Foreign exchange student Asude Doğan, 16, of Türkiye at her host family’s home in Fresno, California on May 27, 2023 (Craig Kohlruss)

Asude Doğan often thinks back to what her parents told her before she left Türkiye last fall: that she “needs to save her life.”

They meant financially, the 16-year-old explained—get a good education as a foreign exchange student in the U.S., find a good job, and live a good life. Tragically, their words took on a literal meaning on Feb. 6 when a 7.8 magnitude earthquake devastated Türkiye (Turkey) and Syria, killing thousands of people, including Doğan’s parents and her 11-year-old sister. Studying abroad in California had saved Doğan’s life. 

When she feels down, Doğan thinks about her parents’ belief that she was exactly where she needed to be this year. 

“They were right,” Doğan said. “So, keep going.”

Now, Doğan’s future is uncertain. To stay in the U.S., she needs to extend her immigrant visa, an arduous process that could take months. Her Fresno hosts, Gail and Rich Marshall, say her case appears to be unique, making it even tougher to navigate. She’s the only Turkish child they’ve heard of who lost parents while abroad. According to data provided by the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, Doğan is one of only 44 Turkish students residing in the country via a foreign exchange organization.

Doğan just graduated high school and wants to stay in California, but her visa is set to expire at the end of June. While her family friends in Southern California work with attorneys to become her legal guardians, Doğan says she feels like she’s awaiting information from “magic powers” as she tries to maintain a normal life.

The journey to recovery

Doğan flew back to Adıyaman, Türkiye, a few days after the February earthquake. The six-story apartment complex her family once lived in, as well as Doğan’s old school, had completely collapsed. In Adıyaman alone, the earthquake destroyed more than 1,200 buildings and heavily damaged thousands more.

“It is totally different,” Doğan said. “Even I didn’t recognize my street. It is all gone.”

According to UNICEF, the quake’s destruction continues to impact the education of nearly 4 million children in Türkiye. UNICEF Executive Director Catherine Russell also reports that the earthquakes “struck areas where many families were already incredibly vulnerable” and that more than 6 million children across Türkiye and Syria are still in need of aid. 

Following her catastrophic loss, Doğan received a lot of support. She has a therapist who speaks Turkish and was able to skip a grade upon returning from Türkiye in March to partake in senior-year activities such as prom, graduation, and a trip to Disneyland. Some started fundraisers on her behalf, including a GoFundMe that raised more than $12,500. Others sent her gifts, like homemade Turkish foods from people in the Turkish-American community.

“It’s good to be here,” said Doğan, who plans to retake her senior year so she doesn’t start college too early. Gail Marshall describes Doğan as optimistic and mature—a “miraculous” young person who makes their home joyful as she moves through pain in a positive way. 

Foreign exchange student Asude Doğan of Türkiye, front, with her California hosts—Gail and Rich Marshall—at their Fresno home on May 27, 2023 (Craig Kohlruss)

It’s far from how Doğan described herself in February: “catatonic.”

Doğan’s interest in psychology has also helped her heal. She wants to be a psychologist to study how the brain works after tragedy. 

“Because I know what that means, maybe I can help [others who are suffering],” said Doğan, who is sharing insights from her studies with relatives back home. She says what Turkish people need most now are mental health resources.

An uncertain future

Doğan came to the U.S. as part of the Department of State’s Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study program, managed in Türkiye by AFS Intercultural Programs. If she can’t extend her visa, Doğan will have to return to Türkiye in the summer when the program concludes, where she will live with her uncle. Nalan Özışık, president of the Turkish American Association of California, is among those who hopes Doğan can stay in the U.S.

“Taking this away from her, we will get one broken person, broken heart, broken soul,” Özışık said. “That’s not good for anyone. It’s not good for humanity. This shouldn’t be just seen as, ‘Oh, she’s Turkish,’ [but instead] just as a young soul who probably could benefit [from] staying here with the people who have been helping her, supporting her, giving her family, structure, love.” 

Marlene Baker, an AFS vice president, said Doğan’s exchange program is “not in a position to extend a participant’s stay in a host country or to advocate for such an extension,” as those decisions are regulated by government agencies.

“We will do all we can to assist a participant whose home and natural family experience hardship while on exchange,” Baker said.

According to the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, exchange program sponsors can sometimes grant extensions beyond the maximum program duration for “exceptional or unusual circumstances, with approval from the Department of State.” For Doğan, she should have a 30-day grace period to depart after her exchange ends this school year. 

Though the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) announced in February that it offers resources for people “affected by unforeseen circumstances, including the earthquakes in Turkey,” the agency did not respond to more specific questions for the story, nor did Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Queries sent to the Student and Exchange Visitor Program and some of the questions sent to the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs were routed back to ICE.

Jennifer Podkul, vice president for policy and advocacy for Kids in Need of Defense (KIND), says the government doesn’t hand out attorneys to those who need help navigating the complicated immigration process—not even for children.

“They treat unaccompanied children just like a small adult: You’re on your own. You have to figure it out,” Podkul said. She estimates that KIND covers more than half of all unaccompanied kids’ cases in the U.S., for which they provide things like pro bono legal services. The organization currently has more than 5,000 open cases. 

Podkul says one of the ways Doğan could stay in the U.S. is if the government established Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for Turkish people, similar to what was extended to Ukrainians because of war. Otherwise, her best case scenario might be asking a state judge to determine that she is an unaccompanied minor and then apply to be designated as a special immigrant juvenile. If approved, she could then apply for a green card. 

At Doğan’s request, her family friends in Southern California—her potential future legal guardians—and their attorneys weren’t contacted for this story. She wants to let them do their work while she does hers: being 16.

“We’re just hoping for the best, and as soon as they decide on a pathway for her, we’ll pursue it,” Marshall said. “We’ll fight hard for her.”

Carmen Kohlruss is a writer based in California. Her journalism awards include a Best of the West.