- Associated Press - Monday, May 23, 2016

NEW HAVEN, Conn. (AP) - Its president may be trying to move Turkey toward an Islamic-leaning government, but the Turkish Americans gathered last week wanted nothing to do with it.

“I’m sending to him a big message!” said Feray Gokcek, as an 11-foot-tall statue of modern Turkey’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, was unveiled in his backyard.

The celebration in New Haven was a signal that these Turkish Americans want their native country to remain democratic and secular.

Gokcek, a vegetable wholesaler who immigrated to the United States in 1991 and whose yard was awash in Turkish red and white, said they were protesting President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s push toward a more religiously influenced nation.

The American Kemalist Union’s celebration of the founder of the Republic of Turkey drew Turks and Turkish Americans from New Haven and Bridgeport, New York and New Jersey. The statue, weighing 3,000 pounds, was shipped from Turkey through New Jersey, Gokcek said. May 19 was also the 135th anniversary of Ataturk’s birth.

While his family and fellow Turks are the embodiment the democratic ideals long held by Turkey, Erdogan wants to “turn a face, change a face toward the other side,” Gokcek said. “I don’t like that. I don’t want dictatorship (or) anything like that. I want democracy.”

“In Turkey our systems are separate,” said Songul Akgun of New Haven. “The Muslim conservatives, they would like to change the Constitution and they want to put the church and the state together.

“Ataturk stated that the church is separated and it can’t be changed,” she said. “Before any European countries, Turkey was one of the first countries that gave women the vote.”

Yurter Ozcan came up from Washington, D.C., and gave a speech in Turkish, which was greeted with cheers. Ozcan is the representative to the United States of the main opposition party in Turkey, the Republican People’s Party. He said he told the crowd that during Turkey’s 20th-century war of independence, “there were a number of Turks living in the New England area and they made a number of contributions. Some of them contributed financially, money for ammunition; some of them helped with medical supplies.

“Even though we are 6,000 miles away from our own country, there is always something we can do,” Ozcan said. “I was also asking for increased activism in this region.”

Gokcek’s son, Sansal Gokcek, who was 2 years old when he came to America, said, “I feel wonderful. This is something historical. It’s never been done in America and I feel very proud.”

Semih Sezer of Bridgeport said the celebration of democracy was “important for everyone here because . when you’re born in Turkey or a Turkish citizen it’s almost embedded in you.” He said Erdogan is attempting to minimize Ataturk’s role and create an Islamic state.

Ataturk’s “section in the textbooks in the schools is getting smaller and smaller and smaller as if they want to rewrite history,” Sezer said. “They want to erase him.”

May 19 is also a day to celebrate youth and sports and Gokmen Leventeli of New York City was holding up the banner of Turkey’s most successful soccer team, Galatasaray.

“Today is our honor day,” said Leventeli. “I love America; I love U.S.A.”

Then, pointing to the statue of Ataturk, he said proudly, “He’s magnificent. He’s our legend.”

___

Information from: New Haven Register, https://www.nhregister.com

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