When I first arrived in the United States, I had to adjust to a new language, new norms, and new traditions. But I was perhaps most stunned by a simple comment a teammate made. He criticized President Barack Obama, which I feared could have landed him in prison. He smiled and said: “This isn’t Turkey, brother. You have the freedom to say whatever you want.”
Americans might find the thought absurd, but the threat of prison is all too real for those living under authoritarian rule around the world. Since Recep Tayyip Erdoğan became president of Turkey in 2014, after more than a decade as prime minister, at least 12,881 people have been convicted of the crime of insulting the president. Thousands have been sent to prison, including children, for offenses as trivial as posting something on social media that might hurt the feelings of an emotionally fragile dictator.
Over the past five years, Erdoğan has all but stamped out free expression in Turkey. He’s made Turkey one of the world’s worst jailers of journalists, imprisoning hundreds. Erdoğan’s regime has shut down more than 160 media outlets and hundreds of human-rights groups. Turkey’s dystopian new internet law gives the regime complete control over users’ data and enables online censorship. A current proposal would criminalize the spreading of so-called fake news online with up to five years in prison. Erdoğan has targeted every defender of freedom in my country. His regime has persecuted, jailed, and even tortured tens of thousands of educators, lawyers, judges, public officials, and activists after labeling them “terrorists.” And it has targeted me.
Erdoğan went after my family because I dared to speak up. He forced my parents to publicly disown me. The words in a handwritten note from my dad in 2016 cut me to my core: “With a feeling of shame, I apologize to our president and the Turkish people for having such a son.” My siblings were blocked from employment. My dad was fired, later jailed, and then ultimately released in 2020. But he emerged from his cell a completely different person, unable to speak about his experiences. I have not seen or spoken with my parents since 2015. Any contact with me could have them arrested.
I could have fallen victim to Turkey’s ruthless campaign of transnational repression as well. Erdoğan’s regime is infamous for hunting down dissidents across the globe. In 2017, on a basketball trip to Indonesia, I received a tip to leave the country immediately, to avoid a suspected kidnapping attempt by Turkish agents. On the next leg of our trip, in Europe, I was informed by border control that Turkey had revoked my citizenship. I would later learn that the regime had also issued an international arrest warrant against me.
I was stranded. I had no family. I had no nationality. I had no home.
That’s when America welcomed me with open arms.
This country has given me all the opportunities in the world. Friends, teammates, journalists, politicians, and activists became my new family, united in our struggle for justice, equality, human rights, and democracy. When I started the process of becoming an American citizen, I realized that life is bigger than basketball. I decided to dedicate the power and privilege of my platform to the causes that matter—to be a voice for the voiceless.
I listened to victims and stood in solidarity with the oppressed. I marched for Black lives. I prayed with Tibetan Buddhists. I stood by democracy activists from Hong Kong and Taiwan. I heard from Uyghurs who had lost relatives or survived the torture of China’s concentration camps. I fought against all forms of hate. I took to the streets. I took to the podium. I raised awareness. I used my platform. I used my voice.
Human rights and democracy are under threat. Around the globe, authoritarian strongmen are getting stronger. Yet far too many celebrities, athletes, and corporations still choose their money over their morals. Speaking up for victims of authoritarian violence has somehow become controversial, just because it might alienate the perpetrators. It shouldn’t take the disappearance of a former No. 1 world-tennis star for some of us to make a statement. Freedom is not about staying silent in the face of a tyrannical dictatorship that commits genocide against the Uyghurs because you prefer to preserve your business deals.
For six long years, I was without a home. I know what it’s like for a people to have their freedom stripped away. And I know what it’s like to have my own freedom stripped away. But this week, I’m reclaiming my Freedom. I just became an American citizen, and I’m making America and its freedoms a part of my very identity.
I’m overwhelmed with emotion just writing these words: I, Enes Kanter Freedom, am proud to be a citizen of the United States of America, the land of the free, and home of the brave.