Yedidya Weiner could be any American. He could be any Jewish American. He happens to be my brother-in-law. He also happens to have spent a full day in the hands of Turkish security at Ankara’s Esenboğa International Airport.
Following a rather harrowing year, Yedidya decided to see the world before permanently joining his two brothers, his sister (my wife) and his parents living in Israel. The plan was to spend the summer in Myanmar, Yom Kippur in Thailand, then arrive in Israel in time for Sukkot.
Buying the dirt-cheapest four-stop ticket he could find to the Promised Land, Yedidya ended going via Turkey. He got more Turkey than he bargained for.
Flying into Ankara from Kiev after an 11-hour flight from Bangkok, Yedidya was exhausted. It was early evening on October 2, with Sukkot just two days out. He had another flight to Antalya to catch before connecting to Tel Aviv. Going through passport control, he didn’t realize he also needed a visa.
“They immediately took me to passport control where they asked me for a visa,” Yedidya recalls. “I wasn’t aware I needed one.”
Typically, these Turkish visas are not a big deal. They seem to be an easy way for Turkey to bring in revenue from travelers. Prices vary by nationality, but Americans can buy them for $20 in advance or $30 in the airport.
Israelis actually can travel through Turkey visa-free for 90 days. But Yedidya wasn’t Israeli yet and had less than $30 worth of shekels and Thai baht in his pockets. His American bank had frozen his debit card after a large withdrawal in Thailand. Before he could pick up the phone, security got impatient with his fiddling at the ATM.
“At 8 p.m. they told me I needed to come with them and that they’d send me back to Kiev the next morning. I said, ‘Okay, but can I get some internet to contact my parents via WhatsApp?’ They kept refusing.”
Unbeknown to him, Turkey and the US happened to be in the middle of a developing diplomatic scuffle right then. Turkey’s unreported arrest at the time of a US consular worker would prompt Washington to freeze visa services on October 8.
They refused to give him access to a phone or internet, where he could have told us in Israel to buy him an e-visa online. He pleaded with the Turkish security people. No dice. And no interpreter. He was stuck for the night.
“They started filling out papers in the office. One of them was completely in Turkish and they wanted me to sign it. I told them I refused to sign it until someone translated it. They got really frustrated with me,” Yedidya says. It is not clear what those papers signified, as no one explained them to him in English.
Later, he was brought a different form to sign, this time with an English translation that guaranteed he would have access to a phone during his detainment. Before doing so, Yedidya got the sense he should first get a quick, nodding reassurance from the guards that he would indeed be allowed to make that call. That didn’t work out, either.
“I told them I would only sign if they would give me what it said. The guy kept saying, ‘No no no no,’ got frustrated and grabbed the papers away from me. Then he made like this (waving) motion to ‘get him out of here.'”
Customs officers took Yedidya to a backroom, telling him in broken English that he would be put on a 5 a.m. flight back to Kiev. He continued to beg for a phone. Guards refused. He asked to speak to someone in English. No one came. He also hadn’t eaten in hours; 5 p.m. came and went and nobody came to put him on a flight to Kiev.
Finally, just after 7 a.m., 12 hours after he had landed, Yedidya got a visit from someone who spoke good English. Handed a phone with WhatsApp, he immediately called his brother Yosef in Israel. Without hesitation, Yosef bought Yedidya an e-visa.
And that should have resolved everything. But it didn’t.
“As soon as I got the visa, I showed it to the guy at the desk,” recalls Yedidya. But it didn’t seem to make a difference. “He nodded his head and told me to go back to my room.”
Back in Israel
Yedidya’s parents, my father-in-law Heschel and mother-in-law Sarelle — who live in Modiin, a 17-minute train ride from the airport — had been expecting to meet Yedidya early that afternoon.
“He was supposed to arrive at 1 p.m. At 7:30 a.m. I get a text, a WhatsApp from a phone I didn’t recognize,” Sarelle told me.
Heschel quickly called the US Embassy in Turkey. And once Yosef had bought Yedidya’s e-visa for him, they waited to see if the Turks would let him go.
They tried to contact him at the airport, in vain. So Sarelle tried the Israeli authorities. “I got in touch with the Modiin Absorption Department, to find someone who could speak Turkish.” That official, in turn, contacted the Absorption Ministry and the Foreign Ministry, too. Surprised (in a good way), my mother-in-law wanted to know why the effort for someone who was not a citizen yet. The response: You are a citizen, and your son is Jewish.
Sarelle received a message later stating Israel would intervene should it become necessary, but that the family should would wait for a call since the US was already involved.
At 9 a.m. Yedidya finally got a snack which consisted of cheese, tomato and jelly.
“The last time I’d eaten was probably 1 p.m. the day before, on Ukrainian Airlines from Bangkok to Kiev,” Yedidya says. “I didn’t ask them, ‘Is this kosher?’ They obviously didn’t care… They would shake their head whenever I tried to speak to them.”
At one point he was brought into a room where several people discussed his visa, and then motioned out again. Someone assured him in English that he would be able to get a flight out later in the morning.
But that started to seem increasingly improbable.
Recalls Yedidya: “Suddenly, they pulled two German guys into the room. They had their visas with them.”
These were the first non-Turks he had seen in a while, and were apparently in the same predicament. The Germans spoke Turkish, however, and got into it with the customs officials.
The Germans told Yedidya that another traveler was in another room nearby, and had been there for four days. Every day the Turkish authorities would tell him he was leaving the next morning. And then the news would come that, “We couldn’t get you the flight, wait until tomorrow. We’ll try again tomorrow.”
Yedidya started panicking at the prospect of endless nights in Ankara airport.
End of a mini-ordeal
In Modiin, Heschel called the US embassy in Ankara a second time, insisting that they intervene.
“I wouldn’t call it screaming,” my father-in-law told me. “I was emphatic… Hollering.”
Then they waited. “I thought, ’How long is this gonna take?'” Heschel says. “If that other guy has been there for four days, that could happen to Yedidya. It was starting to get scary.”
Finally, late in the afternoon, a call came through. A man with a Turkish accent was on the other end. “Your son is not being detained,” Heschel was told.
And so it proved.
Back at the airport, Yedidya was told to come back to the customs office.
Minutes earlier, it emerged, a US embassy official had flown in from the western city of Izmir, and headed straight to the customs authorities. When Yedidya walked into the office, this American official was there, with a pin on his jacket lapel showing US and Turkish flags.
“Let’s get out of here,” the American told Yedidya. The official spoke to his Turkish counterparts, says Yedidya, “and in about three minutes we were out of there.”
It was all surprisingly brief, given the obduracy of the airport security people until that point. But not taking any chances, the US official escorted Yedidya through the airport.
“He took me to passport control, got my passport stamped, visa stamped. Took me to buy a new ticket” — to Tel Aviv via Istanbul.
He called Yedidya’s parents to tell them Yedidya was on his way home. Yedidya thanked him profusely. He wouldn’t tell Yedidya exactly what he’d said to the Turks. “We know what to say,” he said, and then, like a cowboy tipping his hat, he just walked off into the airport terminal sunset.
At 7 a.m., 24 hours after landing, Yedidya was finally airborne again, en route to Istanbul. At 9.45 a.m., he took off from there to Tel Aviv. And at 1 a.m. he was with his parents.
Now Yedidya is getting organized for a more formal aliyah. “It’s good to be done with this, and to know I have a home here waiting for me,” he says.
He’s not planning further overseas travel for now, least of all via Turkey.
It is unclear if tensions between the United States and Turkey contributed in any way to Yedidya’s saga. Efforts to obtain comment from the US Embassy in Ankara and the government of Turkey for this story were unsuccessful.