I met “Laila” when I was an English teacher volunteering with ReVi (Refugee Volunteers of Izmir.) As usual, I came into the classroom a few minutes early. But this time, instead of finding the usual Arabic teacher commanding the class, I found a striking young woman with black eyes dancing wildly in front of captivated children.
As she danced, the children danced. She danced to the left, then all the children followed her to the left. She danced right, and they followed her to the right. She gestured wildly and the sea of children before her, followed her movements with their arms. Then, when the song was over, she looked at me and said “Hello!” and bolted out of the room.
I soon found out that this dance instructor was also a journalist. Since then, Laila’s interviews with the Syrians of Izmir have been the main source for the articles I write. I hope that they will continue to be a source for my articles long after I leave.
Along with being a dance instructor and a journalist, Laila is also a fashion diva. Every time I see her, she is wearing something completely insane and pulling it off like a boss. Like an ember that never goes out, dancing high into the night sky, she is a bright light in Basmane; the large Syrian neighborhood here in Izmir, Turkey.
I had wanted to interview Laila about her fashion for months, but the language barrier had always been a problem. Now, with her English improved, we were able to talk vogue.
Before the interview, I met her and her mother after dance class, and the three of us walked up to her flat in the heart of Basmane. While she changed in and out various outfits, I talked with her mother in a mix of French, English, and Arabic. Laila periodically popped out of her room and re-translated and elaborated on our conversation for us. After capturing her three favourite outfits on film, we sat together and she explained the fashion to me.
“This is a good summer outfit. It’s a ‘blouza’ (blouse) and ‘tanoura’ (long skirt.) The pattern of the skirt is ‘zakhrafa’ which means something like, “old art.” When I wear this I feel happy and energized, and also relaxed because the shirt is light. It’s something I wear with friends. For example, last weekend I went shopping with my girlfriends and this was the outfit I wore.
Now about the shoes. They are white, which is my favourite colour for shoes. I only wear these shoes with this skirt. I got these shoes, like most of my clothes, in Kameralti [the gigantic bazaar close by.]”
“Yellow is my favourite colour. When I wear yellow, I feel energetic. It is the colour of the sun – of light. I usually like things simple and plain, which is what I like about the shirt. It’s feels light and free. I love jeans like this; bedazzled, and ripped a little. I have many pairs of pants that are ripped like this. The shoes are not exclusive to this outfit. They’re great for any of my other yellow clothes. This is an outfit for everyday.”
“I wear this outfit in winter because it keeps me warm when it’s cold out. I’m happy in this outfit because it makes me feel like a princess. It could also use a necklace, but the necklace would need to be a dark colour, unlike the light necklaces I have. I like these shoes because they’re simple and the black matches well. This is a great outfit for parties and special occasions. This is what I wore on my birthday.”
“I got this earring in Syria a long time ago- four years ago. I was 15 years old. I like the feeling of the feather, and the beads add to the old-style vintage look. It’s part of a pair, although the other earring of the pair is different.”
“Since I was a little girl I’ve always loved owls. I don’t have any brothers or sisters, so every time I was alone, like in the evenings, I felt alone like an owl. Also, she has black eyes, and I have black eyes. I got these earrings recently from a Syrian friend who lives in Istanbul.”
“I got this necklace from another Syrian friend who was here in Izmir. Now she lives in Sweden. I wear it all the time.”
“I like music so much. In my dance school in Syria, my teacher played a little guitar, and it reminds me of my teacher.”
There was one piece of jewelry I wanted to ask Liala about, but I couldn’t take a photo of. She had a small black jewel on her nose.
FIwith<3: I have to ask about the nose piercing. Is this a common thing in Syria?
Laila: No. But it is in Istanbul, where I used to live.
FIwith<3: And what do your parents think of it?
Laila: My dad – NO. He didn’t like it, but now he’s OK with it. My mother’s fine with it.
FIwith<3: Why did you get it?
Laila: I don’t know, I was in the mall with my girlfriend, who also had a nose piercing, and I saw a place where I could get it done. So, I got a small and simple nose piercing. I don’t like them big, just small and simple and black like the owl eyes.
[Glasses with fake plastic lenses] “I had real glasses in Syria but my prescription has changed. Now I wear contacts with the correct prescription. But I like glasses with big frames, so I have these fake ones that I wear with my contacts.”
These three outfits only scratch the surface of Laila’s style. After the interview, she sent me a digital mountain’s worth of photographs of gear and garments from her wardrobe.
“I care about the clothes I chose,” she said while contemplating about her style, “I feel confident and I also sometimes like to be different and distinct …but in a good way.”
It was a typical late afternoon in Basmane. The crumbling buildings echoed with the shouting of children and laughter from football matches in the street. Above us, women threw gossip at each other from between apartment windows.
I had impulsively decided to work with ReVi (Refugee Volunteers of Izmir) that afternoon, and I wasn’t regretting it for a second. As our volunteer group made the rounds, going from household to household, I absent-mindedly chatted about Russian politics with a new recruit. Sometimes children followed us, interrupting, speaking in clipped English phrases.
“Hello! What-is-your-name? Where-are-you-from? How-are-you? How-are-you?” It had been a week since I had come here, and it was nice to be back.
The last house we were visiting was at the end of a long alley. We were taken into the house by the women of family, who welcomed us warmly and hugged and kissed the female volunteer.
The family sat us down in a large room, devoid of furniture besides a TV and piles of cushions against the walls. As the rest of the family trickled into the room, we got to talking about the usual things. The household’s health, education, and employment are always our biggest concerns. Overall, this family was doing well.
By the time the small talk was over, there were twenty people lining the room around us, not including the babies. We had taken out colouring supplies and bubbles for the children. The vibe was warm, so nobody was in a hurry for us to leave.
Then a young man came into the room with a cut across his face. It was explained that this man had come here from Syria ten days before.
“And now we will hear his story,” informed a Syrian friend that was translating for us. The man (I will call him “Ali”) had fled with his family from Raqqa, a city located in the central-north of Syria. Today Raqqa is the capital of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS. As a consequence, the area is under attack by every side of this many-sided war.
Fleeing Raqqa is not an easy thing to do. ISIS has forbidden anyone from leaving the city, and will pursue those who try to escape. It also requires sneaking through an active war zone, and past all the de-facto borders that each side has created. Ali casually mentioned that he had to constantly drug his children so they wouldn’t make noise during their journey.
Ali and his family (eleven people in total) attempted the trip to Basmane eleven times before finally succeeding on the twelfth. Ali began telling us about his first attempt to leave with his family.
“We escaped Raqqa through an olive orchard and eventually made it to the Syrian-Turkish border. We waited until one or two in the morning and then the smugglers told us to go. We ran through the forest. There were maybe… a hundred or two hundred of us.
The Turkish border guards heard us and started shooting. At first I thought they were warning shots but I’m fairly certain I saw some people get hit by the bullets and crash into the ground as they ran. My family and I made it across the border into Turkey and we were picked up by some smuggler’s vans.
After packing us into the vans, they drove off. But there was a car pursuing us. The driver worried that it was the car of Turkish border guards. He drove very erratically and then dropped us off close to a grove of trees in the middle of nowhere. He told us to hide. We tried to hide, but the guards found us and took us to a gymnasium that had been converted into a prison for refugees. Eventually, we would be held in this gymnasium eight separate times. I celebrated Eid [an important Muslim holiday] in this gymnasium prison.
After spending a day or two in the prison, we were shipped back to Syria. The whole thing seemed suspicious. It felt like a set up. As if the smugglers and Turkish border guards were in communication. Now we would have to cross the border again. [The smugglers usually charge a lot of money to help people cross the border each time.]”
Ali went on to tell us of other attempts to journey to Basmane. Sometimes the Turkish guards would catch them. Once ISIS caught them. Another time it was the Free Syrian Army.
“The Free Syrian Army let us go, but told us it was really dangerous where we were, and to take my family further along the border wall before crossing. We walked along the wall and found a ladder. Unfortunately there wasn’t a ladder on the other side of the wall. We all had to jump from the top of the wall, which was three meters high.
While we crossed through the forest on the other side, the Turkish border guards must have heard something because they were searching the forest with flashlights. We tried to hide behind the trees. At one point a guard was on the other side of the tree that I was hiding behind. I didn’t breathe.
The guards didn’t find us, and after some hours while they were rotating their shift, we ran through the forest to get to the road [where the smugglers were waiting.] The smugglers put us into the vans as usual. When we were driving, something went wrong. The driver was driving so erratically that I thought the van would tip over. Then the driver dropped us off in the middle of nowhere. He told us there was a village down the road and to find protection there.
We went down the road and found some stables to hide in. After sleeping in the stables, we went to the village. In the village, the Turkish people chased us and yelled horrible things at us. They said we were dirty and we were ruining Turkey and things like that. Soon, the border guards came and arrested us. We were put back into the gymnasium prison and sent back to Syria.”
After his twelfth attempt, Ali and his family were able to make it to Basmane and tell us his story. I asked him if I could write it down. He said I should make a film instead.
By the time Ali had finished his story, the late afternoon had become late evening. We thanked the family for their hospitality and started packing our things to leave. Suddenly a woman appeared with a large tray of hot drinks for us. Usually families will offer us Syrian coffee or tea, but this time they had made a warm pudding with cinnamon poured over it. It tasted like Christmas.
We continued talking and laughing long after the drinks were finished. The children had drawn elaborate pictures with the colouring supplies and spread them over the ground for us to see. Late evening had become true night. Still feeling warm and fuzzy from the spiced drinks, we finally got up and thanked the family again for their hospitality.
Then the family invited us for dinner. Half and hour later we were all eating our fill of incredible Syrian food. The food was so good that we couldn’t stop talking about food. We took turns going around the room talking about our favourite Syrian dishes. When the men spoke about their favourites, their gestures became grandiose. Using their arms to measure larger and larger imaginary meals, as a fisherman measures his best catches, they recounted where to find the best ingredients and dishes in Raqqa, and then Syria in general.
When the meal had finished and the woman had cleared the plates, we talked a little business with the main woman of the house. ReVi is always trying to find ways to utilize the skills of refugees in order to help them economically. With a baby on her breast, we worked out with her the best way to set up a small project with her.
True night had become truely late. Finally, finally; full of warmth and happiness, we filed out of the house. As we were saying our goodbyes, one of the girls who had made the journey here with Ali, grabbed our female volunteer. “We should be friends!” she exclaimed happily in perfect, unaccented, English. “Please come again and we can have fun together!”
This summer I spent more time in Izmir’s Syrian neighborhood of Basmane than anywhere else. One of the reasons I like Basmane so much is that it’s one of the most diverse places in Turkey. The population of Basmane consists almost entirely of refugees from every part of Syria. This means I can have coffee with an atheist Yazidi Kurdish intellectual from a mountain city, and go next door and have coffee with an Arab devout Muslim trucker from a tiny village in the middle of the desert.
Without the normal social prisms that determine where people live based off of race, religion, social status, or money, Basmane has become a neighborhood of Syria’s bright stars, all concentrated into a single neighborhood.
One of Basmane’s brightest stars is Nour, a 19 year old Syrian woman. I met Nour while I was teaching at a volunteer-run school for Syrian children. She was the dance teacher. I was the English teacher. Later, I heard that she also wrote for the Arabic facebook page of ReVi, which is the organization that we volunteer under.
A couple months ago ReVi started a project where we gave children disposable cameras. The children took photos throughout their neighborhood. An idea for a book sprung from this project. To give the photos more context, we decided to interview the children of Basmane.
After interviewing the children, Nour wrote articles from them. Because the articles were written in Arabic, I enlisted the help of a couple more Syrians, in order to translate and edit what Nour had written.
These are the articles Nour wrote. According to everyone who has read Nours writing, she has a unique style, and it’s very beautiful. As an editor, I hope I have done these articles justice. Note: I have changed all the names of the children.
Nadia (written by Nour. translated by Ali. edited by Zac.)
Nadia was a shy 10 year old child who was full of dreams. When I asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up, she told me she wanted to be a famous singer like Arabic popstar Nancy Ajram. “She’s my idol,” said Nadia. We talked a lot. I started the interview with a question about her friends.
Nour: Do you have any friends in Izmir?
Nadia: I have one friend here. They’re Syrian like me. I don’t have any Turkish friends. I don’t think the Turkish people have love for me.
Nadia then started talking about the photography project they did. “I was so happy when we were running through Izmir’s streets and taking photos. It was a really great day. When I saw the photos I felt proud of myself. I want to have another day like that.”
I asked Nadia about her dreams about the future.
Nadia: I would like to travel the world and discover everything, and I’d really like to see Canada.
Nour: Why Canada?
Nadia: I don’t know, but I’d like to see it.
After that we talked about school.
Nadia: I was studying in Syria. I wanted to keep going to school there, but because of the war, I couldn’t. I also study here but I’m not happy.
Nadia: I don’t know why. Maybe I’m afraid. Maybe I can’t cope.
I got the feeling that she was scared in general, not just about school. Everything for her was unknown. She didn’t have confidence in herself. I changed the subject back to Syria.
Nour: If you could send a message to Syria, what would you say?
Nadia: I hope everything is beautiful in Syria. I don’t want to see children without education, or crying. I want to see everybody happy. Enough war. I don’t want to see people carrying weapons. I just want to plant love and flowers.
Aysha (written by Nour, translated by Noor, edited by Zac.)
Aysha, ten years old, told me that she loves reading and writing, but she’s still a beginner. She dreamed of being a teacher for children. She has four friends in Izmir, all of them Syrian. She loves them very much.
Aysha had a lot of things to say about the war, violence, and sadness because she had direct experience with them. I was struck by her intelligence, clarity, and maturity. She talked like an adult, or maybe better. She told me about everything she saw in the war.
“There was killing, blood, violence, right in front of me. Everything was so difficult. In the beginning I was afraid of everything, but eventually what I saw gave me strength instead of weakness. I have a lot of faith in Syria. I think it will go back to like it was before the war. Just like with me, the terrible things that Syria has witnessed will make it stronger. But it’s still hard to watch right now. I don’t watch the news because I don’t want to see my homeland like this. I want to see it be beautiful again.”
After that, we talked about Aysha’s situation in Turkey. She explained the difference between life in Syria and life in Turkey.
“My life here is not beautiful. Turkish language is not beautiful. It’s hard. I can’t learn it. As for school, I can’t learn there either.”
I asked her, “Why? What’s stopping you?”
She replied, “The world here doesn’t love me. We are Syrians and [the Turkish people] try to shame me for it. They want me to be embarrassed because I’m from Syria. But I’m not embarrassed. Never! I am proud that I’m Syrian. So many Turkish children give us a hard time. When they see a Syrian, they shout bad words. That makes me feel angry. I don’t want to stay here. My only dream is to come back to my homeland. I don’t want anything else.”
Kemal (written by Nour. translated by Noor. edited by Zac.)
Kemal was a fifteen year old young man who traveled from his home in Syria, to Izmir, Turkey. In Syria he studied up to the ninth grade, but couldn’t go further because he had to flee the war. He still dreams of becoming a nurse. In the future he wants to build a medical center.
When I first started talking to him, I felt that he was closed off. I couldn’t be sure, but there seemed to be a certain sadness in his eyes. It was like there were many things inside him that were sad and painful.
We start talking about his job and how employers and others treated him. “My job is to sew. Most of the Syrians who are living in Turkey work in this field.” He talked about how hard is it to work in Turkey, and the difference between Syria and Turkey. He saw big difference in treatment between the Turkish laborers and Syrian laborers.
“A Syrian laborer is not allowed to do anything, but it’s exactly the opposite of the Turkish workers. In Syria there was time for everything. We could work, study, relax, have fun, etc. But in Turkey most of the time is spent working. It’s unfulfilling but I have to do it!” I asked him why he had to work so hard. His answer surprised me.
“I am alone here. My family isn’t with me. They are still in Syria. I talk to them once a month because the internet is so poor right now. That’s why I can’t contact my family. I’ve been away from them for nine months now.”
He had been holding back from crying, but wasn’t able to control himself after saying, “I really miss my family.” It is really affected me to see someone who misses their family so much, without being able to contact them. Kemal began talking with me about his thoughts of going back to Syria, but an auntie intervened, not letting him talk about that.
I persisted, asking him, “Why did you decide to go back to Syria?” He told me, “It isn’t enough for me to be near my family. I don’t want to just send them money every month, I want to go to my home with this money.”
He ended the interview by saying, “You shouldn’t ask Syrians these kind of questions, because you are just like us. You got hurt and you have seen everything in this war.”
From all of my heart, I wish that peace returns to my country. I want to go back too.
Arabic versions written by Nour. Names are changed to different names, but the children are the same.
أحمد شاب عمره خمسة عشر عاماً سافر من وطنه سوريا إلى تركيا تحديداً إزمير وقد درس للصف التاسع لكنه لم يحصل على الشهادة بسبب الحرب و السفر كان يحلم ان يصبح ممرض وان يكون له مركز لمساعدة المرضى .
عندما بدأت بالتحدث معه شعرت بأنه منطوي و بداخله اشياء كثيرة ربما هي حزينة او مؤلمة لا اعلم ولكني قد رأيت الحزن في عينيه .
بدأنا بالتحدث عن عمله وعن طريقة تعامل الناس معه في العمل او في غير مكان فكان جوابه ” عملي هو الخياطة وانتي تعلمين معظم السوريين الذي يقيمون في تركيا يعملون في هذا المجال وقد تكلم عن مدى صعوبة العمل في تركيا والفرق الكبير بين سوريا وتركيا وفرق التعامل بين العامل التركي والعامل السوري فالعامل السوري مشدد عليه بكل شيئ اما العامل التركي العكس تماماً .
في سوريا يوجد وقتٌ لكل شيئ للعمل وللدراسة للراحة والتسلية اما في تركيا معظم الوقت في العمل هذا لا يشعرني بالرضى لكني مجبر على ذلك . !
وهنا كان السؤال لما انت مجبر ؟
هنا كانت الصدمة فكانت إجابته ” انا وحيداً هنا وعائلتي ليست معي هي في سوريا إلى الآن أخبرني ايضاً مرة واحدة في الشهر اتكلم معهم بسبب الظروف القاسية للإنترنت لا استطيع التواصل مع عائلتي وانا منذ تسع شهور بعيد عنهم شعرت وكأنه سوف يبكي وقد حصل ذلك عندما قال لي حقاً اشتقت لعائلتي ..
شيئ محزن ان تشتاق لأحد و يكون في مكان بعيد عنك ولا توجد طريقة للوصول إليه ..
أحمد حدثني عن تفكيره في العودة إلى سوريا ولكن عمته التي يسكن في بيتها منعته من حدوث ذلك .
كان سؤالي لماذا فعلت ذلك وقررت العودة إلى سوريا ؟
” يكفيني ان أكون إلى جانب عائلتي لا ان ارسل لهم كل شهر مبلغ من المال اريد ان اذهب مع هذا المال إلى وطني وبيتي ”
في النهاية قال لي لا يجب أن تسألي اي شخص سوري مثل هذه الأسئلة فأنتي مثلنا ايضاً تألمتي و ورأيتي كل شيئ في هذه الحرب .
آتمنى من كل قلبي ان يعود السلام لوطني وان أعود انا لوطني ايضاً .
طفلة في العاشرة من عمرها خجولة جداً لكن حلمها آن تصبح مغنية مشهورة مثل الفنانة نانسي عجرم قالت لي بأنها قدوة بالنسبة لها .
تحدثنا كثيراً كانت بداية اسئلتي عن الاصدقاء هل لديها اصدقاء هنا ام لا ؟
آخبرتني لديي صديقة واحدة فقط هنا هي من سورية ايضاً وليس لدي اصدقاء من تركيا لانني اشعر انهم لآ يحبوني .
ايضاً آخبرتني ” احب التصوير و ايضاً كنت سعيدة جداً عندما تجولنا في شوراع ٱزمير وبدأنا بالتصوير كان يوم رائع بالنسبة لي وعندما رأيت الصور شعرت بالفخر بنفسي واريد مثل هذا اليوم مرة ثانية ”
حدثتني عن آحلامها ان تجول العالم وتكتشف كل شيئ لكن البلد الذي تحب آن تزوره ” كندا ” لا تعلم السبب لكنها تحبه .
ثم تحدثنا عن المدرسة فقالت لي لقد درست في سوريا وكنت آتمنى أن آكمل لكن بسبب الحرب لم استطيع وهنا ايضاً أدرس لكن لست سعيدة لا ادري لماذا .. !
ربما الخوف او ربما عدم التأقلم شعرت بأنها تخاف من كل شئ جديد او مجهول وليس لديها ثقة في نفسها ..
بعد ذلك كان سؤالي لها ” لو طلبنا منك أن ترسلي رسالة ٱلى سوريا ماذا ستكتبين ضمن هذه الرسالة ؟
أجابتني ” آتمنى لسوريا كل شيئ جميل لا اريد أن ارى طفل بدون دراسة او طفل يبكي اريد ان ارى الجميع سعداء يكفي حرب لا اريد ان ارى سلاح بيد احد اريد فقط أن نزرع ورود وحب “
نور : عمرها عشر سنوات تحب القراءة والكتابة لكنها مبتدئة حلمها آن تصبح معلمة للاطفال . لديها آربع اصدقاء في إزمير وتحبهم كثيراً هم ايضاً من سوريا . حدثتني عن اشياء كثيرة عن الحرب العنف الحزن الذي مرت به تكلمت وكأنها فتاة راشدة كانت تتقن وتعلم ما تتكلمه وتخبرني عنه .. ” قالت لقد شاهدت كل شيئ الحرب القتل الدم العنف امامي كان كل شيئ صعب جداً بداية كنت اخاف من كل شيئ لكن هذا الشيئ مع الوقت منحني القوة وليس الضعف منحني الإرادة ايضاً ولذلك لدي إيمان قوي بأن سوريا سوف تعود مثل سابق عهدها لكني لا اشاهد الآخبار لانني لا اريد آن ارى وطني بهذا الشكل اريد ان اراها جميلة ” بعد ذلك حدثتني عن وضعها في تركيا وشرحت الفرق بين سوريا وتركيا من حيث الاصدقاء اللغة المدرسة ايضاً وقالت ” حياتي هنا ليست جميلة لغتهم صعبة ولا آتقنها ايضا ًدراستهم لا اريد ان آتعلمها وسألتها ماهو السبب ؟ أجابت ” أظن ان العالم هنا لا يحبوننا نحن السورين يريدون ان تكوني محرجة من آنك سوريا لكني لا اخجل من هذا الشئ ابداً بل افتخر أنني سورية . ايضاً هنالك اطفال اتراك هنا عندما يعلمون انك سوريا يصرخون بكلمات سيئة وهذا يشعرني بالغضب لا اريد ان ابقى هنا حلمي فقط آن اعود ٱلى وطني ولا اريد شيئاً آخر .. “
I am flying over the Iraqi desert in a half empty medium sized aircraft. The closest passenger is three rows behind me and snoring loudly. My GPS freezes after leaving Turkish airspace, so I play a game of looking out the window to guess where I am. While I am probably somewhere between Dohuk and Erbil, the surface below reminds more of Mars than anything else. An endless series of cracked canyons is embedded between thin mountain chains in the otherwise flat desert. These thin scars stretch between both horizons.
As we begin our descent, I start to notice long white columns of smoke rising from the mountains below. The smoke is organic, the product of burning farmland. It is a refreshingly natural sight. Burning crop waste has been practiced by farmers since prehistoric times in order to fertilize the next crop.
In the distance I see more smoke. This time in the form of a black mushroom could, an indication of a bomb or air strike hitting somewhere in the direction of Mosul.
As we get closer to Erbil, haze from the dozens of oil refineries below trickles into the air, forming an opaque grey ocean between the plane and the airport. “Welcome to Erbil,” says the pilot over the loudspeaker, “the current temperature is 50 degrees (122 Fahrenheit). We hope you’ve enjoyed your flight.” The plane drops into the grey ocean like a star falling into a camp fire. In the muddy air I make out the skyline of this once booming oil city.
Although I bought the plane ticket to Iraq on a whim a couple weeks before, I was always drawn this country. I had been interested in Iraq since I was a child. When I was four years old, Bush launched the US into the first Gulf War. While my playmates were intrigued by plastic superheroes like Superman and the Turtles, I was obsessed with Saddam Hussein. The idea that absolute evil could have absolute power was fascinating because I felt that absolute good is by its nature, was unable to have absolute power.
The week the US began its invasion of annexed Kuwait, I bought a miniature army set and constantly re-enacted Saddam Hussein’s world, obsessing over the details of military purges and the placement of troops during his invasion and inevitable retreat.
Now I was here in Iraq: a land which has not only been miniaturized through my toys, but also miniaturized through the lens of newspapers, and through distance, politics, language and cultural barriers. Finally, this land was beginning to expand from outside my airplane window.
The Black, the Grey, and the White; A brief exploration of the three cities of Iraqi Kurdistan.
This is going to be a different kind of travel essay. First of all, it will be written in three parts, out of order. For example, I visited Erbil first, but I will speak about it now, in this second part.
Second, I will only write about what I saw and heard. If I were to begin writing about the history of these cities, I might as well begin writing an encyclopedia. Erbil alone, is considered by some archaeologists to be the first city in the history of the world. It’s hard to fathom how much culture and yore these cities have accumulated.
Third, again, unlike good journalism, I am not going to write the truth. I’m only going to write what I was told, read, and saw. Perhaps I’m spending too much time in the Middle East, or perhaps it’s my upbringing in a cult, but I believe in order to understand people and cultures, I have to understand their truths separately from the facts. If everyone acts on a truth that diverges from reality, how valuable is that truth compared to reality? When studying history, the facts mean everything. When observing culture, facts are things that usually get in the way.
The Grey: Erbil
There is a grey chemical haze that envelops Erbil like a fog cap on a mountain. The haze comes from three main sources; oil refineries, car exhaust, and generators. The oil refineries around Erbil have transformed the parched land into a sunny Mordor. It is hard to imagine so much smoke being pumped into the air by anything other than a chain of active volcanoes. Yet, as disturbing as these refineries are, they are the lifeblood of this nation.
Erbil is one of the oldest, if not the oldest city, in the world. Although in its current incarnation, the city has become a tiny Los Angeles. Its streets are as wide as freeways. Its layout requires cars, yet there is no public transportation. The seemingly unregulated exhaust from the endless stream of traffic puts a layer of dusty particles on everything, including my skin, which made me feel like I was living in a drizzle of soot.
While the refineries and cars do some unfortunate things to Erbil’s atmosphere, I believe it’s the generators that do the real damage. The power goes out in Erbil once or twice an hour which prompts thousands of diesel generators to simultaneously turn on, making the inside of houses and hotel rooms smell like the inside of train engine, and the outside a train yard. This said, I suppose one gets used to the air, and it’s the worst in the Summer.
Although most Iraqi-Kurdistan was astonishingly in tune with its surroundings, Erbil had an unnatural “green-zone” feel to it. Still, it was not set up for travelers. For example, there were streets lined with dozens of hotels but only one ATM in the city. And it was broken. There were rumours of a second ATM, but it was not found. There were places with names, “Italian village” , “English village” , and “Dream City,” but these were all just heavily guarded gated communities, as out of place with the rest of the city as colonies on the Moon. On top of that, much of Erbil consisted of half built cement mega structures, destined to become mountains of crumbling cement. The global oil crash has not been kind to this city.
The center of the city was an exception to the ugliness. As it was the original city, it retained beauty and soul. The elaborately ornate bizarre was massive, loud, and vibrant. The citadel, raised above the rest of the city on a masa, looked too ancient to be real. The plaza below was an aesthetic refuge for the city’s population.
Erbil’s citizens were also an exception to its ugliness. Everyone I met was kind and thoughtful. The biggest shock came when I had to cross the giant streets. These Niles of asphalt were daunting at first. There were no crosswalks in Erbil, and if there was something that resembled a crosswalk, it was not working because of the chronic lack of electricity. Instead, pedestrians crossed the street by walking from spaces between the lanes.
In my home city of Izmir this would truly be a death sentence. However in Erbil, drivers would press the brake pedal just enough for me to run in front of their car onto the next space between lanes, until I made it all the way across the street. It was a great system. By the end of my trip I was addicted to crossing the street, thrilled at the recognition of my humanity.
Another example of Kurdish thoughtfulness came when I would attempt to buy something. I knew about five words in Kurdish. The Arabic I could speak was a different dialect, and while some people understood a little English, the typical shop owner did not.
In some cultures, not knowing the language and wanting to buy something as simple as a bottle of water, results in a clusterfuck involving a congregation of multiple shop owners, customers, and cellphone calls to the cousin that took an English class in 1982. But in Erbil, I was able to calmly explain things through hand gestures and broken Arabic, until the shop owner understood.
Even though Erbil did not seem like a functional or even livable city, I look back on it with affection because of the simple appreciations of my humanity – something that is rare for any city. I left Erbil after spending a little over 24 hours there. Perhaps more time would have reveled a better side, but I doubt it.
I am in a shared taxi, crossing over the Great Zab River. The wide, slow river looks like a biblical scene, which it must be. Tall swaying reeds have grown far from their banks, exploring the swifter currents of the river. I can see families bathing below the bridge. Their skin is as dark as charcoal and contrasts against the light coloured water. I check my map. Iraq’s second city Mosul, is just ahead, only twenty miles away.
Mosul is one of the most fascinating places in the world, with a history that goes deeper than the bedrock of most civilizations. Now it is impossible to reach. In its current incarnation, it has been taken over by a mostly foreign conglomerate of death worshipers. This, obviously, makes travel to it impossible. Although my taxi continues forward.
I fleeting ponder my safety, but the moment passes as I am comforted by rationality. This morning, as every morning, I have consulted my maps. It’s been months since this territory I’m in has been “liberated.” If nothing else, I am protected by the mines buried in the surrounding grassland, which have accumulated from various wars Iraq has been unable to shake.
Tiny Arab children stand in the middle of the highway, forming islands with their bodies, offering bottles of water from ice chests. The taxis and oil tankers casually swerve around them, or sometimes stop in the middle of the two-lane highway to buy a bottle. This perhaps, is something far more dangerous than my proximity to a city run by serial killers.
The taxi driver points ahead and makes a drinking motion at me. I think he’s telling me that the driver of the SUV front of us is drunk, but it turns out that we are stopping for water and cigarettes at a rest stop. At the stop, men pray in the shade while others wander aimlessly, stretching their legs. While I have the urge to wander too, I stay close. Being in a taxi, flying through the landscape at 120 kilometers per hour is one thing, being stuck at a rest stop with no security forces has a different feel to it.
Soon enough the driver decides to go. We enter a new road which is so new, it has not been paved yet nor is it on Google Maps. The grassy hills roll on endlessly in front of us, reminding me of central California. Conjuring up some Arabic, I say to passenger beside me, “This is like California.” He looks around the hills, mulling my words. “Yes!” He exclaims. “ISIS is in California too!” The cab erupts in laughter. Selfies are taken. Soon afterwards we drop the passenger off at a checkpoint. It turns out he was on his way to fight the group we were joking about.
The Black, the Grey, and the White; A brief exploration of the three cities of Iraqi Kurdistan.
This is going to be a different kind of travel essay. First of all, it will be written in three parts, out of order. For example, I visited Erbil first, but I will speak about it in the second part.
Second, I will only write about what I saw and heard. If I were to begin writing about the history of these cities, I might as well begin writing an encyclopedia. Erbil is considered by some archaeologists to be the first city in the history of the world. It’s hard to fathom how much culture and yore these cities have accumulated.
Third, unlike good journalism, I am not going to write the truth. I’m only going to write what I was told, read, and saw. Perhaps I’m spending too much time in the Middle East, or perhaps it was my upbringing in a cult, but I believe in order to understand people and cultures, I have to understand their truths separately from the facts. If everyone acts on a truth that diverges from reality, how valuable is that truth compared to reality? When studying history, the facts mean everything. When observing culture, facts are things that usually get in the way.
The Black: Sulaymaniyah
By the time my taxi dropped me off on the outskirts of Sulaymaniyah, I had become friends with one of the passengers. He, like me, didn’t like to take busses or taxis. When he suggested we walk to the city center I was relieved. Despite the heat and mid-day sun (according to the taxi’s thermostat, 45C / 115F) I was happy to walk the 4.5 miles with him through the entire city. A taxi or bus would have put that journey on fast-forward, cheapening it, even commercializing it. Journeys should be appreciated for what they are, not for where you are.
In a taxi, I wouldn’t have had the time to discuss what life in Kurdistan was like or about the good aspects of the George W. Bush presidency and the 2003 invasion of Iraq. For example, the salvation of the Iraqi minorities from Saddam Hussein’s systematic genocides. Neither would I have fully appreciated the mountain winds that cooled me as baked in the sun. Perhaps these winds were one of the reasons for this city’s location. I also wouldn’t have had the details of Sulaymaniyan life given to me through geography.
We passed by a cafe with a colourfully painted tree. My friend told me that this is where Kurdish youth like to congregate at night. When we passed a strange-looking mosque, he told me it looked that way because it was Shi’a. Later he told about his Jewish friends who still live in the city and practice in secret. According to all academic sources, there are no Jews living in traditional homeland of Iraq, so this was a refreshing revelation.
When we got the the city center, my friend bought me a chicken sandwich at his favourite Kurdish fast food place, and we parted ways. Now very close to my hotel, and in need of everything that water had to offer, I made it my hostel named the “Dalphin Hotel.”
The hotel was decorated like… like… I don’t even know how to put it. Wood paneling, blue carpet. Yellow everywhere else. There was an large portrait of the owner feeding a dolphin in the lobby. Some of the walls were sliding glass doors that were completely covered with the kind of design that usually says, “BLOWOUT SALE!!!!” but instead said, “DALPHIN HOTEL.” There were no windows to the outside.
Once inside one layer of sliding glass, I had to go through another layer in order to reach the hall where my room was. In the second layer, I was greeted by a two foot tall Eiffel Tower, which was surrounded by a bedroom-sized shrine of fake garden plants. Top and center from this shrine was an ominous black camera attached to the wall. There was a hall, but mostly the hostel’s layout consisted of a random cluster of rooms. Never the less, it was a great place to stay. Quant in its insanity.
The hostel owner was incredibly nice and gave me an unexpected itinerary and a free map. He told me a little of the recent dark history of Sulaymaniyah, going into detail about one of Saddam Hussein’s “prisons” in the middle of the city, which sounded more like a concentration camp. The “prison” was recently flattened and turned into an enormous park. Until the Sulaymaniyah’s citizens built the park, they could smell the thousands of dead buried in the mass graves inside the prison walls.
I took a wrong turn on the way to the park entrance, so I used a small path to get inside, which led into a field of randomly placed statues of artists, philosophers, and prison victims. There were also scattered graves of politicized figures.
It was completely quiet sans faint music from a birthday party going on somewhere. After finding a main path leading out of the field, I discovered that this park was enormous. I spent the next two hours exploring it’s mostly empty fields, groves, and unkempt pathways. Sometimes I came across couples nesting in the bushes. Once I stumbled onto a wedding photo session. By the time I found my way out of an overgrown hedge-maze, it was getting dark, and my feet were giving out. On my way home, I passed by groups of joggers, something I haven’t seen since moving from San Francisco.
I woke early the next day to go to a museum. I wasn’t sure about what kind of museum it was, but the hostel owner told me it was free. The museum was not where the map said it should be. After the third time of dragging my feet along the road where the little museum symbol was printed, I gave up the search and took a random road back to my hostel.
Along this road I found an old barracks guarded by Kurdish soldiers. I had an overwhelming attraction to the place. I wanted to get in somehow, but of course, I couldn’t walk into a military base in Iraq just because I wanted to. I don’t what possessed me, but I hung out by the guard for a little while, who glared at me. I said, “hello” in Kurdish, like a stupid tourist, which increased his menacing glare rather than quelching it. But for whatever reason I wouldn’t leave.
After a minute, a group of well dressed men walked by me and the guard, and straight into a door I was standing next to. I followed the men and inside, and found myself in a museum – the exact museum I had been looking for. Not questioning the moment, I followed the group of men through the lobby and into the old barracks. From there I walked into the first door that called out to me, which opened up to this:
I don’t know what it was supposed to represent, but I felt as if it were a memorial to all the Kurds killed by the Iraqi government. Each light was a mind extinguished by Saddam Hussein. The crooked walls and corners made of shattered mirror felt seeped in superstition and recognition of broken reality. The end of the hall opened up to a traditional Kurdish house, then continued briefly, into a dead end.
After spending a long time in the hall, I re-entered the daylight into a dirt lot filled military equipment. Tanks, anti-aircraft guns, cannons, and spent shells littered the lot. The buildings around me were covered in bullet holes, evidence of a rebellion. Possibly from the early nineties, but perhaps as recent as 2003.
I walked through the lot and entered another building. The building had four doors. One was labelled, “Cinema.” The others were a mystery. I opened the first door and stepped into a long room a portraits. These portraits illustrated various aspects of Kurdish life. The second door opened up into a much larger room, filled with portraits and names. The room made it clear that these were the victims of a deliberate genocide committed by Saddam Hussein and his cousin, “Chemical Ali.” One of the plaques suggested that none of the people named in the room, have been recovered. I didn’t leave the room for a long time, letting its design give me the information that I couldn’t get from the plaques mostly written in Kurdish.
Upstairs, a third door opened to a room of discarded weapons and deactivated mines. On one wall, there was a poster naming the countries that produced the mines that have been found throughout Iraqi Kurdistan. On the other wall, there was a poster that named the countries who were helping de-mine Iraqi Kurdistan. In case you’re wondering, the US was on both posters.
I felt as if these two posters were the reason I was brought here. Here, alone in this room, I could reflect on the duality of unconscious destruction and conscious preservation. This room made it easy to see that lives can be extinguished by greed, or saved, or even sacrificed by compassion. Sometimes it’s the same entity that is responsible for everything.
I was done by this point, exhausted, and I still had a two hundred miles to travel by taxis that day. I left the building and started heading out of the complex.
Out of nowhere a man called to me from behind. This was the first man I had seen since I followed the group into the museum. “PRISON!” He called out, pointed at an ominous non-descript building behind me. “PRISON!!” I thanked the man and walked into the door. The man disappeared somewhere, and I was alone in Saddam’s old prison.
Thankfully, I’ve never been to an American prison before, but I guarantee that this was not built like an American prison. There were no halls. Just a lot of rooms mashed together. Most of these rooms were cells. Some of the the rooms were for different kinds of torture, and some were toilets. There was no kitchen, no medical center, nor anything else nothing like that. It took a long time to go through the whole prison because of its size and lack of light.
After the prison tour, I was truly exhausted and left the complex. As the strong mountain wind did its best to cool me off, I took in the beauty of this city. Book stores, fruit sellers, and artwork could be found everywhere. Sulaymaniyah is known as a center for education and art. I walked through the bazaar, fully aware of the many cultures that surrounded me. There were lots of smiles from jovial people hanging around every stall and store. At one point a man in chains struggled past me. I vaguely recalled reading about a certain sect of people in this region who practice self-flagellation.
Over all, Sulaymaniyah was a colourful city, bursting with creativity. Here, the citizens chose to make a park from concentration camp. However, my brief visit Sulaymaniyah focused on the black recent history buried an inch below the surface. I wish I could have stayed another day to focus on its beauty.
I met Nour at an anarchist collective in Basmane which serves as an unofficial hub for volunteers. For a couple months we would see each other from time to time and talk briefly, since I was always in a rush off to somewhere. The first thing I noticed about Nour was her English. Her English was remarkably good. The way she used it had an uncompromising sharpness to it, as if the words she used were still bright and fresh; untarnished by over generalization or cliche. Nour also had an unusually good memory. Sometimes I would see her weeks apart but she would pick up the conversation exactly where we had left off.
I didn’t know anything about her past, but when I decided to start a project of asking refugees for their stories, she was the first person that came in mind – mostly because her English was so good. This is her story.
Nour was a quiet child, the youngest, and the only girl of four siblings. The first thing she told me about her childhood was that she was spoiled. “Growing up, I had a laptop, video games, dolls, a phone… so many things.” One night her mother bought her a kite. She couldn’t wait to play with it, so that night she ran through the streets flying her kite. Nour also had a bike and would ride it everywhere. For fun, she would go to the store for her neighbors and bring them back food using her bike. The neighbors tried to pay for her bike service. But Nour would deny their payment. “It was just for fun,” says Nour.
Nour was a sensitive child. She would break down and cry when other children were mean to her. If she saw a sick animal, she would take it in the house and care for it. She particularly hated seeing hurt animals. “Actually, I’m still like this,” Nour admits while pointing at the scraggly cats outside her window of her home in Basmane.
Like many sensitive children, Nour was also intelligent. Once her whole family went to a big park in Damascus, Syria’s capital city. There were lots of tall trees and enormous bushes. While playing, her and her cousins got lost. Scared and disoriented, the children around her started panicking. Nour calmed the group, telling them, “Don’t worry, we’ll find a way back.” She was then able to remember a sign she saw while they were playing. She recalled the sign like a photograph, and used the memory to guide the other children back to her family. For as long as she could remember, Nour was always like that. Her parents recognized her intelligence and put her on a path to become a doctor or lawyer.
Nour grew up a big apartment in Yarmouk, is a Palestinian neighborhood close to Damascus. Her father had a successful dry cleaning business. It was part of a famous chain called, “Snow White.”
Yarmouk was the kind of neighborhood in which children played freely on the street. Nour spent her childhood outside playing soccer, hopscotch, and hide and seek. She and the neighborhood children went to a special school for Palestinians set up by the UN free schools program. It was supposed to be only for Palestinians, but because it was better than normal Syrian school, sometimes Syrians would secretly go there too.
One day, on her way to school Nour met a British man who worked for the British Council. His name was Michael, but she just called him, Mike. “Mike was tall and blonde, and very kind. Very cool,” Nour recalls. When he would see her, he would give her candy or biscuits. Once he gave her a Brain Adams tape. Nour still remembers the words to that tape. After around three months, Mike disappeared. Nour knocked on his door but nobody answered. “I knocked and knocked but there was nobody. He probably moved back to England. I was so sad.”
Like many children, things changed for Nour when she started going to middle school. She had to leave her elementary school, which meant leaving her friends. She was lonely. Sometimes she got bored. She would ask to go the bathroom and skip class instead. The teachers said she was smart, but she hated school.
High school wasn’t different. She hated that too. “I didn’t learn anything there,” says Nour. “The school was dirty and the principal was frightening.” The girls were naughty and the principal punished everyone collectively. The principal would hit the girls. “It was an awful place.” Nour would skip class a lot, but that hurt her grades. When she did stay in class, she only listened and didn’t participate.
However, outside of class, Nour was became interested in everything. She studied German and took a class in first aid. During this time, the Second Intifada was raging in Palestine and she wanted to be in the resistance. She held meetings. In addition to studying German, Nour went to an American school to learn English. She still remembers Barbara, the American principal of the English school. “She was so sweet. I loved her so much. She was the opposite of the principal of her Syrian school!”
Nour also became interested in boys. Worrying for her future, her family wanted to put a veil on her, but she refused. “There was one boy who fell in love with me to the extent that he was stalking me,” recalls Nour. “But I didn’t care. I didn’t love him back.”
By Nour’s last year in high school, her grades went from bad to worse, to the extent that she couldn’t graduate. But her family wouldn’t give up on their only daughter. Upon not graduating, they sent Nour to a private school. Seizing upon this blank slate, Nour decided to turn her life around. She went from skipping class to studying all night. “Once I stayed up studying for two nights in a row without sleeping.” In the private school she graduated first in her class. Everyone was surprised. They suspected that she had cheated. “But I didn’t, I just studied!” exclaims Nour laughing.
After graduating legitimately, Nour was able to go to university. In the beginning, she refused to be distracted by men, focussing solely on her studies. Her father and brothers warned her not to, ‘go to anyone’s home or car.’ She thought this was a good idea and decided to always follow this advice.
In her second year their advice was put to its first test when she met a Syrian man. “We actually met online,” said Nour, somewhat quietly. Nour’s friends had showed her a site called, Arab Talk. She started going there regularly, just to talk with people, but wound up meeting someone especially interesting. “After three or four months we fell in love.”
Following her family’s advice, she never went home with him but sometimes they would meet at a restaurant. Eventually the man met Nour’s parents but, “They weren’t into him. They told me, ‘You can do better. You’re going to become a lawyer.'” His family didn’t like Nour either. She was Palestinian and he was Syrian, which members of both families had a problem with. Particularly the man’s mother.
Nour’s boyfriend was the jealous type. He wanted her to wear a veil, and didn’t want her to wear makeup. He also didn’t want her to have a Facebook account. Nour didn’t have an account, but through a friend, she saw his profile. Then she understood. “His profile was full of girls and he was clearly cheating on me.” Nour was heartbroken. “I cried so much because of that guy.”
In her third year of university, Nour began to focus on criminal law. When she was a girl, she had read Agatha Christie. “Her investigations were a big inspiration for me,” she says. Nour wanted to eventually become a judge, a job that would suit her strong personality and rationality. Recalling her decision, Nour explains, “I had ideas about developing my country. I believe countries should be built with fairness. The world would be better if it could be fair.” Nour eventually wanted to become a judge for the United Nations. On the final exam for her third year she got 96/100. “I tried so hard to get 100% ! But the professors never actually give 100%. That’s their style.” says Nour.
During her fourth year of university, the first signs of war came to Nour’s neighborhood. “When the protests began, nobody knew that war would follow.” According to Nour, when a protest went through her neighborhood the police did nothing until someone shot at them. Then the police returned fire. The shooting continued until 2:00am.
In the coming weeks things only heated up. “When the first bomb exploded people ran out of their apartments to try to find where the sound came from. People were shouting, but just as when she was a child in the park, she wasn’t scared. “To be honest, I didn’t care that much,” admits Nour.
Things were different when more violence came to her neighborhood. She felt faint. “Everybody was hiding. There was fighting. There was gunfire. The sounds of automatic weapons echoed across the buildings. There were also heavier weapons, like the kind of weapons that attach to cars.” The buildings shook from the noise and the shelling. The power went out. Nour looked out her window and saw that the battle was directly under her building. After six hours it finally stopped.
Soon after that, Nour was at her university waiting to meet up with her friends. She had been waiting for a while. “I kept wondering, ‘Where are they? Where are they?’ Then I saw them. They were flying. Then I woke up in the hospital.”
In the hospital Nour didn’t appear too hurt from the shell that had killed her friends, but she had a high fever. “Something was seriously wrong with me. My muscles were feeling weaker every day.” The doctors decided that the fever had moved into her nerves. They did an operation to try to save her nerves, but after the operation, Nour was unable to move her feet, wrists, and hands. From that day forward, she has been unable to walk or use her hands.
In the hospital she became extremely depressed. Her hands and feet were curled and paralyzed. Her friends had been killed in front of her. “I had a fiance who left me after hearing about my condition. I was so tired.” Her mood was black. The doctors worried about her and sent her to Lebanon. Her mother and one of her brothers, who had been hurt by a separate explosion, came with her.
In Lebanon, Nour moved to a Palestinian area. Technically it was an old Palestinian “refugee camp.” In reality, it was more like a poor suburb. As the months and then years passed by, and the war in Syria became worse, Nour refused to abandon her dreams. “If I stopped caring about my future, I would whither away.” says Nour. She repeated this many times throughout the interview.
Nour still wanted to complete her school and become a judge. She was only four classes away from graduating. However, now she had the added complication of needing an operation to fix her hands and feet. “The only place I can get this kind of operation is Europe,” explains Nour. Unfortunately, being Palestinian as well as being a refugee, banned her from using any kind of legitimate travel options.
Currently, our international legal system has removed all obstacles for the Western college student who want to spend their spring break partying in Berlin, but locked out the college student who needs to finish their studies to become a judge in a nation in need of justice, as well as an operation to save her feet and hands.
After waiting for three years in Lebanon, Nour decided to try another way. The plan was to go to Turkey, from Turkey to Greece, and from Greece to Germany, where she could have her operation, and continue her studies.
Nour couldn’t fly straight from Lebanon to Turkey, so she had to go back to Syria first. It was a little tricky because of the travel restrictions for Palestinians, but she was able to find a way for her mother, her brother, and her to do it. Her first stop was Damascus. After three years she was finally back home, but she couldn’t stay. If the rest of her family knew that she was in Damascus, they would prevent her from going further. “They knew how dangerous it was. I couldn’t even say, ‘hello’ to them. It was so hard.”
From Damascus, Nour, her mother, and her brother, flew to Qamishli; a border city between Syria and Turkey. In Qamishli they joined a group of 35-40 people. A lot of the group consisted of children. The smugglers gave them a little food, though it had gone bad. There was no bathroom, especially not for people who couldn’t use their legs, and Nour was also on her period. They stayed there for a night waiting for the smugglers to tell the group when and and where to go. The smugglers told the group they would have a 10- 15 minute window in which they could travel. They warned the group, ‘If you fall, get up right away. If you see someone fall, just keep running. You don’t have time to stop.’ The man carrying Nour wasn’t sure if he could make it in time. The smugglers also told them that the route was through a minefield, so they had to twist and turn through the wilderness in a specific way to avoid the mines. Nour became afraid and got a fever. Suddenly the smugglers told them to go.
The first man carrying her fell down twice. He hurt his hand. Nour was passed to another man. She was carried over his shoulder. It wasn’t very comfortable. Then she was passed to another. She recalls, “We could hear the Turkish border patrol coming so we all laid down. The patrol didn’t see us.”
Finally, they were able to cross the border into Turkey. Smugglers immediately packed them into a windowless minibus and drove to Mardin, a Turkish city close-by. The bus was designed to hold 20 people, but 40 of them had been packed in. In the bus Nour couldn’t breath well, but she was so happy to have crossed the border. The smugglers told them, “Tomorrow you’ll be in Izmir. The next day, you’ll be in Greece. After that, Germany.” It sounded so simple, but the border crossing took a toll on her frail mother. Nour’s mother became sick and disoriented. Nour couldn’t leave her. Her friends left with the smugglers the next day. “They are living in Germany and the Netherlands now. They call me sometimes.” says Nour in a matter-of-fact tone.
After her mother recovered, a relative that told them to go to the coastal city of Didim, which was only 11.5 kilometers away from the Greek island of Farmakonisi. The relative told them that he would help them find a smuggler to Farmakonisi. They stayed in Didim in a hotel, waiting night after night. After waiting for 12 nights, they decided to go to Izmir to find a smuggler themselves.
In Izmir, they were able to find another smuggler, and joined with a group of 50 refugees. When night fell, they were led to a boat. It took the group an hour to walk to the boat. On the walk, Nour was carried by a Turkish man. “He was very scared. I could tell it was his first time doing this kind of thing.”
When the group reached the boat, it was obvious that it was far too small to hold them. There were 50 people, including children and babies, but it could only fit around 20. The driver of the boat told them they had no choice but to get in. The only alternative was to go back into the forest “…but the forest had dangerous animals and mafia prowling it,” explains Nour.
The smugglers draped Nour on the side of the boat and tied her legs together to keep them from flailing. She was very uncomfortable. “I prayed because I thought that this could be the last [hour] of my life.” After the boat starting moving, Nour started checking the GPS on her phone. She realized they weren’t going to Greece. “We were just going along the coast! We spent 30 minutes along the coast of Turkey. I think the boat driver was too scared to go to Greece.”
After half an hour, the driver thought he heard the Turkish Coast Guard coming. He panicked and crashed the boat against the rocks. The overcrowded boat quickly began filling with cold winter sea water. The driver jumped into the sea and swam away. Other men did the same. Those who couldn’t swim away began screaming. “We were sinking into the rocks, but I wasn’t scared. Believe me, I wasn’t scared.”
After 30 minutes, the Turkish Coast Guard actually came. The Coast Guard and the refugees tried speaking to each other, but nobody could understand because of the language barrier. “All I understood them say was, ‘No Greece.'”
After the Coast Guard rescued what was left of the group, they were taken to a detention center. “We were wet and it was cold. They made us sit on the floor, which was also cold. We were made to sit there for 12 hours; wet, cold, and starving. I realized I had lost everything in the boat crash: my passport, my papers, my clothes, everything. I had nothing left.” After being released, the Turkish guards told the group that they were free to leave, but not to try to go to Greece again. Nour told them, “Of course I won’t leave. I love Turkey.”
After the failed attempt to go to Greece, most of the group went to Izmir to get their money back from the smugglers. The smugglers were reluctant to comply until a rich man in the group was able to make some convincing threats. With most of their money back, the group went back to Didim and found a different smuggler. “A deal was made and we were put into a hotel room. We had to stay very quiet there. We couldn’t turn on the light at night, and in the day there wasn’t much light our room. There were no windows.”
Again, a small windowless bus came to pick the group up. But this time Nour couldn’t get in the bus. She was claustrophobic. “I just couldn’t go in.” She recalls. “It was made to fit 15 people, but there were 40 of us.” Her mother went in the bus, but the smugglers decided to put Nour into a separate car. “This would have been OK,” says Nour, “except the driver wasn’t sober. He had brought his girlfriend along and they were drinking together. What should have been a short drive took an hour. We drove through strange back-streets and weird places.”
Nour finally made it to the boat, but before they could take off, they heard the police coming. They ran into the forest. “We could see that the police were looking for us. We stayed still in the forest. It was so cold. Then we could hear the mafia looking for us. We knew it was the mafia because they acted and sounded different. “…We could see their flashlights searching the forest for us. We got down and hid.” While they were hiding, Nour could hear the howls of wolves and wild dogs. She was especially worried that a snake would find her in the darkness.
“We weren’t sure what to do. We decided to walk back. Since we came by car we knew it would be a long walk back, especially in the forest.” Her mother had to carry Nour and she fell many times. Her brother tried to carry her, but being weak from a bomb explosion in Syria, he also fell.
“After walking for hours like this we saw yellow lights. It was a house! We approached the house and we were attacked by guard dogs.” Suddenly the guard dogs were called off. A man approached the group. “He saw that there were children with us and hurried us into his house. Being in the house was wonderful. It was so warm. So, so, warm. …The man of the house told us how dangerous this area was. He told us that there were, ‘Lots of mafia and wild animals.’ …He drove us the hour back to Didim.”
Back in Didim, Nour’s relative introduced the family to a different smuggler. By this time, the borders between Greece and Europe were closing completely, so people were getting desperate, including the Arab workers of the smugglers. Unusually, the Arab smugglers would be travelling with them the whole way to Europe, because this was also their last chance to escape.
On the journey to the boat, an Iraqi man carried Nour. In the darkness of the forest at night, he thought Nour was a boy. “It was better he thought I was a boy, if you know what I mean.” recalls Nour. “The man kept telling me, ‘Don’t be scared, don’t be scared,’ but the smugglers were carrying weapons to protect us against the mafia, which scared me.”
When they got to the boat, Nour was put in the center. Someone was sitting on her legs, which was painful, but she didn’t want to say anything because if they tried to change positions, they might rock the boat and collapse it. After they set off to Greece, something went wrong and they spun in circles for while. After that, the motor died. People began to panic. They were saying the boat was sinking, though Nour could see that it wasn’t. Their panicking however, did start to collapse the boat. Things were getting dangerous.
The Coast Guard eventually found them and brought them back to the same detention center. This time the group was held for two days. Again, they had to sit on the freezing floor. Again, in wet clothes. Again, without food.
“We were so hungry. …Then the guards told us they were going to send us to a hotel. Instead, they put us on a bus that drove for eight hours. We were still without food. …and they began beating people. They beat a two year old child for playing. I was sure they were going to beat me as well.” Nour began to feel sick and faint again.
When the bus reached Izmir, they dropped everyone off on the street and drove away. Soon after, a smuggler took Nour and her family into an apartment. He told them he could take them to Greece. They gave him the last of their money and he ran off with it. “We had no money left so we had to sleep on the street in Basmane.” Her brother and mother were frail. They were defenseless. It was a dark time.
Then an Arab journalist discovered the family and put them in a hotel. A Norwegian journalist was also able to help. “Things are better now but I still don’t know how I’m going to pay the rent this month.” says Nour.
Two months ago, a man from the anarchist collective was brought to the family. He introduced the collective to Nour and her brother. Describing the collective Nour says, “They has helped me so much. They don’t have money, but they do their best. There are people from different countries and they have different skills. It’s nice to hang out there, and it helps me improve my English. …they don’t treat me like a ‘refugee.’ When I’m there, I’m just a friend. …Sometimes we hang out there, sometimes we leave Basmane together and get some fresh air by the sea.”
Since living on the street, there is no doubt that Nour is in a better place now. A friend has set up a crowdfunding page to help her raise funds so she can legitimately get to Germany, get her operation, and complete her Law degree. (Which you can find here: https://www.youcaring.com/noor-oghlo-592524) A British doctor has recently visited Nour and told her that with help she, “is likely that she could make a full recovery.” Other volunteers and friends (usually volunteer-turned-friends) have started looking for other ways to help her. She is also fortunate in that her mother is also the best cook in Basmane.
When speaking of Nour, there is a universal love for her. She has a way of bringing everyone together and putting a smile on their faces. One volunteer-turned-friend writes, ” [Nour] is one of the smartest and most vibrant people I met during the month and a half I just spent in Turkey.” Another writes, “…after the bombs, the fleeing, after crossing the formidably lethal Turkish border and having her dinghy sink on her way to Greece in the night, she’ll tell you in perfect English with a smile on her face that these hurdles just make things a little more exciting.”
However, while the support of friends and volunteers is good to have, it never lasts long. Both of these friends have left Turkey since meeting Nour. As will I, and all the other volunteers she meets in Turkey. Luck and fortune in Basmane is relative. While Nour has the support of an international group of kind-hearted people, she still doesn’t know how she’s going to pay the rent this month. At the moment this future judge still balances on the fine line between living in the street, or sleeping with a pillow.
I originally started writing this about someone I met in Basmane, but I’ve decided to make that an entirely different article. This one will just be about Basmane. The second article will be about the woman I met.
I live in the city of Izmir, which is on the west coast of Turkey; a giant country that forms a three-way bridge between the Middle East, Asia, and Europe.
I arrived in Izmir on New Year’s Eve, December 31, 2015. Shortly afterward I began working with the large population of Syrian refugees that came here with the intention of smuggling themselves to the Greek islands just off the coast of Turkey.
Most of the refugees in Izmir live in a neighborhood called Basmane. It is in an old section of the city, built on the side of a hill. Basmane is made up almost entirely of apartments converted from ancient mansions, abandoned churches, and other structures built a dozen generations ago. The apartments are in a state of arrested repair, or simply falling apart, but their aged beauty still reverberates down every street.
The streets in Basmane are narrow enough to feel like alleyways, although sometimes these alleyways skirt vast undeveloped fields where Roman ruins lay untouched by museums or tourists. At the top of the neighborhood there is an empty castle whose origins change with every person I ask.
I do not know the history of Basmane but I believe the street layout was planned by giving a one year child a crayon and paper and telling them to have a go at it. To complicate things more, all the streets are randomly numbered rather than named. It’s almost impossible to remember addresses and give directions. For example, here are directions for the half-mile walk from the train station to the castle:
Take 1297 street to 967 street. 967 street turns into 1291 street, which turns into 954 street, then turn right at 1021 street, then turn right 1023 street, which becomes 1008 street. Turn right on 5262 street then right 5263 street, then right on 5260 street, then right on 5264 street, then right on 5250 street, which will bring you to the castle 🙂
I’m not complaining. Basmane is my favourite place in Izmir. I spend most of my time there. Packed to the brim with people from every part of Syria and Iraq, I hear languages that haven’t been named and see clothes I cannot describe. The streets are lined with grandmas who look at least 150 and full of packs of playing children. Because I teach the children (and some adults) here, I am always recognized. Most of what I hear when I walk through the streets is, “ ‘ello! ‘ello! ‘ello!” Children shouting from the windows, from the streets above and below me, sometimes even from the cars, “ ‘ello! ‘ello! ‘ello!” It is a neighborhood full of life, action, and laughter.
Of course, it is also a neighborhood of hardship. Only the smugglers, the mafia, and a few volunteers choose to live in Basmane. The rest are here because of other reasons. Recently, I’ve had time to start asking how people how they got here.
Which leads me to the second part…
(which can be read here: https://fromizmirwithlove.wordpress.com/2016/07/12/nour/)