I met “Laila” when I was an English teacher volunteering with ReVi (Refugee Volunteers of Izmir.) As usual, I came into the classroom a few minutes early. But this time, instead of finding the usual Arabic teacher commanding the class, I found a striking young woman with black eyes dancing wildly in front of captivated children.
As she danced, the children danced. She danced to the left, then all the children followed her to the left. She danced right, and they followed her to the right. She gestured wildly and the sea of children before her, followed her movements with their arms. Then, when the song was over, she looked at me and said “Hello!” and bolted out of the room.
I soon found out that this dance instructor was also a journalist. Since then, Laila’s interviews with the Syrians of Izmir have been the main source for the articles I write. I hope that they will continue to be a source for my articles long after I leave.
Along with being a dance instructor and a journalist, Laila is also a fashion diva. Every time I see her, she is wearing something completely insane and pulling it off like a boss. Like an ember that never goes out, dancing high into the night sky, she is a bright light in Basmane; the large Syrian neighborhood here in Izmir, Turkey.
I had wanted to interview Laila about her fashion for months, but the language barrier had always been a problem. Now, with her English improved, we were able to talk vogue.
Before the interview, I met her and her mother after dance class, and the three of us walked up to her flat in the heart of Basmane. While she changed in and out various outfits, I talked with her mother in a mix of French, English, and Arabic. Laila periodically popped out of her room and re-translated and elaborated on our conversation for us. After capturing her three favourite outfits on film, we sat together and she explained the fashion to me.
“This is a good summer outfit. It’s a ‘blouza’ (blouse) and ‘tanoura’ (long skirt.) The pattern of the skirt is ‘zakhrafa’ which means something like, “old art.” When I wear this I feel happy and energized, and also relaxed because the shirt is light. It’s something I wear with friends. For example, last weekend I went shopping with my girlfriends and this was the outfit I wore.
Now about the shoes. They are white, which is my favourite colour for shoes. I only wear these shoes with this skirt. I got these shoes, like most of my clothes, in Kameralti [the gigantic bazaar close by.]”
“Yellow is my favourite colour. When I wear yellow, I feel energetic. It is the colour of the sun – of light. I usually like things simple and plain, which is what I like about the shirt. It’s feels light and free. I love jeans like this; bedazzled, and ripped a little. I have many pairs of pants that are ripped like this. The shoes are not exclusive to this outfit. They’re great for any of my other yellow clothes. This is an outfit for everyday.”
“I wear this outfit in winter because it keeps me warm when it’s cold out. I’m happy in this outfit because it makes me feel like a princess. It could also use a necklace, but the necklace would need to be a dark colour, unlike the light necklaces I have. I like these shoes because they’re simple and the black matches well. This is a great outfit for parties and special occasions. This is what I wore on my birthday.”
“I got this earring in Syria a long time ago- four years ago. I was 15 years old. I like the feeling of the feather, and the beads add to the old-style vintage look. It’s part of a pair, although the other earring of the pair is different.”
“Since I was a little girl I’ve always loved owls. I don’t have any brothers or sisters, so every time I was alone, like in the evenings, I felt alone like an owl. Also, she has black eyes, and I have black eyes. I got these earrings recently from a Syrian friend who lives in Istanbul.”
“I got this necklace from another Syrian friend who was here in Izmir. Now she lives in Sweden. I wear it all the time.”
“I like music so much. In my dance school in Syria, my teacher played a little guitar, and it reminds me of my teacher.”
There was one piece of jewelry I wanted to ask Liala about, but I couldn’t take a photo of. She had a small black jewel on her nose.
FIwith<3: I have to ask about the nose piercing. Is this a common thing in Syria?
Laila: No. But it is in Istanbul, where I used to live.
FIwith<3: And what do your parents think of it?
Laila: My dad – NO. He didn’t like it, but now he’s OK with it. My mother’s fine with it.
FIwith<3: Why did you get it?
Laila: I don’t know, I was in the mall with my girlfriend, who also had a nose piercing, and I saw a place where I could get it done. So, I got a small and simple nose piercing. I don’t like them big, just small and simple and black like the owl eyes.
[Glasses with fake plastic lenses] “I had real glasses in Syria but my prescription has changed. Now I wear contacts with the correct prescription. But I like glasses with big frames, so I have these fake ones that I wear with my contacts.”
These three outfits only scratch the surface of Laila’s style. After the interview, she sent me a digital mountain’s worth of photographs of gear and garments from her wardrobe.
“I care about the clothes I chose,” she said while contemplating about her style, “I feel confident and I also sometimes like to be different and distinct …but in a good way.”
This summer I spent more time in Izmir’s Syrian neighborhood of Basmane than anywhere else. One of the reasons I like Basmane so much is that it’s one of the most diverse places in Turkey. The population of Basmane consists almost entirely of refugees from every part of Syria. This means I can have coffee with an atheist Yazidi Kurdish intellectual from a mountain city, and go next door and have coffee with an Arab devout Muslim trucker from a tiny village in the middle of the desert.
Without the normal social prisms that determine where people live based off of race, religion, social status, or money, Basmane has become a neighborhood of Syria’s bright stars, all concentrated into a single neighborhood.
One of Basmane’s brightest stars is Nour, a 19 year old Syrian woman. I met Nour while I was teaching at a volunteer-run school for Syrian children. She was the dance teacher. I was the English teacher. Later, I heard that she also wrote for the Arabic facebook page of ReVi, which is the organization that we volunteer under.
A couple months ago ReVi started a project where we gave children disposable cameras. The children took photos throughout their neighborhood. An idea for a book sprung from this project. To give the photos more context, we decided to interview the children of Basmane.
After interviewing the children, Nour wrote articles from them. Because the articles were written in Arabic, I enlisted the help of a couple more Syrians, in order to translate and edit what Nour had written.
These are the articles Nour wrote. According to everyone who has read Nours writing, she has a unique style, and it’s very beautiful. As an editor, I hope I have done these articles justice. Note: I have changed all the names of the children.
Nadia (written by Nour. translated by Ali. edited by Zac.)
Nadia was a shy 10 year old child who was full of dreams. When I asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up, she told me she wanted to be a famous singer like Arabic popstar Nancy Ajram. “She’s my idol,” said Nadia. We talked a lot. I started the interview with a question about her friends.
Nour: Do you have any friends in Izmir?
Nadia: I have one friend here. They’re Syrian like me. I don’t have any Turkish friends. I don’t think the Turkish people have love for me.
Nadia then started talking about the photography project they did. “I was so happy when we were running through Izmir’s streets and taking photos. It was a really great day. When I saw the photos I felt proud of myself. I want to have another day like that.”
I asked Nadia about her dreams about the future.
Nadia: I would like to travel the world and discover everything, and I’d really like to see Canada.
Nour: Why Canada?
Nadia: I don’t know, but I’d like to see it.
After that we talked about school.
Nadia: I was studying in Syria. I wanted to keep going to school there, but because of the war, I couldn’t. I also study here but I’m not happy.
Nadia: I don’t know why. Maybe I’m afraid. Maybe I can’t cope.
I got the feeling that she was scared in general, not just about school. Everything for her was unknown. She didn’t have confidence in herself. I changed the subject back to Syria.
Nour: If you could send a message to Syria, what would you say?
Nadia: I hope everything is beautiful in Syria. I don’t want to see children without education, or crying. I want to see everybody happy. Enough war. I don’t want to see people carrying weapons. I just want to plant love and flowers.
Aysha (written by Nour, translated by Noor, edited by Zac.)
Aysha, ten years old, told me that she loves reading and writing, but she’s still a beginner. She dreamed of being a teacher for children. She has four friends in Izmir, all of them Syrian. She loves them very much.
Aysha had a lot of things to say about the war, violence, and sadness because she had direct experience with them. I was struck by her intelligence, clarity, and maturity. She talked like an adult, or maybe better. She told me about everything she saw in the war.
“There was killing, blood, violence, right in front of me. Everything was so difficult. In the beginning I was afraid of everything, but eventually what I saw gave me strength instead of weakness. I have a lot of faith in Syria. I think it will go back to like it was before the war. Just like with me, the terrible things that Syria has witnessed will make it stronger. But it’s still hard to watch right now. I don’t watch the news because I don’t want to see my homeland like this. I want to see it be beautiful again.”
After that, we talked about Aysha’s situation in Turkey. She explained the difference between life in Syria and life in Turkey.
“My life here is not beautiful. Turkish language is not beautiful. It’s hard. I can’t learn it. As for school, I can’t learn there either.”
I asked her, “Why? What’s stopping you?”
She replied, “The world here doesn’t love me. We are Syrians and [the Turkish people] try to shame me for it. They want me to be embarrassed because I’m from Syria. But I’m not embarrassed. Never! I am proud that I’m Syrian. So many Turkish children give us a hard time. When they see a Syrian, they shout bad words. That makes me feel angry. I don’t want to stay here. My only dream is to come back to my homeland. I don’t want anything else.”
Kemal (written by Nour. translated by Noor. edited by Zac.)
Kemal was a fifteen year old young man who traveled from his home in Syria, to Izmir, Turkey. In Syria he studied up to the ninth grade, but couldn’t go further because he had to flee the war. He still dreams of becoming a nurse. In the future he wants to build a medical center.
When I first started talking to him, I felt that he was closed off. I couldn’t be sure, but there seemed to be a certain sadness in his eyes. It was like there were many things inside him that were sad and painful.
We start talking about his job and how employers and others treated him. “My job is to sew. Most of the Syrians who are living in Turkey work in this field.” He talked about how hard is it to work in Turkey, and the difference between Syria and Turkey. He saw big difference in treatment between the Turkish laborers and Syrian laborers.
“A Syrian laborer is not allowed to do anything, but it’s exactly the opposite of the Turkish workers. In Syria there was time for everything. We could work, study, relax, have fun, etc. But in Turkey most of the time is spent working. It’s unfulfilling but I have to do it!” I asked him why he had to work so hard. His answer surprised me.
“I am alone here. My family isn’t with me. They are still in Syria. I talk to them once a month because the internet is so poor right now. That’s why I can’t contact my family. I’ve been away from them for nine months now.”
He had been holding back from crying, but wasn’t able to control himself after saying, “I really miss my family.” It is really affected me to see someone who misses their family so much, without being able to contact them. Kemal began talking with me about his thoughts of going back to Syria, but an auntie intervened, not letting him talk about that.
I persisted, asking him, “Why did you decide to go back to Syria?” He told me, “It isn’t enough for me to be near my family. I don’t want to just send them money every month, I want to go to my home with this money.”
He ended the interview by saying, “You shouldn’t ask Syrians these kind of questions, because you are just like us. You got hurt and you have seen everything in this war.”
From all of my heart, I wish that peace returns to my country. I want to go back too.
Arabic versions written by Nour. Names are changed to different names, but the children are the same.
أحمد شاب عمره خمسة عشر عاماً سافر من وطنه سوريا إلى تركيا تحديداً إزمير وقد درس للصف التاسع لكنه لم يحصل على الشهادة بسبب الحرب و السفر كان يحلم ان يصبح ممرض وان يكون له مركز لمساعدة المرضى .
عندما بدأت بالتحدث معه شعرت بأنه منطوي و بداخله اشياء كثيرة ربما هي حزينة او مؤلمة لا اعلم ولكني قد رأيت الحزن في عينيه .
بدأنا بالتحدث عن عمله وعن طريقة تعامل الناس معه في العمل او في غير مكان فكان جوابه ” عملي هو الخياطة وانتي تعلمين معظم السوريين الذي يقيمون في تركيا يعملون في هذا المجال وقد تكلم عن مدى صعوبة العمل في تركيا والفرق الكبير بين سوريا وتركيا وفرق التعامل بين العامل التركي والعامل السوري فالعامل السوري مشدد عليه بكل شيئ اما العامل التركي العكس تماماً .
في سوريا يوجد وقتٌ لكل شيئ للعمل وللدراسة للراحة والتسلية اما في تركيا معظم الوقت في العمل هذا لا يشعرني بالرضى لكني مجبر على ذلك . !
وهنا كان السؤال لما انت مجبر ؟
هنا كانت الصدمة فكانت إجابته ” انا وحيداً هنا وعائلتي ليست معي هي في سوريا إلى الآن أخبرني ايضاً مرة واحدة في الشهر اتكلم معهم بسبب الظروف القاسية للإنترنت لا استطيع التواصل مع عائلتي وانا منذ تسع شهور بعيد عنهم شعرت وكأنه سوف يبكي وقد حصل ذلك عندما قال لي حقاً اشتقت لعائلتي ..
شيئ محزن ان تشتاق لأحد و يكون في مكان بعيد عنك ولا توجد طريقة للوصول إليه ..
أحمد حدثني عن تفكيره في العودة إلى سوريا ولكن عمته التي يسكن في بيتها منعته من حدوث ذلك .
كان سؤالي لماذا فعلت ذلك وقررت العودة إلى سوريا ؟
” يكفيني ان أكون إلى جانب عائلتي لا ان ارسل لهم كل شهر مبلغ من المال اريد ان اذهب مع هذا المال إلى وطني وبيتي ”
في النهاية قال لي لا يجب أن تسألي اي شخص سوري مثل هذه الأسئلة فأنتي مثلنا ايضاً تألمتي و ورأيتي كل شيئ في هذه الحرب .
آتمنى من كل قلبي ان يعود السلام لوطني وان أعود انا لوطني ايضاً .
طفلة في العاشرة من عمرها خجولة جداً لكن حلمها آن تصبح مغنية مشهورة مثل الفنانة نانسي عجرم قالت لي بأنها قدوة بالنسبة لها .
تحدثنا كثيراً كانت بداية اسئلتي عن الاصدقاء هل لديها اصدقاء هنا ام لا ؟
آخبرتني لديي صديقة واحدة فقط هنا هي من سورية ايضاً وليس لدي اصدقاء من تركيا لانني اشعر انهم لآ يحبوني .
ايضاً آخبرتني ” احب التصوير و ايضاً كنت سعيدة جداً عندما تجولنا في شوراع ٱزمير وبدأنا بالتصوير كان يوم رائع بالنسبة لي وعندما رأيت الصور شعرت بالفخر بنفسي واريد مثل هذا اليوم مرة ثانية ”
حدثتني عن آحلامها ان تجول العالم وتكتشف كل شيئ لكن البلد الذي تحب آن تزوره ” كندا ” لا تعلم السبب لكنها تحبه .
ثم تحدثنا عن المدرسة فقالت لي لقد درست في سوريا وكنت آتمنى أن آكمل لكن بسبب الحرب لم استطيع وهنا ايضاً أدرس لكن لست سعيدة لا ادري لماذا .. !
ربما الخوف او ربما عدم التأقلم شعرت بأنها تخاف من كل شئ جديد او مجهول وليس لديها ثقة في نفسها ..
بعد ذلك كان سؤالي لها ” لو طلبنا منك أن ترسلي رسالة ٱلى سوريا ماذا ستكتبين ضمن هذه الرسالة ؟
أجابتني ” آتمنى لسوريا كل شيئ جميل لا اريد أن ارى طفل بدون دراسة او طفل يبكي اريد ان ارى الجميع سعداء يكفي حرب لا اريد ان ارى سلاح بيد احد اريد فقط أن نزرع ورود وحب “
نور : عمرها عشر سنوات تحب القراءة والكتابة لكنها مبتدئة حلمها آن تصبح معلمة للاطفال . لديها آربع اصدقاء في إزمير وتحبهم كثيراً هم ايضاً من سوريا . حدثتني عن اشياء كثيرة عن الحرب العنف الحزن الذي مرت به تكلمت وكأنها فتاة راشدة كانت تتقن وتعلم ما تتكلمه وتخبرني عنه .. ” قالت لقد شاهدت كل شيئ الحرب القتل الدم العنف امامي كان كل شيئ صعب جداً بداية كنت اخاف من كل شيئ لكن هذا الشيئ مع الوقت منحني القوة وليس الضعف منحني الإرادة ايضاً ولذلك لدي إيمان قوي بأن سوريا سوف تعود مثل سابق عهدها لكني لا اشاهد الآخبار لانني لا اريد آن ارى وطني بهذا الشكل اريد ان اراها جميلة ” بعد ذلك حدثتني عن وضعها في تركيا وشرحت الفرق بين سوريا وتركيا من حيث الاصدقاء اللغة المدرسة ايضاً وقالت ” حياتي هنا ليست جميلة لغتهم صعبة ولا آتقنها ايضا ًدراستهم لا اريد ان آتعلمها وسألتها ماهو السبب ؟ أجابت ” أظن ان العالم هنا لا يحبوننا نحن السورين يريدون ان تكوني محرجة من آنك سوريا لكني لا اخجل من هذا الشئ ابداً بل افتخر أنني سورية . ايضاً هنالك اطفال اتراك هنا عندما يعلمون انك سوريا يصرخون بكلمات سيئة وهذا يشعرني بالغضب لا اريد ان ابقى هنا حلمي فقط آن اعود ٱلى وطني ولا اريد شيئاً آخر .. “