One of the more useful purposes of social media is being able to stay in touch with my global network of friends and family while exploring events and issues within my local community. Thanks to a certain social media site, I stumbled across a post from a woman asking for help for Turkmen refugees in Mamak, a suburb in an older part of Ankara. So I filled my boyfriend’s car with clothing, dishes, and other random items to donate and off I went to Mamak on a sunny winter Saturday.
As I stood in the depot shivering from the February air, I gazed around at the numerous middle-aged men talking with the 2 Turkish ladies that had led me to said depot. There were piles of clothing strewn around the studio apartment-sized concrete walled space along with numerous bags of rice, legumes, sugar, bottles of sunflower cooking oil, and jars of tomato paste. My volunteer work in high school and university consisted of, well nothing I can remember, so I was a bit dumbfounded at what was going on. Obviously my lack of Turkish added to this confusion, but I tried to absorb all the sights, sounds and smells I could ingest.
After a lot of back and forth between the cast of characters I was observing, I went upstairs from the depot, with the locals, to the Cağdaş supermarket to buy baby food and bags of rice, legumes, sugar and jars of tomato paste, which filled the shopping cart to the brim. The massive amount of packaged food in one basket was something I had only seen at wholesale stores. This was when I realized there was an issue here.
Iraqi Turkmens fled their hometowns in the Tal Afar and Mosul districts in northwestern Iraq when ISIL invaded their cities over a year ago. While I don’t personally categorize people (aside from asshole and non-asshole), national conflict, sectarian violence and cross-border war is a result of pigeonholing people for being who they are; whether they claim certain ethnic or religious associations, or are competing for oil. The divisions created among people because someone’s grandfather may have been born near a river in a perceived holy town and may or may not be of a certain descent is a fucking waste of time. I could get into the clusterfuck of ethnic backgrounds in this region and explain that Turkic people exist from the borders of China and Pakistan to the shores of the Bosphorus and beyond who sometimes prosper and are most often oppressed, is best left to social anthropologists. I will say I have been working with Turkmen from Iraq and leave it at that. Differentiating between Sunni, Shiite or Christian is pointless when people are suffering the same fate of displacement and persecution.
When I met the group of volunteers from Iraq (refugees themselves) in the basement of a supermarket, I didn’t quite understand the gravity of the situation. Nearly one year into my attempt to save the world through volunteering with the grassroots organization Birlik, I have a bit more grasp on the situation, but more importantly I have a greater understanding of the impact of war on people, communities and countries.
Over 25,000 people-the numbers change almost daily- of all ages have come to Ankara to live in safety, however they don’t intend to stay. There is a camp in Gaziantep in southeastern Turkey, but conditions are terrible according to a family that recently moved to Ankara. Some evacuees in Ankara ran out of money- jobs are near impossible to find in Turkey as the economy is in a rut not to mention the country is trying to accommodate nearly 2 million refugees from Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria among some African countries- returned home to Iraq only to discover it was a grave mistake.
On the first day of my new journey, we (local ladies and Turkmen volunteers) went to visit a family in order to see their living situation. 34 people from 3 families were living in a 2-story flat. There were 2 sofas and numerous foam mattresses lining the walls. As I walked through the home, I saw the rooms were full of sleeping material and nothing more. I was relieved they at least had a soft space to rest their heads, but little else existed there. Compared to the tarp walls of camps millions are living in from Jordan to France, I supposed it was a blessing to live within a concrete structure.
The following months I would visit different families to take toys, books and sweets to the children. I quickly came to learn this was much like putting a band aid on a scraped knee. It was pointless. After all, people- mostly women and children as men have died or stayed behind-were living in apartments, wore clean decent clothes and served us Iraqi tea with heaps of sugar. Disillusionment kicked in as the haunting images of refugees the media shows us is quite different than what I was witnessing. My perception of a “refugee” changed drastically.
Muhammed is a 10-year-old boy from Tal Afar who was near a suicide bomber when he was 2. Shrapnel from the bomb punctured his spine leaving him unable to walk. The family’s only request was for diapers. I went with 2 girlfriends to visit Muhammed and his family, which turned out to be a priceless encounter. Muhammed’s little sisters immediately went to my friends and the smiles were infinite. Though I felt I needed to do more than just visit a family bearing plush toys made in China and cheap chocolate, I realized that creating happiness by showing interest in the peoples’ stories was something better than nothing (from my perspective). When I asked Muhammed questions he answered with a bright smile though he was unable to speak. This was enough to become the driving force behind how I would try to save the world one refugee child at a time.
My close friend who fled Iraq 15 years ago, Mustafa, has been my foundation since the beginning. He is my translator and co-organizer for the events we have with the Turkmen. When he told me stories of trying to escape Iraq it seemed like I was listening to a horror movie script. Human perseverance is something extraordinary. The strongest statement he made regarding his past was that he didn’t have a childhood.
Fast forward a couple months to having lunch with two world-saving superwomen, one of whom works with violence against women here in Ankara. The organization she works for offers free psychological support to anyone, regardless if they have a Turkish ID or not. Great news I thought as the images of all the young women I had met flashed through my mind. So I took this information with pride to Haydar, one of the volunteers for Birlik “Together”, the organization that registers the Turkmen fleeing from Iraq to Turkey. He has become one of my dearest friends and biggest supporters in trying to help Iraqis transition into a new albeit temporary life. When I told him there is a place for women to get psychological support and did he know of any special cases, he laughed.
Haydar said everyone needs help. His daughter watched a man be decapitated in the street. Some children witnessed their brothers, fathers, or uncles being killed. I had no idea where to go from there.
This may seem far fetched, however there are many signs the Turkish government supports ISIL, in the likes of recruitment camps based in southeastern Turkey, evidence of fighters and weapons crossing the border into Syria freely and illegal oil trading between Turkey and ISIL. The Turks’ hatred for the Kurdish people- the only ethnic group fighting against ISIL in Iraq and Syria and winning- is so deep that they will support the crazy ISIL fucks reigning terror and destroying thousands of years of history they consider haram or forbidden in Islam. Yes, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) is a recognized terrorist group that has been waging a guerrilla war in Turkey for the past 30 years, but there is a misconception that Kurdish people support them so there is gaping wound between Turks and Kurds (Turks are mutts from the Ottoman Empire and Kurds are somewhat purebred- generally speaking of course), which is now fueling a civil war in southeastern Turkey at the moment. Innocent people are dying in the name of ethnicity and America is supporting both sides. Go figure. Let me not digress…
Haydar said organize a picnic so I did. Mustafa, an Irish angel Roisin and I worked a few stressful weeks to create a day of release for 100 women and children. We found a beautiful place, Mavi Gol, for people to run amuck and forget about their lives for a day. Boys played soccer until they couldn’t stand. Young women made jewelry until the beads were gone. My darling friends cooked chicken until they reeked of barbecue smoke. The day was finished with bashing a pinata to ensure the kids had bellies full of sweets. This was a superficial activity that may not create world peace, but the laughter that ensued undoubtedly lasted for days and that was the point. The lovely volunteers consisted of people from Ecuador, Japan, Laos, Vietnam, Spain, Libya, Iraq, Ireland, the U.S. and a few of my dearest Turkish friends who all worked their asses off. When I advertise volunteering to help refugees on social media many people show interest, however so few are willing to actually put in the work. Yet another lesson I have learned during this emigration crisis. Support is crucial.
In the fall of this year, I organized an English course for 11 youth aged 10-15 with a core team that is still standing. People have come and gone as many foreigners (Westerners) want to say they help refugees, but don’t have the heart or guts to actually do it, so there has been a lot of disappointment and empty promises along the way. Despite this, I charge forward in my plan to save the world!
Many kids don’t go to school here in Turkey for reasons varying from lack of Turkish language skills to mixed classrooms (Turkmen kids generally go to gender segregated schools) so we’re doing our part to keep a small, perhaps minute, percentage of a generation from being lost. For me at the moment the problem isn’t providing food to displaced people, but allowing minds and spirits to waste away. The idea of letting so many children live a life of despair is unacceptable.
I could go on for days about my experience with these souls searching for a life away from conflict, which has ignited emotions from incredibly enlightening to grossly disappointing, but I think you get the picture.
I gratefully ask you to think, just for a minute or 2, about the millions of people struggling for a better life around the world. If everyone can have a positive thought for a moment, the energy will combine and reach at least one individual that needs hope.
My heartfelt THANKS goes to all those that have supported me and continue to support me. You know who you are.