A Turkish exile has made his home in Saylorsburg, a small village in Monroe County.
Over the weekend, Turkish president Recep Tayip Erdogan gave a televised speech about the country’s failed military coup.
“I have a message for Pennsylvania,” he said. “You have engaged in enough treason against this nation. If you dare, come back to your country.”
Don’t worry. Erdogan isn’t interested in having all 13 million Pennsylvanians show up in Turkey. He was speaking directly to one specific resident: Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish exile living in Saylorsburg, Pa.
Erdogan blamed Gulen, and his eponymous movement, for the coup, while Gulen denies those charges. Erdogan has asked the Obama administration to extradite Gulen, who has resided in the United States since 1999. The U.S. has not made a decision on that matter.
How the Poconos got tied up with Turkey
Most people living outside of Monroe County had not heard of Saylorsburg, Pa. before this weekend. It’s a village off Rt. 33, straddling the Hamilton Township/Ross Township line, with a population of about 1,000.
Its most notable landmark is the 26-acre Golden Generation Worship and Retreat Center. The center is a hub for Muslim Turks living in Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey, particularly those who are a part of the Gulenist movement.
The Gulenist movement, also called Hizmet in Turkey, is focused mostly on education. But Gulen has been accused of trying to overthrow Erdogan’s secular government in favor of an Islamic government. In 1999, as a trial on such charges was about to begin, Gulen came to the U.S.
According to Philly.com, while he was in Minnesota seeking medical treatment, Gulen was invited to the Golden Generation Worship and Retreat Center by Kemal Ozgur, a follower of the movement. He never left.
A good neighbor, if you don’t mind the occasional protests
When news isn’t breaking in Turkey, the Golden Generation Worship and Retreat Center is a pretty quiet neighbor, according to residents of Saylorsburg. They host events and invite neighbors over for dinner.
Speaking to the Guardian, Holly Parker, a stained-glass artist from Saylorsburg said, “According to the Muslim culture, they invite the neighbors for things …They do it to extend themselves out into the community a little bit. I think they realize that there might be a few people in the community who might be wary.”
Parker isn’t one of those wary residents, but she says people might “have questions like: why are they here? Why are they in the country?”
The center has economic appeal, according to some residents. One local, who wished to remain anonymous, told the Guardian she was happy there were people moving into town: “When I’m ready to sell this house, I am going to go to the Turks and see if they want to buy it.”
None of the residents interviewed by a number of news organizations this weekend had anything bad to say about the Gulenists. And this weekend would have been a good test of patience: more than a hundred Turkish Americans from around the Northeast showed up to protest Gulen’s alleged involvement in the coup.
The Allentown Morning Call reported the protests were peaceful and overseen by Gulen’s security force and half a dozen state troopers.
For Saylorsburg residents, it’s mostly live and let live. Philly.com interviewed Glen Packer, a 64-year-old living next door to the compound. Exemplifying the town’s general apathy towards their moment in the spotlight, he said, “They seem nice enough. But whatever, I just live here.”
‘Network’ of charter schools
Gulen’s influence in Pennsylvania extends further than the village of Saylorsburg, though. Internationally, Gulen-affiliated schools make up the largest charter school network in the world. There are at least 120 Gulen schools in 25 states in the U.S.
In the U.S., the schools tend to be secular, with a focus on the STEM fields rather than any particular religious doctrine. There are at least three Gulen-affiliated charter schools in Pennsylvania, one in State College and two in the Pittsburgh area.
Truebright Science Charter School in North Philadelphia, a Gulen-affiliated charter, was closed in 2015. Not for political or religious reasons, but because of poor academic performance.
Academic performance, along with financial mismanagement and misuse of work visas, has been an issue in the past. In 2011, there was a federal investigation alleging that the schools used taxpayer money to fund the religious order, bring Gulenites over from Turkey and pay immigration fees for members of the organization.
Gulen schools are among the largest employers of people with HB1 visas, intended to bring high-value science and technology workers to the U.S., in the country. Philly.com reported that in 2009, Gulen schools brought 684 workers over on HB1 visas, compared to Google’s 440.
According to that story,
“Ruth Hocker, former president of the parents’ group at the Young Scholars of Central Pennsylvania Charter School in State College, began asking questions when popular, certified American teachers were replaced by uncertified Turkish men who often spoke limited English and were paid higher salaries. Most were placed in math and science classes.‘They would tell us they couldn’t find qualified American teachers,’ Hocker said.That made no sense in Pennsylvania State University’s hometown, she said: ‘They graduate here every year.'”
Hocker removed her children from the school.
School officials usually deny that they are part of any network. In 2012, then-CEO of Truebright Science Academy Bekir Duz told Philly Magazine, “It’s just like a Chinese restaurant. A person comes from China and starts working at a Chinese restaurant. They know the other Chinese restaurants, and they can go and work at the other Chinese restaurants. It doesn’t mean that they are all connected.”
Gulen’s spokespeople echo that sentiment. But in 2007, his lawyers appealed a rejected green card application by saying, “In his position as the founder and head of the Gulen Movement, Mr. Gulen has overseen the establishment of a conglomeration of schools throughout the world, in Europe, Central Asia and United States.”
The green card was granted, assuring the exiled Turkish leader’s residency in the United States. Unless, of course, his adopted country decides to extradite him to his home country.