Part I: In Limbo
Naime is from Aleppo. She is in her sixties, outspoken, warm. She reasons her fluency in Turkish to her Turkoman roots. Her husband is a little older than her, and hosts a gentle yet worn out expression. He is timid, yet kind. But Naime, she is a survivor. And as she sits with her family underneath the palm trees planted for shade along the boardwalk in the touristic southern city of Bodrum, she is defiant: “we just need them (the government) to show us a plot. We are farmers. We will tend to the land, and the land will provide for us. It always has. We don’t need anything else. But do not let them send us back. There is nothing but death back home. They will kill us. And do not let them send us back to the camps either. There is nothing but disease and death there. People are dying everyday in those camps.”
As I sit on the freshly moved lawn, with my back to some of the most luxurious tour boats waiting to take tourist groups for a sail in the deep turquoise waters of the Aegean, I listen to Mustafa’s story of plight, full with sand, dust, the desert, war, desperation, disease and death. Mustafa is one of Naime’s three sons. His wife Melissa is a gentle young woman, outspoken, beautiful. Of their two children the small one has a fever, but the family, having given all their money to the human traffickers that deposited them to the shores of Bodrum, have no money left to buy him medicine. “The locals help, they help a lot. They give us food, different people, they bring us food everyday. But we want to leave and go to Istanbul. If we can find the money for the bus tickets, we will go today. We have relatives in the city. They will help us, ” tells Mustafa. He says he irons clothes. That is what he did back when they had a home, a life in Aleppo. Now their house is destroyed. Their fields of wheat burnt by fighters of either factions. “There is nothing for us in Syria anymore. If we can just get to Istanbul, we will be fine.” He says he will find a job at a dry cleaners. Naime dreams of renting a small shop where Mustafa can work and bring food to the table.
The problem is they won’t be fine in Istanbul, they will probably be worse than they already are here. At least in Bodrum, a quaint coastal town, with a relatively small local population, kind, generous, they have food. Unlike the torrential rains of the North at this time of the year, the big-city-police-round ups, the impersonal local officials and city folk; Bodrum municipality, upon pressure from local shop owners showed them a temporary shelter: an elementary school building, empty during the summer holidays. There are even rumors of a civilian initiative to provide temporary shelter to the growing number of refugees and migrants unusually showing up in Bodrum. But in the big city? Istanbul is already packed with Syrian families desperately begging in the streets. The city is unwelcoming for the poor let alone a refugee family with no money. There are few NGOs that are under backbreaking stress from the multitude of refugees who end up at their doorsteps fleeing from wars in Sudan, CAR, Afghanistan, and human rights abuses in numerous autocratic societies. Financiers are limited if any, and volunteers are no where enough. One more family showing at their doorsteps is going to be exactly that: just one more family. A mere statistic.
As we continue to chat, Naime’s husband beckons me over, silently. He points to my camera and says apologetically: “do not take our picture, please. Do not give us to the papers, if they see us, if they see our name, that will be our death sentence.” I promise them I will not take their picture. I also promise them that their family name will be safe with me. Right around then a woman stops by the family, asks the family whether or not they are done. Naime smiles, hands her an empty bowl, and thanks her, “yes we are.” The woman takes the bowl and tugging at the leash of her dog sniffing Mustafa curiously, trots off.
I bid them a temporary goodbye. I take down Mustafa’s phone number before I leave. The ten digit number is a tentative connection, a fragile and transient bond between me and them. And maybe one day soon, in that jungle of a city called Istanbul, we will meet again.