This professor spoke out against the Turkish state. Then she was forced to flee.

This is the story of Eda Erdener

She got out just in time.
(Image credit: Ikon Images / Alamy Stock Photo)

As the only faculty member at Bingöl University to sign the Academics for Peace petition, Eda Erdener thought she would probably be investigated, and braced herself for an appearance before prosecutors. What she didn't prepare for was Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan publicly assailing the signatories — labeling them terrorists and traitors. She also didn't expect to see the partisan press publish personal details alongside her photograph, or receive online messages from the military police, or have a black Jeep follow her constantly.

A Turkish Tatar, Erdener has always felt strongly about standing up for Kurdish people and the "injustice they have been exposed to for years in Turkey." So she didn't hesitate to join the more than 1,100 scholars in Turkey who signed a petition entitled "We Will Not Be a Party to This Crime," also known as the Academics for Peace petition. The appeal condemned the Turkish government's security operations against the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), declaring that it harshly affected Kurdish civilians, and called for the resumption of peace talks between the PKK and Turkish government.

The petition was made public on Jan. 11, 2016, and almost instantly, Erdogan began criticizing the signatories. This started a chain reaction, with 27 of the academics detained for allegedly engaging in "terrorist propaganda." Some found graffiti on the doors of their offices, while others were pressured to resign from their positions.

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"We didn't feel safe, because we didn't know who was next," Erdener said. "We didn't understand why we were all being treated differently, since we all signed the petition."

Erdener arrived at Bingöl University in eastern Turkey in 2014, hired to establish the psychology department. When she started, they were "very happy, very nice to me. I was a good academic and they supported me, and never treated me badly," she said. Erdener believes that because of Erdogan's strong reaction to the petition, the school was forced to open a disciplinary investigation into her participation. She spent hours being questioned by prosecutors, who made Erdener stand as they asked about her reason for signing the petition and demanded "yes" or "no" answers regarding her political views — did she think the PKK was a terrorist organization? Had the government conducted a massacre?

Since it was reported in the paper that she had signed the petition, Erdener was verbally abused on social media and on the street, with people shouting, "Traitor!" Some colleagues began to defame Erdener, while others stopped greeting her when they crossed paths. After a few weeks, she began to receive messages on her Facebook account from military police officers.

"Although they were not outrageous, I knew the meaning of these hellos — 'we know who you are and we have been watching you,'" she said.

Even Erdener's family was buckling under the pressure, with some relatives telling her they feared they would be arrested if they allowed her into their home.

Bingöl University is in a small town, where in the 1990s, several unsolved murders and covert actions took place, Erdener said. And as the threats escalated and a mysterious black Jeep began to follow her, she looked for a way out. After applying for a fellowship in Germany, she left Turkey in March and sent Bingöl University her resignation letter. Erdener also applied for the Scholars at Risk program, which provides temporary sanctuary and assistance to hundreds of threatened scholars worldwide.

Erdener was the first Turkish person to become a Scholar at Risk. But now, Turks are the single biggest group of applicants. And today, Erdener is a visiting professor at Pomona College in Claremont, California.

"An educated public is the fundamental basis for a democracy, for a thriving society," said Pardis Mahdavi, chair and associate professor of anthropology at Pomona College, and the person who brought the Scholars at Risk program to her university. "If we don't protect our academics and our educators, then our society is at risk. Academic freedom is a very important collective right, and if the freedom of one person is at risk, everyone is at risk."

Erdener was already out of the country when an attempted coup took place last July. She was lucky, as academics were then forbidden to leave Turkey, and thousands were dismissed from their jobs and banned from working in the public sector.

The state of education in Turkey has Erdener concerned. The system is being re-engineered by the government, with Erdogan's picture being placed prominently in textbooks, children acting out the failed coup with their classmates, and kindergartners being taught to lie down in front of tanks, practicing to be martyrs. In some universities, the purge has forced one person to hold down 10 different positions, and school directors have all been appointed by Erdogan.

"I used to lecture in clinical psychology and forensic psychology, very heavy lectures, and now they are being given by a 23-year-old with no master's degree," she said. "He just finished school. The criteria to teach is to be pro-Erdogan, that's all."

Still, Erdener is anti-coup, and believes that since Erdogan was democratically elected, he needs to be democratically voted out of office. In the meantime, she takes solace in the support she has from Pomona College and the messages of solidarity she still receives from her former students.

"I miss them so much," she said. "I think my place is in my country, unless I am exposed to worse conditions. I feel sorry for my students and the next generation will be lost due to the poor quality of education. I believe our students need us to defend their rights so they can get the education they deserve." Erdener plans to return to Turkey in two years, holding onto hope that the situation will improve for educators. "Nothing lasts forever," she said. "I believe we need a little more time to reach safety as a whole country, but I'm an optimist."

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