the couple stands smiling together outside on a beautiful day
Ayhan (left) and Zlata Durak arrived in California as refugees in February 2016 and were assisted in their transition by Congregation B'nai Israel in Sacramento.

These Jews fled Turkey to find refuge at a Sacramento shul

Istanbul resident Ayhan Durak, a supply-chain manager in the Turkish Coast Guard, was at work one day early last year when soldiers approached to inform him he was under surveillance. He and his wife, Zlata, who are both Jewish, had recently applied to make aliyah to Israel. As a result, the soldiers told Durak, the authorities were suspicious about his relationship to Israel. He could be arrested at any time.

That was when the couple knew it was time to speed up their departure.

After learning their aliyah process could be delayed by up to a year, they changed course, looking to other countries for refuge. On the advice of a relative of Zlata’s in California, the Duraks immigrated to the U.S. in February 2016, settling in Sacramento and seeking asylum on the basis of religious persecution.

Zlata hails from a Jewish family in Ukraine; Ayhan is a Turk who learned at age 21 that his family was Jewish. Ayhan’s father had suppressed the family’s heritage for the sake of his military career. Zlata and Ayhan met online and had known each other for more than a year when, in 2014, civil conflict broke out in Ukraine. Zlata flew to Istanbul, where she and Ayhan married. She was 21 at the time; he was 28.

“I would have married her anyway, but we did it a little sooner, under the circumstances,” recounted Ayhan.

Istanbul proved to be no refuge for the newlyweds. Knowing that they were being watched by the Turkish authorities, the young couple decided not to wait any longer. They sold what they owned and made their way to the U.S., choosing Sacramento for its lower cost of living. (Their refugee status is still pending, though they have been granted work permits.)

We came from good families, had good educations, yet here we were in a situation where we needed help. I felt a certain shame.

Because they knew no one in their newly adopted city, the couple went online in search of a supportive Jewish community in Sacramento. And so, of all the congregations in all of the towns in the world, they picked B’nai Israel, walking unannounced into the shul one day.

Meanwhile, the synagogue’s board had recently voted to respond to the world refugee crisis by sponsoring a refugee family. The timing was perfect.

Congregant Bernard Marks met the Duraks when they showed up at the temple that first time. Marks, a Holocaust survivor, introduced them to fellow congregant Deni Marshall, a therapist and Jewish educator. She invited them home for their first Passover seder and later introduced them to Rabbi Mona Alfi, the congregation’s spiritual leader. As she listened to their life stories, Alfi knew B’nai Israel had found the right family to sponsor.

Zlata cried.

Over the ensuing months, congregants pooled resources to help the couple stay afloat. While taking online courses in computer technology, the Duraks attended Friday night services, and helped Marks put together his annual edition of Holocaust remembrance essays.

In less than a year Zlata got a job at Yahoo and Ayhan found work at Apple. That prompted a move to Mountain View. The couple joined Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills. However, they remain close to their B’nai Israel friends, and occasionally drive to Sacramento to attend services.

“The community has been such a blessing,” Zlata said. “We came from good families, had good educations, yet here we were in a situation where we needed help. I felt a certain shame. We could have been broken and lonely, but thanks to Deni Marshall and other people, we got back on our feet.”

Deni Marshall
Deni Marshall

Next month, Marshall will be honored with a Hebrew letter in the Global Unity Torah, an initiative of the New York-based Afikim Foundation that promotes “acts of kindness around the world.” The unique Torah, in which letters are inscribed on behalf of individuals who have done some concrete good for another human being, will be dedicated in Jerusalem on May 28, the 50th anniversary of the reunification of Jerusalem after the Six-Day War.

Done in cooperation with the Israel Ministry of Diaspora Affairs, the project is well on its way to completion of the required 304,805 Hebrew letters that comprise a Torah. The scroll will be donated to Zaka, Israel’s primary rescue and recovery volunteer organization, to be used by families during periods of mourning. All the acts of kindness are listed at Jerusalem50.org, where new nominations can still be submitted until all the letters are inscribed.

For her efforts assisting Marks with his Holocaust essay contest, Zlata also acquired a letter in the Unity Torah, and her picture is on the cover of Marks’ 2016 edition of essays. Marshall is adamant that the action for which she was recognized was the work of the entire congregation. Rabbi Alfi concurs.

“‘Welcoming the stranger’ is a tenet completely within the Jewish tradition, both as a religious moral imperative and in the personal stories we hold,” Alfi said. “Every one of us has a story somewhere in our families. We all know what it is to be outsiders, to be rejected, to have to move somewhere new. To want to help refugees is part of our faith and our history.”

Laura Pall
Laura Paull

Laura Paull is a freelance writer living in Point Richmond.