Selçuk Koran has only worked in Portage la Prairie since mid-July, but he noticed two things even before that: how small it is compared to his hometown, and how friendly people are.
In fact, his very first visit to Portage was for a job interview. He and his wife stopped at Tim Horton’s for coffee, and some local people stopped by their table to say hello, and ask how they were and where they were from. “So, I felt that this place is a welcoming and friendly place. And then I said, ‘this is what some people call love at first sight – I should be working here.’ Eventually my job interview was successful and two weeks later I started working here in this city.”
As much as he would like to be living locally with his family, his biggest challenge has been finding housing. He has been looking for two months with no success. “They don’t have a lot of houses here for immigrants,” he explains. And there are cultural differences to deal with, too. “Like I went to look at one room, and a person was leaving that had a dog in his room. For me, it is not very appropriate to live with a dog in the same house.”
Finding housing is one of the biggest challenges Koran has noticed since moving to Canada from Iraq, where he has lived for the past 14 years. The Turkish citizen advises newcomers to make looking for a place to live their first priority when coming to Canada. “I actually drive from Winnipeg every day, because my house is not here,” he says.
A former high school teacher, Selçuk went on to become a principal, then a university lecturer in Iraq. “I was teaching courses like introduction to education, educational testing on assessment, educational psychology and counseling. I was even teaching some English courses for ESL (English as a Second Language) learners.” He misses being a lecturer, because as he notes, “when you come to a new country you have to start from scratch. And sometimes you have to get your credentials accredited. And then, yes, I am planning to start teaching, if everything works fine.”
Another challenge for Koran and his family (his wife and three children) is that there is not a large Turkish community in Winnipeg. “We are in a completely different culture. So, we have challenges in the process of adaptation here.” Luckily, Koran has lived in several different countries so adjusting is easier for him than many. “But still, it takes some time. I come from a collectivist culture (one that’s based on valuing the needs of a group or community over an individual), and this culture is individualistic. So that is a challenge for me as well as my wife and kids.”
Because he thoroughly researched western culture before immigrating to Canada, he developed a strategy to deal with some of the issues he might face, including isolation. “I went to the mosques, to the churches, to different communities. And then I started having friends here…people around me to communicate with. And that’s helped me tremendously to get adopted living in this country.”
He also received support from non-profit immigrant organizations that provide services and advice on how to cope with the challenges in in this country. “For example, how to open a bank account, or, you know, how to write your resume. I always called a resume a CV, now I had to learn how to write this cover letter and stuff.”
Koran misses his home country of Turkey and says it is a wonderful place to visit. However, the political climate is Turkey is unstable. “A lot of people have been purged from their jobs,” he notes, “and Turkey is one of the larger jailers of journalists nowadays. People do not have a lot of freedom of speech. And if you speak out, or if you post anything on social media criticizing the government, the next day you might end up in a jail.”
Koran is a member of a movement called Gülen, referred to as “Hizmet”, or service. “This movement stands for peacebuilding, education, and interfaith dialogue,” he explains. It’s leader, Fethullah Gülen, “inspired a lot of people to work in education, open schools and build culture centers where people come together around common values from different ethnic and religious backgrounds. Followers of the movement have opened schools in about 150 countries around the world.”
It was in 2016, when Koran was working at one of these institutions in Iraq, that a coup d’etat was attempted against the Turkish government. The Hizmet movement was blamed for the coup attempts (which the group denied) and “immediately everybody who had ever had affiliation to this movement was pronounced as terrorists,” says Koran. “Since then, a lot of people have been put in jail.” He gives the example of a person he knew from his hometown, the owner of a kebab shop. “Because he was a member of this movement he helped to open schools in Africa. And he was taken away by the government and put in prison.”
Koran was living in Iraq at the time, and his cousins, who were also teachers but working in Turkey, were also put in prison. He also heard that some intelligence officers went to his brother’s house in Turkey asking about his whereabouts. “And then I realized that I’m also in danger.”
Even though the Kurdish government in Iraq stood behind its Turkish expats, those living and teaching there were exiled from Turkey. “Even though Gülen (who is self-exiled in the U.S.) called for an international independent committee to investigate, no one accepted it. And now it’s like we’re persona non grata.”
Koran says his family can now never return to Turkey. “For example, I wanted to renew my daughter’s passport because it was about to expire. I went to the Turkish embassy in Iraq, and the clerk said ‘I can’t do anything for you because there’s an investigation on your name in Turkey. I’m sorry, I will not renew your daughter’s passport.”
He later learned both his and his wife’s passports have also been revoked by the Turkish government. “So, we would have to go back to Turkey to renew our passports, and then we would be put in jail for things that we have nothing to do with.”
The presence of ISIS as well as Turkish intelligence made Iraq unstable as well, and the family realized it needed to leave. At the time, Koran’s children were 14, 9 and 4 years old. “The oldest was old enough to know what was going on, and it was pretty hard for her, thinking (about Koran), ‘if he goes to work, he might not come back.’ So that created a lot of trauma.”
Yet despite undergoing experiences that most Canadians would find unimaginable, Koran says he is lucky. “I am lucky and blessed to be in this country. There are a lot of people living in different places, and you read the stories of these people. A lot of people drowned on their way (to other countries) in the Mediterranean Sea, there are babies in prison with their mothers in Turkey, so yes, I am lucky.”
Koran made his way here through applying for his second PhD in Canada. “I wrote a very good proposal, around Peace and Conflict Studies, to the University of Manitoba,” he explains. “It was accepted and then I applied for visas for my family and we came to Canada last summer.”
Naturally, the family misses their home. “I miss my village, my town, my brothers and sisters…but almost every day I talk to them. They are doing fine, but they are under pressure. Some of the people that I am close to don’t talk with me anymore because if the government finds out, they can come for them.” Sadly, this includes one of Koran’s own brothers, who works as a government clerk.
After they arrived in Canada, Koran’s brother forwarded him a letter from Turkish authorities. “It said there is an arrest warrant in my name in Turkey. For me, I can’t ever go back.”
Koran is very proud of his background and his international experience, because it’s helped him in his job here. His work here is much like his work in Iraq, in that it is closely related to his educational and professional background. “I’m working to increase graduation rates here, and also developing strategies to help our youth with the transitions from school to adulthood. That is my focus right now.” He hopes to again teach one day, but will need to become recertified.
Despite the extra work he will need to do in order to teach again, he is simply grateful to be in Canada with his family. “I’m really happy and I will try my best to contribute to this society here in Canada,” he says, adding that he thinks Manitoba is the best place to be in the country. “Well, I like Alberta too, but that’s beside the point.”
“Friendly Manitoba…the license plate is true!”