I JUST REALIZED THAT I HAD ACCIDENTALLY POSTED A DOUBLE COPY OF DAY 12 AND HAD POSTED IT AS 13.1.. I JUST REDID 13.1 TO REFLECT WHAT ACTUALLY HAPPENED. I APOLOGIZE FOR THE ERROR. DAY 13.1 TRULY DID "TAKE THE CAKE" FOR A GOOD REASON. PLEASE RE-READ IT IF YOU HAVE NOT ALREADY.
If you are interested in hearing more about my trip to Turkey, I will be speaking this Saturday, December 1st, at Sahara Cafe in Pomona.
11am to 1:30 pm
12 Village Loop Rd. Suite A
Pomona, Ca 91766
Hi... Im back now, and working on compiling the rest of the stories.
Just celebrated Thanksgiving and this year I could feel every blessing in my bones, my non-broken bones that are in one piece. We are rich if we just have limbs that work and organs that don't have shrapnel in them. Lets truly be thankful for all that we have and let my stories serve to teach us that the simple things in life mean the most.
Thanksgiving and Black Friday overwhelm me. Thanksgiving makes me cry because I have too much. Especially after coming from a place where people have so little. Black Friday pisses me off because people wait in line for a stupid flatscreen t.v. and other things they don't need. It generally cancels Thanksgiving out.
I say I have too much because besides having air, I have both arms, legs, eyes, ears, a nose and a mouth and all are operating just fine. On top of that, I have my own place. Three rooms: One livingroom, my room, and the dining room and its all to myself. I even have a little art studio on top of a hill. I even have a beautiful little Garden and a huge communal garden and gosh darnit, I have the best landlord and best friend you could ever dream of. I have a family that knows how to crack jokes and am the proud owner of lots and lots and lots of warm blankets. I have a refrigerator and pantry that is full of food. And on top of all this, I will be eating more food than I can dream of soon and meat is a part of it.
Now by no means is my place HUGE. You could actually stand in the center of it and see everything. The tour is over. The thing about it though is that it feels like a mansion after what I saw. I can't even believe how much food I have and that I can imagine any menu I want for dinner and make it happen. I have every finger I need to open the fridge and the legs I need to stand up so I can cook. I don't have years worth of rehab and surgeries I need to just be able to function again in society. Most refugees I had were suffering some sort of physical problem, whether from the bombs and carnage or from the anxiety and stress of being a refugee. Many of them had heart problems and panic attacks. 12 people slept in one room. I'm sitting alone in my room typing this as we speak.
I got lucky that my parents risked so much to immigrate here. I owe my everything to them and will do all I can from here. I think of it as being the lucky one that is not there now who can try to get them out of this.
Im thankful for every threadcount on my blanket and for the fresh scent of clean clothes. I'm thankful I don't have shrapnel in my ear and a scar running through my eyes. I'm thankful my foot works and is not shattered into a million pieces. Heck, I'm thankful my right arm works. I don't have a bullet that went through my triceps and then through my forearm. I also don't have to put powdered cement on my arm if I had to stop the bleeding. If I get diabetes, I know that I can get medicine anywhere and won't have to lose my eye or my leg because of it. I also don't have to sleep on the floor next to 10 other people. I have MY OWN queen sized mattress. The more I write about what I have, the guiltier I feel, especially because I know I can keep writing and writing, and that if I were to ask a refugee to write about things they were thankful for, even the worst of the worst situations would have so much to be thankful for. The contrast is that they are simple people and find content in the little things. We Americans would have nothing to be thankful for if we were in their shoes. The refugees, with so little already, were so thankful they even made it across the border. We are talking about people who lost their families and homes, and were ending every other sentence with "Thank God for all I have".
So no, I don't need stuff. Im not married to it and stuff will dissapear. So Black Friday, you can go be ashamed of yourself somewhere. And Cyber Monday, and Tuesday and Wednesday and Thursday, go space out somewhere. I'm content in the wondrous knowledge that I have more than everything I need in my 700 square foot mansion surrounded by sycamore and oak trees. I am beyond rich, because being rich is a matter of perception. This is why I say Im rich. Now if I were to look at Bill Gates, who has more money than anyone can imagine, I would still consider myself extremely rich, because I am not measuring the richness of my life in money, but rather, space, friendship, not being deprived of food, and health of course.
" You have not converted a man because you have silenced him." - John Morley
MATCHING STORIES TO FACES
We hopped out of his truck and straight into a puddle of water. The rain was coming down heavy now and we ran into his building. As soon as he rang the doorbell, you could hear little children screaming "Baba Baba Baba!!!" in an excited frenzy. The door opened and instantly, 3 children stuck themselves like glue to him He walked into the house with one kid on each leg and the other around his waist. The women greeted us with such a warm greeting and invited us to sit down in their living room which like the other places we had visited, consisted of cushions on the floor.
I didn't realize how injured everyone in the room was at first because my heart was still guessing the thoughts that were in Abu-Mumtaz's head at the moment. I watched him lovingly cradle his three sons and tried comprehending the amount of appreciation and love he had for his remaining children. I wondered if he loved his only daughter more than his sons. If he could have chosen, and I know this is a horrible thing to think about, but would he have rather lost a son than his only daughter? Was he glad he didn't have to choose? I looked away from him and his 3 sons. I almost started crying again as I watched him handle his kids like they were treasures. I felt bad that he has to work so far away all the time delivering things and that the time that he is now here with his family, I had to rush him. He reminded me of a cat herding her kittens to stay close.
I started matching the stories from the car to the people that were in the room. Sitting across from me to my left was the pregnant woman with a shattered leg. No smile ever visited her face the entire time I was there. A huge scar running across her face described the fall she had taken. Directly to my left was the 74 year old mother-in-law with a missing leg. She was the most adorable old lady I had ever seen.. Her thin body, hooked nose, grey hair, and no teeth reminded me of a cartoon character. I tried not to keep looking at her missing leg. Abu-Mumtaz's words echoed in my mind as I looked at her "Is my 74 year old mother-in-law a terrorist?" Certainly not, I thought. Saddening how newspapers describe collateral damage so haphazardly- as an event; that once the words are read off the paper, the sorrow for having read it is to quickly disappear, as quickly as the ink was printed onto the paper. This room was the result of collateral damage. The little 5 year old son's scar running through his eye will always be a reminder to him of what he lived through when he was 5. Everytime that boy looks in the mirror as an adult, he will never forget. The wound will eventually become a part of his character and will be a reminder of the capability of human beings upon one-another.
Abu-Mumtaz's wife, Huda, came into the room and invited Aslan and I to come and eat lunch. ALthough there were many people in the house, everyone else waited to eat so that they could take turns using the plates and silverware. They also knew we had to leave soon. Mumtaz's mom and Huda, a lovely woman with big hazel eyes and plump rosy lips, joined us at the table. Abu-Mumtaz kissed her on the cheek and thanked her for all her hard work. We all sat down to eat the stuffed zuchinni, olives, and rice. I finally noticed Huda's face. Abu-Mumtaz saw me looking and then pointed to where the scar actually goes up to on her skull. Silence filled the room for a brief moment. Abu-Mumtaz's sister came into the room as well and sat near us watching us eat. His mom started telling the same stories Abu-Mumtaz told us. "We all lost family that day," she said. It goes in turns. She pointed at her daughter and said, "After Azaaz got attacked, her son joined the free army, he's probably next." Her daughter instantly started crying, then her, then Abu-Mumtaz, then Huda, then me, then Aslan. I couldn't eat. I felt like I was at a wholesale funeral. Yeah, the words wholesale and funeral should not go together, but this is the reality here.
Huda got up and grabbed tissues and handed them out to everyone.
"She was 7 years old. Seven," Abu-Mumtaz said.
"They took everything from us. Itbahdalna, Itbahdalna (Which is the arabic word for being emotionally robbed and humiliated)," his mom said.
"Praise be to God, this is our fate. One day your life is amazing, all the hard work you did in your life, building your home and family, it all gets taken in one day." Abu-Mumtaz said.
This family had so much pain. This was unbelievable. "We just want to go back to our lives, picking olives and sitting under the shade of our trees," his mom said. "No matter how nice the Turkish people are, or how nice Turkey is, nothing is as nice as your own country," She said.
After some more emotional conversations, Aslan, Abu-Mumtaz, and I got in the car and headed over to Samah's house. On the way over, I told Aslan I had some concerns about Samah.
THE JUDGEMENT CALL
"Listen, Sumaya is very good and she has already done so much work in going around visiting all the families, but she is restricted by her older brother and father. She comes from a very over-protective, male dominant family. Plus, there is something about her brother I don't trust. He was very pushy with me about taking all the resources and sending them into Syria. I worry a bit that although Sumaya might have good intentions of helping the families in this area, her dad and brother might overtake her work. Lets be cautious and observant today." I told her.
"I absolutely agree. These blankets and this money that you used to buy these blankets are an Amanih, (a trust), and we need to make sure she knows what she is doing."
"Sumaya will either kick butt at this and be better than you or I, or, she will let her brother and dad boss her around and be submissive. It could go this way or that way."
We were careful and ready.
SUMAYA AND THE 70 BLANKETS
We got to Sumaya's house, looked at the families she had visited and mapped out a chart.
"Samah, this is Aslan." I had said to her. "Aslan is a Med student and also works with the organization. She is very good at talking with families. These first families we visit, just watch how we work with them. Do not promise them anything. We will leave the blankets in the car until we see what they need then we will distribute them." I said to her.
"Okay." she agreed.
Sumaya, Zack, and her dad took one car and Abu-Mumtaz, Aslan, and I were in the truck following. It was raining and the unpaved red clay streets were becoming muddy and slick. We only had time for 5 houses total. The idea was to show Sumaya the ropes and let her finish the job. To train someone in this area to keep the work going.
It was Sunday and the fighting in Ras Al-Ain was very bad. Over 5,000 refugees crossed the border on this day and we were seeing the ones that had just come. The first family we visited had just arrived this morning. The woman had just given birth recently and had a 2 week infant. Since Aslan began a new pregnant refugee and nursing mom program, she took down her information. Her other daughter had huge open cuts that needed stitching from climbing over the barbed wired fence as many had done that day in a crazy frenzy to get out of Syria.
"How many blankets should we give them?" Sumaya asked.
Aslan and I looked at each other and in telepathic language came to a decision. We both put two fingers up. We came back with 2 blankets and the mom started crying and she looked away, off into the hills of Syria that you could see from her house.
"My entire life, I've always been used to giving to people. This is the first time in my life that I need to take from people. Please excuse my crying, I'm just not used to this."
Aslan, Sumaya and I hugged her and told her to stop crying. "Consider us family. If you need anything, please let us know."
"Please, won't you stay for a little?" she asked, wiping tears with her scarf.
"I'm sorry, we have so many houses to visit still." we said.
Off we went, getting in and out of trucks, knocking on doors, getting our tire out of the red clay, grabbing blankets, telling people it was going to be alright, assessing people's wounds, getting back in the car, getting out of the car, knocking on doors, etc. Of the 5 families we visited that day, 3 had just arrived yesterday or today and 3 had one person who had open wounds from the barbed wired fence. Sumaya had registered 30 families and we were barely just starting and it was already dark. We still had a 4 hour ride back and Aslan had to be back before 11pm.
Sumaya's dad asked me if he could have 4 for the clinic if there were any left over. I said sure. I had visited his clinic and was quite alright with that. But the way he asked made me worry about the safety of storing the blankets at Sumaya's house.
An hour later, he asked me if he could have 6 instead. This worried me a bit more. I shot a look at Aslan. She got it. We told Sumaya that we will head back to her house now and that she can finish the work tomorrow.
On the drive back to her house, we agreed that we would take Sumaya into a room alone and warn her that this work was to remain a secret, even from her dad and brother. Aslan would speak with her. Tuba hardly speaks, but when she does, an epic, award winning speach comes out. I was looking forwad to hearing her speak to Sumaya.
We arrived and asked Sumaya to go into a seperate room.
"Sumaya, listen to me very very carefully," Aslan said, with a very serious look on her face. "My mom doesn't even know I'm here right now. Why? Because in order for this work to be successful, it has to be a secret. Your eyes on everything. NOt one blanket gets passed out without you being there. Not your brother, not your father, not anyone can say they will hand it out without your presence. I will be needing a list of each family, their phone number-"
"But many of these families do not have a number," Sumaya retorted.
"I don't care, a neighbor's number, any number and an address, because I will be coming back here and knocking on every door and asking them how many were handed out to them and how it was handed out. Sumaya, we are living in a turbulent time, and donations are being stolen left and right. We have to work like this."
Sumaya looked shaken. Aslan was being very firm with her.
"We will come and get help for all these people, I will get them all the help. Just see what they need. You don't have to be the organization, you only have to be our correspondent."
"Are you sure you want to do this?" I asked Sumaya.
"Yes, its just that I don't want all this responsiility." She said.
"You only finish handing out the blankets. Nothing more." I said. We need a list of names and phone numbers. Sumaya, in Prophet Muhammad's time, Aisha his wife fought on the front line with him. She rode horses with him. There was no time for her to stay at home and do nothing. These people need you." I said.
"You are right," she agreed. I still felt a bit uneasy about her trepidity. I know she wants to and is honest but felt like she is under the influence of her brother and father.
Abu-Mumtaz wanted to rest at his house before we left. We agreed but pleaded to not take a lot of time. We had to pick up his 5 year old son so that he could take him back to Gazientep for his surgery the next day.
While waiting for Abu-Mumtaz to rest and get his son ready, we sat again with his family. I told Aslan I wished I could film them. Up until this point, I rarely filmed people because in the middle of them telling their story, its quite rude to say, "Hey can you freeze for a second while I film you? Wait. Hold that tear." So I am quite sensitive about filming people. Up until this point, I hardly justified what I had seen. I knew that if I had taken better pictures, the stories would feel more real, but I have issues with pausing "the moment" of a family breaking in tears in the middle of a story and me going "hey, can you hold that tear so I can take a picture of you?" They are already humiliated and scared and I therefore have a bit of a problem with asking to take photos. I wanted them to feel comfortable. Aslan said to ask them.
"Does anyone want to share their story on video?" I asked. All of them were afraid of the government. Then once again, Aslan spoke up.
"The hand that claps aone does not clap. If you want help and want the world to respond, you need to stop fearing this government." Aslan said to them.
"You have a point, they already stole everything from us. What else do we have to lose?" Abu Mumtaz's mom said. "Okay you can film us."
I pulled out my video camera and at first, everyone was formal about their stories and then it broke out into a heated expression of the woes of being a refugee. I was glad I filmed. The 74 year old with the missing leg started crying when I pointed the camera near her so I stopped. She already felt so humiliated.
It was finally 7pm when we started driving back to Rehanliye. My respect for my traveling companions was through the roof. Abu-Mumtaz was more than a driver, but was happy to be handing things out with us. He was part of the team. His son was in the back seat and every so often, he would reach back and stroke his son's face with his hand. Tuba and I sang the entire way back. Abu Mumtaz enjoyed the singing and occassionally sang with us. He later told us that although it was a long long day, it was one of his favorite delivery days yet.
Yaman kept calling every 15 minutes to see where we were. He was freaking out that we were taking so long. "Calm down," I told him. "We are on our way."
"Okay Okay," he said. Then he would call back a half hour later.
He didn't tell us over the phone but the next day, we found out that he had just gotten wind that 300 Mukhabarat had just crossed the border into Rehanliye at the time we were there. THe Mukhabarat are the Syria Intelligence Mafia who indiscriminately kill, kidnap, or torture any who help refugees. There was a reason we were rushing.
On the drive, Abu-Mumtaz apologized for the way his family was acting. "Sorry you weren't received with a happier note. We can't help the way we feel." he said, very apologetic.
"No way, you were so hospitable and everything. Please don't apologize," I said. "What a stupid response," I thought. I had no words for him. I tried thinking of what to tell him. I hate it when I don't know the right words to say back.
I handed Abu-Mumtaz 500TL, "This is extra, to help with the cost of the surgeries," I said.
"No, I don't want any money at all from you. We all did good work together today," he said.
"No, No, Please. Work is work. Besides, gas is so expensive," I said and pushed the money into his hands. "I wish you better days. I'm so sorry for what you and your family are going through," I said.
When we arrived back in Gazientep, it was too late for me to catch a bus to the next town so I slept at Aslan's house. The house that has 12 people in it. Some of them were staying at a friends house that night so there were only 6 of us in the room that day. They gave me the one bed they had in the room and when I tried my hardest to not take it, they were very angry with me. So I slept on the bed and felt guilty about it. Here they go again, refugees giving me the best that they have.
Before I entered the dream world, the image of Abu Mumtaz holding up the picture of his seven year old daughter while his eyes were watering made me cry myself to sleep. I tried not to be loud about it. That image will haunt me for the rest of my life.
Side note: I wrote this entry in three different sittings, and each time I sat down to write this, I cried. This was the hardest one for me to write. I only say this to you because I want you to know how real this is. Coming and seeing with my own eyes strips away the desensitization of news and makes you human again.
I was ready at 9:00am and waited. Yaman, the driver, and Aslan should be there here to pick me up any second. I was happy to leave the room with the smoke and pack it up. I was thankful that I didn't have to pay for a place to sleep so that the money could be spent elsewhere.
Finally, by 10:00am, Aslan, Abu Saleem, Yaman and Tarek came with the guy with the truck and the blankets. We had 70 blankets to hand out. I looked at Yaman and Abu Saleem and was proud that there were Syrian people in this area doing such good work. This was to be the last time I would see them. Yaman gave me a little doll keychain and shook my hand goodbye. He felt like a brother to me. So did all these guys. We took one last picture together and Aslan and I got in the car.
"Remember, Go quickly and come back," Yaman said. As we started on our 3.5 hour trip down to Rehaniye. You know how when you are going to find something, its usually right next to you the whole time? Well, this happened on the way to find the most families that need the most help. It was right next to me the whole time.
His name is Abu-Mumtaz- A tall man with a heavy overhanging mustache, darker skin, a big mole on his right cheek and brown eyes. Nothing affected me more on this trip than his story up until this point. As I write this right now, many days later, I hope I can give it as much justice and recreate the feeling I had in him and his family's presence.
As we started leaving Gazientep, Aslan handed me a bag and said, "This is a gift for you. I really like you and want you to have this."
I opened it and it was a hand knitted pink and purple vest. Although I rarely wear pink and purple, I will definitely figure out how to pull this off. The other gift in the bag was a bracelet. Both of these items belonged to her and I felt very honored to have them. I told her I had a gift for her as well, which was quite true. I had just been thinking about how I wanted to give her a handmade something or other when she had pulled out gifts for me. I felt a bit bad that we were hardly talking to the driver. Yaman had found him and told me that he trusted him and he would take us to and from Rehanliye safely. When I initially asked how much it would cost for a driver, he said 300 TL ($160) and I was a bit hesitant about paying that much just for an all day delivery driver. Had I known his story beforehand, 300TL is just a drop in the bucket.
"What's your name?" I asked him. I had to ask him this many times throughout the day, because Abu Mumtaz is an easy name to forget.
"Where are you from?" I asked.
"Azaaz." He said.
The way he said it made me shudder. Azaaz was one of the cities in Syria that was pounded to rubble in Ramadan. I knew my next question would open up an entire can of worms. This is usually the question that prompts the entire story.
"How long have you been here in Turkey?" I asked.
"2 months," He said. When somebody says 1, 2, or 3 months, it usually means that they are a refugee with a good story.
"We kept leaving our house and heading into Turkey and just when we thought things were calming down, we would go back to our house. We finally went back to our house in Azaaz and the planes came overhead and bombed our house neighborhood while we were in our house. We started running out of the house, everything happened so quickly. Pieces of the house crumbled on top of us. I started pulling my family out from under the rubble. My wife's face and skull was cracked open. I frantically searched for my kids, I found 2 of my sons, 4 and 6 years old. They lost their hearing because shrapnel went into their ears. Next, I found my other son, 5 years old, who's eyeball was hanging out and his face was bleeding profusely. ALl of us were hurt. I looked around for my seven year old daughter and only daughter. I finally found her arm sticking out from under a piece of concrete. The neighbors and I all gathered around and removed the concrete. She was dead. I pulled her out and put her body in the car." His eyes watered as he told this. He reached for his phone. HIs screensaver was a picture of his daughter. She looked ghostly in the picture, not smiling, as if she knew her coming fate or was mourning what had already happened to her. She had two pigtails, her school uniform on with white stalkings up to her knees and looked straight into the lens of his phone. Abu Mumtaz wiped the tears from his eyes. Aslan and I had tears streaming down our faces. I took my scarf and wiped my face. I couldn't stop crying. This man, who is strong in appearance, rough around the edges, with his white and red plaid shirt on, was crying for his only 7 year old daughter, whom he lost 2 months ago. I had no words to offer him. I myself needed somebody to hold me and tell me he was going to be alright. Sama, pull yourself together, I thought. But I couldn't. Tears kept flowing. I can't handle seeing a grown father crying for his daughter. It instantly made me think of my dad crying for me if I had died. You try it. Try thinking of your dad crying for you. You can't handle it, I promise you.
"Everything happened so quickly. I lost 17 people that day, friends from my neighborhood as well. My neighbor was out of town when it happened and he called to tell me he was sorry about the loss of my daughter. I was crying on the phone because he lost 5 of his kids that day and while he was calling to tell me sorry, I hadn't the nerve to tell him that his family died too. Everything was a wreck. If you imagine the scariest movie you've ever seen, it was worse than that. My entire family was bleeding, hurt, and had broken bones. My 74 year old mother-in-law lost her leg. As everything was happening, I had lost my hearing from the sounds of the bombs and could no longer tell which bombs were falling close and which were far. Everything was chaotic. I put my entire family in the car as quickly as possible, including my sister-in-law who was pregnant and broker her leg and had a bleeding head. Everyone in the car was in pain, bleeding, and hurt and I tried rushing everyone to the border," He said in a fervor, the way a person tries to rush their story, afraid for time to not finish. But we had 3.5 hours, and were still just barely into our trip. As he spoke, the scenic route we had taken, through winding hills and countryside blurred by. The day was cold and drizzly, highlighting the mood of the car. I couldn't fathom having to deal with a dead daughter and a hurt family all at once. "As soon as we got there, every person was sent in an ambulance to a different clinic in Gazientep. I went back to bury my daughter and when I got back, I had to go and find the rest of my family. I couldn't find my son and had to go from clinic to clinic looking for him. He is 5 years old. I finally found him. I stayed with him for a month and a half in Gazientep doing surgeries to fix his eye. The rest of my family stayed in Rehanliye. My son has another surgery on Monday. When we get to Rehanliye, I will pick up my son and bring him back with us," he said, as tears continued to flow down my cheek. I looked at Aslan. Her eyeliner was running. I’m sure mine was too.
"We didn't even have one wall still standing. We have nothing to go back to but its still my country. If we could just go back and pitch a tent on our own soil, we would. We don't need much in life, but we just want to be safe. May God not give Bachar health. How can you do that to your own people? How?! And he says he is killing terrorists. Was my 7 year old daughter a terrorist? How about my mother-in-law who is 74? Is she a terrorist?!" he declared, with much pain emanating from his soul. You could tell that when he wasn't talking, he was thinking about his daughter. The 300 I was to pay him all of a sudden seemed like too little. Not enough when you have an entire family of broken bones, scars, wounds, and housing your entire extended family.
THE TURKISH CHECKPOINT
Abu Mumtaz looked alert all of a sudden. There was a border checkpoint. My concern grew a bit. Abu Mumtaz's Turkish is pretty good and spoke with the two soldiers that stopped us.
"What are you transporting?" He asked.
"Blankets, for Refugees."
"Let me see your passports," he said. Aslan raised her eyebrows at me when I reached for mine, telling me not to pull anything out.
Aslan and Abu-Mumtaz gladly pulled their passports out. The soldier then looked at me. "And yours?" he asked.
I pulled mine out and uncomfortably handed it to him. He looked at it and then looked at me.
"American?" he said.
"yes." I replied, waiting for some big thing to happen. He looked at the passport again and then at me, then at the stuff in the back of the truck, then at Abu-Mumtaz.
"You have any weapons?" he asked.
"No, just bankets." Abu Mumtaz responded.
"Okay, you may go." He said and handed me back my passport. My heart felt relieved. I was afraid I would never see my passport again.
I needed to change the mood. I needed to make Abu-Mumtaz forget his worries, at least for the rest of the car ride. I asked them both if they knew who Fairuz was. Fairuz is the most famous classic Arab singer to ever live. Everyone knows who that is. "Lets sing Fairuz songs," I said.
"You can sing Fairuz songs?" Abu Zahir asked me, surprised.
"Okay show us," he said.
I started singing and they were impressed that my songs didn't have broken arabic in them. Aslan and Abu-Mumtaz started singing with me. The mood started changing and we pointed at beautiful scenery along the way, while singing Fairuz songs and clapping our hands. Aslan understood what I was doing without telling her. Tuba and I have telepathy. One look from her and I know paragraphs of phrases she wants to tell me.
I DIDN’T TELL MY MOM I WAS GOING
As we approached the shanty town of Rehanliye, I reminisced about my first time there. It had been a sunny day, in contrast to today, and I had been on a microbus crammed to the brim with people. Now, here we were putting thoughts into action. I had 70 blankets in the truck and was waiting with a list.
"Oh by the way Sama, I didn't tell my mom I'm coming to the border or she would freak out." Aslan said. Thats why I need to be back today.
Added preasure, great.
"Why?" I asked her.
"Everything I’m doing with this organization is to remain a secret. The secret to success in this uncertain time is to keep all our work a secret. I do not tell my mom nor anyone what I did each day. I don't want the news to spread so that if I do come across a needy family, they don't change their atmosphere just cause they know I'm coming and what I do. This is the best way we can help. Therefore, I have to keep everything a secret." She said. I respected her bravery and her need for secrecy.
"Do you mind if we go to my house first so we can rest a little before handing out blankets?" Abu-Mumtaz asked.
"Of course," we said. In my head, I was a bit worried about the time. It was 2pm already and we had to be back by 11pm. This means that we would have to leave by 6:30pm at the latest, and knowing how Arab families are, 5 minutes means 2 hours usually.
We hopped out of his truck and straight into a puddle of water. The rain was coming down heavy now and we rain into his building. As soon as he rang the doorbell, you could hear little children screaming "Baba Baba Baba!!!" in an excited frenzy. The door opened and instantly, 3 children stuck themselves like glue to him He walked into the house with one kid on each leg and the other around his waist. The women greeted us with such a warm greeting and invited us to sit down in their living room which like the other places we had visited, consisted of cushions on the floor.
"Our anger and annoyance are more detrimental to us than the things themselves which anger or annoy us." - Marcus Aurelius
THE MORE I TRAVEL, THE MORE I REALIZE
I do not long for the familiarity of my home, because here is home. Anywhere is home. The secret to feeling like anywhere is home is smiling at people you pass on the street, saying hello as you walk by; walking into a market and asking "how much" as if you already know the price and are ready to pay. I am not very good in the Turkish language, but am fluent in body language, and how you walk and address people tells a lot. I was looking at a lady walking in a park and was trying to assess whether or not she was Syrian. There was a slight possibility but I ruled it out. I ruled it out because of the way she walked, merely strolling through, without a worry on her face. Had the woman been walking with purpose, looking around, seeking some sort of help, would have given away her newness to the town. I learn from this. Sometimes, I stroll and sometimes I walk with purpose, telling the shoe shiner to my right that Im not here to shine my shoes, or the tea seller on my left that I have no intention of shopping today.
The "getting to know you" phase doesn't really exist when I travel. I sort of just meet people and act like I've known them forever. This is a natural feeling I get.
MIND OVER MATTER?
The days are melting into moments. Where one hour ends and the next begins is lost in the haze of being on another schedule. Traveling like this makes you question your limits and what you consider to be a luxury vs. a necessity. What is a right to a human being and what point is a human selfish? These debates within myself have begun to take over my thoughts at night- Especially last night.
After a very jam packed day yesterday, my late return at 11:30 warranted a good night's rest. Especially since I was to go the next morning at 7:00 am to make clinic rounds with Yaman and Aslan. There was a little girl that was going to have surgery and I wanted to be there for it. Well, lets just say that didn't happen. A very mean side of me came out last night. The Turkish girl that is staying in this same room as me decided that at 1:00am in the morning, she will have company over. Let me lay out the room for you: One room the size of a walk-in closet. Just as I'm beginning to fall asleep, the lights go on and her male friend comes over. I hide under my blanket. The window is closed and the two of them start lighting up cigarrettes. I panic under my blankets. I try to cancel them and the smoke out but Im sorry, I'm suffocating. After two and a half hours of trying to deal with it, I finally throw my scarf on in a mad rage, throw my blankets off of me and sit up in my bed. The Turkish girl and her male friend look over at me in shock, as if looking at someone who had risen from the dead.
"Why are your eyes red?" The Turkish girl asks me.
"Because you are smoking! I'm trying to sleep. Please, go outside if you want to smoke and talk all night." I ask her while insanely opening the window for fresh air. Im trying to stay polite but boy oh boy is my face such an open book. I wish I could hide my anger but I can't. Whats the point of coming all the way to Turkey and being sympathetic to what refugees are enduring if I can barely handle some smoke. I am yelling at myself for my behavior while trying to contain my rage. She gets the hint and finally asks her friend to leave. My eyes are red from the smoke, my legs are tired from walking all day, and my disgust at this unthoughtfulness slowly starts to fade into a slumber. Just before I sleep, I catch myself thinking that I was angry with myself for letting this ruin my high of all the help we had given that day. It had truly been such a productive day and here I am letting this Turkish smoker girl spoil my exuberance. Benjamin Franklin says that happiness depends on the inward disposition of mind rather than on outward circumstances. At what point though does the inward mind no longer have control over temper? I can't help it if fumigating pisses me off.
I had finally dozed off at 4am and Yaman called at 7am to tell me to get ready for the clinic visits. I apologized and said there was no way I could get up and function like a normal human being. I was angry at the Turkish girl for stealing my sleep thus causing me to miss out on clinic visits. I finally woke up at 10:30am and called Yaman. They were in the area and said they would swing by and pick me up. Ten minutes later, they (I will just call them the gang, which consists of Aslan, Yaman, Abu-Saleem, Tarek, and me). I like to call us the charity team. I had no clue where we were going; all I knew was that whatever we were doing would be good.
First thing was first, we still had to buy heaters and get the best deal on them. We looked at some more heaters until we finally found a guy willing to make us a good deal for a better quality one than the ones we were going to buy. Yaman told me to hold off on buying them until we talked to his Turkish friend, whom Yaman wants to buy the restaurant from.
THE RESTAURANT DEAL AND THE PARAKEET
After walking through alleyways, bazaars, and streets on this cloudy day, light drizzle starts layering the streets of this neighborhood. We came to a beat up door and knocked on it. After knocking and knocking, a Turkish woman dressed as gypsy opened the door. Her tanned skin, cheeky but long face, and slightly upward slanted eyes, told stories of the ancestors of what we call today's Turks. Some are descendants of the Mongolian regions and some are descendants from Uzbekistan. The Asian look that some of these Turks have is a very exotic feature, in my opinion. I chose a spot on the floor next to a Parakeet in a cage. At first the yellow Parakeet kept it's furthest distance from me in the cage. My goal was to get it to come closer to me and puff up its feathers, a message that it is comfortable. What is funny is that what was happening between the bird and I was symbolic of what was happening between Aslan, Yaman and the Turkish man. The Turkish man owed Yaman money and in exchange, Yaman wanted his restaurant that he never uses anymore. He wants to turn it into "The Syrian Family Restaurant", a place where all the refugees can gather. This would be ideally located next to a building he and Abu Saleem want to buy so they can rent it out to all the refugees at a cheap price. One of the biggest problems refugee families are having is that Turks are renting out to them at double the rate. By building a sense of community in Gazientep, the refugees will be able to move on in their lives and not sit around "waiting" to go back. The restaurant will also provide jobs for Syrians while giving a percentage of the profits back to the organization every month.
Aslan was there to translate between the Turkish man and Yaman. I sat in the corner drawing, watching, and talking to the Parakeet. The Turkish man's little girl was fascinated by me and sat next to me. I was the most interesting thing in the room. One thing I noticed when it comes to all the children I've seen is that they just sit around with their families doing nothing. I haven't seen one parent offer them a mind-stimulating thing to do.
"I’m already getting a lot of slack for helping Syrians," the Turkish man said. The parakeet was still farther away in it's cage.
"You have been so kind to us so far, and in the end we are all humans. You hardly use your restaurant and I will pay you the difference between what you owe me and the value of the restaurant." Yaman said to him. The Parakeet in the cage finally chirped back at me.
"Praise him, praise him," Aslan said to Yaman in Arabic, noticing, as I did, that it brings him closer to the result.
"You really are such a good person and that's why we are coming to you. You are the only one who would be able to give us this opportunity. These refugees need a place they can all gather together in. You will be bringing so much joy to them; "As Yaman said this, the Turkish man smiled proudly at himself. The Parakeet puffed up its feathers and came closer to me. I was astounded at the paralleling between their conversation and my goal of getting this Parakeet to befriend me. As soon as I stopped whistling at it, it started wildly chirping for my attention again. Parakeets and humans can be similar sometimes. I lost interest in the conversation and focused on my drawing. They shook hands. Something good? We were late for an appointment with an art collector that Tarek had set up with me. As we got up to go, the Turkish man asked what I had studied and Aslan told him "Environmental Studies." He asked me to follow him to his garden. We walked past the open, Aladin-like old and faded building, through a concrete garage with holes in it, and out to his garden. He started pointing at things and talking quickly in Turkish to Aslan, then motioning for her to tell me. She apologized to him that we were running late, so he offered us a ride to our next place. On the way, she told me that he was explaining the link between drip irrigation, layers of soil, and layers of cancer.
THE ART COLLECTOR and I
Tarek, the business guy who knows everyone and everything, took me, Aslan, Yaman, and Abu Saleem (The main crew) to this art collector's house. He has a huge weakness for particularly expensive art from around the world. This Syrian man, originally from Aleppo, collects art and sells art. This is what he does. He invited us into his huge villa in Gazientep, and offered us fancy chocolates and turkish coffee.
"If you put together an art exhibit in California, he is willing to ship over his best pieces and give 30% of the sales to the organization. Since these paintings are in thousands of dollars and up, 30% will go a long way." Tarek said. I said I'd have a look at the paintings. I didn't want to put a lot work into an art exhibit in an economy where nobody wants to buy art. If I'm gonna do this, I'm going to do this right. I can't be doing it in a library or some little gallery. It would have to be in a huge, well-known gallery where people would know these big name artists and spend money on it. They made me a copy of a USB that has a list of every art piece and the going price, etc. I said that when I got back, I'd look into it. Some of the art in his collection, in my opinion, was quite boring and I wouldn't pay $1 for it. There was a painting of 3 pigeons on a chair and a vase with flowers in it. He is not the artist, but collects art from famous artists. Before I actually do some good research on these artists and if people buy art like this, I was not willing to promise anything. I do understand how 30% would do a lot for this organization. I feel confident about sending my own money to them monthly and knowing that it will be going to meet the basic necessities. I've seen how they compare prices, go on foot to make sure the family really needs it, and hop in their car at 11:30 at night if they heard that there is a family they haven't seen yet.
EXTENDING MORE HELP
After the art talk, Aslan and I went back to Yaman’s home and fixed coffee and went over all the things we have spent and what I still had left to do.
"It looks like everything I wanted to do in this area is done, now I'm going to Rehanliye tomorrow since I didn't finish my work there. I gave Sumaya the job of starting what you did here, so she has been going around and visiting all the families and seeing what their needs are. Tomorrow morning, I'm going to do some work with her there. Thank you so much for all your help here.
Aslan looked at Yaman and Yaman looked at Tuba. I had asked Tuba if she wanted to go with me to Rehanliye.
"I'm going with Sama tomorrow," Aslan said.
"Okay let me get you a driver to take you both and bring you back in the same day." Yaman said.
"No, I'm not coming back here and don't want to be rushed in one day. I want to take my time making sure that the work is done there." I said.
"I don't recommend you stay there," Aslan said. "Come back with me, we will get the work done together and whatever doesn't get done, Yaman and I will go back and finish It." she said.
"What do you want to do there?" Yaman asked me.
"The situation is so bad there Yaman, in my opinion, possibly worse than here. This is the closest bordering town and there are way more Syrians there than here probably." I said. "I want to buy blankets and go hand them out."
"Okay, how about you give me the money and I will buy them wholesale for you, put them in a truck for you, and send you and Aslan with a driver and the truck and you can get all your work done tomorrow, then the driver can take you to the bus station and you can go to your next destination," he said.
I didn't like the fact that I was feeling rushed. But there was something of a reason why they were rushing me and as I have learned in not only this trip, but previous ones, that sometimes you just have to trust without arguing. I agreed to this plan. I had no idea that the next day would be the most emotional day of my entire trip. I thought I had seen a lot of sad things, but nothing like what tomorrow would bring.
Aslan and I said goodbye to Yaman, and on our way down the stairs, Aslan asked if I wanted to visit her Aunt's house and say goodbye to her. This was one of the homes that I had donated blankets to. I knocked on the door and a happy trio of women happy to see my face opened the door.
"Please, come in, come in." they said. I told them I had to get to bed, that I had a long day tomorrow.
"Okay, please lets take pictures with you." They said. I agreed. They started taking my hat off and trying it on, then my feather with beads on it." They laughed like they were 4 years old and then swung their arms around me. I was happy to see them laughing and forgetting all their troubles for a little bit. I forget that I can sometimes be a walking photo-booth prop set. They asked me if they could please give me something to remember them by. I told them I had pictures, but they insisted. I then showed them my feather that was hanging on the side of my scarf. I have random things hanging off of it. I told them they could give me a button or a trinket or something little to add to it. They each handed me something and I told them I would sew it on the next day. Two of them started crying. "We love you so much. What have you done to us? I hardly know you and feel like I've known you my entire life. Please don't forget us."
I couldn't cry. I usually don't cry when others are crying. I usually hold it all in and then cry all at once. They kept hugging me and didn't want to let go.
"You came from far to check on us. There is hope for this world." One of them said to me.
" So many care for you, I swear. How do you know it though? I know its hard to believe it when all this is happening to your country but know that so many people ask me everyday about what’s happening in Syria and how they can help." I said. I was starting to get more emotional. I felt an overwhelming sense of sadness that all it took was 2 blankets, a visit, and a cowboy hat for them to love me this much, and at the same time an overwhelming sense of joy. In the grand scheme of things, 2 blankets is not going to save their world, but its something. Its more of a gesture, and in my opinion, kind gestures can warm an entire city. Very often, we forget what people gave us, or what they did to us, but we never ever ever forget the way they made us feel.
I'm not censoring this blog, but just writing things the way I felt them, or the way they happened. A kind gesture lives on as a legacy, and the kind gestures that all of you have given me in your support of this venture, is living with me. Not one refugee I have met has not heard of all of you and the support you have given. I have told them that my community back home wanted to come but couldn't, work, family, etc. I was lucky enough to come and so they sent me with help.
I will never ever ever forget their faces, all standing in a row, 4 of them, looking at me as I left. I wondered if they were thinking possibly that as soon as I got back to America, that my life would go back to normal. That my trip would seem like a story out of a book and was it real or not; that mundane tasks would take me back to my epicenter. I wondered these thoughts, and in my heart, thanked them for the joy they gave me.
BACK AT HOME
I got in bed and then noticed the Turkish girl on the phone saying something like "Okay see you soon."
I shot her one look, and she said "No. we go outside."
Good. She's learning that its rude to stay up till 5 in the morning smoking when someone is trying to sleep next to you.
"Thank you" I said to her. "I appreciate it greatly.”
As I sit here catching up on days and days worth of stories, Im overwhelmed. I think Im not going to leave the place Im staying at so that I don't collect one more story.
I can't keep up.
Im working on it. Just know that... and when I do have them posted, there will be lots and lots to read. Im coming home early, just so you all know. The reason is because I need to do a lot for these people and raise more money, make more art, etc. (While I still have time off from work). I was going to use some of my time in Turkey to see some of the nicer areas in Turkey but the funny thing is Tourism seems dumb to me now that Ive seen what I've seen. It can't possibly bring me true joy like changing people's lives can.
"The truly brave are soft of heart and eyes, And feel for what their duty bids them do." - Lord Byron
THE BUS RIDE
I was instructed to meet at the bridge on the major street next to where I was staying.
"7:30am, don't be late," were the instructions I was given. I was to go with Yaman to see the school for Syrian kids they started. He arranged that I would teach an art lesson as well.
I walked down to the bridge where all the students wait for their bus and got a little cup of tea and "peynir tost” (Cheese Toast). One by one, little kids in green uniforms started trickling in with their moms. The moms were easy to identify as Syrian. Who else would wear the white nun-like scarf in Turkey? Turkish women have their scarf either tied back or have a high-bob on the back of their head. The scarf has a cone shape to it. At 8:45, Yaman came walking over. I looked at the Syrian kids who had now taken up the little Turkish tables by the little street overpass bridge.
Little Khaled from the other day boasted to the other kids that I visited his house the other day. He's the same kid who kept pointing at any American looking woman in a magazine and saying "this is you." I also noticed that Aslan, the girl from last night, was waiting with Yaman for the bus. She seemed interesting, there was something more to her quiet demeanor.
The bus pulled up and all the kids got on. Unlike in America, where there are 2 or maybe 3 kids all seated on the bus, these Syrian kids were standing, sitting on the floor, on the seats, anywhere. In fact, whenever a Syrian teacher boarded the bus, one of the seated students got up for her so that the teacher could sit, cause it was rude to sit when an elderly person was standing. The kids were extremely excited to go to school, talking to each other and pointing at things along the way. Yaman and his other lawyer friend volunteer each morning to wait at the bus stop and help the kids board the bus. Yaman boards from the bus from the back at the first location and his friend hops on from the front from another bus stop. His friend relayed the great news to me, "Congratulations on Obama!"
"Awesome! " I said, "You are the first to- " my conversation was interrupted by intense screaming. I looked over at Yaman. He was smiling and told me that everyday, when they go under this bridge, they scream together. It’s their favorite part of the bus ride.
NOT A NORMAL ART LESSON
When I arrived, I was told I had half an hour and a bunch of fourth graders to offer an art lesson to.
I was curious as to what they wanted to learn how to draw.
"I can teach you how to draw a horse, a bird, a turtle, anything... any suggestions. What would you like to draw?" I asked.
"The Syrian Revolution flag," they all said in unison. "Of course," I thought to myself. This is their reality; as if perfecting the drawing of it will end the war in their home country.
I asked them to take out their sketchbooks and open to a new page. "How about I show you how to draw the flag flying in the air?" I asked. They were excited about this. While they were preparing to learn how to draw this, I peaked through their sketchbooks. As an art instructor in California, I can tell you for a fact what normal children have in their sketchbooks: flowers, hearts, buildings, a picture of their family, beaches, forests and anything else they have seen around them. These kids had pictures of the Syrian government dropping bombs on them, helicopters, decapitated people, and guns. The saddest reality of it was that they were not drawing it from Nintendo games, but from what they had actually seen. These were refugee kids and each kid had their own story - Some had no mothers, some had no fathers, and some had visible wounds.
The Turkish government offered the beautiful building for the Syrians to use as a school and funding came in from other sources to keep it running. Yaman and his organization helped start it, and he is very careful about turning over power to anyone, as he is afraid of money being stolen from the school. After teaching the kids how to draw a flag waving in the air, Yaman, Aslan (one of the refugee girls who was studying medicine in Gazientep when all this happened) and I left to go to the office. I had a lot of business that I had to finish here In Gazientep. First things first, Milk had already gotten into Aleppo. Now, I needed to pay for the diapers. We went over to the company and payed. The organization would pick it up in a few days and take it in with their next load into Aleppo.
YOUR EVERYDAY HEROES
Aslan was tagging along with us for everything we did. She was kind of quiet and I didn't quite know what to make of her yet. A beautiful face was all she was to me so far. I knew she was hired by Yaman to hang along all day and translate, but I had no idea how important she was until later- because let me tell you, when this quiet being opens her mouth and has something to say, its quite profound. The more I found out about her, the more I liked her, and the more she quickly gained my trust.
The next task we had on our agenda was to get the money my mom wired me through Western Union. Although I had put all the money I fundraised in my account, the ATM machines here were only letting me take out $300/day and it was hard to do anything with that amount. It took me a few days to withdraw just enough to pay for the diapers. That’s why it took us until this day to pay for them.
Everyday up until this day, I never let my passport leave my side. This morning was the first morning I had purposely left my passport in my luggage at the room I was staying at. Of course, according to Murphy's Law, this was the first day that I needed it in order to get the money my mom had transferred. I transferred money to my mom's account and she then sent it to me via Western Union. The lady at the bank near the Syrian Organization would be waiting for me to come back with my passport so I could get the money. We needed to buy heaters. Since my last blog post, so many people were kind to provide money for heaters. I was to spend $3000 USD on 45 heaters. I was then to buy blankets for the families we had visited the night before. I felt quite frustrated with the money situation, since I'm an action "now" kind of person. This was teaching me more patience. I had to make the difficult decision when coming to Turkey whether to carry the cash in with me or withdraw it. I thought it would be safer to withdraw it a little at a time, but didn’t realize how “little” you could withdraw per day.
We would go back later for the money. In the meantime, we had a lot more families to visit that were in the old town near the castle of Gazientep. "This should be interesting," I thought. I told the organization that I would also like to pay for any of the blankets we bought for the families we were currently visiting that day. I was coming along so I could help choose with them which families were worthy of heaters and which ones would be fine without them. I had no clue that the cold I had experienced the other day was nothing. In about another month, Gazientep would be covered in snow. I'm such a California wimp.
So off we went. Yaman, Aslan, and I assessing families. We took the new ticket system with us and each family we visited, we handed them a ticket. I want you to imagine the cartoon Aladin. Remember the scene where he sleeps on the rooftops? Remember the alleyways. Remember my art, the old alleyways? This is where these families live. Now, of course, you and I look at this area and say "How exotic." These are the old homes, with no heating, cracks in ceilings, doors that don't close all the way, mice and rats running through, no hot water, etc. Exotic to look at, but not to sleep in.
PRETEND YOU DON'T KNOW TURKISH
I did not know this until later that Aslan was instructed by Yaman to not let on that she understands or speaks Turkish at all. Her face looks very Syrian. This amazing girl from Latakia, originally, has a Turkish mom and speaks fluent Turkish. Some of the families we would be visiting are refugees from the Turkman mountains of Latakia, and are fluent in both Turkish and Arabic. I will say that out of the 10 houses we visited, only 1 of them was not being honest with us. Aslan caught it and gave Yaman an eyebrow raise.
"Go hide the carpet, go hide the carpet." One man said to his wife in Turkish, while he pointed at his house and in Arabic told us he had nothing. Since I had not been let on that we were screening the families in Turkish as well, my heart went out to this family. I was shocked as to why Yaman told him to his face that he was fine, didn't need anything and told me "Let's go". I was furious we weren’t giving them any blankets until I learned about their inside knowledge. When I learned about how Yaman and Aslan work together, I was extremely pleased.
Aslan turned to me and said, "While there are many many families that have nothing, some will try to take advantage of the situation if they hear that we are coming. They will try to get some blankets for their cousins, their friends, etc. While my family has nothing and we are here in Turkey, I still disagree with your choice to give us 2 blankets. This is nothing. You haven't seen anything yet. There are families that really have nothing, like that third family we visited, with no rugs, no blankets, nothing. Just an empty house. I feel embarrassed to take a blanket when I see families like this." My respect for Aslan went up tenfold. I felt happy that I was working with people like Aslan and Yaman.
After walking through the alleyways and assessing situations, Aslan, Yaman, and I went back to the office to get the blankets. We also brought Khaled and Abu-Saleem with us. (Abu Saleem and Yaman founded this organization). Tarek is a Syrian business guy who’s been living in Turkey for 10 years and quit everything 3 months ago to help with the cause. He has been getting business people to sponsor refugees that need major surgeries as well as businessmen to give better wholesale rates on milk, diapers, and basic necessities. So, the 5 of us went off, each carrying 4 blankets. Abu Saleem gave each family a passport style ticket and marked what we gave them.
"If you need work, come to our office. We can help you find work." Abu Saleem told the men. "I can also arrange for work to be brought to your house if there are women here that want to work but don't want to leave the house." Abu Saleem understood that these are traditional families from villages, and that women do not leave the house to work. He arranged for work like olive canning or sorting to be brought over to their homes.
I wish I could describe each family to you and tell you their names and their stories. After the second family, I regret to tell you that every story starts sounding so similar, that their home was bombed, that their brother, sister, or dad died, that they just came here, that they just want the war to end so they can return, that they don't know the language, that Turkish people won't give them work here, etc. The one thing all families have in common was that there were a heck of a lot of people living in one room and that rent was expensive to them. ($300 to $450 TL which roughly equals $160 to $250 USD) We finished handing out the blankets to the families we had marked. I enjoyed every second of it. Truly a great feeling is knowing that someone will sleep better that night, especially after you personally have tasted the bitter cold of a night, and have scrambled around looking for more layers to put on. We only spent about five or ten minutes in each house. About 7 of the families we visited were going to get a heater. I respected the honesty of some of the families who told us that they could make do by borrowing a heater from the neighbor, that if we only had a limited amount, it should go to another family that didn't have any connections.
One thing I really regretted was that I didn't bring candy with me to give to the kids in each family.
" Yaman, what do you think if I buy the organization a ton of candy and every time you visit a house, give the kids each one. It doesn't cost anything and will bring a lot of joy to the kids." I said.
"Great idea, I like it," Yaman said. Off we went to get a good deal on 5 Kilos of candy. We tasted each piece to make sure we were giving them something good.
Aslan and I went back to Yaman's house so we could go over the game plan. Although we were all out from 7am in the morning and spent most of the day walking and carrying things to people, we still had a lot more to go. All the families I had visited the day before needed a follow-up visit. I told Yaman I could make Turkish coffee. He said okay and watched me. He was disappointed that I put the coffee and the sugar in before the water got hot. I told him that this is how I make it back home and if he has suggestions, I'd be glad to hear about it.
After I finished making it, he said it was actually the best he's ever had. Good. At least I can make good coffee no matter where I go. A good survival skill to have.
We made a list of all the families from yesterday and circled the number of blankets they would each get. While we were planning, I looked over at Yaman's bed, sitting in the middle of his one-room studio. He only had one thin blanket, and here he was making sure everyone else was warm.
"Yaman, what about you? Do you need one?" I asked. He got shy. He did need one too. The blankets I was buying were very heavy and very warm. I gave him one before he could finish saying no.
After quickly finishing our coffee and drawing up our game plan, we went downstairs to start with Aslan’s cousin's family. Her aunt proudly told me that today, the Free Syrian Army bombed the president's palace in Damascus. My first reaction was of excitement till I remembered that my family lives next to his house in Damascus. I made a mental note to write them as soon as I got back home that night.
After drinking coffee with Lamia (Aslan 's cousin) and her aunt, we went to the other families I had seen the day before. We gave them each 2 blankets and then carried on. Then Abu Saleem joined us and we went back to the old Syrian poet with the missing leg. I asked him to recite poetry for me on video. His poetry gave me the chills. He cried again, and again, it broke my heart.
We heard of another family that needed blankets and that the woman was 6 months pregnant. Aslan spoke to Yaman about starting a program for pregnant Syrian refugees. Yaman agreed this was important and gave Aslan the task of writing the program.
We delivered blankets to 2 more families and then spoke it the family of the pregnant girl. It was just her and her husband. We gave her a blanket too.
AN ENDLESS EFFORT
At the end of the day, I was exhausted, but it was the kind of exhausted one gets after running or skiing or swimming - The good kind. I asked Aslan what she thought of the day. This is what she told me:
"To be honest, I admire what you are doing but to be quite frank with you, what you see here is nothing. Go to Aleppo. Go to Syria, the situation in there is very rough. They have nothing. People are dying from hunger and no attention at all. At least here, people can beg or they can borrow from their neighbors or they can do something. There is no work there, there is no safety, there is nothing. I think what you are doing is right, and all people who want to donate should come and spend with their own eyes, but you need to go into Syria." She said. She is going into Syria in ten days.
"Aslan, I hear you. I want more than anything to go into Syria. I'm not afraid to do it, but I promised my mom and dad I wouldn't. There is help that is needed here as well as there. Now that I know who to trust and who I can send stuff in with, I will be doing that." I told her. She understood. I felt like crap. Why should her risking her life to help people be any less than mine? Why should it be okay for her to go in and not me?
" I want to go in Aslan." I told her. "What am I to do there except keep trying to pretend I'm not American? You know perfectly well that smuggling me into Syria puts those who are trying to get me into Syrian in even greater danger. You will become a greater target just for trying to get me in and I will spend my entire time playing the game, hide from the government. How am I supposed to help if all I'm doing is hiding? Lets get real here."
This was the same conversation I had with Ziad the day prior. He chewed me out for not going in to Aleppo. "No help is getting into Syria cause everyone is scared."
"I’m not scared!" I had told him.
"Well, go then." He said.
"No matter how much you give, it will never be enough." I thought to myself. Its so easy to get caught up in an endless energy expenditure and its therefore important to actually see the things you are doing instead of focusing on what you are not doing. He did have a point though. What needs to happen before anything is that the Syrian government needs to be overthrown and quickly so that aid can get to where it needs to go. The main cause of all this needs to be put to an end. America needs to send in 2 planes to take out Assad. This is what needs to happen and you are hearing this from me, me who hates war, violence, and all weapons. But I have seen what this monster has done to his people. It’s like watching Hitler and not stopping him. World, do something. God help me, I will try to get a meeting with Obama when I get back. It’s worth a shot.
The next day would tell me more about who Aslan was. She reminded me of a quote I read before I came by Lao Tzu, "From Caring comes courage."
I didn't wake up till 10am and then went out to buy some groceries for breakfast. I woke up the Turkish girl that was in my room and offered her breakfast. We had breakfast together and then rushed off to be at the Charity office in time. I ended up being on time. We were supposed to go and give things to the families and check on their conditions but due to the fact that they were printing a ticket type thing that they had each family keep so that they could sign off on. This way they could really keep track of what they already gave to which families which would help keep things honest.
This delayed us tremendously. I decided to wander the streets of Garagoz. I sat absorbing the sun near a fountain just watching passers by for a good solid twenty minutes. I noticed people constantly throwing left over rice for the pigeons, motorcycles that were parked on the curb getting sited, and that if you wear a cowboy hat, you get funny looks. The latter is not a new thing though. Abu Saleem finally told me that he was almost to the office. I walked back the busy streets and made it back to the office. He was still not there so Yaman, his partner in charity, took me down to get baklava. Gazientep is known for its warm, savory, baklava. I told him all I could eat was one little slice. He talked to the guy in Turkish and out came icecream and 3 slices. I ate the icecream with ground pistachio on top and one piece. I saved the rest for later. Its good I did, because I tell you, at night when we made the rounds to visit families, walking miles after miles, the wrapped up napkin of baklava became a highlight snack. Although this wrapped up baklava became a bit of a task, since I ended up carrying around in a little napkin all day. We went back up to the office and still no Abu Saleem. I taught Yaman how to make origami. I chuckled inside at his color choices of beads when he was ready to put his crane on the earring backings. Everyone one in the office raised their eyebrows when I kept pulling out plyers, earring wire, origami paper, and acrylic sealer out of my backpack. They kept looking at my backpack waiting for a sheep or a horse to possibly come out next.
Finally, Abu Saleem came and it turned out he was waiting on the ticket stubs to still be printed. Yaman took me instead. We went on foot, and started walking to different neighborhoods. Very much like Syria, Turkey has two styles of living.. The old alleyways or the high-rises. This area we were in were high-rise buildings. The difference between Turkey and Syria is that in Syria, there are maybe 2 or 4 flats on each floor. Here in Turkey, they fit 12 on each floor, which means each rental space is the size of a tiny studio.
VISITING FAMILIES IN GAZIENTEP AND ASSESSING THEIR NEEDS
The first family we visited had 6 people living in the one house. They are from Aleppo and they lost their home there.
"First we went to our aunts house in another part of Aleppo when we lost our home. Then, I will never forget, it was Ramadan and we had just broken our fast when we saw a bomb drop on our neighbors house in front of us. We threw our slippers on and fled the country. We found out my aunts house got bombed too. What are we to do? We have nothing. Praise God, at least we are alive." They said to me. They had thin sponge mattresses about an inch in height on the floor and only 4 blankets.
I was warned not to promise anyone anything until we had visited all the families. One of the girls, Lamia, told me to please also go see her uncle's house. She put her slippers on and her and her little son accompanied us to a mile away. The living conditions there were even worse. There were 7 living in there with only a few blankets.
"I give my kids the sponge mattress since its warmer for them and my husband and I sleep on the floor. What else are we to do?" the mom said.
I went into the other people's house next door and they were EVEN WORSE than this other family. There were 12 people all living and sleeping in one room. 2 families all sharing one bathroom. One family was from Aleppo and the other family were Turkmans from the mountains of Latakia. One girl specifically in this family struck my attention. She seemed strong, beautiful, and spirited, polite, and educated. She was. She was studying to be a doctor when all this was happening. At the age of 20 now, she has been helping in all the pop-up clinics translating for doctors and acting as a nurse for them. Yaman asked Aslan if she would like a job with the organization translating and that it would begin tomorrow at 7am. She agreed.
The two families had taken an old lady in who didn't know anyone and had lost her entire family in the war. I pulled Yaman outside.
"Can I have a quick word with you?" I asked. He moved aside to where none of them could hear. "Would if I gave each family 200 TL and they could get what they needed?" I asked.
"No," he said, "Lets go shopping and bring them what they need. It will be a nicer gesture and since we can get things wholesale, the money will reach further." I agreed and told the families that we would visit them tomorrow. I didn't promise anything but in my heart, I wanted to give them the world. I wanted to take each one shopping, buy each one their very own mattress and their very own warm blanket. Thanks to donations I've been getting, we will be sending these families a heater as well.
Every time we visited one family, they would tell us of another family in the nearby area they met that also needed help and would send one of their family members with us to show. We now had Lamia and her little 5 year old son Khalid, the Turkman woman from Latakia, and us crossing the street.
We visited a couple that had just been reunited after 8 months of being apart. They were from Homs. When the war began, the man fled the army. The wife went to Qatar to live with her sister. They seemed better off than the others I visited but the truth was that a generous donator had already visited them and just furnished their house. What they were missing though was a blanket. Check, mental note. Nora, the wife began telling of stories when she worked in the bank. While she started telling me stories, the little boy Khaled kept poking my shoulder to show me something in a magazine.
"This is you," he said pointing to a picture of a blonde woman on an airplane serving orange juice.
"Why? Is my hair blonde?" I asked. He flipped to another picture of a backpack and said, "This is you." I agreed with that one a little more. He kept trying to play the "this is you" game while Nora told her very interesting story. This was the first time the Alewites were brought into focus since I began my trip.
THE ALEWITES AND HOW THEY CAME TO POWER
"The Alewites are a crude people, uneducated people." she began.
"When the uprising started, Alewite co-workers, people who knew me and liked me, would tell me that everyone should worship Bachar AL-Asad and anyone who goes against him should die. I couldn't believe that they would say that to me."
"Wait. Can you please tell me the whole history of the Alewites vs. the Sunnis? Why is this such a big deal?" I asked. I wanted to hear it from her. Nora had been working in an all Allewite bank and when she first got a job there, one girl went up to her and asked her how it was possible that a girl like her "indicating she was Sunni" could get such a prestigious job at a bank. "I let her have it. Just like you have a degree, I have a degree, the same person who hired you hired me. Why should it be that you can have a good job and not me, an educated person?" She challenged her. This had been on her first day on the job. She then began to explain the history of the Alewites.
"They were originally from the mountains and were mafia, hit men, thieves to begin with. When they were promised power and got rich quick, Assad gave them all very good jobs and promised anyone who was of this sect to have good jobs as well- even if they were uneducated. Because they were uneducated, when they were all given very good positions, they separated themselves as the upper class and look down on us because we do not have the same good jobs they have. They were the non-educated and suddenly had all the powerful jobs. Its very difficult for someone who is not an Allewite to get a good position in the government, a bank, or any institution." she said.
Nora only recently became united with her husband, after being separated for 9 months due to the war situation.
I took a mental note to bring them a blanket the next day. On our way over to the next family, Yaman had a quick errand. We stopped at a restaurant.
"Whats this?" I asked.
"I’m planning on buying it and calling it 'The Syrian Families Home restaurant' and hosting huge dinners for the Syrian families here. When I have it open as a regular restaurant, I will take 30% of the profits from it and put it back into the organization." he said. "Mostly, we need a cheap restaurant that the Syrians can meet each other at so that we can start building a new community.”.
He talked to the owner quickly and then we carried on foot to the next house.
"I can't go into this one." Yaman said. "You and Omar (a guy who knew of this man's situation) should go. I have a weak heart and I will cry if I go in and then I won't be able to sleep at night." Said Yaman. The best way to describe Yaman is like a Pillsbury dough-boy. He has a child-like innocence to him, even though he is a lawyer.
Omar and I knocked on the door. I didn't know what to expect. The family opened and the many many people living in this room broke my heart, but not as bad as the poor 74 year old man and his story. This man, Ghaith, was a famous poet and writer in Aleppo. He had diabetes when the war started happening. As soon as things got bad and hospitals and pharmacies were out of medicine. He couldn't get his diabetes medicine and as a result, lost his leg and his eye.
"Who are you?" he asked.
"I just came to see if you needed anything, any help. I’m originally Syrian but I’m from America. We have a huge community there that cares about you."
The man, who was sitting up on the bed wearing what appeared to be a Shakespearian-looking sweater, (It was his wife's since he didn't have one), had white hair, and missing teeth. My words affected him. The fact that there were people who cared was something he needed to hear. He threw his head in his hands and started crying like a baby. I don't think I've ever seen an old man cry like a baby before. I didn't know what to do.
"What’s your family name in Syria?" he asked, in between tears.
I told him and then his face lit up instantly. Do you know Hasan? He asked.
"Yes, that was my mom's cousin in Aleppo." I said.
"He was famous. Your family is famous in Syria for doing good things for people. I knew him and he was a good man. Poor man died very young."
I was delighted to hear that he knew my family.
"Our home is destroyed. I couldn't get medicine for my diabetes and now look at me. It could be worse. At least we are together here." he said. The two beds in the room left no walking space. You had to just throw yourself onto a bed if you entered the room. I asked what they needed. Although it was obvious they needed blankets. They asked me for medicine for him.
"How much is it?" I asked.
"200TL" The son replied.
I instantly handed him the money and left. I broke the visiting rule. I couldn't help it. I told this news to Yaman and he was sad I did that.
"I could take that money and buy him 3 times that amount of what he would pay in a Turkish pharmacy."
"Then do it." I said. "I can't help it. I couldn't help it. You would have to if you saw him." I said.
"That’s why I couldn't go in." He said. "Besides, He's famous in Aleppo and I don't want to see him in this condition." Yaman said as we walked to the last house for the night- 2 women living together who lost everyone. They were sisters and had a bed but not enough blankets. We took notes.
I felt satisfied with the visits we had done. The next day would bring a lot more, more than I ever dreamed was possible in one day.
Hi. I'm a Syrian-American Artist, writer, and educator with far too much thirst for adventure.
Trip to Turkey, 2012
The Road to the Refugees
This blog captures my trip in 2012 (solo) to Turkey to go look for Syrian Refugees and offer them aid. It also captures my second humanitarian trip in November 2013 to open a school and start an art therapy program in Tripoli, Dier Ammar, Lebanon.
It will now capture my 2017 GREECE trip to help refugees.