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.

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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.

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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.]”

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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: Bianet.org

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.

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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.

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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