"The truly brave are soft of heart and eyes, And feel for what their duty bids them do." - Lord Byron
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."