Not every story of trauma ends in triumph, but it did for Naciye Akgun, owner of Sofra Café and Golden Stitch Alterations.
“I learned my lesson not to give up because I could have easily given up,” Naciye said as she recalled recovering from an assault by a former IU student in 2015. “I was almost losing my business.”
Naciye faced numerous hurdles in her recovery, including issues with her back and posture and the recent closing of the business, Sofra Café, due to unpaid taxes. Naciye said her physical therapist taught her to hold her spine straight again after the assault.
“I stand up, and everything is back to normal,” Naciye said.
Recently the Indiana Department of Revenue closed the café for two weeks due to $18,000 in unpaid taxes. Naciye said it cost her a lot because she was seeing an increase in business after beginning to offer a lunch buffet and staying open on weekends.
“We had some trouble with the taxes because while my health is back and forth, I couldn’t deal with a lot of things,” Naciye said. “It put my psychology in a deep place.”
Naciye said she was worried about paying the rent for her home during the time the cafe was closed.
“That was really hard but we started to deal with it,” Naciye said.
Naciye and her husband Mehmet Akgun filed everything necessary with the Department of Revenue and agreed on a monthly payment plan for the next two years until the taxes are paid.
Naciye said the 2015 incident in which Triceten Bickford, 19, assaulted her while she was having tea with her 9-year-old daughter in front of Sofra Café affected her ability to run the restaurant.
Bickford took prescription medication before drinking tequila at a tailgate gathering earlier that day. He yelled “white power” before trying to remove Naciye's headscarf according to Bickford’s sentencing hearing and officer Corey Shinn’s police report.
Naciye said in the police report Bickford had restricted her ability to breathe while he pushed down on her neck and attempted to remove her headscarf.
“Triceten Bickford was charged with strangulation and intimidation, both level 6 felonies,” Shinn said in the report.
Bickford also faced felony charges for battery on a police officer.
During his sentencing hearing, Bickford, of Fort Wayne, pleaded guilty to battery causing moderate injury. Judge Teresa Harper reduced the felony charge to a misdemeanor and as a result of a plea agreement dismissed the charges of strangulation and intimidation. Bickford did not serve jail time, but was placed on probation.
Bickford’s childhood friend Drake White testified Bickford had never been known to be aggressive or violent. White, an IU student at the time, also said this was the first time he had known about Bickford getting excessively drunk.
Another IU student and close friend from childhood Caleb Gardner testified it was fair to describe Bickford as an inexperienced drinker.
“I didn’t know he drank,” Gardner said.
In the days immediately following the assault, Naciye said she told herself she was fine, but about a week after she started to experience heart palpitations.
“I didn’t know what it is because it was the first time I experienced it in my life,” she said. “I had to see the heart doctor. He thought it was panic attacks.”
Naciye began taking medication for her heart condition and is still taking it today.
Naciye said staying at the cafe alone made her feel uncomfortable after the assault. If a man came to the restaurant she would ask herself, “Is this a good man or a bad man?”
“I realized I didn’t want to come as much to the cafe,” Naciye said. “I also realized that I couldn’t deal with my male employees how I was doing before. Asking things of them made me uncomfortable.”
Naciye said she felt like she was shrinking.
“Feeling that you are afraid or scared, it makes you feel so weak,” she said. “I had to go to therapy. I had to use medications for panic attacks.”
Naciye was having back aches and shoulder pain on top of the panic attacks. Her doctor sent her to a counselor, life coach and physical therapist. The physical therapist told Naciye her posture was curved so that her head was down.
“I learned to stand up straight," Naciye said. "I am not afraid as much these days. Lately, about a month and a half ago, I stopped all the medications except the heart medications.”
“I had a little headache that day,” Naciye said. “I decided to get a little fresh air and sit outside and drink some tea.”
Naciye's daughter came with her while her husband worked inside.
“We like to sit and talk and imagine things together,” Naciye said.
As they were talking, Naciye heard a man’s voice yelling. She said she did not want to pay attention because she could tell he was drunk and she did not want her daughter to be afraid of him.
“When negative things are around, we don’t like to take attention to the negative things for our kids,” Naciye said. “I kept talking to her. I didn’t even turn my head.”
Naciye thought the man had passed, but suddenly she felt him grabbing her scarf and pushing down on her neck.
“I was down, my head was down," Naciye said. "I could hear my daughter scream ‘mommy mommy,’ but I could not see her.”
Naciye tired to stand, but could not. She then realized her attacker was trying to pull her headscarf off.
“I started to grab it back, but he was squeezing my neck,” Naciye said. “I couldn’t breathe. I decided to let go of my scarf and pull his hands and try to get a little bit of breathing room, but he was so strong.”
This was the second time in Naciye's life she thought she would die. The first time, she said, was during the delivery of her daughter, the one who she was having tea with just before the attack.
Naciye has five children and said all she could think about while she was being strangled was how her husband would handle all of the children by himself if she died.
“At that moment, I realized I had to do something,” Naciye said. “I don’t know how I did it. I just pulled myself up and then screamed my husband's name.”
Naciye's husband Mehmet Akgun heard her scream through the closed doors of the café. As he was running toward her, IU student Daniel Boyes, who was walking down the street and saw the incident, pulled Bickford away from Naciye and held him to the ground according to Shinn’s police report.
Mehmet helped detain Bickford on the ground.
Mehmet said he does not remember thinking, only reacting by instinct.
“I didn’t quite realize what was going on,” Mehmet said. “We never expected something like this to happen here to us, so it came out of nowhere.”
Boyes, who was on his way to a friend's dance performance, told the Indiana Daily Student he had never done anything like that before in his life.
“When I stood up, three men were down,” Naciye said. “It was so scary.”
Naciye's daughter was terrified by the event. According to Shinn’s police report Naciye's daughter “appeared to be traumatized by this whole incident, even after the male subject had been taken off to jail.”
Naciye and Mehmet arranged for their daughter to begin therapy right away since she refused to go to school and was constantly worried about her mother.
“We have five kids and she is the most sensitive,” Mehmet said. “She cries so easily."
Mehmet said his daughter did not want to come to the cafe for a long time after her mother’s assault but that therapy and the passing of time helped.
“I think she also grew out of it,” Mehmet said. “She's older now. Overall, I think we managed to handle it.”
On a weekday morning, Naciye and her assistant chef Yaiely Ahumada-Oritz chopped onions, fried zucchini fritters and baked fresh bread to the sounds of Turkish pop music. Naciye said sometimes they dance together, and when they complete the preparations for the lunch buffet, they proclaim “women” to remind themselves two women just accomplished so much in a short time.
Naciye said she has found her soul sister in her assistant chef Ahumada-Oritz.
“As soon as we come here we like to turn on the music,” Naciye said. “I am so happy to find help like me. She enjoys the music.”
Naciye began her professional life as a literature teacher in Turkey. During her time as a master’s student of Turkish-Ottoman literature, one of Naciye's professors gave her an early 19th-century cookbook written in Ottoman Turkish, a version of Turkish that uses the Persian-Arabic alphabet instead of the Latin alphabet.
“I wanted to translate everything to this language because Ottoman Turkish is 150 years old,” Naciye said. “I brought that back from Turkey when I was coming the first time to the United States because it is very precious for me.”
Naciye has the book displayed in a glass case at the restaurant and makes the dishes sultan’s delight and kebabs based on the recipes she translated from the cookbook.
“I like what I do,” Naciye said. “I really like to communicate with people. Making the food or altering the clothes, it seems like you are helping them.”
Mehmet said his wife had always talked about opening a food establishment.
“This was her idea from the beginning,” Mehmet said. “I wouldn’t dare to open a cafe without the know-how that she has about Turkish food.”
Mehmet said opening the restaurant was a brave choice because there were so many things they did not know how to do in the beginning, like building a restaurant-grade kitchen from the ground up.
“If you are discouraged easily, having this kind of business is not something that you would want to do," Mehmet said. “You need to be really resilient.”
Mehmet said when his wife is faced with a difficult project she takes the steps necessary to complete it.
Naciye approached her recovery in the same way she handles other obstacles in her life.
“The first couple of days, weeks maybe, it was ups and downs with Naciye,” Mehmet said. “After a while she came to her normal self and then handled the whole thing very well.”
The Akguns decided not press charges against Bickford because they did not want to continue re-living the assault during the legal proceedings, Mehmet said. They quickly became exhausted from speaking to the media and telling the story over and over again, Mehmet said.
“We did not want revenge or anything," Mehmet said. "We just wanted to be out of the whole thing and go back to our normal ways."
Naciye said if Bickford apologized to her she would forgive him, and Mehmet said he is aware that something was wrong with Bickford that day.
“He could be a good guy,” Mehmet said of Bickford. “I think he was on pills or something. Something was wrong with him that day.”
Naciye believes each day is a new beginning and that it is her choice to make the day a good one.
“Whenever I start something I say, ‘Bismillah,’” Naciye said.” “It means by the name of the creator. It gives me strength to do the things. With God anything is possible.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article referred to Mehmet Akgun by the incorrect name. The IDS regrets this error.
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