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A Friendly Cafe Owner In Michigan ... Or A Militant From Turkey

Ibrahim Parlak [center] at the Cafe Gulistan, his restaurant in Harbert, Mich., during a candlelight vigil on Dec. 23, 2015. An ethnic Kurd from Turkey, Parlak came to the U.S. in 1991 and received political asylum. But U.S. immigration authorities are now trying to deport him to Turkey, which says he fought against the state in the 1980s.

It's the off-season in the resort town of Harbert, Mich., yet every table at Café Gulistan is full. Most guests have braved the chilly night to support an old friend, the cafe owner, Ibrahim Parlak.

Parlak, 53, focuses on the cooking. His friends focus on Parlak's possible deportation to his native Turkey.

In 1991, Parlak, an ethnic Kurd, arrived from Turkey, saying he had been imprisoned and tortured in his homeland. He was granted political asylum in the U.S. the following year.

But for more than 10 years, U.S. immigration authorities have been trying to reverse that decision and deport him. Turkey wants him back, saying Parlak led a "terror unit" and is linked to the killing of two Turkish soldiers in 1988.

Parlak has remained in the U.S. thanks to private legislation in Congress that a Republican House member and a Democratic senator have introduced every two years since 2005. Emails released from Hillary Clinton's days as the secretary of state show she inquired about Parlak's case, asking "What can we do?"

Parlak's latest deportation deferral is about to expire and he could be deported as soon as this month.

At the cafe, he has many defenders.

"It's just wrong," says Angela Reichert over her appetizer. "You just walk around with a lump in your throat, just wondering what's going to happen."

Reichert sits by the window with her husband, Rick Ott. They've been raising money for lawyers and distributing petitions to help Parlak.

One table over, Marty Goldrick agrees: "We're still just hoping and praying that we can keep him here."

Goldrick is a Vietnam veteran and started playing tennis with Parlak more than 20 years ago.

From A Troubled Part Of Turkey

Parlak grew up in a small town in southeast Turkey. He says he misses it, but growing up there wasn't easy.

The Kurdish minority is concentrated in southeast Turkey and in neighboring countries including Iran, Iraq and Syria. Kurdish militants in Turkey have battled the Turkish government for years, and fighting has picked up again after a peace effort collapsed recently.

During high school, Parlak became a Kurdish activist. That's when he was jailed by the Turkish government and, he says, tortured.

"No food, holding [me] in a small box, spraying [me] with cold water," Parlak says. "I mean, anything you can imagine."

After Parlak was released, he continued his activism and spent a second stint in prison. Eventually, Parlak fled to the U.S. with a fake passport and a suitcase packed with documents showing he had been tortured.

He says he still remembers the woman at airport immigration who let him into New York.

"If I could see her, I just going to give her a big hug," he says.

He then set out to build a new life. He learned English, fell in love, opened his cafe and had a daughter — though he never married.

'One Stupid Box'

Everything began unraveling when Parlak applied for U.S. citizenship in 1998.

When authorities reviewed Parlak's file, they found that years earlier, he'd checked a box on his Green Card application indicating he'd never been arrested. He did the same on his citizenship application. (Parlak received his Green Card in 1994, but his citizenship application was formally denied in 2001).

Parlak says this was a small mistake and not intended to mislead authorities. He points out that he'd submitted proof of his imprisonment when he applied for political asylum.

"I give it to them. My jail ID card," he says.

Still, Parlak was in a bind. Turkey considers the Kurdistan Workers Party, also known as the PKK, to be a terrorist group. In 1997, the U.S. also declared the PKK a terrorist organization. And U.S. immigration authorities say Parlak was involved with the PKK.

Parlak disagrees and claims he was not part of the PKK. "I never harmed anybody, never hurt anybody," he says.

Instead, he says, he was a nonviolent activist who sought to improve Kurdish human rights and preserve Kurdish culture.

"I did organize a hunger strikes," says Parlak. "I organized, you know, workers for better conditions."

The Turkish Version

The Turkish Embassy in Washington offers a very different version of events.

"After meeting with the chief of the PKK, Abdullah Ocalan, Ibrahim Parlak obtained training in PKK camps," reads a strongly worded statement from the Turkish embassy spokesman, Fitah Oke. "On May 21 1988, his heavily armed unit illegally crossed over to Turkey from Syria."

The Turkish Embassy says Parlak was involved in an attack that left two Turkish soldiers dead and they've asked for Parlak to be sent back to Turkey.

Parlak says he was crossing the border at the time, but was not part of the fighting that broke out. "We went over a hill and then the fighting started behind us," Parlak says.

In Parlak's Michigan community, his supporters say what counts is the life he's lived here for the past quarter-century.

"He's led an exemplary life," says U.S. Rep. Fred Upton, a Republican who represents the district where Parlak lives.

Upton and former Michigan Sen. Carl Levin, a Democrat, have played a crucial role in helping Parlak, introducing private legislation on his behalf every two years since 2005. This has allowed Parlak to stay without fear of deportation. While Congress has never voted on the measure, this pending legislation has delayed Parlak's deportation.

But last year, Levin retired and no other senator has stepped forward to introduce similar legislation.

Parlak's latest deferral expires on March 22, at which point he could be deported. Now, Parlak is hoping the Board of Immigration Appeals will help him.

However, U.S. courts have repeatedly ruled against Parlak. They found that he willfully misrepresented information, raised money that went to the PKK and transported their weapons.

Parlak, as well as a dissenting judge, have argued these rulings are unfair. They say the U.S. courts relied on evidence obtained via torture in Turkey and used documents from Turkey's State Security Courts, special courts that heard offenses considered a threat to the state. The judicial standards of these courts were questioned and they've since been disbanded as part of a reform effort.

Parlak's lawyers are hoping the Board of Immigration Appeals will reopen Parlak's case, citing the international Convention Against Torture. They argue the U.S. cannot send Parlak to Turkey because he'll likely be tortured.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement disagree and they've filed a brief arguing the case should not be reopened.

In the meantime, Parlak's possible return is making headlines in Turkey and, Rep. Upton says, it's also mobilizing his district in Michigan.

"I've heard from hundreds of constituents in support of him," Upton says. "It's mind-boggling."

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