A fatal choice of charities

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KAYSERI, Turkey — Furkan Dogan had just scored so high on Turkey’s rigorous college entrance exams that he could have attended any college of his choosing. But before he started school, he did what a lot of high school graduates do: He joined a humanitarian mission to help people less fortunate than him.

His choice of charities was fatal.

“He was not a political activist,” said his father Ahmet Dogan. “He was just a volunteer, a humanitarian who wanted to help people. He wanted to study to be a doctor, an eye doctor.”

Furkan was killed during the Memorial Day raid by Israeli armed forces on the Turkish flotilla, Mavi Marmara, which was attempting to break the Israeli blockade of Gaza and, according to flotilla organizers, deliver humanitarian supplies to the embattled region. When the Israelis boarded the boat from the air and by motor boat, fighting broke out, and Dogan was shot multiple times in the head and chest, according to an Anatolian news agency.

Israeli government officials claim that their soldiers were ambushed not by peace activists, but by people ready for a fight. “This was not a love boat, but a hate boat,” said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In June 9 interview on "The Colbert Report," Israel Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren said, “The people on this particular boat were 70 hired thugs from a radical Islamic organization.”

But, for the Dogan family and their friends, these characterizations don’t match the man they knew. Furkan was not a paid member of the The Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH), the aid group which helped organize the flotilla.

Dogan was chosen by IHH after entering an online lottery to serve as a volunteer on the Mavi Marmara. Nine other residents of Dogan's hometown Kayseri, Turkey, joined him.

Dogan attended one of Turkey’s competitive “science high schools” where students prepare for careers in medicine, engineering, and other sciences. He was an honor student and recently completed college entrance exams where he placed high enough to enter any school of his choosing.

Furkan took the exam as a foreigner because he was born in Troy, N.Y. in 1991 while his father studied at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Furkan is a citizen of both the U.S. and Turkey.

“He was thinking he’d like to go to America for university, and was looking forward to going back to Troy to see his homeland and improve his language skills,” said his father, Ahmet.

In 1993, Dogan’s father brought his family back to Kayseri, where he teaches economics as an associate professor. 

Seniye Vural, an English literature professor and family friend said that Furkan’s father was often helping students, particularly a theater group in the economics faculty. Vural dismissed the idea that Furkan could have learned any radical theologies at home.

“I’ve never seen him [Ahmet Dogan] as an activist,” said Vural. 

In fact, Dogan, like his son, looked positively on his time in the U.S.

“I had a great impression of America,” he said, “I was especially impressed with how Americans were so sensitive to issues of human rights and individual freedom.”

The family said their son went on the Mavi Marmara with those issues in mind, and wanted to take the opportunity to help people he saw as suffering. He joined the 600 people on the Mavi Marmara with his American passport in hand believing that it would be the best protection.

“Furkan thought that his American citizenship, his American passport, would protect him,” said his father.

The U.S. Ambassador to Turkey, James Jeffery, reportedly spoke to Ahmet by phone in early June, promising Furkan’s father he would find out what happened on the Mavi Marmara. The U.S. State Department has not asked for an independent investigation.

On June 1, U.S. President Barack Obama said he supports “a credible, impartial and transparent investigation of the facts.”

Meanwhile, the Dogan family continues to mourn the loss of their youngest son. Ahmet says his son died a martyr doing God’s work, and at the funeral on June 4, thousands of residents in Kayseri came out waving signs supporting that idea.

“We want to show the world that he was innocent, that he lived a life of dignity,” repeated his father. “We also want his life to be dedicated to humanity’s purposes."

Kayseri plans to name a street after Furkan, and his high school is dedicating the gymnasium to him. A creative writing professor plans to write a book, play, or movie about Furkan, while another group hopes to establish a cultural center named after him.

Jim Buie, a freelance journalist living in Kayseri, contributed to this report.