"Our anger and annoyance are more detrimental to us than the things themselves which anger or annoy us." - Marcus Aurelius
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.”