In early April, snow drifts still line the twisting tracks leading up to Ağcaşar village, high in the mountains of Erzurum province in eastern Turkey. Daily life has seemingly changed little over the centuries. Dried animal dung is used for heating and cooking. Many homes don’t have running water.
The village is strangely quiet. Local shepherd Burhan Özdemir is one of the few middle-aged men left in the village.
“All our friends are gone. Some sold their cows. Some sold their animals. They sold their land and most of them are gone,” Özdemir told VOA. “It’s only me left here with two or three of my friends, and we can’t leave because we don’t have money. Those who had money went to America.”
Amid an inflation crisis and soaring prices in Turkey, people in the poorest eastern regions of the country are struggling to make ends meet. Increasing numbers of men are paying smugglers to take them to the United States, where they hope to find well-paying jobs and a better life. Many are ethnic Kurds, who have long accused Ankara of discrimination.
Ağcaşar has seen an exodus of young and middle-aged men, driven by the lack of jobs, drawn by opportunities in America and facilitated by smuggling gangs that have recently moved into the village.
University student Ömer — who did not want to give his family name for security reasons — is preparing to travel to the U.S.
“I want to go to America because even if I finish my studies and have a profession, I will not have a good salary,” he told VOA. “Here the salary is $300 a month, but over there it is $3,000. My brother went there [to America] recently. He says that he is free there and everything is nice. He will work and send me money, and I will go, too.”
The smugglers have moved into the mountain villages from the province of Agri on the Iranian border, which is among the poorest regions of Turkey.
There are no official numbers, but it’s estimated that tens of thousands have left Agri in recent years for the U.S. and Canada.
Annual inflation in Turkey reached 61% in April, a 20-year high, driven by global price increases and a series of interest rate cuts by the Turkish government. The price of food in Turkey has jumped 70%, and transportation costs have risen by some 99%.
“The butchers have raised the price of meat. Bakeries have raised the price of bread. The poor cannot make a living,” Agri resident Haci Halis said.
Smugglers typically charge around $15,000, residents told VOA. This buys migrants a bus ticket to Ankara or Istanbul and a flight to Mexico.
They cross the border into the U.S., where most are detained as they await asylum claims. The Kurdish migrants frequently cite persecution in Turkey. The smugglers also offer to arrange migration lawyers in the U.S., at a cost of $300, residents said.
Grocery store owner Ali Çapkar told VOA his brother had left for the U.S. six months ago.
“For a better life and more money. Almost all of the young people are gone. From Agri, around 100 or 150 people go every day. People are hungry,” Çapkar said.
VOA’s Memet Aksakal contributed to this report.