By Dan Rankin
Naomi Pearson, who some will remember as a server at the Parkview Creamery and others will know as area farmer Andy Pearson’s daughter, flew home to Ontario after a three-month trip to Turkey last Wednesday, Aug. 26. Pearson, who credits her grandma for instilling her with a love of travel, had been doing research for Mitacs Globalink, which offers funding and research opportunities to Canadian students looking to study at schools around the world, and for international students interested in coming to Canada.
Pearson, who attended high school at Northwestern in Stratford, is currently enrolled in Global Studies at Wilfrid Laurier University. Interested in the topics of peace and conflict, in the past two years Pearson has spent five months in Turkey, which straddles the border between Europe and the conflict-stricken Middle Eastern nations of Syria and Iraq.
“I was researching a wave of migration by Turkish professors,” said Pearson, 22, of her recently concluded trip. “I interviewed 20 different professors who had studied in Canada or the United States. A lot of Turkish professors are coming to Canada and the United States, getting their education here and then going back to Turkey. In many other countries around the world there are similar waves of professors doing the same thing. It’s affecting their education systems.”
During her time there, she has seen much of the country’s central and northwest regions, visiting Istanbul, the capital Ankara, the city of Konya and the region of Cappadocia, famous for its ancient carved structures dating back to the bronze age. She said her favourite memories of her time in Istanbul came on the water, surveying the city from the Bosporus strait. But there are other realities to life in Turkey.
“It would have been very dangerous for me, as a western woman, to get anywhere near the border [with Syria] because I would have been kidnapped like that,” she said, snapping her fingers. “When I was going to Ankara the bus I was on and some of the other buses around me went to Kilis, which is right on the border; so close actually that often shots from ISIS end up hitting the neighbouring towns there. I could have gone across the border if I wanted, but obviously didn’t want to.”
On another occasion in mid-July, after an ISIS suicide bombing killed 30 people in the mainly Kurdish Turkish city of Suruç, many Kurds came to a central square in Istanbul to protest the government’s lack of movement to combat the militant extremists. Pearson had gone to check out the scene, when things between the protestors and police got heated. “The police got pretty violent with them and I got tear-gassed,” she said. “I ended up getting holed up in a building with a bunch of news crews while there was live fire going down right below me.”
She remembers lying on the floor as fireworks and shrapnel went off down on the street, and police used a water cannon on the demonstrators.
Because of their proximity to ISIS-controlled territory in Syria and Iraq, Pearson said she was surprised by how little most people in Turkey spoke about the threat they posed. Konya, where she visited, is just over 600 km from the Syrian border.
“They’re very nervous about it,” she said. Even as thousands of refugees enter the country and ISIS supporters become more visible in Turkish cities (noticeable for their clothing and grooming choices), people “aren’t willing to talk about it because they’re so afraid that what happened in Syria and Iraq is going to happen there.”
Pearson said it is because of these issues, and not despite them, that she is strongly opposed to a law that was recently proposed by the Conservatives.
In Ottawa on Aug. 9, Stephen Harper promised to crack down on what he called “terror tourism.”
“There is absolutely no right in this country to travel to an area under the governance of terrorists. That is not a human right,” he said. “We’re not under any illusion here what just about everybody going to an area like that is doing. That’s the reason to pursue this particular policy that’s been used in other countries.”
A similar law recently came into effect in Australia where citizens found to have travelled to designated parts of Iraq and Syria can receive a jail term of 10 years. Critics believe such a law would go against the idea that people are innocent until proven guilty.
“It’s wrong,” she said. “You have the right to free movement. There are plenty of reasons to go to countries that still have high terrorist activity. If you have family in a country like Syria, if you can get in there safely, you still have to see your family. I know lots of people in these countries, and you can’t just brand them a terrorist if they go. You’re completely cutting them off from everyone and everything they know. You can’t just do that. What about our human rights? Where are they going?”
Harper said there would exceptions to the law for people able to prove “legitimate reasons” for visiting problem regions, but Pearson said she doesn’t like the idea of having to prove to the government that her reasons are “legitimate.”
“They say that you will be exempted if you are an aid worker or journalist, but you have to remember that, if you are one of these people, you would have to go through the government and they would be in control,” she said. “So, if you’re someone who is critical of the government, like plenty of journalists have been, they get to choose who is allowed into these highly sensitive areas. It will be easy to say ‘no, you don’t have the right paperwork, you can’t go’.”
Pearson agreed that North American citizens becoming radicalized and travelling to these areas is a problem the federal government should address, but thinks there are other ways to do that, “like giving more resources to your police forces who are already doing a good job,” she said.
“Suddenly making it a problem for everyone else who is not radicalized, who isn’t doing anything wrong, isn’t going to stop people who are already aware that they’re doing something wrong,” she said.