On a rainy night in a quiet Corryton subdivision half a world away from the turmoil in the Middle East, Feride Zekeryayeva and Rashad Makmudov welcomed guests for dinner.
Feride had prepared a sumptuous Azerbaijani feast and set a gleaming table, but a longstanding feeling of sadness and dread over what is happening in Turkey cast a pall over the evening.
“I tell my American friends we are living in a really different atmosphere here. We are living in a peaceful haven – a safe place like heaven. We love this country,” said Umit Gunebir, who has settled in Nashville but visits Knoxville often. On this night, he’s accompanied by his friend Yildirim Yilmaz, a relative newcomer to Tennessee’s Turkish community. Another guest, who lives in Knoxville, asked not to be identified for fear of reprisal against his family.
Feride and Rashad are from Azerbajan and have been married for four years. Rashad, who teaches economics and is starting a small business, was educated in American schools in Turkey. Feride is a medical doctor, a neurologist, who hasn’t acquired her American certifications yet due to the demands of raising three young sons. Like their guests, they are followers of Hizmet, a service-oriented, pro-western, Muslim movement that Turkish dictator Recep Tayyip Erdoğan blames for the popular uprising against him in 2016. Since the time of the failed coup, Erdoğan has been persecuting Hizmet – confiscating possessions, making people disappear. The word holocaust is no exaggeration, Feride said.
“This community has been chosen as a scapegoat in Turkey, if you are part of that community, they will come for you like Hitler did for the Jewish people. We know what happened in the holocaust and now we are really feeling how much these people have suffered,” Feride said.
Feride has been here for four years (she jokes that Rashad promised her a horse and a boat if she’d marry him and come to America). They have three sons – Mikeyil and Farid, who are 3-year-old twins, and 10-year-old Yusef, who is Rashad’s son from a previous marriage. Rashad has lived in Tennessee for 12 years and loves it here.
Their boys are a noisy, happy, tumbling threesome – tall for their age, polite and strikingly handsome like their parents. They watched TV while the grownups talked.
Gunebir and Yilmaz drove over from Nashville. Yilmaz, who has only been in this country for a year, was a wealthy construction company owner in Turkey who also ran some private schools and was known for his philanthropy. He and his wife escaped to Macedonia with a backpack full of belongings just days before the secret police came looking for him. His wife is stuck in Macedonia, his bank account has been drained by the government and his face is on a “wanted” poster in his hometown. When Gunebir took him to Washington, D.C., to tell his story to members of the Tennessee congressional delegation, he showed his X’ed out bank account to Rep. Jim Cooper, who was duly impressed with the long row of zeros and dubbed him “the poorest man in the world.”
Gunebir, who helps his friend with his English, explained.
“When I said, ‘Yildirim, how was your trip?’ He said, ‘I thought to myself, I left everything behind. They seized all my assets. I am living out of my backpack. Little money.’
“He came here and doesn’t know what he’s going to do. Lawyers were afraid to take his case. But then he said he remembered the Syrians. They had to leave their country and have nowhere to go. He knew he was going to a place where he had done business and has friends, so he felt lucky. He’s one of the poorest men on earth but feels lucky.”
The troubles in Turkey were brought home to Americans in May when Erdoğan visited Washington and his bodyguards put on a brazen display of violence by beating peaceful protestors in front of the Turkish embassy.
Later in the summer, Amnesty International’s Turkish director, Idil Eser, became one of the thousands who have been arrested and accused of terrorist affiliation. More recently, former presidential advisor Michael Flynn, who worked as an agent of the Erdoğan government before he joined the Trump administration, was accused of organizing a plot to kidnap Hizmet’s leader, Fethullah Gulen, from the compound in Pennsylvania where he has been living since he was granted political asylum 12 years ago by the Bush administration. Flynn was to receive a $15 million payment for delivering Gulen.
Feride and Rashad are happy in their new home, but they wish they could do more to help the tens of thousands of Hizmet followers who are living in fear in Turkey.
“Everything starts in America and spreads around the world,” he said. “We are hoping we can start spreading understanding – I am a Muslim and pray five times a day, but I embrace everything in the western world. Hizmet gives us open hearts and open minds.”