The Black, the Grey, and the White; A brief exploration of the three cities of Iraqi Kurdistan.

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.

Part One

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.

IMG_20160713_172000694 (1).jpg
Bazaar close to the Dalphin Hotel.

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.

Seeing Jesus on my way back.

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.


American made mine.


“Mines which are found in Kurdistan are made by these countries.” Note the lack of Iraqi flag.
“Participating countries in Demining of Kurdistan.” 100% are Western countries.
Memorial to those killed by the mines they were trying to clear. It includes two dogs.

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.









According to a plaque, this method of torture was common and often fatal. During the liberation of the prison, someone was able to save the desk and torture device so they could show the world what had happened at this prison.

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.

One of the many murals of Sulaymaniyah.
The Black, the Grey, and the White; A brief exploration of the three cities of Iraqi Kurdistan.



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 before the war. Photo:

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.

Food line in Yarmouk, 2014. Photo by AP:

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.

Mardin. Photo:

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.

Overcrowded boat. Photo: 

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.”

Refugees being transported to a Turkish detention center. Photo:

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.

The coast of Didim, closer to the city. Photo:

“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.

The EU closing it’s borders. Photo:

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.

Photo of Basmane I took approximately the same that Nour arrived.

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: 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.

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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.

Streets of Basmane. Photo by Keli Scott

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 🙂

Basmane. Photo by Keli Scott

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:

Basmane. Photo by Keli Scott