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8 Turkish Seamen Confined -- to Boring Life in America

September 23, 2003|David Zucchino | Times Staff Writer

PHILADELPHIA — For eight Turkish seamen marooned aboard a cargo ship at a Philadelphia dock, it's been a long, lonely, boring summer. What the forlorn men have to show for the 15 weeks they've spent confined to the ship is an unexpected crash course in American culture and junk food.

Thanks to sympathetic new friends on shore, the Turks -- stuck in the middle of a legal battle between the ship's owner and financier -- have studied English, learned to salsa dance, watched American movies and TV shows, and enjoyed their first taste of Philly cheese steaks, cheeseburgers, chicken wings and Dunkin Donuts. They have also played -- and beaten -- visiting soccer teams in matches played inside the ship's empty steel hull.

"It's like they're in prison, so we bring a little bit of America to them," said Aylin Tahaoglu, a volunteer with the Turkish-American Friendship Society in Philadelphia, which sends Turkish-speaking volunteers to visit the seamen daily.

The men have been stuck since June 6 aboard the break-bulk cargo ship Ahmet Bey, which is caught in both a protracted lawsuit and tough new procedures imposed by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. The ship sailed from Egypt on May 12.

A German bank says the ship's Turkish owners owe $800,000 in mortgage payments. The ship has been ordered detained in port by a federal judge and the crew confined to ship under the wary eyes of U.S. immigration agents. The case is scheduled to be heard in federal court today.

Jack Mudge of the Seamen's Church Institute, which has assisted seamen here since 1849, says he's never seen a case like this one.

"It's unique -- both for the length of time they've been here and for the fact that they haven't been allowed off the ship," Mudge said at the institute office as he prepared for his daily 10-minute drive to visit the Ahmet Bey.

The institute has assisted generations of seamen since it was founded as the Churchmen's Missionary Assn. for Seamen, with a Floating Church of the Redeemer chapel built on two barge hulls. The institute moved to dry land after the chapel barge sank in 1859.

Most days, Mudge's blue Dodge Neon pulls up to port bearing gifts. The institute has provided a ping pong table, a foosball table, telephones, phone cards, books, televisions and VCRs. It has sponsored a salsa night, with women volunteers, and brought aboard soccer teams from a local pub and a Brazilian ship. Both lost. The Ahmet Bey's captain, Hakan Agirtmis, 39, was a semi-pro soccer midfielder in Turkey.

The Turkish American society has provided English classes, Turkish newspapers, board games and puzzles and has filled the seamen's requests for snack items -- bagels, sunflower seeds, pistachios and any candy containing pecans or cinnamon.

"They are very frustrated and a little bit down," Tahaoglu said as she downloaded Turkish newspaper Web sites, a huge bag of doughnuts at her feet inside the Seamen's institute. "They say they could get through this if they only knew when it would be over -- but there's no end date for them."

The ship's lawyers did not allow a reporter aboard the ship to interview the seamen.

HSH Nordbank of Hamburg contends that the ship's owner, Odin Denizcilik A.S., has defaulted on almost $800,000 in mortgage payments. Ed Cattell, the bank's Philadelphia lawyer, said the owner owes an additional $200,000 in interest and expenses such as port security guards and berthing fees.

The Odin company is part of the Karahasan Group, a Turkish shipping company that Cattell said owns ships detained in China, Singapore, South Africa and Sweden for alleged failure to make mortgage payments to Nordbank.

Ann-Michele Higgins, who represents the shipping company, said that the owner has not defaulted and that the ship should not have been detained.

Regardless of who wins the case, Higgins said, both sides have agreed that arrangements will be made to send the eight seamen home, probably by commercial airliner. The judge has promised to decide the case promptly, Cattell said. Getting a September court date on a June detention is "rocket speed" for federal court, he said.

The seamen are marooned, in part, because the ship's owner decided not to purchase a $3,500 crew list visa that might have allowed them ashore. The ship had planned to spend less than a week in Philadelphia after unloading steel, then sail to Canada, where visas are not required.

But even if the crewmen had obtained visas, they might not have been allowed ashore, Mudge said. Under homeland security procedures imposed after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, he said, immigration authorities have become stricter -- particularly regarding crews from Muslim nations. The Ahmet Bey crewmen are Muslim.

Before the Sept. 11 attacks, Mudge said, immigration authorities were more likely to issue special circumstance visas in such cases.

"Since 9/11, things are a lot tighter and there are a lot more question marks," he said.

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