Raleigh Volunteer Offers First-Hand View Of Attempted Turkish Coup

Jul 17, 2016

It’s been an eventful few days for Raleigh native Farris Barakat. He’s in southern Turkey, working with Project Refugee Smiles, a volunteer group that provides dental care to Syrians in refugee camps.

The group is continuing the work of Barakat’s brother Deah, who was killed along with Deah's wife Yusor Abu-Salha and sister-in-law Razan Abu-Salha, in Chapel Hill last year.

After some of the volunteers arrived last week in Antakya, near the Syrian border, a coup erupted and sent the country into chaos. These are text messages Farris shared with WUNC during the harrowing and confusing past few days (edited only slightly for clarity and punctuation):

We landed in Istanbul on July 14 and made our way to Hatay airport. Our hotel is in Antakya; we stayed there that night. The next day we started Project Refugee Smiles. We set up the clinic and started seeing patients.

On the night of July 15, Barakat said one of the team members knocked on the door and told them there was an emergency group meeting.

I turn on the TV and it's all about a coup happening in the capital, Ankara, and Istanbul. Word was that Erdogan was denied landing in Ataturk airport and sought to land instead in Germany. At this point my mother was back in Reyhanli visiting and sleeping the night at her sister's house, who is a Syrian refugee herself.

At 1:00 a.m., Barakat said they began to hear something in Turkish play over the minarets of the mosques. Later they learned they were calling people to take to the streets in protest of the military coup.

We saw crowds and crowds. Until we knew who these people were backing, it was difficult to feel safe at all. A Turkish American on the trip translated the chants and better explained the situation unfolding. Up until this time we were panicked and hoping for the best. The U.S. Embassy wasn't any help. At some point, we see an armored vehicle pull up in front of the hotel and armed men get out. We had no idea what was going on; we ran inside. The armed men went across the street to either arrest someone or take someone in for protection.

Being stuck in a country undergoing a military coup, Barakat said, was such a dangerous prospect.

As the protests continue, we hear on TV about military actions taken by the coup. We hear of a downed helicopter and see the civil protesters take to the streets and lay flat to avoid gun fire. The protests in front of the hotel were peaceful and some of us even joined by later into the night. We went to sleep sensing that the coup was a failure. The will of the people was evident. Rival political parties were together in the streets.

Barakat said they woke up and heard about the failed attempt. They had decided the night before to cancel the clinic but they changed their mind and decided to keep the clinic going. That day was "orphan day" and they treated children who had lost both their parents and had signs of PTSD.

That night (July 16) after clinic were more protests. After a group meeting, we also walked the streets around the hotel filled with protesters. Today has been a normal day, and we will see what happens tonight (Sunday, July 17). The clinic is planned from July 14 to 19. If things remain as they are, we feel safe and proud of this country for coming together in a historical moment.