On the mysterious deportations of Turkish teachers

Updated 24 Jan, 2018 02:25am
Inside the Gulistan-e-Jauhar campus of the PakTurk International Schools and Colleges in Karachi | Mohammad Ali, White Star
Inside the Gulistan-e-Jauhar campus of the PakTurk International Schools and Colleges in Karachi | Mohammad Ali, White Star

An unexpected flurry of activity took place inside a house in Lahore’s Wapda Town on September 27, 2017. At the unearthly hour of 2:25 am, about 12 men in plain clothes barged in, got hold of the people living inside, covered their heads, bundled them into a car and sped away. Those abducted included Mesut Kacmaz, a Turkish citizen living and working in Pakistan as a director at the PakTurk International Schools and Colleges, his wife and two children.

When his fellow director Orhan Agyun got the news, he immediately contacted his friends in the neighborhood. Soon he filed a petition at the Lahore High Court for the recovery of the Kacmaz family through AGHS Law Associates, a Lahore-based firm headed by Asma Jahangir that specialises in human rights cases. The petition stated that those taken away feared being deported to Turkey where they might face imprisonment and persecution. It also said that the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) had duly registered Kacmaz and his family as asylum seekers who, after leaving Pakistan, did not want to go back to Turkey but to a destination where they could be safe. The registration had qualified them, under various earlier court orders, to stay in Pakistan till October 2017, the petition added.

On October 6, the court ordered that the family could not be deported. Justice Shams Mehmood Mirza, who heard the petition, told the federal interior ministry to put their names on the Exit Control List and find out who had abducted them. On October 14, Kacmaz’s colleagues informed AGHS Law Associates that he and his family had already reached Turkey. He is lodged in a jail there along with his wife, says Usama Malik, a lawyer representing him and his family. Their children are staying with their grandparents, he says.

Justice Mirza was furious when he was informed about it. On October 17, he sought an explanation from the interior ministry as to how Kacmaz and his family had been made to leave Pakistan in spite of his orders against their deportation. The ministry told the judge that it had no record of their departure from airports in Lahore and Islamabad.

Asim Khan Qaimkhani, additional director of immigration at Jinnah International Airport, Karachi, also verifies that no Turkish family was forcibly deported from Karachi either. Otherwise, he says, his department would have been notified. “If they left, they left willingly.”

The mystery of the family’s departure deepened as reports started circulating that Turkish police came to Pakistan and took them back on a chartered plane. When the court came to know about these reports, it ordered the Pakistan Civil Aviation Authority to find out when and from where the chartered plane had flown them out of Pakistan. The authority later said it had no knowledge or record of the arrival and departure of such a plane.

Four middle-aged Turkish men sit in a newspaper office in Lahore in the middle of December 2017. They are visibly tired and worried — and reluctant to divulge their names. Two of them have received 10-year visas for the United States and have plans to leave Pakistan soon. The other two – and 12 more people like them – cannot even apply for a foreign visa since their passports have expired and there is no way that they can get them renewed by Turkish authorities.

An armoured police vehicle uses a water canon to disperse anti-government demonstrators on the Bosphorous Bridge, Istanbul, in 2016  | Reuters
An armoured police vehicle uses a water canon to disperse anti-government demonstrators on the Bosphorous Bridge, Istanbul, in 2016 | Reuters

They will have to find a way to stay in Pakistan until their applications for asylum to countries in Europe or North America are accepted. They are willing to try any options to get out of Pakistan — whether it is through the United Nations or through human smugglers. “That is how distressed we are,” says one of them. They are also bitter about how they are being treated. “The [previous] president of Turkey – Abdullah GÜl – visited our schools. Now we are considered terrorists,” says another.

He finds it worrisome that no voices have been raised by political parties in Pakistan over their mistreatment, even when they see Pakistan as their second home. One elaborates, “One of my kids was born in Quetta and the other in Lahore. They are Pakistani you can say. My kids ask me, ‘Why are Pakistanis … forcing us to leave our home?’” All four let out nervous laughter when asked if they expect any change in the attitude of the Pakistani government towards them. “The Turkish government has given so much to Pakistan. I don’t think politicians, even the opposition, would risk that. Why would they care about a few teachers?”

Trouble for the PakTurk schools and colleges and their Turkish teachers and managerial staff started after an alleged coup attempt against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan failed in July 2016. The coup was said to be backed and orchestrated by Fethullah Gülen, a Turkish preacher living in the United States where he heads a foundation called Hizmet (service). It owns and operates media organisations, educational institutions and non-profit associations both in Turkey and among Turkish migrants in other countries. Turkish authorities in Ankara allege that the PakTurk International Schools and Colleges are also a part of Gülen’s network. They, therefore, wanted Pakistani authorities to close down these educational institutions and deport their Turkish staff.

Around 110 Turkish teachers, residing in Pakistan with their families, consequently received no positive response from Pakistani authorities on their annual visa renewal applications, says Agyun. For the previous 21 years – since 1995 when PakTurk International Schools and Colleges started operating in Pakistan – they have been getting their visas renewed without much hassle.

Supporters of President Erdog˘an celebrate the surrender of soldiers involved in the attempted coup in 2016  | Reuters
Supporters of President Erdog˘an celebrate the surrender of soldiers involved in the attempted coup in 2016 | Reuters

The situation became even worse when Erdogan arrived in Islamabad on an official visit on November 16, 2016. The same day, the interior ministry told all Turks working with the PakTurk educational network to leave Pakistan within three days.

To preempt any disruption in academic activities, Agyun and his senior colleagues in the management took some immediate measures. They started replacing Turkish teachers with Pakistani ones and posted an announcement on the website of their organisation: “We feel it imperative to clarify that the PakTurk International Schools and Colleges in Pakistan are a philanthropic and non-political endeavor in the country organized and established for human development, inter alia, in the field of education for the benefit of all Pakistanis … We are deeply concerned by allegations made by a certain section in the social media trying to connect the PakTurk International Schools and Colleges in Pakistan with Mr. Fethullah Gülen or the political movement ascribed to him in wake of the recent unfortunate and reprehensible events in Turkey. We do unequivocally clarify that the PakTurk International Schools and Colleges in Pakistan have no affiliation or connection with any political individual or any movement or organization, whether political, religious or denominational, nor do we have a financial relationship with any movement.”

Their third step was to move courts to prevent deportations. While the Islamabad High Court dismissed their petition and instead told them to approach the interior ministry for an extension of their visas, the Peshawar High Court halted the deportations through an order on November 23, 2016. Another positive development for them was a verdict by the Islamabad High Court in March 2017 that declared that the state had made no decision to take over educational institutions owned and operated by their organisation.

Turks working with the PakTurk International Schools and Colleges, in the meanwhile, were flocking to the offices of the UNHCR in Islamabad. Though Pakistan is not a signatory to the international conventions on refugees and asylum seekers, according to lawyer Malik, it is obliged under international law to refrain from deporting any foreigners living here if they have already registered as asylum seekers with the United Nations.

This certainly did not help Kacmaz and his family.

The main campus for boys run by the PakTurk International Schools and Colleges in Lahore is situated on Lahore’s Raiwind Road. Built over a decade ago, it has a state-of-the-art building with an indoor Futsal court and an auditorium that can accommodate 500 students. In 2006, General Pervez Musharraf conferred a civilian award on the PakTurk International Schools and Colleges, recognising their services to Pakistan.

One early morning in December 2017, the school’s principal, Asif Raja, is running through meetings while tending to a cell phone that is constantly ringing. He is overseeing preparations for a math competition involving over 11,000 students from across Pakistan. “What these [Turkish] teachers brought [here] was quality education and international exposure. They had taught in various countries and were role models for students,” he says. “[Their deportation order] was really shocking for us,” he adds. “We never saw anything controversial or suspicious [about them].”

Supporters wave Turkey's national flag while waiting for President Erdog˘an to appear for a speech in Istanbul  | Reuters
Supporters wave Turkey's national flag while waiting for President Erdog˘an to appear for a speech in Istanbul | Reuters

Local teachers and managers are running the campus now, as they do at all 28 campuses of the PakTurk educational network located in Islamabad, Lahore, Quetta, Peshawar, Khairpur, Multan, Jamshoro, Hyderabad and Rawalpindi. About 12,000 students are enrolled at these institutions.

At one of them, in Karachi’s Gulistan-e-Jauhar area, Haseebullah Jogi is conversing in Turkish over the phone in the principal’s office on a mid-December day. A Turkish flag stands to his right and a Pakistani one to his left, along with framed photos, hanging side by side, of Muhammad Ali Jinnah and Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. The school's official motto – “We believe that what is taught with love lasts forever” – is visible everywhere: on promotional brochures, newsletters and other merchandise.

Jogi took over as principal not too long ago. As part of the plan to replace the Turkish staff with locals, he was transferred here in August 2016 from the Khairpur campus where he was working as vice principal. He himself is a 2009 graduate of the PakTurk International Schools and Colleges and has studied physics at Istanbul University on a scholarship. “Nowhere in our school system are we teaching about Fethullah Gülen. He has no connection [to] our schools,” says Jogi.

By early October 2017, most Turkish teachers had left Pakistan. Those who could not were worried, according to Jogi, “because going back [to Turkey] meant they would be imprisoned”. And once in Turkey, they would also find it impossible to apply for asylum elsewhere, explains a human rights lawyer.

In order to avoid being deported, they had moved the Sindh High Court which, on October 3, extended its earlier injunction against their deportation to October 10. It was later extended again to December 5.

Only a couple of families now live in Karachi – and a few more in other cities – but they are also planning to leave. They have little choice, according to Jogi. “They have lost their livelihood in Pakistan ... because their visas have expired.”

This article was published in the Herald's January 2018 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.

The writers are staffers at the Herald.