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Yasemin Akar and Mark Kohen: Turkish students on Trump’s ‘Muslim ban’

For a student coming from Turkey and studying in America in the current political climate, “I’m going from a dictator to a chimpanzee,” said Yasemin Akar ’20. Akar has had this staple joke in her repertoire since the election. Meanwhile, another Turkish Brandeis student, Mark Kohen ’20, says he thought he “was leaving a dictator, but here is another dictator.”

Akar and Kohen are two Turkish midyears from Istanbul with similar concerns facing Trump’s recent executive order banning the entry of individuals from specific countries into the United States. Though Turkey is not one of the countries currently affected by the executive order, there is much uncertainty regarding the order’s future and other similar measures being enacted against majority-Muslim nations. Akar is a citizen of both Turkey and the United States but still has faced immense stress as a result of this ban. Akar’s boyfriend, Cemi Demiroglu, a Boston University student, has been forced to move to Greece with his family to become European citizens. This makes his American student visa much more stable in this rocky political shift happening under Trump.

Kohen and his family specifically applied for his student visa using his Italian passport, again for the European stability with America. Even though neither Kohen nor Akar thinks Turkey will be added to the list of countries from which immigrants cannot enter America, they both were concerned for the lack of stability in their home country under the dictatorship-like rule of their current president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

With this current “Muslim ban,” as the travel ban has been more commonly called, there has been fear that the “Muslim registry” Trump has been speaking of since his campaign could become a reality. The idea that Americans’ religion would require registration has brought many people flashbacks to the Jewish registries in the 1930s and Stars of David sewn into the clothes of European Jews leading up to the Holocaust. In Turkey, this registry already exists.

On both Kohen and Akar’s Turkish identification cards, their religion is marked. Kohen is a Jew, a minority of only 20,000, or .027 percent of the country’s population. In contrast, the United States has an estimated 2.68 million Jews making up about 1.2 percent of the population. Ninety-six percent of Turkey’s Jewish population lives in Istanbul. Anti-Semitism used to be much more pervasive in Turkey, but with the current political situation turning attention elsewhere, those pressures have lightened, both Kohen and Akar explained.  

This past anti-Semitism could be due in part to Turkey’s history in the Ottoman Empire. When the empire took over the area that is now Turkey, they forced Jews to publicly convert to Islam. These forced converts are called Dönmeh, Akar explained. Akar and her family are part of this group, so while she is registered as Muslim, her family does not practice Islam and she is not observant of holidays of either religion. Even though she does not believe in the Islamic faith, she is still a registered Muslim and therefore had to take religious classes in school while her Christian and Jewish classmates did not.

Both Akar and Kohen were not bothered by the religious registry in Turkey but agreed that it should not exist in America. Like many Americans, Kohen agrees that this Muslim registry would “create discrimination in America.”

The idea also makes Akar worried for the future of America and the discrimination many would face, but she acknowledges her privilege as someone who does not “look Muslim.” Because of Akar’s lighter complexion, she knows she would not face discrimination for her religion. America has a narrow view of Islam, expecting only women in Hijabs with dark skin to be Muslim, but Akar, who wears jeans and has light skin and green eyes, had already been federally labeled as Muslim by her home country.

Unfortunately, she pointed out this is not the case for many Muslims. Even her boyfriend is spotted out because his name is “full Turkish.” With the name Cemi Demiroglu, he can easily be spotted as Turkish, causing concerns for her. Many American Muslims report—and even joke about—being “randomly searched” in airports because their last name is Khan or they wear a headscarf. With this travel ban, those annoying inconveniences could become lines of questioning and further discrimination in America to students like Akar or Demiroglu.

Kohen described the significant number of terror attacks in Turkey in the last few years. “Many of these terrorists use Turkey as a connection to go elsewhere,” he pointed out. This puts many Turkish citizens at risk and creates a negative sentiment in educated Turkish people about President Erdoğan.

With the political turmoil facing Turkey, Kohen has “always seen the U.S. as a hope” and as a “peaceful place.” Kohen’s vision of hope and peace seemed to have died a bit when he described how he has almost moved from “one dictatorship to another,” but both he and Akar have felt comforted by the community they have found in Brandeis.

Kohen was pleased by the open forum with the International Students and Scholars Office offered to the Brandeis community to discuss the executive order emailed out quickly after its signing. Akar feels so welcome in this community with so many other international students, and the student body is accepting and understanding of the cultural differences, even with her “accent and hand gestures.”

Of course, with more change on the way and some students greatly affected by the shifting political landscape, there is more to be done in the Brandeis community to help those suffering. As Akar pointed out, as American international relations decline, so does the value of their currency, making paying for tuition and housing incredibly difficult.

The constant devaluation of the lira, the Turkish currency, has posed as another problem for Turkish students. As their currency devalues, their ability to pay tuition in America becomes more difficult, while the European euro is much more stable in comparison, even given the recent economic drop in 2015.

Additionally, the extra stress this puts on students is tremendous. On top of worrying about grades, student loans, getting internships or jobs and post-graduation plans, these students worry about getting back to the country after going home for breaks. More economic pressures weigh them down along with social pressures due to growing Islamophobia across America. Akar believes these additional factors should be acknowledged by the school and community and extra support for these students provided.

This executive order has already negatively affected the lives of many people across the country in addition to Kohen and Akar. It is easy to feel as though cries for justice go unheard even after marches and protests and demonstrations, but Kohen has hope: “This can change, and people should fight for it.”

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