How an Afghan Immigrant From New York Got Caught in Turkey's Purge

Letter From Istanbul

Demonstrators shout slogans during a protest against a purge of thousands of education staff, Istanbul, Turkey, November 3, 2016. Osman Orsal / Reuters

In August 2016, just a month after the failed coup in Turkey, Mohammed Suliman Wardak set out for Istanbul from John F. Kennedy airport in New York, armed with his green card and a letter from his then-estranged wife, an American journalist. She was being held by jihadists in Syria and he was going to try to secure her release. But as he waited to board his flight, he made an innocuous yet fateful decision: he used a ten-dollar bill to buy a pack of mint chewing gum and a bottle of water, and when the cashier handed him five $1 bills in change, he pocketed it.

In May, I met Wardak at a café in a sprawling, crowded mall in Istanbul. “I should have spent the money,” Wardak told me, as he fidgeted nervously with a black cap and sipped his coffee. If he had, he probably wouldn’t still be stuck in a country to which he has no ties. He told me that those five $1 bills, together with his links to his then-wife, had led him into an absurd but nightmarish run-in with the Turkish government, which used the U.S. currency to accuse him of conspiring against the state and ban him from leaving Istanbul.


Since the attempted coup against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on July 15, 2016, Turkey has arrested around 100,000 of its citizens for alleged ties to Kurdish militants and Hizmet, the Islamic organization also known as FETO, which the government accuses of masterminding the failed coup. Evidence against the imprisoned is scarce and in some cases nonexistent. In Wardak’s case, a $1 bill could be considered proof of collusion in the coup because Turkish authorities speculate that Fethullah Gulen, the dissident cleric who heads Hizmet and currently resides in Pennsylvania, blesses the $1 bills presented to him by his followers and apparently, uses certain serial numbers on the bills as coded messages. Serkan Golge, a Turkish–American NASA engineer, who was found in possession of $1

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