Undeterred by failure, he opened an account and purchased a domain to advance in online commerce. But as he lacked capital, this startup business also went nowhere. Apart from the lack of essential liquidity, he also had no know-how about how to organize things smoothly and efficiently in order to survive in the digital market.

Marketing was another key element to promote his products and website, but he had no money to hire a professional to take charge of marketing operations.

With boundless energy and confidence of a rookie idealist, he lurched from one sector to another to finally find his footing in a field where he would thrive.

“My money and efforts brought nothing, but I accumulated experience. Upon the advice from a friend, I received dropshipping training on the internet. After I watched several tutorials and training videos on how to run the business, I became fixated with this. But for all those efforts, the website thing went bust, it was a blunder.”

Many Shades of Diaspora Life

He burned all his savings during these preliminary steps in the ever-shifting business ventures and forays. In Canada, as in many other modern economies, time is the most valuable commodity. Yet, time was passing and he was struggling to find his compass.

He has then left himself to the forces of nature and destiny, allowing the Fortuna of the ancient Roman belief to determine the contours of his fragile and unstable life.

After several ill-fated but bold attempts in business, he ended up working in low-paying construction jobs along with other Turks.

“While I was aspiring to be a pilot in Air Force Academy with flight courses, I found myself working alongside with Turks in the construction sites [in Canada],” he demurred with a mixed sense of despair and cynicism.

“The biggest disadvantage of working together with Turks is the lack of practice to improve my [English] language. Because we all speak Turkish,” he lamented.

He has both good and bad memories from his joint ventures and working together with people with different backgrounds and social affiliation. In Canada, someone has little option to choose partners and employers. That brought him into uncomfortable encounters with people whom he deemed as political opponents back in Turkey.

M. Kaya worked with Gulen-affiliated people and the supporters of the ruling AKP, which has been governing Turkey for the past 17 years. He never felt a compulsion to mask his contempt for AKP people. But this was not home and this was exile where he had to work with people, no matter what their backgrounds. He also had some misgivings about the people linked with the Movement over the material terms of working and inadequate payment.

After working in construction sites, he bought a low-model, old car with little money he saved. The next chapter in his fast-moving life was working as a delivery man for a sushi restaurant. When there was no customer order, he was expected to work in the restaurant as part of the agreement with the owner.

He had little option but to accept the offer. Two days after he started to work, the deal soon faltered as the restaurant’s owner only demanded washing dishes from him in the kitchen instead of delivering outside orders to customers.

He came close to fight with the owner. He was able to get payment for his two-day labor after a brief squabble. He then left the work for another attempt in another job.

For M. Kaya, driving a car was a new phenomenon he came to experience in Canada. When he was in Turkey, there was very limited time outside the academy life. After the purge, his economic conditions did not allow him to buy a car during his brief time at the university in Istanbul.

Following the restaurant drama, he began to work at a pizza store in one of the bustling and busy districts of downtown Toronto. He was very careful and even meek while driving when he first began to get acclimatized with the urban traffic he never experienced before. He worked hard nonstop for 21 days, literally without a break. The last day, he perilously came close to another fight, this time with the owner of the pizza store. He obediently left the job.

He tried other jobs briefly, too. But holding on at a sector or a position was no easy task, partly because of his short temper, partly due to the low wages and unbearable conditions that most immigrants are expected to endure stoically.

His rage began to build up against employers whom he viewed as overweening figures with little regard for workers’ rights.

Though economically self-reliant he might be, he was still far from an ideal position.

Upon the advice of a Turkish-Canadian whom he admires and respects, he bought a car with a lease. As many newcomers in North America, he began to work as an Uber driver to put things in order in his life.

Apart from its economic benefits, the Uber-Lyft business creates a social experience of its own and provides a peculiar social interaction for people of diverse backgrounds.

In Uber and Lyft, he not just saw a job and, although not handsomely, a steady flow of cash, but also a rare opportunity to indulge in citizen journalism.

“I seem to have made 3,000 rides with Uber-Lyft so far now. I told the majority of these 3,000 passengers what I went through in Turkey, the dictatorship, the dismal state of more than 700 babies in jail, the cadets, and the 17,000 detained women. I feel pity for some Turks who appear to be ashamed of talking such topics.”

While Uber became his main work, he did not totally abandon the online commerce. He began a dropshipping business with a friend.

To him, dropshipping is one of the most reasonable things to do. Without stacking storage with goods, they can immediately send products to customers after processing orders.

“Through an app, we purchase goods from U.S. Amazon and then load them into our store in Canada Amazon. If there is an order from a customer, the process plays out like this. My company buys the product, in line with the order of the customer, from the U.S. Amazon and then sell it through Canada Amazon. The profit margin is designated by us.”

Along with Uber, he seriously began to make some money from online trade. To a newcomer in trade, the appeal of business and the allure of money is undeniable. He is hooked. The more someone makes money, the more he gets attuned to the intriguing and puzzling details of the trade.

Still, the market and his business prove to be slippery and unsteady, depending on the wavering demands of customers.

He reminds that his family has been in the trade for 20–30 years. At one point, he politely overturned his father’s offer for financial help when he occasionally struggled to find his footing in this venture.

College Degree: An Unfinished Dream

There is only one thing, the former cadet says, left in this life to be achieved: having a college degree. It is a wish and dream that remains unfulfilled, something that could be the crown achievement of his life after all the setbacks that beset his young life in the past three years.

He sees it partly as a mission to be accomplished, and partly as an expression of gratitude to his family’s lifelong efforts for him.

“My father worked as a shepherd for many years. He worked as a farmer. Given the fact that the conditions were unfavorable, he was not allowed [by his family] to proceed in education after elementary school, and he began to work as a shepherd, and then as a worker in cotton fields. My mother was never sent to school, even for a day.”

Finishing a college, he asserts, would be a tribute to them. It would also be a rebuke to those who called him and his friends traitors, and who expelled them from the academy.

Diaspora life in Canada also raised the issue of identity and belonging. He does not conceal the sense of grudge and resentment toward his former country. It is hardly surprising then that he sees his settlement in Canada as a gateway out of a life stuck in provincialism that defines people’s sense of belonging in Turkey.

“That shepherd’s son was emancipated from a life stuck in the Middle East and he describes himself as a world citizen, not just as a Turkish citizen,” the cadet said.

The former cadet adds that there is a life that exists outside the Middle East — a region, in his portrayal, is riven by war, bloodshed and death.

“There is nothing that scares or deters me from doing in this life. When I first came to Toronto, I faced the challenge and fear of losing my [traditional] and cultural values that my family transmitted to me. But now, the diaspora life gave more than it took away.”

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