About Refugees, By Refugees

Portrait of refugee Mehmet standing against a wooden plan background

Mehmet Yavuz

Pictures taken in:



Photo and interview by:




Handan Tufan

“My only dream is to see my children for the last time,” says Mehmet Yavuz (57). Born in Turkey, of Kurdish nationality, Mehmet fled to Europe in 1991 during escalating violence against Kurds. He left behind two very young children, expecting to be able to return. “I had a hope that Kurdish rights would be secured,” he says. But over 30 years later, he remains in a camp for asylum-seekers in the Netherlands: “I had no idea it will come thus far. I have no idea it will take so long.” He is no longer in touch with his children; living away for so long has been “traumatic” and “a heavy burden.” Yet Mehmet has found coping methods: “I love walking, thinking about my problems,” he says. Doing so “helps me to come to a conclusion. I don’t want to think negatively.” He believes his years in exile have given him strength: “I have hope in the future. I want to embrace it.” Regarding the situation of refugees, his message is clear: “Empathy. Everybody has a right to live. Empathy is necessary.”

Trigger Warning:

full interview

Hello. First of all, I want to start with questions about your place of living. What kind of housing do you live in?
I live in a camp. At the asylum-seeking center in Hardenberg.

Can you describe your conditions? What conditions do you have there?
I have a normal room. Every week there is control if you are there or not. This control is being registered. Every week I get 300 Euros which I use for groceries and meals there. That’s how my life goes on there.

Who do you live with?
We share one room with four friends.

How do you spend your time here? Do you work?
No, I don’t. We’re not working. We don’t have this opportunity because of the pandemic and businesses are completely closed.

What are some of the things that give you joy? What do you enjoy doing?
Well, if I tell you there’s something I enjoy doing now, I will lie. It is not related to this country. I mean in terms of living here at this camp. There’s nothing you can enjoy living in a camp anyway. I have a normal everyday life. To be clear, I’m not complaining about the Netherlands and I’m not saying that it doesn’t give me the opportunity. What I want to say is that there’s not much to do about life here at the camp. You go out and walk outside and come back to the same place and the same room.

How has life been for you since you arrive in Europe? What’s has been good and what has been difficult? Can you describe how living here has made you feel?
My life has been like living in a trouble and starting everything all over again as a refugee. This has been the most difficult part. Starting all over and being a refugee. I’ve always tried to work and was looking for every opportunity all the time. I agreed to work for lower payments. I was paid half the amount other normal people would get. But I did it because I didn’t want to be a burden. It still goes on anyway. This past year I’ve been staying in a camp. Before that, I can tell you about when I first seek for asylum. I have been at my friend´s working place and the police saw me there. So everything came up (int: that he came in 1991 and applied for asylum and he was rejected. And in 2004 he was granted asylum but didn’t show up and the asylum was rejected again). I mean, I wasn’t doing anything illegal. So when everything came up, I decided to seek asylum again.

And how does life makes you feel here? How do you feel here?
How do they call it in Turkish? Expatriate? Or being weird? I’m not arguing about it now because it is another question. It’s a feeling that is already inside me. I’m far away from people that I know. it has already been 30 years now. It’s very difficult. But I’m trying to go on because I have no other choice.

And here you are away from your family, loved ones, the rest of your family. How does that feel for you? You’ve been here for 30 years, and your kids are away.
It is a very difficult and hard feeling. I don’t think everyone could carry this burden. I think one has to live through it. It’s a very heavy burden. Just think about it – you have to leave two kids behind and escape. One was one and a half years old, the other was three years old. That’s how I still remember my kids. I don’t want a picture of them growing up. Because of my emotions and sensitivity. I didn’t want to see them growing up there without me. I mean, I can’t make any sense if I see those photos when they are already grown-ups. That is why I always avoided seeing those photos. I didn’t want to.

Do you have any contacts with them now?
Since 10 or 15 years ago. We already have lost our contact.

What you’ve been through is really hard. Would you ever have guessed you could deal with these situations in the past?
Never. I have never thought I would experience this burden and this life. Some people share their problems and troubles and with empathy, I can put myself in their shoes. But my experience is very traumatic. It is a very heavy burden. I don’t think that anyone could go through it. Even here, I see people getting married and getting divorced or separated. And it sounds simple to me, actually. What I have been through is totally different thing. For 30 years I’m away. Sounds so easy but I left my family behind. I am the only son and I have three sisters. And I left my family and my house. The family structure is very different in the place where I come from. Sons were always given more attention. But despite all this, I left my family. I’ve been through this all. And it was very difficult. I don’t want anyone to experience what I have been through.

So do you think that the ability to cope with these challenges developed here in Europe? Or do you think you have always had these strengths?
I think I could beat it. I’m thinking, I’m not hopeless. There’s always hope in me. I’m trying not to kill that hope. I’m embracing that hope in me. I don’t know where it brings me. In my own opinion, I think it is somewhere inside me. At least, I can think about it (hope). I have hope in the future. I want to embrace it. I have never killed that hope and I don’t want to kill it.

How did the Covid 19 affect you and your life? Especially, how was your mood?
I have a chronic disease. I had bypass surgery, an open heart surgery here in 2017. Five veins have been changed. Of course, I’m worried about it. I pay a lot of attention to taking care of myself. I know that this disease is more contagious for chronic patients, and the risk of getting rid of it is minimal. So there’s fear, of course. I’m worried. I’m trying to take as much precaution as I can. I’m doing what I can. Nothing has happened so far. Hopefully not after that.

Why did you leave your country? Can you tell us what happened?
In 1991, I left my country because of different reasons. Well, I mean it all started in the 1984s when Turkish and Kurdish took place. In reality, it started even earlier in the 1978s with the establishment of the Kurdish Political Party. So in the 1991s, the clash between Turkish and Kurdish forces took an even higher level and it became dangerous. At that time, the Kurds were attacked in cities. So I thought if they attack them, soon they will come after me. And I decided to leave the country. And thanks to a friend from Diyarbakir, his name is out of the question. They got me a passport and I went to Europe over Romania.

When you were leaving your country, what did you feel?
I had a hope that everything will be fine. I had a hope that within the framework of mutual respect and respect for each others’ rights, everything will be fine and secured. How do they call it? Constitutional security or whatever. I had a hope that Kurdish rights would be secured and Kurdish people would receive whatever we have our rights for. I had no idea it will come thus far. I have no idea it will take so long. I’ve never killed the hope in me. I was hoping that I’d come back again.

But 30 years have passed.
It’s been 30 years. Unfortunately, that’s a fact. There’s nothing changed. On the contrary, it goes even further.

How was your journey to Europe? Do you have a special moment you had during your journey you can tell us about?
I came to Romania by bus in February. It was winter. I left Turkey on February 17th in 1991. On the way to Romania, I got through an accident. During the car accident, I almost saw the car rolling off the cliff. Thanks to the professionalism of the driver, we survived. If I had flown from the cliff, our parts wouldn’t even be found. I was with my friend. We’ve been through such a big accident. Then from Romania, I moved to Poland. I had friends in Poland from Germany. I didn’t see any help from anyone. I understand that people didn’t want to take responsibility. They didn’t want to commit a crime. They supported me financially. We can get you whatever you want. But we can’t do anything more. By my own means, I entered Germany from Poland. And then, I went from Germany to the Netherlands. And since 91, I’ve been in Holland except for six months of my trip from Turkey.

You have survived a very dangerous accident. What did you feel on the journey?
It’s very difficult. Leaving the country full of hopes but encountering a situation that might have taken your life is very difficult. My life depended on just a few seconds. I was under the influence of that accident for almost a month. I didn’t want to experience that pain again.

And are there any events that keep your mind particularly busy about your past? Is there something that you often think about?
I’m often thinking about my past.

Like what, for example?
For example, I’m thinking about periods when I was happy. I’m thinking about the periods I spent with my family. I think why things have come to this level. The current atmosphere of the result indicates it. It’s unknown where it is going. Inevitably, I think about the past and look for that moment in past.

Indeed, these past 30 years have been really difficult for you. Do you think that the situations you have encountered in these 30 years affect you today?
So here in exile, I can say I’m getting stronger. As I said, hope gives me strength. My past and my first married life give me strength. Yes, I got older. I was 27 when I got here. I’m 57 years old now. It’s easy to pronounce but it is a very difficult life. The past gives me hope.

Have you developed any strategy to get through these difficult times, difficult moments? You have just mentioned that your experience made you stronger. Was there any strategy or a method to get through these hard moments?
I’m a person who leaves everything to itself. I prefer to leave things inside. I can talk to some of my friends sincerely in order to get recharged. But I can’t open myself to everyone. I have a little shyness because I don’t want to bother people. I’m not such a person. I’m leaving my thoughts inside me. But I love walking, thinking about my problems. There are moments when I walk 5-10 kilometers and 15 kilometers by myself. This helps me to come to a conclusion. I don’t want to think negatively. And I think about the positive aspects. I’m comparing things. I feel a little relaxed when I get home. I mean, I’m trying to beat negativity inside me. I don’t want to call it despair though. I’m struggling with myself. I can’t open myself to everyone. I haven’t opened up any of my problems to anyone. In the hospital case, for example, I went alone to the hospital. I met a Dutch lady who helped me there. God bless her a thousand times. She is like my sister. A 70-year-old lady. I’m grateful to her. She helped me with the hospital arrangements. I went to the hospital alone. I was going to have very complicated surgery. I was thinking if I would manage to get up after the surgery or not. I was thinking about it over and over again. I ran out of the hospital three times. It was terrible of me, I know. I was very afraid. What can I say? I said to myself last time, I’m gonna get the surgery. Okay, they said to me. You could have been out already if you have done it before. You could already have been healthy. I went into the hospital alone and it was very painful. I didn’t let anyone know. I just told a friend of mine if anything happens to me, you call the association, people there know me and they will know where to send me (my body). That was my only thought. My friend told me, “Don’t think about it, I’ll handle it.” So, I had surgery. After three days of ICU, I woke up, and this lady I call my sister was with me. May Allah bless her a thousand times. Life goes on like this right now. Let’s see where it brings me. I don’t know.

What was your dream before you escaped from Turkey?
A happy, peaceful family and a job that could help me raise my children without being a burden to others. I had no other thought. I mean, I was not thinking about some high dreams. I was just looking for peace for my children.

And what was your dream when you were running away from Turkey?
I hoped that in 5 or 6 years we will return to our country when things get better.

So what were your strengths when you were in Turkey? For example, when you compare yourself here and yourself in Turkey?
Easiness of the times in Turkey. Here thinking of that easiness is a burden. That comfort you lived in the past is not the same. Here, you have to take care of yourself. So when you compare it with your life here you see that it is more difficult here.

What kind of person were you there? How was your character there?
I’ve never done anything wrong. I was usually a positive person. I’ve always stayed like that. I think maybe people would not recognize me now because of 30 years. My own hometown, my own village won’t recognize me. I didn’t hurt anyone.

Do you think the experience that you’ve been through improved you? Do you see some positive results?
Definitely, it improved me. I see it in terms of the strength I got. I feel stronger.

What are you dreaming about now? What is your dream?
My only dream is to see my children for the last time.

Okay. That’s all I have to ask. Thank you very much for answering all the questions. But finally, do you have anything to say for Europeans to better understand the lives of refugees? Is there something you would like to add .
Empathy. Everybody has a right to live. Empathy is necessary. People here have put themselves into the place of those asylum seekers. In the Netherlands, I think racism is not high. I think elderly people might have it, might think negatively. But the younger generation doesn’t discriminate. There is this character in Dutch people meaning that “long live the snake that doesn’t bother me”. The people of the Netherlands are like this. I’ve been here for 30 years. I’m getting to know their culture a little bit. I respect them too. You have to respect because you are staying here temporarily. You came to this country and seeking asylum. So, you cannot just get up accuse people of racism. I’m against it. I believe everything should be within the framework of respect. Dutch people are respectful. The Dutch will never ignore respect. If you come one step further, the Dutch will make a step forward as well. I don’t think they are going to take two steps forward. I never had a problem with the Dutch people.

Thank you very much.
Thank you very much.

Many 1000 Dreams interviews were not conducted in English. Their translation has not always been performed by professional translators. Despite great efforts to ensure accuracy, there may be errors.