New York has given me that Refuge
In this film, refugee South Asian LGBTQ+ activist Barbara Khan talks about her migration from Pakistan and her life in New York as a trans woman.
What made you flee?
In the summer of 2016, one week after the failed coup attempt in Turkey, the university was shut down by the government in a one night, along with the 14 other universities…I left my office on July 21 on a regular basis. I left my laptop, my notes, my books there …Next morning I woke up, learning some news from Twitter, that universities were shut down…
It was the time when the government issued the first emergency degree (KHK in Turkish). Then I saw a tweet from a president of another private university in Turkey. He shared a list of shut down universities…That’s how I’ve got the news and how I’ve lost my job.
Was this a moment, when you decided to leave Turkey?
No, definitely not. So, it was in the Summer of 2016. We got the news, that of course were very dramatic. I started crying. I was mostly concerned about my financial debts. I was like: I don’t have a salary now, how am I going to pay my loan from the bank. Because at the beginning we didn’t understand that it is going to impact our careers… […] we were kind of naive at the beginning, all my colleagues. We were like: We have good PhDs, from good universities in Europe, we have publications, so it should be fine after couple of months. But the first month I spent sleeping. I guess my body shut itself down, because of the drama and everything. But we were optimistic, and we applied for some other positions, when they were published. And it didn’t work out, because we were covertly blacklisted, not personally. […] But we were kind of put into this group of people, who worked in “closed down universities”. And we heard that there were some rumors, that the head of the higher education consul in Turkey said, that the other universities should not hire people among us for about 2 years. But I was like: I have a good PhD, I have good publications…I can find a job. But it didn’t work out… As I said when I applied, they were calling back and said: Can you withdraw your application? – without any legal bases. And, I tried to contact the other university, where I worked before. I was like: You know what happened, could I teach at least part time? – And it didn’t work out. Another colleague of mine tried to find a position for me at her university and it didn’t work out, because of the fact, that I was working at that university at a bad time.
So, after about one and a half years I had an unofficial job interview at a small public university, close to where I was living. I think that interview was at the time, I was like: Okay, it’s not going to work out for me. Because in the meantime I needed to do something… I worked at some small projects, but I wanted to go back to academia, because that’s what I have dreamt of since college. I went to this interview, and it was shocking… First, they didn’t want to have an interview at the university building, because they didn’t want to be seen with me, not personally, but as someone, who lost her job because of governmental decree. During the interview they asked me a lot of questions about my personal life, my family. They were trying to understand my ideological stance. And I realized that most of my publications were in English, and only one in Turkish. And I realized that these people were not able to read in English, because the only question they asked me about my publication, was related to the Turkish article. They were trying to understand, if it is something, that would bother the government. But there was one moment…I was still tolerating all of this…I was interviewed by two people (a couple), one of them was a head of the department, the other – the husband became an academic after being public servant. So, it was a moment for me… I was like: This is it. I cannot work with people like this… I won’t be able to find a job. Even if I will find a job, it will be with people like this, who I have nothing in common with. They also asked me a lot about my PhD because it was from a foreign university. They asked me if my supervisor was manipulating me to write bad things about Turkey in my PhD dissertation. They were thinking, that writing a dissertation on Turkey at the foreign university means providing data to the foreign government about Turkey…Its was really suffocating feeling.
And that was a moment for me: I would not be able to continue my academic career in this country. Around the same time, I’ve got accepted for a scholarship, which brought me to the U.S. in Fall 2018 and since then I have been here.
Would you have stayed if you had the choice, if the situation would have been different or was your overall goal to have an international career generally? Is that the threat of you having to go back? What would happen then, you think?
The first question – I think I would have stayed because even when I was doing my PhD in Europe, I was like: I will go back to Turkey, I love my city, all my friends are there, my family is. And I was very happy at the university, I was working at. We had small groups of classes, and my students were the best […]
I loved my international connections to Europe… But coming to the US was definitely not a thing that I had in mind. And even as a tourist I was like: Maybe one day I will go to NY… Maybe I will take a one-year sabbatical to spend abroad, – but that’s it. I didn’t end an envision career outside of Turkey.
To the second question, when I meet people here, I always say that I found myself in the US. But it wasn’t my goal […] I found myself here. It was kind of like a compulsory process for me.
I went back to Turkey to visit my family a couple of times. I didn’t have any issues at the time, but it was very stressful entering and exiting the country because you don’t know, if there might be someone… Maybe you tweeted about something, and they can inform you to the security and start an investigation about you…
Hasan is a scholar with a PhD from a university in Europe. During their PhD they were working as a research assistant at the private university in Turkey and traveling between Turkey and the PhD granting country. In the summer of 2016, one week after the failed coup attempt in Turkey, the university was shut down by the government in a one night, along with the 14 other universities. Hasan lost their job. In Fall 2018 they came to the U.S. with the Scholar Rescue Fund Fellowship, where they are a visiting scholar.
Interview conducted by the We Refugees Archive team with Hasan in the spring of 2022. The interview was edited for length and clarity.