Fleeing persecution in Turkey, professor tells her story

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BENNINGTON — When Burcu Seyben returned to her native Turkey after graduating from Bennington College in 1999, she could never have imagined the circumstances under which she would return.

After the Kurdish-Turkish conflict re-ignited in the summer of 2015, Seyben, a professor, theater theorist, playwright, actress, and author, was one of 1,128 Turkish academics to sign a petition that condemned the Turkish government's security operations against the armed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) youth movement in cities of southeast Turkey, including in Cizre, where at least three hundred civilians were killed according to the Turkish Human Rights Association, and called for a resumption of peace talks with the PKK. By doing so she became part of a group labeled terrorists by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and was eventually forced to flee the country or face imprisonment.

"I love to come back to Bennington, because I love it here, but I wish it had been under different circumstances," she said on Tuesday. Seyben, who was a professor at Istanbul's Bilgi University since 2005 and had become chair of its Performing Arts Management department, was able to leave Turkey thanks to the Institute of International Education's Scholar Rescue Fund, which helps provide fellowships for academics who face threats in their home countries.

Seeing her fellow signees arrested and prosecuted by the government, Seyben applied for fellowships at several universities in Europe, but as more time passed without being accepted into those programs, and with her situation growing more perilous, the Rescue Fund suggested that she apply to her alma mater, Bennington College.

Bennington College accepted her application to be a visiting scholar for the 2017-2018 school year, the first institution to do so, and in June 2016 she made her way back to the United States. The college has announced that she will be back for the 2018-2019 school year. "They helped me at a moment in my life when I felt nothing would go right," she said.

Seyben talked about her experiences and about academic repression in Turkey on Tuesday night at a talk hosted by the Bennington chapter of the American Association of University Women at the Unitarian Universalist Meetinghouse in downtown Bennington.

Julie Mackaman, who serves on the chapter's programming committee, said that she and other members met with Seyben in the fall, and were stunned by her story. "What if you signed a petition that changed your life," she said. "This is a story that needs to be heard."

Seyben said that many in the academic community were shocked by the actions of the government in Cizre, which were justified under the context of fighting terrorism. "Terrorists are not living in these houses, civilians were living in these houses," she said. "So we knew something was going on." She said that many of those who signed before her she considered her mentors. "There was nothing else I could do to express my feelings," she said.

"The Turkish state has effectively condemned its citizens in Sur, Silvan, Nusaybin, Cizre, Silopi, and many other towns and neighborhoods in the Kurdish provinces to hunger through its use of curfews that have been ongoing for weeks," read the petition. "It has attacked these settlements with heavy weapons and equipment that would only be mobilized in wartime. As a result, the right to life, liberty, and security, and in particular the prohibition of torture and ill-treatment protected by the constitution and international conventions have been violated. This deliberate and planned massacre is in serious violation of Turkey's own laws and international treaties to which Turkey is a party. These actions are in serious violation of international law.

"We demand the state to abandon its deliberate massacre and deportation of Kurdish and other peoples in the region. We also demand the state to lift the curfew, punish those who are responsible for human rights violations, and compensate those citizens who have experienced material and psychological damage. For this purpose we demand that independent national and international observers to be given access to the region and that they be allowed to monitor and report on the incidents. We demand the government to prepare the conditions for negotiations and create a road map that would lead to a lasting peace which includes the demands of the Kurdish political movement. We demand inclusion of independent observers from broad sections of society in these negotiations. We also declare our willingness to volunteer as observers. We oppose suppression of any kind of the opposition."

"We, as academics and researchers working on and/or in Turkey, declare that we will not be a party to this massacre by remaining silent and demand an immediate end to the violence perpetrated by the state," it concluded. "We will continue advocacy with political parties, the parliament, and international public opinion until our demands are met."

After a press conference regarding the petition on Jan. 11, 2016, the response from the Turkish government was swift. The very next day Erdogan responded personally to the petition, calling those who signed it ignorant, traitors, and supporters of terrorism. A well-known mafia leader with ties to the Turkish government said that he would shower in the signees blood, said Seyben.

The government moved quickly to punish the academics. "A lot of people were fired from their universities, mostly public universities," said Seyben. "Others were forced to resign or retire." For some, the government took away their access to retirement funds, health insurance, and in some cases voided passports. Seyben said that she was one of the lucky ones, as she worked for a private university and her dean protected her by refusing to cooperate with the government for as long as possible.

Even that relative safety would not last for long. In April of 2016, Seyben was on a performance tour in Germany, when she was ordered to return to Turkey that very night. When she told them that was impossible, as she had a performance, she was told that if she did not return immediately she would be arrested when she did return. Her colleagues encouraged her to stay in Europe, but Seyben decided to go back.

Seyben was interrogated by police about the petition and her political beliefs. At one point she was asked, "Who do you think is guilty?" to which she replied, "Everyone." After the police officer gave her a long look and asked her what she meant by that, she knew she would need to leave the country, or go to prison and risk her entire family suffering the consequences of her response.

"The things the lawyer was asking me to say, to stay out of prison, were things that I wouldn't be able to say," she said. "I didn't want (my brother, a lawyer who works for the government) to get into trouble, but at the same time, I don't want to be suppressed by this government, say things I don't believe in. And even if I deny my signature, I'm still going to be in danger. I am still labeled as a terrorist. So what am I going to do?"

Since 2002, Scholar Rescue Fund has assisted nearly 750 scholars from 58 countries, placing them at more than 375 host partner institutions in 43 countries around the world. You can learn more about the program at www.scholarrescuefund.org. The website currently lists 16 scholars currently seeking host universities, nine of whom are from Turkey.

Seyben's lecture was the 13th in a Bennington AAUW speaker series that began in 2006 and is dedicated to exploring non-western perspectives on the non-western world. Topics covered by the talks have included Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, the Crusades, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Chinese President Xi Jinping, and more.

Derek Carson can be reached at dcarson@benningtonbanner.com, at @DerekCarsonBB on Twitter and 802-447-7567, ext. 122.

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