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!”
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.