Friday night couldn’t have been more typical for this group of American college students and alumni traveling abroad. Half went out to dinner, looking for good local cuisine; half went back to their hotel to turn in early after a long two days of traveling from North Carolina.
Then, the coup began.
Khalid Abualhawa, a senior NC State criminology major from Holly Springs, had no idea he would be caught up in one of the more confusing, yet frightening, moments in the violent summer of 2016.
“I was genuinely scared for my life,” Abualhawa said in a series of text messages from Antakya, Turkey, on Tuesday.
Abualhawa, in the process of transferring into business administration, is one of three current students and seven alumni who were participating in Project Refugee Smiles, a charity that operates dental clinics for refugees on the Syrian-Turkish border. It was the charity established in memory of NC State graduate Deah Barakat last year after he, his wife and sister-in-law were all murdered at their Chapel Hill apartment. For the second year in a row, Deah’s brother Farris and mother Layla — also NC State alumni — traveled to Turkey to visit the refugee camps in Reyhanli.
And Abualhawa wanted to be a part of it.
“I feel like I owe it to Deah to further his plans and continue his work,” Abualhawa said. “It is my duty to him to do so. I also wanted to make these refugees’ situation real to me.
“What you see on the news and on social media never hits you like meeting these orphans and widows in person. These refugees are not just numbers for politicians to talk about. They are humans, humans we owe to alleviate any pain we can.”
Also traveling in the group of some two dozen volunteers were current NC State student Tamim Khusayem and alumni Hesham AbdelBaky and Anna Maria-Figeuroa, as well as Yousef Abu-Salha, the brother of the sisters who were killed in Chapel Hill.
They arrived in Antakya, about 30 miles inland from Reyhanli, on Thursday, began their clinics on Friday and were unwittingly part of the street protests early Saturday morning, even though in the early stages they were unclear exactly what was happening.
Here’s how Abualhawa — a native of Palestine who grew up in the Raleigh area and spent two years at East Carolina before transferring to NC State — described what happened.
Eyewitness to History
I was with the half of the group that elected to go out to dinner. We had a great meal and had a great time with a very welcoming owner, who treated well so we left the restaurant in a great mood. We decided to walk to get ice cream. On the way to get ice cream one of our group started to sag a little back. He then sprinted up to us and said ‘There’s a coup going on in Istanbul!’ I genuinely thought he was joking. His statement did not register until we looked to our left and saw a television inside a shop with video of a tank on a bridge in Istanbul.
I immediately felt an immense weight on my chest.
We had no clue what was going on other than a breaking news notification from CNN. We decided to rush to the hotel to wake the rest of the group up and figure out what we needed to do. We jogged to the hotel and woke up the rest of our group.
We all sat in the lobby and tried to figure out what to do. But me and two others were actually staying at a nearby hostel, so we elected to make a quick run there to grab our essentials—wallets, passports, chargers, etc. We left our clothes in the hostel. On the car ride back to the hotel we realized we were caught literally in the middle of everything when we got stuck among a protesting mob that had stopped all traffic. So we ended up driving on the opposite side of the road to get past the protest to get to the hotel.
So we get to the hotel and everybody was sitting around freaking out trying to figure out what to do. We were calling the embassy in Ankara and there was no answer. Our parents were calling the embassies back home and they were all saying ‘Just stay inside.’ So we stayed in the hotel not knowing what was going on.
Slowly we ventured to the hotel door and started to watch the protests until we realized that the protesters were anti-coup. They were protesting for Turkey. They were all chanting together as one for their nation. The local mosques were all sending out a message from the minarets, telling the people to go out as one to reclaim their country from those attempting to take it by the coup. The protesters were also chanting a chant that could roughly be translated to ‘If anyone hurts any of these citizens their hands shall break.’
There was one scary scene when armed guards showed up in a SWAT-type vehicle and jumped out. We all sprinted back into the hotel lobby, not knowing what these guard were about to do. They ended up just being there to extract a government official, not to harm anyone. But the fact that we had no clue why they were there and we all sprinted away was pretty funny—after the fact.
We ended up hanging outside, enjoying the vibe. It was very unifying, really beautiful.
At one point, Farris Barakat said the group considered canceling the remaining dental clinics on the Syrian border because of the political unrest. But that would have been a disservice to the refugees they were there to help. And they heard reports from the border that Turkish police had established a perimeter around the refugee camp to keep the residents safe from the turmoil. (Read Barakat’s account to WUNC radio of the group’s ordeal.)
Once it was clear the coup had failed, the volunteers traveled the 30 miles to Reyhanli Sunday, Monday and Tuesday to treat up to 50 refugees per day.
“I will say that this trip would have been a complete bust had the coup been successful,” Abualhawa said. “It would have caused a genuine risk for our lives. Experiencing these events first-hand brought this trip together. Seeing the unity cross party lines and hearing stories of Turkish police guarding Syrian refugee homes to make sure they were safe really made me happy.
“I felt complete the next morning. I had lived through not only history but a moment of greatness for humanity.”
While the Istanbul airport was closed during part of the insurrection, it reopened on Monday. The Project Refugee Smiles group caught a flight home to Raleigh on Friday.