On Thursday, 4 June, families of Sonya Kaygan and other Turkish Cypriots who died in Britain during the coronavirus pandemic gathered at Shacklewell Lane Mosque in Dalston, East London, to say goodbye to their deceased loved ones before they were repatriated to their native homeland of North Cyprus for burials.
It was a deeply moving, emotional afternoon for the relatives, who are unable to travel to the Turkish Republic of North Cyprus (TRNC) for the funerals due to international travel restrictions.
There were tears and prayers, led by Turkish Cypriot Hoca (pastor) Husayn Hashim El Bakayi. Some relatives wrote messages on the cardboard boxes encasing the caskets of their fathers, mothers, siblings and grandparents. Others, like Şefika Misiri, whose 78-year-old husband Orhan had died of Covid-19, hugged the coffin unwilling to let him go.
After weeks of campaigning, the families and their funeral director the UK Turkish Islamic Trust (UKTIT) had managed to persuade the TRNC government to lift its ban on the repatriation of Turkish Cypriots who had died abroad. The ban, introduced in March 2020 to contain the coronavirus pandemic, applied to all regardless of the cause of death.
Earlier this week, the UKTIT-administered mosque, in whose morgue the bodies of 18 Turkish Cypriots had been held, some for as long as two months, arranged for six of the deceased to fly to North Cyprus on Friday 5 June.
The repatriation flight from London Stansted to Ercan Airport was originally planned for TRNC citizens stranded in Britain due the pandemic. A maximum of six coffins could travel on this flight due to their weight and the relatively small size of the chartered air craft.
Scenes from Shacklewell Lane Mosque as families say goodbye to loved ones being repatriated for burial in North Cyprus
The remaining twelve have embarked on a much longer journey that started on Thursday afternoon, when they were taken from the mosque to Heathrow Airport. The following day, the twelve flew to Istanbul Airport on a Turkish Airlines cargo plane, and were then transported overnight by road to Mersin International Sea Port.
Four funeral cars, provided free of charge by Istanbul Metropolitan Council, made the 1,000 km road trip, arriving in Mersin mid-morning on Saturday. The mission was made possible by the Yurtdışı Türkler ve Akraba Topluluklar Başkanlığı (YTB), which is tied to the Turkish Presidency and supports the Turkish Diaspora worldwide. YTB intervened to facilitate this vital logistical link for UKTIT, which had been struggling to find a viable and affordable route to transport the bodies to North Cyprus because of the lockdown travel restrictions.
The coffins have been loaded onto a lorry in Mersin that will soon board a boat and sail overnight to the Port of Famagusta (Mağusa), North Cyprus, arriving on Sunday morning, 7 June. The twelve Turkish Cypriots will be buried on the same day.
The youngest of the deceased on this epic voyage home to North Cyprus via plane, road and boat is 26-year-old care worker Sonya Kaygan.
Ozlem Nafi, Sonya’s first cousin, came to the mosque with her husband Kenan and two children on Thursday to say their goodbyes. The two women are from the same village of Yedidalga, where they lived a few doors apart.
Sonya, who was born in the TRNC in 1993, regarded Ozlem as a big sister, and even a second mum, especially after her own mother Ayşe came to London for work, leaving Sonya in Cyprus to complete her education at Lefkoşa Maarif Kolej – one of the TRNC’s best state schools.
The Turkish Cypriot high school graduate wed in Cyprus and a few years ago decided to move to Britain, settling in Enfield, North London, to be closer to her mum. Soon after, Sonya gave birth to a daughter, whom she named Ayşe after her mother.
Sonya’s marriage was troubled, and she decided to forge a life as a single mother, taking employment in a care home close to where she lived. She shared child care responsibilities for baby Ayşe with her mum: Sonya frequently worked nights, while her mum worked in another care home during the day.
The UK’s first reported case of death from coronavirus was on 5 March. The government ordered a lockdown on 23 March. Somewhere in between, Sonya contracted the virus.
A special report, published by Reuters on 5 May, claims that Sonya’s work place Elizabeth Lodge, operated by large privately owned healthcare provider CareUK, didn’t start testing until April. Staff didn’t have PPE (personal protective equipment), and Sonya, like her colleagues, had to resort to buying her own protective masks, which didn’t arrive until after she was hospitalised.
Sonya Kaygan to her mum: “If I never make it back, look after my baby”
According to Reuters, “at least 25 residents [have died at Elizabeth Lodge] since the start of March, of whom at least 17 were linked to the coronavirus,” adding that “It was one of the highest death tolls disclosed so far in a care home in England.”
Ozlem and Kenan Nafi told T-VINE that Sonya last went to work on Friday 20 March. She visited them two days later, on Mother’s Day, with flowers for Ozlem, but was visibly unwell, with a cough and a temperature. The following week, Sonya called in sick, choosing to self-isolate at home with her mum and three-year-old daughter.
When Sonya’s symptoms worsened and she started to struggle to breathe, Ayşe called an ambulance. Sonya was taken from their home on Tuesday afternoon, 31 March – the last time Ayşe would see her daughter alive.
As she was escorted by medical staff to the ambulance, Sonya turned to her mother and said: “If I never make it back, look after my baby.”
Initially, the family could not find where Sonya had been taken to. Her uncle Hasan Rusi eventually tracked her down to Whipps Cross Hospital, in northeast London. Sonya managed to make some video calls to her family the following day and asked her mum to visit her, but the hospital – like many others – operated a total ban on visitors.
At around 6am on Thursday 2 April, Sonya informed her family she was to be intubated – sedated and put on a ventilator. It was the last contact she had with her family.
Sonya was transferred to Queen’s Hospital in Romford, where she died a fortnight later. The family were informed late on Thursday 16 April that Sonya’s condition had deteriorated. At 3am the following day, Sonya passed away.
Forty nine days later, her cousin Ozlem stood outside the mosque talking to David Faye from BBC London, which had publicised the story about the “Bodies held in mosque awaiting repatriation”. The news went international and became the tipping point in the campaign to repatriate 18 deceased Turkish Cypriots to North Cyprus.
Half an hour earlier, we had stood and prayed as five vehicles carrying 12 coffins left for Heathrow Airport. Sonya’s coffin, draped in the flags of Turkey and the TRNC, was in a black hearse that led the cortege.
David asked Ozlem how Sonya’s family in North Cyprus had taken the news she was finally on her way home.
Visibly distraught, Ozlem replied: “Today is the 49thsince she died. They cannot believe Sonya is coming back in a coffin.”
Main photo, top, of Kenan Nafi leads Sonya Kaygan’s coffin out of Shacklewell Lane Mosque, 04 June 2020. Photo © Halil Yetkinlioglu. Inset: Sonya Kaygan