“Where’s your other passport?” the border agent at Istanbul’s Sabiha Gokcen airport snapped as he waved my U.S. passport.
He was annoyed, but so was I. I didn’t have another passport. The one in his hand was it.
“You came to Istanbul, you didn’t exit and now you are re-entering,” he said slowly, his tone serious. “Where were you?”
But I had exited. Eleven days earlier, I had sailed from the city’s Karakoy port with a group of college friends on a Mediterranean cruise bound for Rome, I told him.
He shook my passport again and said, “Show me! Where does it say that?”
I looked in vain at the pages as he kept hold of my precious U.S. passport. He was right. I didn’t see any stamp that showed I had left Istanbul.
I didn’t understand how this had happened, but he did — or at least he thought he did: He decided I had a second, secret passport that I was hiding. But I didn’t.
There was something so comical about this that I almost started laughing.
But that was before I realized how much trouble I was in, before I was locked in a detainment room at the airport, before I spent hours questioning my every move the last few weeks.
I didn’t understand how this had happened— Mary Forgione
And it was well before I realized that no one — not my husband, Tom, not my colleagues and, most of all, not the U.S. Embassy — could help me fix a problem I didn’t create.
The start of it all
On June 15, 2015, I flew to Istanbul with a valid $20 tourist visa, purchased before I left the U.S. I spent a few days in Cappadocia, then returned to Istanbul to meet up with my group at the port.
Our cruise itinerary would take us to the Greek island of Mykonos, where we would visit the landmark windmills and browse jewelry stores and admire stunning, hand-made pieces; to Sicily, where we would hike around the base of Mt. Etna; and to Italy’s Amalfi Coast, where we would dine on handmade pasta and gelato in achingly picturesque towns before returning to Rome.
Once aboard, we caught up on our lives, recounted the usual embarrassing college memories (again!), danced at ABBA night and enjoyed the easy fun that comes with friends you have kept close for more than three decades.
After we disembarked, we toured Rome together for a few days, then said our goodbyes. On July 1, I flew back to Istanbul, where I would change airports and fly home to L.A. early the next day before the start of the Independence Day weekend.
Instead of spending the night in my already reserved hotel room, I was taking a side trip to Kafka-ville.
Plucked from the passport control line, I was taken to a stuffy airport office for questioning. I couldn’t prove I had been on a cruise because my ship pass and other papers were in my checked luggage, which I wasn’t allowed to touch.
No amount of explanation satisfied the border agent that this was a mere clerical error. To him, it appeared as if I were trying to game the system and enter a country already overwhelmed by refugees, many here illegally.
He quietly filled out some documents and directed me to sign them. I did so without reading them (one was in Turkish), because I didn’t think I had a choice.
I just wanted to go home, preferably on the flight I had booked for the following day, but that was beginning to seem increasingly unlikely.
If I couldn’t enter Turkey so I could fly out of Turkey, how would I return to the States?
I didn’t know. But he did. I was going back to Rome, not back home.
How would I get there? What would they do with me in the interim? And just how long would that interim last? Hours? Days? Weeks?
My annoyance over what I thought was a bureaucratic snafu now blossomed into full-blown fear.
A uniformed woman led me to a large, windowless room that held half a dozen chairs that folded out into little beds, the kind you sleep on at Grandma’s when you’re a kid. There was a clean bathroom with toilets, sinks and shower stalls.
She motioned me into the room, pulled the door shut and locked it.
As my mind raced, panic set in. No one knew where I was. I didn’t understand what I had just signed. Had the bureaucrat really said “Rome” or was I imagining that? What happened to my exit visa? Why didn’t I have one? What did I do wrong?
Why was I here? And how the hell was I ever going to get out?
I pounded on the thick metal door. No one came.
I’m an ardent hiker and backpacker who leads treks up Mt. Whitney at least once a year. I’m no stranger to trouble on the trail — broken bones, rattlesnakes, obnoxious group members who won’t follow directions.
Now it was time to draw on those survival skills and craft a different kind of rescue plan. Airport officials had kept my suitcase, but they let me keep my backpack. It contained my smartphone, its charger and two credit cards.
I called the U.S. Embassy in Istanbul and, after being placed on hold and then cut off, I tweeted: “I’m an American citizen being exiled from turkey. Called u but no response. Need help.” My jangled nerves, I later realized, caused me to misspell the embassy’s Twitter handle so staff there likely never saw it.
But a colleague saw it and passed it along to my editor at the L.A. Times, who thought my Twitter account had been hacked.
No, I said, I really was stuck in Turkey.
When the phone rang, I almost wept at the sound of her voice as she asked how she could help.
I explained my situation. She said The Times would contact the State Department on my behalf. She also called the cruise line hoping to get proof that I had been on that cruise.
Next, I called my husband and asked him to go to our congresswoman’s office. Maybe she could help.
Then I posted a photo of the detention room on Facebook so people would know where I was.
I just wanted to go home— Mary Forgione
Comments poured in, some helpful (phone numbers for various U.S. embassies, words of support), others not (a link to the 1978 film “Midnight Express,” the true story of a drug smuggler caught in Istanbul’s airport and sentenced to 30 years in prison).
When I finally got through to the the U.S. Embassy by phone, I spoke with a consular officer who told me to stay put and “let things play out."
What? Why wasn’t he coming to help me? How long would I be held? He didn’t know, but he was in Ankara about five hours away. He wouldn’t be coming to Istanbul.
In a second call, he explained that the U.S. couldn’t intervene in my case. Securing borders was a big problem for the Turks, especially the border with Syria where refugees were pouring in.
He repeated the “let-things-play-out” advice and sounded upbeat about my chances of being freed.
I wasn’t. I was scared, and I also knew that everything in the U.S. would soon be shutting down for the long Fourth of July weekend.
I focused on doing what I could to help myself. I called my mobile service provider to upgrade my phone/data plan. “Stay safe!” the cheery customer service person told me when I burbled out my tale.
When I realized that I wouldn’t make my original flight the next day, I called the airline to change my ticket. The airline could re-route me to fly home from Rome with a stop in Paris, a change that would cost an additional $1,500 on top of the $1,000 I had paid for my round-trip L.A.-Istanbul ticket.
Around 11 p.m., the door opened. I was jubilant. They were going to let me go!
Instead a sobbing woman was led in. Her name was Fahib. She was from Syria. “French passport,” she said over and over in English.
I thought back to my cruise. Several times during our days at sea, we had spotted coast guard ships from various countries hauling in refugees from tiny boats. They were desperate to escape, risking everything to get away from their homeland. All I wanted to do was get back to mine.
I slept fitfully.
They were desperate to escape, risking everything to get away from their homeland. All I wanted to do was get back to mine.— Mary Forgione
About 10 the next morning, the door opened and a Turkish Airlines rep gestured for me. I gathered my things and was escorted to the boarding area for a flight to Rome.
I calmly asked for my passport back. Request denied. It was to be kept with airline personnel until I could be handed over to the Italian authorities.
The thought of another minute of detention crushed me, and I began to cry, large, hiccuping sobs that I couldn’t seem to stop even as the Turkish rep and a flight attendant escorted me down the plane’s aisle to the last seat in the last row.
I was sure everyone thought I was an ax murderer.
Two and a half hours later, the plane landed at Rome’s Fiumicino Airport. An Italian policeman boarded the plane, escorted me off and put me in a waiting car.
At a small airport office, I was told to take a seat and wait for an agent. Again I had no idea how long I would be held.
About an hour later, my name was called, and I took my place across the desk from yet another passport control agent.
He had one question: “What happened in Turkey?”
I explained that I had failed to receive a proper exit stamp at the port in Istanbul.
I didn’t bother to say that the ship’s personnel had failed to direct me to go through passport control before I handed over my passport to them for what they termed “safekeeping.”
The Italian agent fluttered through the pages of my passport. He stamped my document and handed it to me.
I was free to go.
Tom was waiting for me at LAX when my flight landed 16 hours later. No grand dramatic reunion. We were drained.
A week after I returned to the U.S., I received a copy of a letter from the U.S. Embassy in Ankara that had been sent to Janice Hahn, my congresswoman. It read, in part, “We are pleased to inform you that Ms. Forgione received assistance to enable her to fly to the United States where she currently is.”
I did receive assistance, but not from the U.S. Embassy, and not from the cruise line. Even my Times colleagues couldn’t seem to get answers about what I should do.
The cruise line ultimately acknowledged its error and covered all my expenses — phone bill, hotel room that went unused, the whopping airfare change fee — and gave me a credit for the cruise.
I plan to use it next summer.
But I won’t be going back to Turkey any time soon, not because I harbor ill will but because I’ve been barred for three years. I plan to appeal this with the Turkish Consulate in Los Angeles.
On a recent trip to Britain, I made sure to keep my phone and charger close. I also made sure I had a charge card with enough credit to buy a plane ticket, and I checked my passport for the proper stamps.
And if I ever again run into a visa problem while traveling overseas, I’ll know not to turn to the State Department, which usually doesn’t help with such issues. For information on what you can and cannot expect from the U.S. State Department, see “On the Spot.”
I didn’t know that, but I do now, just as I now know what it means to truly travel alone.