Cemal Bayrak (’23)

April 10, 2023

He may seem like your average high school senior – sleepy, tired, and anxiously waiting for college commitments. But Cemal Bayrak* (‘23) is anything but average.

Cemal was born in Kayseri, Turkey, in 2003. His birth year holds significance, for just a year before, in 2002, the political regime that would eventually cause him to immigrate to the United States would take power in the country.

Cemal’s father was a civil architect in Turkey’s southern Cappadocia region, designing homes and hotels in the Nevsehir area. Cemal recalls moving into an apartment designed by his own father when he was 14. Among the members of Cemal’s family are his mother, 21 year old older sister and 17 year old younger brother. At age 15, Cemal and his family moved to the western Turkish city of Bursa.

“Bursa was a beautiful city,” said Bayrak regarding his place of residence. “The views were something else.”

As a student, most of Cemal’s time in his home country was spent completing schoolwork (traditionally very heavy in Turkey), and studying for Turkey’s standardized high school entrance exam. In an interview with Eastside, Cemal pointed out his old school classroom from the outside of his school on Google Maps.

“That classroom was good for napping,” he said with a wry smile.

In his rare free time, Cemal enjoyed biking up the mountains surrounding Bursa with friends.

“As we biked back downhill from the mountains, we would be going so fast that we would pass by cars and eighteen wheelers on the road to the city…I guess we were a little crazy back then,” said Bayrak.

But in 2016, Cemal’s routine life would meet a shattering end. In July of that year, Turkey was rocked by a failed coup attempt by the country’s military against the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) Erdogan regime, which had been in power since 2002. Certain political analysts have flaunted theories that the coup was a staged “false flag” event in order to justify government suspension of civil rights and the declaration of martial law.

Regardless of the origins of the coup, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s President did indeed initiate martial law in the country and the suspension of certain civil liberties in response to the event. Hundreds of thousands of journalists, lawyers, judiciary officials, police officers, military members, professors and academics were fired from their jobs, blacklisted, and arrested. The vaguest of ties to suspected coup-sympathizers were punishable by arbitrary prison sentences and judicial condemnation. The Erdogan regime’s handling of Turkey’s response to the July 2016 coup has been widely criticized by many human rights agencies and democratic governments worldwide. But to Cemal, this event would strike too close to home. His father, a mere architect, was arrested and held in jail for over a month on the grounds of being a sympathizer of Fetullah Gulen, a Turkish cleric and preacher currently residing in the United States, whom the Turkish government has accused of terrorism and being the mastermind behind the failed coup attempt. The movement has not been found to have any such designation by the United States government. In any case, before Cemal and his family could celebrate the release of his father, his mother, a housewife, was imprisoned for a year and a half, on the same grounds as his father. Cemal, his brother, and his father suffered through those hard times with the hope that someday they might find reprieve and escape.

In October of 2019, the chance came. Cemal and his brother boarded a United States bound plane and flew to Chicago, far across the Atlantic Ocean. Their parents could not accompany them, for Cemal’s father’s passport had been suspended by the Turkish government. While their children flew, Cemal’s parents boated unauthorized across the Evros River, Turkey’s land border with Greece. Their desperate bid consisted of avoiding Turkish border security patrols and seeking refugee status in Greece. They were successful, but yet more hurdles lay ahead. Though Cemal’s mother could fly from Greece to the United States, her husband, with a canceled passport, could not. A difficult decision was made, and Cemal’s mother decided to fly to the United States while her husband remained in Greece.

In the meantime, Cemal and his brother found help in the United States from resident Turkish communities. Crucially, their older sister, who was of legal age at the time, had flown to the United States for an overseas college program before them. She proved to be a steadfast guardian.

“My sister looked after us very well,” said Bayrak. “I am grateful.”

Via communication between the children and their parents, the decision was made for the boys to move to New Jersey, with their sister in pursuit. It was in a suburb in New Jersey — Voorhees — that the boys first reunited with their mother, who too had flown across the sea like her sons.

Cemal and his family, now missing only their father, decided to move to Cherry Hill. They reside currently in a downstairs flat in the split-level of a Turkish resident of the township. Both Cemal and his brother took up afterschool jobs to uphold the family’s economy, and for over two years, the going was rough without their father. But there were bright spots as well. Cemal’s older sister was accepted into Boston University, where she currently studies. And, this fall, Cemal and his brother were both accepted into numerous colleges, including Rowan University, although neither have committed as of yet.

In January of 2023, Cemal and his family received blissful news – their father had been visa-approved to fly to the United States. Now, only a handful of bureaucratic procedures stand in the way of their reunion. In light of this revelation, the family has bought a new home in Cherry Hill. The boys are currently busy renovating said house on days after school. Awaiting their father in the next couple of weeks, a new chapter seems to have unfolded in Cemal’s life.

“For now, things are looking alright,” he said. “The future is bright.”

*Name changed to protect identity

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