The Twelfth Try

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.

Basmane. Photo: Johanna Pruessing

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.

Central Square in Raqqa. “Tomorrow will be better” is written on the fallen statue. Photo: Associated Press

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.]”

Syrian side of the infamous Bab al-Hawa border crossing. Ali and his family were taken back to Syria through this crossing many times.

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.

Wall between Syria and Turkey. Photo:

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.

View from Basmane. Photo: Johanna Pruessing

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.

Basmane. Photo: Johanna Pruessing

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!”

The Twelfth Try

The Children of Basmane

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.

(You can find more information about ReVi here.)

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.

Nancy Ajram

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.”

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Basmane. Child’s photo the ReVi photo project.

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.

Nour: Why?

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.

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Basmane. Child’s photo from the ReVi photo project.

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.

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Basmane. Child’s photo from the ReVi photo project.

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.”

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Basmane. Child’s photo from the ReVi photo project.

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.”

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Basmane. Child’s photo from the ReVi photo project.

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 . 💔

ريماس :
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 .. “
The Children of Basmane