By Francesca Gazzolo '20
We are saturated with thoughts of the coming election. We are swamped, soaked, swallowed and swathed; like a congealing coat of butter around a warm biscuit, it has engulfed us. We are in the deep fryer.
No doubt you are tired of hearing about the election—and nothing is more exhausting than listening to people jabber on about why they’re voting for a particular candidate, why there is no more of a pressing problem than stopping those pesky immigrants from stealing our jobs—except perhaps global warming, or lack of reproductive justice, or the systematic killing of black people by police. There are thousands of writers out there, far better than I, who have tried to articulate the minutia of our political state. This is not that kind of article. I will not mount the soapbox and preach about any one of those issues, because you simply can’t quantify “importance.” This article serves merely as a piece of my story; because, yes, I am voting for Hillary Clinton.
My uncle, Ibrahim, came from the mountains. He was born in a small town called Gaziantep in southeastern Turkey, but he is not Turkish—he is a Kurd, and Kurdish people are not treated very well in Turkey. When Ibrahim tried to stand up for his rights, he was tortured and threatened with execution. At the age of thirty, he sought asylum in the United States and moved to Chicago. Knowing that learning English was essential to his success, Ibrahim enrolled in language classes. ere he met my dad’s sister, Michele—and young love worked its magic. My aunt gave birth to a daughter, Livia, giving Ibrahim the ultimate reason to stay in America.
I have moved several times, but my heart is held on the shores of Lake Michigan, in a town called Harbert, where my dad’s family stays during the summer. When Michele took Livia to Harbert, Ibrahim followed suit, and opened a restaurant there: Café Gulistan, which means “Land of Roses” in Turkish. It is also a name given to the hoped-for homeland of the Kurdish people.
Ibrahim lived a relatively quiet life, serving his famous izgara and ispanak to loyal Harbert customers. Each summer our family would soak in the sunlit lake, spending lazy days on the beach before eating a hearty dinner at Gulistan. Ibrahim had started as a Chicago busboy and now owned a restaurant—he really was living the so-called American Dream.
But after September 11th, everything changed. Many Kurdish rights groups were placed on the United States terrorist watchlist, regardless of their mission. Ibrahim’s asylum was revoked. In 2004, he went to jail.
For ten months Ibrahim awaited trial. At just six years old, I watched my family and all of Ibrahim’s friends oscillate between determined frenzy and utter hopelessness. We held potlucks at Gulistan and hosted meetings in the nearby Sawyer Unitarian Church. I did not understand much of it; I only knew that my Uncle Ibo was in trouble and no one could really reason why. Michele and Ibrahim never married, but he is as much a part of our family as any blood relative. He is my cousin’s father; he calls my grandmother “Mom;” I have known him since my earliest days of childhood. He is my uncle.
Thanks to our grassroots efforts, Michigan lawmakers decided to pass a private bill protecting Ibrahim from deportation. For over ten years, he was safe. Though he could not travel for more than a few days, he made the two-hour trek to my family’s Chicago home every year in December, navigating icy highways to help us with our holiday cooking. I remember watching him and my grandmother argue about politics as the rest of us looked on, eating the food he had cooked for us until my dad said, “Why don’t we talk about something else for a change?” As I grew older, I realized they did not banter just to torture us. For Ibrahim, the state of the union affected the state of his life.
Christmas was the only time outside of the summer that we saw Ibrahim. This arrangement—not perfect, but not terrible either—continued until the senator who authored the asylum bill retired. Last year, a week before Christmas, the Department of Homeland Security told Ibrahim that unless another bill were passed, he would be deported at the end of the month.
Chaos ensued, and this time I was old enough to be swept up in the whirlwind myself; we made frantic calls to our senators and congresspeople, filing complaints with Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the DHS. On December 23, 2015, we held a vigil at Gulistan for Ibrahim. What seemed like a hundred people crowded into the tiny restaurant, holding candles and singing, hoping the stars might hear our pleas.
On Christmas Eve, the Board of Immigration agreed to reopen Ibrahim’s case, granting him temporary asylum. Based on the Turkish government’s persecution of Kurdish people, they agreed that deportation would subject Ibrahim to unnecessary danger. We woke up on Christmas morning to my Danish grandmother’s fresh kringle and a warm pot of coffee, breathing easy for the first time in weeks. We couldn’t stop hugging each other.
Now, eleven months later, we are still in limbo. Ibrahim is waiting for his case to be reviewed; meanwhile, he continues to serve the Harbert locals at Gulistan while his daughter goes to college in Chicago, uncertain what the future holds. We hope it is good. We hope Ibrahim is recognized for all he has given his country and his community. And we hope that come November 8th, we elect a president who will not toss out Ibrahim’s case, but rather recognize him for who he is: our family.
The following story’s validity is questionable (it comes from a friend several degrees removed), but regardless of its roots in reality, it speaks to my faith in Hillary Clinton’s commitment: when Ibrahim was threatened with deportation, ready to pack his bags for Turkey, we made calls to officials across the country. Somehow, his case found its way onto Secretary Clinton’s desk, just for a brief second, and she said to a staffer, “This Ibrahim Parlak story is really interesting. Can we get someone on that?”
I am not a lesser-of-two-evils voter. I have made calls to voters as far as Idaho on her behalf, begging for volunteers, and last week, I canvassed for her in New Hampshire. And yet, despite this enthusiastic face I show the world, inwardly I grapple with my decision. Should I be throwing all my weight behind someone who referred to gang members as “superpredators,” who has kept virtually silent about the NSA, who refused to endorse marriage equality until 2011? These thoughts leave me with a lump in my throat. When an opponent—right or left—voices a criticism, I try to defend her, but sometimes I am at a loss.
We must remember that we are all human, my friends—even Hillary Clinton, that pantsuit-clad robot of the center-left. We all have weaknesses. Secretary Clinton, though, has one very particular strength, something that her colleagues attest to time and again: she listens. Her entire campaign is built on conversations—creating dialogues with voters one-on-one. She has always lent a willing ear to people from all walks of life, whether they be obstinate Bernie-or-Busters, leaders of sovereign nations, or Ibrahim’s lawyer who wrote the case that was plopped on her desk.
I am perhaps young and idealistic. I know that countless papers reach Hillary Clinton’s office each day and some must get thrown by the wayside, or at the very least bookmarked for a later date—that was likely the case with Ibrahim. But I do believe, deeply and sincerely, that she will do her best to listen to as many people as possible. There are thousands of people who have stories like Ibrahim’s. I hope she will give them a voice.
To learn more about Ibrahim's story, visit www.friends4ibrahim.com.
From October 2016 issue