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Thursday, Sep. 20, 2012
Kurdish refugee returns to Tokyo to thank supporters
After being sent back to Turkey, New Zealand offered a home
By MASAMI ITO
All Kurdish asylum seeker Ahmet Kazankiran wanted from Japan was to be recognized as a refugee, so that he and his family would be able to live happily together without fear of persecution.
But on Jan. 18, 2005, the Japanese government forced him and his oldest son Ramazan onto a plane and sent them back to Turkey.
The deportation split the family, leaving Kazankiran's wife, second son and three daughters in Tokyo in a state of shock, horror and limbo. While the government didn't deport them, it didn't give them permission to stay in Japan either, even though they had been recognized by the United Nations as refugees.
With the help of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, they ended up resettling in New Zealand more than a year later. Kazankiran meanwhile made it out of Turkey and was able to reunite with the family.
Now, for the first time in more than 7½ years, Kazankiran, 56, is back in Tokyo to tell his story of what happened after he was kicked out of Japan and to express his gratitude to the group of supporters that helped his family when they were living here — an opportunity for happiness that was taken from the ethnic Kurd when the authorities deported him.
On Monday, Kazankiran met with a group of Japanese and Kurdish supporters and was welcomed with smiles and some tears of happiness.
"I am so happy to see them," Kazankiran said during an interview with The Japan Times. "The Japanese government is cold and I hate the system, but not the Japanese people. They are my best friends, they did everything for us, and I am so grateful."
The Kazankirans and the Dogans, another Kurdish family seeking asylum, entered the media spotlight in summer 2004 when they staged a sit-in outside United Nations University in Shibuya Ward, Tokyo. For more than two months, the two families, including small children, sat outside in the scorching summer heat, calling out to passersby to listen to their story and lend support to people seeking asylum in Japan.
Although it has signed the U.N. convention on refugees, Japan is notorious for its reluctance to harbor them and is often the target of international criticism for not doing enough to protect those in need.
In 2011, only 21 people were recognized by Japan as refugees despite the receipt of 1,867 new applicants.
And while many people of Kurdish ethnicity from Turkey are routinely considered official refugees around the world — especially in Europe — no Turkish national has ever been granted that status in Japan.
Kazankiran tried three times to get refugee status after arriving in Japan in the 1990s.
His family lived apart for 15 years. Although they finally reunited in Japan in 2003, they didn't have legal status and were barely able to survive, receiving almost no support from the government.
"The days of the sit-in were very difficult times, but somebody had to do it," Kazankiran said. "We were acting on behalf of all refugees in Japan" for better treatment by the government.
Slowly but steadily, people of various nationalities began to gather around the two families to join in their cause, including Tsuyoshi Amemiya, a professor emeritus at Aoyama Gakuin University, located just across the street from the U.N. University building.
After Amemiya first encountered the Kazankirans and the Dogans, he went on to write several books on people seeking asylum in Japan. He has also personally supported numerous asylum seekers, helping them when they encounter trouble with the authorities or need medical attention, sometimes giving them money as well.
"I've become very close to the refugees in Japan, who completely trust me, and helping them has become my lifework. They are all wonderful people, including the Kazankirans, but why does Japan send them away?" Amemiya said. "There is so much that Japanese people could learn from them, to experience a different culture and learn the true meaning of globalization."
But Kazankiran became the first U.N. "mandate refugee" to be deported back to his country of origin, where he feared persecution for participating in Kurdish rights movements. A mandate refugee is someone who has been recognized by the UNHCR as a legitimate refugee. When Kazankiran and his son Ramazan arrived in Istanbul, they were separated and forced into police cars and were unable to reunite for a few years.
After hours of interrogation, Kazankiran was released and he made his way to stay with relatives. His son was sent off immediately to join the military for compulsory service. No matter where Kazankiran went, he felt he was being followed by the authorities. He never went anywhere by himself and made sure he stayed close to the offices of human rights organizations.
"I knew the authorities wouldn't come after me immediately after the deportation because everyone was watching them. But human rights groups and family members strongly urged me to leave Turkey as soon as possible because I could have an 'accident' in six months or a year," Kazankiran said.
Through the support of his Japanese friends, he was able to fly to the Philippines in March 2005. But his son couldn't join him.
"There wasn't a day that I didn't think about Ramazan, I was so worried about him. But I had to leave," he said.
Kazankiran spent about 10 months in Manila while the UNHCR helped his family resettle in a third country. And in January 2006, all of the Kazankirans except Ramazan were able to see each other once again in New Zealand.
"It felt so good to be with them, to hug them, to be together again," Kazankiran said with tears in his eyes. Life in New Zealand was completely different from the days in Japan when they lived in poverty and poor health.
In New Zealand they were immediately placed in a refugee resettlement center for a month and a half, where they were given medical checkups and learned the basics of living in New Zealand. Because the family only knew Kurdish and Japanese, they also spent eight months learning English.
"New Zealand has been so good to us. The government takes care of everything, from our medical needs to food and shelter," Kazankiran said. Ramazan, on the other hand, was forced to remain in Turkey to serve out his military duty for more than a year.
According to Kaori Shu, a longtime supporter of the family who organized Monday's event, it doesn't appear Ramazan had too much trouble in the army. Shu succeeded in visiting him in Turkey in 2005.
"The Turkish government and the military did not seem to have the intention to hurt Ramazan, but they were very nervous about what was being said about him in the media, including newspapers and on TV," Shu said.
After completing his term, Ramazan was able to reach New Zealand so the entire family could reunite in March 2007. After living in New Zealand more than seven years, Kazankiran is now the proud owner of a Turkish restaurant in Auckland, where the whole family helps out. His goal, however, does not end there.
Kazankiran said he will never forget his roots and wants to retire soon so he can actively help asylum seekers around the world, especially in Japan.
"It will probably take a long time, but people can make a change if they try hard enough. You have to stand up for what you believe in — that is how I felt when I was doing the sit-in, and that is how I still feel now."