Florida Keys

Fear and uncertainty gripped Keys family detained in Turkmenistan

The Petro family, from left, Aziza, Michael III, Mike and Mercedes recounts its ordeal in Big Coppitt Key home.
The Petro family, from left, Aziza, Michael III, Mike and Mercedes recounts its ordeal in Big Coppitt Key home. KeysInfoNet

Aziza Petro argued over her national identity.

"I had to tell my husband, convince him that I'm just a mother, I have done nothing," Aziza said in the kitchen of her Big Coppitt Key home late last week.

For more than three months, Aziza, her daughter Mercedes, 11, and son Michael III, 4, were detained in Turkmenistan, a Central Asian country that borders Iran and Afghanistan.

Her husband Mike worked tirelessly, contacting everyone from the Turkmenistan embassy in Washington, D.C., to U.S. Rep. Carlos Curbelo trying to get his family home.

The family was under the impression that his wife and children would be able to leave the country after she renounced her Turkmenistan citizenship, flying back on her U.S. passport. But renouncing citizenship requires the president of Turkmenistan, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, to sign the paperwork.

Aziza, Michael III and Mercedes left for Turkmenistan on June 8. The purpose of the visit was for Aziza and the children to visit her brother, who had a baby in December, and visit her mother's grave. Two days later, when the family arrived, however, the situation was bleak.

When Aziza presented her dual passports to a Turkmen official, they were thrown back at her.

"You know you're not going to get out from here," Aziza recalled the official saying.

"We didn't know what we going on at the point. It's not like we could just turn back right away. We didn't know what was happening," Mercedes said as Michael III played with something resembling Silly Putty.

Traveling for 30-plus hours, the Petro family was tired and thirsty. "It took them 30 minutes to get a glass of water, and it wasn't even clean," Mercedes said.

"We don't even know where the water came from," Aziza said.

Once they left the airport, Aziza became involved in her own geopolitical mess as Mike continued to make calls on the domestic end.

Over the next few months, on at least three occasions, Aziza flew back to the Turkmenistan capital, Ashgabat, to meet with Turkmen officials in an attempt to get her family back to the U.S.

"My thought process at that point is they're trying her will, they're trying to break my wife's will," Mike said. "The first thing they told her, I think, was she could renounce her U.S. citizenship."

"Why would you give up your American citizenship?" Aziza said.

The Petro family had a bit of good news in September. Turkmenistan's migration services issued Mercedes an exit visa.

However, Aziza would have to let her daughter fly unattended to London while she remained detained with her son.

"Sad, happy but sad," Aziza said with tears in her eyes.

Mike reunited with Mercedes, meeting her at Heathrow Airport in London, on Sept. 12.

Less than two weeks later, on Sept. 24, Aziza received a call from Turkmenistan's migration services about another exit visa. Mike said she had to sign an affidavit stating she would leave the country by Sept. 27.

Aziza and Michael III boarded a plane from Ashgabat to Moscow. However, before boarding, in the Ashgabat airport cafeteria Aziza saw the Turkmen official who denied her exit from the country months earlier.

"I was very paranoid at that point, and suspicious," Aziza said. "I saw him coming with another guy, I kind of ducked. I didn't want to see him."

From Moscow they flew to Frankfurt, then Miami after a 14-hour layover. They landed at Miami International Airport last Sunday afternoon.

Aziza wonders why it all happened this way.

"It's easier here to say and talk about it now, but over there, I was scared, I was scared," Aziza said. "What did I do wrong? I'm not a criminal."

As Mike prepared dinner Thursday, Mercedes worked on homework. She started sixth grade at Sugarloaf School about two weeks ago. Michael III was promised a trip to the nearby Circle K for posing for a photo.

The Petro home wasn't so happy just a few days ago.

"I'm happy to be out," Aziza said, glancing at her husband. Mike looked at his wife. "I wasn't so sure, got to be honest with you," he said.