Two large portraits adorn the walls of the otherwise colorless apartment in a Tokyo charity home that Meryem Dogan shares with her two young children.
One shows her smiling husband Erdal and the other is a photo of Abdullah Ocalan, the leader of the armed Kurdish nationalist movement in Turkey.
Both men are currently under lock and key: Erdal in the same immigration detention system that freed chess legend Bobby Fischer last week, and Ocalan in a Turkish prison where he is serving a life sentence for terrorist-related offenses.
They represent the political and the personal of Meryem’s life: the husband she followed from Turkey in 2000, and the living symbol of resistance for millions of Kurds — even those who do not support violence — like Erdal who have fled from chaos and persecution at home.
Many Kurds have found new homes in Europe, North America and Australia. Unfortunately for Meryem, she is one of about 500 who chose Japan.
“I have so many bad memories here now after five years,” she says. “I just want to put all this behind me and look to the future. The future for us is outside Japan. We’ve had enough of things here because we are just so tired.”
Even 6-year-old daughter Merve, who cannot remember living anywhere else, says she wants to leave. “They keep taking my dad,” she says.
Erdal was again detained two weeks ago during a routine monthly visit to the immigration bureau in Minato Ward.
“A lot of security people came and completely surrounded him. He phoned me and said he had been detailed again. He told me to look after the children and to not worry. I cried so much.”
Erdal had previously spent almost a year in the East Japan Immigration Bureau Detention Center in Ushiku, an institution that essentially functions as a prison.
The Justice Ministry has rejected his family’s application for refugee status, as it has every Turkish Kurd, and says he must return to where he came from.
“They are quite blunt about it at the immigration center,” says Meryem. “They say, ‘Please go back to your own country.’ ”
In March 2003, Erdal went on a fruitless hunger strike in Ushiku that seriously damaged his health after his application for temporary release was rejected.
When he was finally let out, gaunt and frail, last summer he sat down for 72 days outside the United Nations University in Aoyama with another Kurdish family to publicize his case, talking to reporters and passersby in the fluent Japanese he has picked up since he came here.
The experience was, says Erdal’s brother Deniz, a revelation.
“Many ordinary Japanese supported our case,” he says. “Of course some said, ‘We are a small country and there is no space so we can’t accept foreigners,’ but others were friendly.” Meryem agrees: “We made a lot of friends and met a lot of amazing Japanese. The problem is not Japanese people, it is the immigration officials. I really hate them.”
Neither the protest nor the 80,000 signatures they collected supporting their cause helped Ahmet Kazankiran and his son Ramazan, who were deported to Turkey in January despite being recognized as mandate refugees by the U.N.
The deportation earned Japan an unusually sharp rebuke from the U.N. and the condemnation of Erdal’s lawyer Takeshi Ohashi, who said it “trampled underfoot everything the U.N. stands for.”
The writing is now on the wall for the Dogans. “My husband could be sent back at any time,” says Meryem. “We will not even be told about it. They will just put him on a plane and that will be the end of it. If they grab my children, I’ll have to follow them back.”
Members of the Dogan’s support group in Japan, who prefer to remain anonymous, say that they spent the weekend after he was detained this month checking flight reservations to determine that he had not already been deported.
The Dogans and other Kurds say they face persecution in Turkey for their political beliefs. “The position of the Japanese government is that they believe the Kurdish refugee problem has been solved,” says lawyer Ohashi.
“Immigration officials have toured Turkey with police and military officials and say Turkey is safe. But we don’t believe this at all, and once the media turns away the authorities may torture or kill these people.”
The Turkish ambassador to Japan Solmaz Unaydin, however, denies the allegations that Kurds are tortured in Turkey.
“These are unfair allegations. Turkey is a fully democratic country.
“The doors are closing to Kurds in European capitals because they have caused a lot of terror problems, so because of easy access to visas, many of these people are directing their attention here.
“They have tried to make a political case . . . (and) it is so difficult the way lawyers, NPO groups and even parliamentarians have become involved in this.
“Just check the facts. In Turkey nobody is persecuted unless there is a reason,” she says.
Marooned in Tokyo and facing deportation, unable to get work or welfare or even travel outside the city without permission, the Dogans now regret their decision to come to Japan, which was prompted ironically because it provided easy, visa-free access to Turkish passport holders.
“When we set off in 2000 we didn’t think Japan was so strict,” says Deniz. “We just assumed we would find asylum here. Now we wish we had gone somewhere else.”
Meryem says many Japanese have been kind to her, and the family is supported by donations from local people, but her heart is set on Canada.
A Christian organization has sponsored the family in an application for asylum to the Canadian government and although this is no guarantee they will be flying for Vancouver anytime soon, supporters say they are “very hopeful.”
“Canada has traditionally been generous toward Kurdish refugees and has also accepted refuges tuned away by Japan,” says one.
In the meantime, Meryem lives in fear that her husband will be sent back to Turkey.
“We wanted to stay here, but the government is so against it. My husband is not a criminal, just an ordinary man who wants to be with his family.”