Freed US scientist of Turkish origin vows to clear name

Former Turkish-American NASA scientist Serkan Golge speaks with AFP at his parents' home in Hatay Province on Friday. (AFP)
Updated 09 June 2019

Freed US scientist of Turkish origin vows to clear name

  • Serkan Golge was sentenced to 7.5 years in prison in July 2016 on charges of having ties with Turkish preacher Fethullah Gulen
  • His prison sentence was reduced to five years before finally being released on probation last week

ANTAKYA, Turkey: A former Turkish-American NASA scientist, detained in Turkey for nearly three years until his release last week, told AFP in an interview that he would do everything he could to clear his name.

The arrest of Serkan Golge — who took US citizenship in 2010 and has worked for NASA in Houston since 2013 — is just one of a number of incidents that have caused relations between Washington and Ankara to deteriorate sharply in recent years.

US Consulate staff, journalists and even an American pastor have all been detained, accused of having ties with Turkish preacher Fethullah Gulen, who is in exile in the US and whose extradition Ankara has requested over his alleged role in the failed July 2016 coup against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Pastor Andrew Brunson was released in October 2018.

Golge, 39, was initially sentenced to 7.5 years in prison in July 2016, but then saw it reduced to five years before finally being released on probation last week.

In an interview at his parents’ home in Antakya, southern Turkey, he said people tended to believe there must be something to the charges if a NASA scientist is detained for so long.

But “I will give you an answer straight out: There was nothing,” he insisted. Golge said he was arrested on an “anonymous tip,” of which there were many in the months following the coup attempt.

Vowing to take his case to both Turkey’s Constitutional Court and the European Court of Human Rights, Golge pledged to “do whatever I have to do to fulfil my obligations” in the meantime. These included reporting to police four days a week and not leaving Antakya.

Nevertheless, the scientist is hoping that the restrictions will be lifted so that he can “go back to the US and get back to my work” as part of a team studying the impact of space radiation on astronauts.

Golge said his release on May 29 came shortly after a telephone conversation between Erdogan and US President Donald Trump.

He learned about it at 6 p.m. or 7 p.m. and it all “happened in 15-to-20 minutes,” he said.

Golge said he was kept in isolation and only allowed out of his cell for an hour a day.

The ordeal left both him and his family scarred forever, not to mention the devastating impact it had on their financial situation.

Golge said his wife became so pale and thin during the first weeks after his arrest that he barely recognized her when she visited.

It also deeply affected his sons, now aged three and eight, who came to fear that their father would never be released, Golge said.

His youngest son was only three months old when Golge was arrested.

“He calls me ‘Dad’ but he doesn’t know me that well,” he said.

“They say time heals most of the things ... but I don’t believe that. I think it heals most of the things but some of the things we experienced will stay with us forever.”


Egypt’s creative solutions to the plastic menace

Updated 24 August 2019

Egypt’s creative solutions to the plastic menace

  • Egyptian social startups are taking alternative approaches to fostering awareness and reducing waste

CAIRO: Global plastics production reached 348 million tons in 2017, rising from 335 million tons in 2016, according to Plastics Europe. 

Critically, most plastic waste is not properly managed: Around 55 percent of it was landfilled or discarded in 2015. These numbers are extremely concerning because plastic products take anything from 450 to 1,000 years to decompose, and the effects on the environment, especially on marine and human life, are catastrophic.

While initiatives around the world are taking action to combat this problem, some Egyptian projects are doing it more creatively.

“We’re the first website in the Middle East and North Africa that trades waste,” said Alaa Afifi, founder and CEO of Bekia. “People can get rid of any waste at their disposal — plastic, paper and cooking oil — and exchange it for over 65 products on our website.”

Products for trading include rice, tea, pasta, cooking oil, subway tickets and school supplies.

Bekia was launched in Cairo in 2017. Initially, the business model did not prove successful.

“We used to rent a car and go to certain locations every 40 days to collect waste from people,” Afifi, 26, explained. “We then created a website and started encouraging people to use it.”

After the website was launched, people could wait at home for someone to collect the waste. “Instead of 40 days, we now could visit people within a week.”

To use Bekia’s services, people need to log onto the website and specify what they want to discard. They are assigned points based on the waste they are offering, and these points can be used in one of three ways: Donated to people in need, saved for later, or exchanged for products. As for the collected waste, it is given to specialized recycling companies for processing.

“We want to have 50,000 customers over the next two years who regularly use our service to get rid of their waste,” Afifi said.  

Trying to spread environmental awareness has not been easy. “We had a lot of trouble with initial investment at first, and we got through with an investment that was far from enough. The second problem we faced was spreading this culture among people — in the first couple of months, we received no orders,” Afifi said.

The team soldiered on and slowly built a client base, currently serving 7,000 customers. In terms of what lies ahead for Bekia, he said: “We’re expanding from 22 to 30 areas in Cairo this year. We’re launching an app very soon and a new website with better features.”

Go Clean, another Egyptian recycling startup dedicated to raising environmental awareness, works under the patronage of the Ministry of Environment. “We started in 2017 by recycling waste from factories, and then by February 2019 we started expanding,” said founder and CEO Mohammed Hamdy, 30.

The Cairo-based company collects recyclables from virtually all places, including households, schools, universities, restaurants, cafes, companies and embassies. The customers separate the items into categories and then fill out a registration form. Alternatively, they can make contact through WhatsApp or Facebook. A driver is then dispatched to collect the waste, carrying a scale to weigh it. 

“The client can be paid in cash for the weight of their recyclables, or they can make a donation to a special needs school in Cairo,” Hamdy explained. There is also the option of trading the waste for dishwashing soap, with more household products to be added in the future.

Trying to cover a country with 100 million people was never going to be easy, and Go Clean faced some logistical problems. It overcame them by hiring more drivers and getting more trucks. There was another challenge along the way: “We had to figure out a way to train the drivers, from showing them how to use GPS and deal with clients,” said Hamdy.

“We want to spread awareness about the environment everywhere. We go to schools, universities, companies and even factories to give sessions about the importance of recycling and how dangerous plastic is. We’re currently covering 20 locations across Cairo and all of Alexandria. We want to cover all of Egypt in the future,” he added.

With a new app on the way, Hamdy said things are looking positive for the social startup, and people are becoming invested in the initiative. “We started out with seven orders per day, and now we get over 100.”