Oleksandr Gaman, Ukraine's Consul General in Istanbul
Turkey has become a hub for returning Ukrainians home from around the world
11.06.2020 15:00

The Turkish city of Istanbul has in recent months turned from a popular tourist hub into a hub for returning people from around the world. Ukraine also took advantage of this hub. In just one week, 2,500 citizens returned to Ukraine via Istanbul. Pictures from Istanbul airport in those days resembled the apocalyptic plots of a film about Armageddon. In a constantly changing situation, in the absence of normal transport services, Ukrainian diplomats in Turkey were able to provide the most necessary support for Ukrainians in the metropolis with a population of 15 million. We talked about this and much more with Ukraine's Consul General in Istanbul Oleksandr Gaman.

Question: On June 5, first Ukrainian citizens arrived in Istanbul after a 2.5-month break (from March 21) related to the suspension of flights due to the global coronavirus pandemic. You have previously talked about the process of preparing for this flight, obtaining permits. Please tell me how many people arrived, whether they will undergo 14-day quarantine, whether they were tested for COVID-19 at the airport.

Answer: A total of 81 people arrived. About half of them are patients, all the rest are accompanying persons. A little more people were to arrive, but unfortunately, some citizens who were going for treatment refused at the last moment on the recommendation of Ukrainian doctors due to deteriorating health.

Upon arrival, the coronavirus test material was taken from all people, both patients and accompanying persons. Some patients arrived with PCR tests from Ukraine. But they had tests taken again, free of charge. After that, all visitors were placed for seven-day observation in clinics or hotels with which clinics have an agreement. This is an unequivocal demand of the Turkish side. The observation period was reduced from 14 to 7 days. According to the results of tests, there were no Ukrainians infected with COVID-19.

This flight was originally intended only for the return of Ukrainians. But many of our citizens were already in the final stages of obtaining permits to enter Turkey for treatment at the beginning of May, so we contacted SkyUp and received a positive response. Moreover, the airline provided tickets to citizens traveling for treatment free of charge and to accompanying persons at a discount.

Question: Is treatment in Turkey limited to 90 days of visa-free stay?

Answer: Yes, at first it was 90 days of visa-free stay. But someone, for example, during a bone marrow transplant, needs to stay longer. These patients and persons accompanying them will apply for residence permits - Turkish law provides for this. We assist citizens in this and assist them in contacting the local migration service, although this is not the responsibility of the Consulate General.

Question: How many people returned to Ukraine on this flight?

Answer: A total of 151 people. These are both citizens of Ukraine and foreigners who had grounds for entry and stay. Ukrainian citizens are mostly tourists who are stranded here, Ukrainians who worked here but lost their jobs due to coronavirus.

Question: Turkey is one of the few countries with which transport services remained in place, say a ferry between the ports of Chornomorsk and Karasu. How actively did Ukrainians use the ferry service?

Answer: We have been actively using this type of transport since early April. The first trip took place on April 3, after an agreement was reached with Ukrferry that the company was ready to take passengers, as this ferry is focused on the transportation of goods and carriers. The Consulate General in Istanbul organized nine transfer trips with 20 to 35 passengers from Istanbul to Karasu (over 200 km). The transfer from Ankara was provided by the Embassy of Ukraine and the one from Antalya was provided by our consulate. Transportation was complicated by restrictions on movement between provinces and cities, as well as curfew, which was imposed in Turkey on weekends (ferry runs on Saturdays). Therefore, all Ukrainian diplomatic missions helped issue permits for trips to the port of Karasu.

Question: Before the complete closure of the air service, Istanbul has become a hub for returning citizens of many countries, including Ukraine, home. It was a hot time: citizens were sometimes forced to stay in the transit zone for several days, sometimes flights were postponed. How many Ukrainian citizens managed to return home in that period? What do you remember the most?

Answer: Istanbul then became, in fact, the only way back for Ukrainian citizens who were stranded in Turkey or third countries. From March 20 to 28, SkyUp made 12 such flights. In total, more than 2,500 Ukrainians flew out. Each flight was almost 100% full. The most memorable one was the last flight. It was to be carried out by midnight from March 27 to 28, because according to a decree of the President of Turkey, the air service was completely stopped after March 27. We and all the passengers were already at the airport. But the flight was delayed because the plane was late from the previous flight. The airline later reported that the Turkish side had canceled the flight because the plane did not have time to take off before the start of the ban. And we had more than 200 citizens waiting at the airport. We tried to reassure them, although we did not yet know if that flight would take place. We woke up the city and airport management in the middle of the night to get permission for the flight. The plane arrived at about three in the morning and took off at five. These four hours of waiting and excitement were the most memorable. We are very grateful to the Turkish side for assistance in resolving this issue.

Question: You combine the position of Ukraine's consul general in Istanbul and Ukraine's representative at the Organization of the Black Sea Economic Cooperation. The BSEC's work slowed down after Russia's temporary occupation of the Crimean peninsula and the start of the war in the east. What is happening now at the BSEC?

Answer: The situation in the BSEC is not the best now as many initiatives and projects have not been implemented since 2014 due to the temporary occupation of Crimea. It is no secret that Russia is making every effort to legalize its aggression against Ukraine and the temporary occupation of the Crimean peninsula. Because of these attempts, many former projects simply cannot be implemented. For example, they try to include their representatives in various commissions, to encourage business to work with Crimea, to hold various cultural and business events. The only goal is to legalize their illegal actions. We have another goal - to inform the BSEC Secretariat and member countries about the real situation in Crimea. At the same time, we consider the BSEC an important platform for defending the interests of our state in the Black Sea region and the development of economic relations with member states.

Question: I remember that last year, thanks to the efforts of the embassy and the consulate general, we managed to prevent the holding of several such events…

Answer: Russia uses all means… But we have a good ally - Turkey, its leadership. Therefore, it is possible to counteract the actions of the Russian side. As for last year's quasi-forum, it is thanks to the support of the Turkish authorities as well as the Crimean Tatar community in Istanbul that we are able to prevent them from being held. As for the other so-called "forum," it was held in conditions of strict "conspiracy," even without a public announcement of the venue.

Question: Russia also opposed the independence of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine in every possible way. The Consulate General has close ties with the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Do you maintain the same active communication?

Answer: In fact, relations with the Ecumenical Patriarchate are very good. The independent Ukrainian church has always been Ukraine's dream and need. Representatives of the Ecumenical Patriarchate are very experienced diplomats, it is always a pleasure to communicate with them, and we do this quite often.

The Ecumenical Patriarchate actively supports the Ukrainian community in Turkey. Several years ago, permission was granted to hold church services in the Ukrainian language, which became an extremely important event for local Ukrainians. Every year, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew personally holds a service commemorating the victims of the Holodomor in Ukraine. It has already become a good tradition to place a Ukrainian Easter egg tree, created by our community of Istanbul, on the territory of the Ecumenical Patriarchate on Easter. It is admired by people who visit the Patriarchate on holidays. And it remains in the memorable photos.

Question: Tell us about the Ukrainian and Crimean Tatar communities. How many are there? How do you interact with them?

Answer: Five Ukrainian societies are officially registered in the consular district: two in Istanbul, two in Izmir and one in Bursa. With our assistance, six Ukrainian schools are operating under societies. There are two Saturday schools at the Ukrainian Mutual Aid Society in Istanbul: one each in the European and Asian parts of the city. The Taras Shevchenko International Ukrainian Lyceum operates at the Ukrainian Cultural Society on a daily basis, and there is also a Saturday school at each society in Bursa and Izmir. The number of children attending Saturday schools is growing over time. When they began to create them, there were more pessimists than optimists. I hope that the new school year will begin in the fall, and no coronavirus will interfere.

As for the Crimean Tatar communities in Turkey, they are quite active in cooperating with the Consulate General, as well as between themselves and Ukrainian societies. We all remember our joint campaign "United with a Flag" - #LiberateCrimea - which took place last June and was dedicated to the fifth anniversary of Russia's occupation of Crimea. At the initiative of the Crimean Tatars of Istanbul, several rallies took place in the city center, and their purpose is to draw attention to the issue of the occupation of part of the territory of Ukraine and Russia's armed aggression against our state. And we are infinitely grateful for this activity to our Crimean Tatar friends.

Question: You have been working in Turkey for almost three years. What is your general impression of the host country? How did Turkey impress or surprise you?

Answer: Turkey is unknown rather than known to Ukrainians. This is despite the large number of our fellow citizens who go on summer vacation. During such a "lazy" vacation, little can be learned. In fact, Turkey is a country with a unique history and monuments that you will not find anywhere else in the world. The country is very diverse and unique. And, of course, our countries have a lot in common.

I really like the friendliness of the Turks. I'm talking about all levels of communication. At first, when I learned to drive a car in Istanbul, I often wandered, asking for directions. Ordinary citizens, despite the language barrier, tried their best to help, explain, show the way.

If we talk about practical things, the local style of doing business, the ability to work quickly and efficiently is impressive. And the first thing that catches your eye is Turkish roads. High quality for a long time. As an experienced driver, I would like to see such roads in Ukraine. I am glad that we already have some experience of cooperation with Turkish road construction companies in Ukraine.

Question: As far as I know, you contribute to the creation of Ukrainian audio guides. We already have two – at Hagia Sophia and Topkapi Palace in Istanbul. Are you planning to create some more?

Answer: Now, together with volunteers from Guide-UA, we are completing work on the launch of an audio guide at the Dolmabahce Palace in Istanbul. Ahead are other famous monuments of Turkey not only in Istanbul, but also in Izmir (Ephesus) and Canakkale (Troy).

Olga Budnyk, Ankara

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