Hacı Bişkin/ DUVAR 

Elif Sandal Önal is one of the Academics for Peace – a group of more than 2,000 people who signed a controversial petition that was released in January 2016 and that condemned the Turkish military’s heavy use of violence in certain southeastern, predominantly Kurdish districts of Turkey. This came after clashes resumed following the collapse of a peace process between the Turkish government and the outlawed militant Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK).

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had publicly lashed out against the petition, and four years later, many of the academics who signed are still reeling from it. Many have been fired from their jobs and effectively banned from working in their respective fields in the country. This has led some to seek exile abroad – that was Önal’s case.

Önal, who worked as an expert at Turkey’s Ministry of Science, Industry and Technology, and who was pursuing a doctoral degree at Istanbul’s Bilgi University, was both removed from her job at the ministry by government decree and forced to leave the university. This was somewhat ironic given that her doctorate focused on themes including marginalization, collective hate, ethnic and national identities, and conflict between groups. 

Following prolonged curfews and human rights violations in districts such as Sur, Cizre, and Nusaybin, Önal decided to sign the petition.

“For me, signing this petition amounted to engaging in the most basic form of political participation that can be invoked in democratic countries. When I added my signature, I knew that it wouldn’t reduce the suffering of those sacrificed by the state but to be a part of the voice standing in opposition to this pressure made me feel a bit better,” Önal said.

After losing her job and being kicked out of university, Önal remained unemployed for an extended of period of time while applying for jobs abroad. She said that she still would have signed the petition if she knew in advance that she would face these consequences, and that those who supported her the most during this period were other signatories like her that had been removed from their jobs by a government decree. 

Thinking for months about whether or not she should leave the country, Önal ultimately concluded that the government had made it no longer possible for her to continue her career in Turkey, and left for Germany with her son and husband. 

“This is why we left Turkey. Here in Germany, the people I work with tell me I made the right decision. Without their support, embarking upon this new beginning would have been impossible,” Önal said. 

In Germany, Önal is continuing the academic life she left unfinished in Turkey. In her country of adoption, she is conducting studies that involve political psychology. She said that her seven-year old son, who is attending a school where he does not know the language and is trying to understand that he won’t be returning to Turkey for a long time, is going through a difficult period. 

“Unlike Turkey, this is place that has made my life easier and where I feel safe. We have started a new life, and learning a new language and a new lifestyle. What is difficult is that if we can’t take root here, we have nowhere else to go,” Önal said of Germany. 

“I’m no longer a citizen of the Turkish Republic, because I no longer have the rights that are entitled by citizenship,” Önal said, adding that even if things get better in her country, she has no intention of returning to Turkey, and hopes that she does not have to.