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.