The Bridge

A dust cloud enveloped our van as we quickly veered right onto a dirt road.  The agricultural fields had now transitioned into parched earth with low rising, treeless mountains in the distance.   Slowing down as the dust cleared, I could just make out twelve white and blue tents, aligned one next to each other, in two neat rows.    Pulling in closer, the van came to a stop next to a two story concrete building. 

We were entirely encircled by refugees as soon as we parked the van.  I had to gently push a few out of my way to get out of the vehicle.   Altin had attained celebrity status with them.  With frenetic energy, a few camp people reached to shake her hand as soon as she stepped out, and then came the hugs.   Opening the back door, we displayed all the goods loaded inside.   A few anxious residents started grabbing at the boxes, but were pushed back and asked to wait until their family names were called.   I quickly covered the bright watercolor sets and pushed the art supplies back further, hoping they would not tempt anyone, while I stepped away to assess my surroundings.  I needed to figure out the best way to set up. 

Some of the women and children at the camp.

Some of the women and children at the camp.

As soon as I started walking toward the tents, two girls, carrying a toddler each in their arms, approached me.  There were days worth of dirt caked on their toes, peeking out from under their plastic sandals.  The shorter girl began speaking to me: "Merhaba. Hoş geldin. Ben Samra (Hi, welcome. I am Samra)."   "Oh you speak Turkish," I said. "Very little, but I am learning,'' she replied, with the warmest smile on her face.  

The small child in her arms was wearing a horizontally striped blue and pink long sleeved shirt, with a big vertical stripe of grime smeared down the middle.  Her face was tanned from being out constantly in the hot sun.  Her nose began running, and she wiped her face with her arm.   I reached out to carefully stroke her cheek, making sure my hand was far away from her nose and mouth.    Samra then tried to hand the girl over to me to carry.   "I am very tired from my long journey," I heard myself saying to her.  "She will be too heavy for me.  Let me just adore her in your in your arms."  I didn't want to touch her more than I needed to, in fear of catching something.   At the same time, I felt embarrassed and guilty to turn away a kid who had no means of taking care of herself, even if she wanted to.    

I walked by the tents, peering into them.   They all had various carpets thrown on the floor, and it appeared several families were staying together in each tent.  I didn't notice any bedding in them. Perhaps they had them rolled up somewhere.  The floors looked smooth and hard enough to draw on, and the tents were large enough to hold about twenty kids.  

I decided that I was going to hold the art session in a tent. All the kids could sit on the floor and draw.  The first session would be a free draw.  I wanted to know what was on their immediate minds and didn't want to dictate what to do.   Since they were displaying hoarding behavior at the van, it would be best to give them limited materials.  Magic markers would work better on the surface than colored pencils. Watercolor painting would be too messy, and there was no water.  It was starting to come together in my mind.   Each child would get one colored marker to work with, and a few sheets of paper. 

Samra and the other girl continued to follow me around everywhere I walked.  "Çok güzel"  (very pretty), she said, pulling at my hair.  I put my arm around her arm and walked with her.  Altin was still distributing food.  I wanted her to help me, so I waited.    Samra led me into the concrete building.  There were rooms on each side where some of the refugees were living.  I asked Samra how it was determined who slept in tents and who in the concrete rooms.  It was on a first come, first serve basis.

She led me to the top of the building onto the roof, and we could see the flat land stretching for miles into the distance.  "I am Kurdish, my friend is Arabic," she said.  "My village is just by the mountains over there. I am from Afarin." She pointed toward the mountains.   "How do you like staying in Turkey," I asked. "I love it. We have been here for one month, and I am very happy," she said, smiling.  "I am Kurdish," she said, but this time made a hand motion showing her arms and legs.  I didn't understand what she was telling me until she once again repeated, "My friend is Arabic," and made a motion with her hands, indicating her friend's hair and body were covered and hers were not.   "Kurdish, skin ok, Arabic is shame," she said, giggling, and continuing to point at her friend's hijab.  I looked at her friend. She was smiling too, but was it half hearted, out of embarrassment to be put on the spot like that.

I led the girls back downstairs.   Altin had grabbed a ream of paper and some markers and was standing by the van.   "Who wants to draw?"  the translator asked the children standing around us.   I pulled out a red marker and saw the children's faces light up immediately.  "Me! Me!" as hands began going up into the air one by one.  With my marker raised above my head, we began walking toward one of the tents and were followed by a mob of about thirty kids.  We stopped in front of an open tent.  Altin began handing out one sheet of paper from the ream to each child, and I began distributing the markers.  Hands were coming at me from every angle. Kids began pushing each other and were determined, at any cost, to get the handouts before they ran out. 

Distribution 

Distribution 

What followed was magical: a spontaneous outpouring at its best.  Without any instruction from me, the kids filled up the tent and began drawing without a second's hesitation.   They were all hunched over, seated on the ground, moving markers, creating various shapes on the clean sheets of paper.   It was like a dam had broken and nothing could stop the flow.  I was astounded by their focus and attention to the outpouring of their memories.   I looked around and saw children crouching on the dirt ground, a few feet outside of the tent, making images en plein air.    Suddenly, one of the boys inside jumped up and held up his drawing for me to see.  A second later another stood up, her picture raised above her head.  One by one they got up.  There were about ten kids standing in the tent and saying something to me in Arabic while showing me their work.   I had to go in and acknowledge them. 

The sun's heat was trapped underneath the sprawling tarp; there was no circulation, only the smell of heavy sweat.  Flies were swarming everywhere, and small piles of trash were visible through the back opening of the tent.   Kids continued to pop up, show me their pictures, and sit back down. A couple of them kept standing, holding their drawings in their outstretched arms, and staring at me, waiting for their recognition.  They all wanted my attention, yet somehow I stopped cold and could not go to them across the filth barrier.  I took a deep breath and swatted a fly away from me, in defiance.  I had to push past my mental block and stay the course no matter what.  I couldn't let those kids down after having giving them so much.    One, two, three, and in I went.  Images of hearts, homes and stick figures were everywhere.   I touched some kids on their shoulders, clapped at some and gave others a thumbs up.    I was met with smiles, and with each one I became less and less bothered by the squalor. 

We finally made it out of the tent.  The children started running up to hand me their pictures.  My hands were now filled with everyone's work.  The images on top were familiar: stick figures of family members, the sun, hearts, and houses.   It struck me as odd that the pictures were so happy in tone, despite the fact they narrowly escaped the Syrian war.  Then I came across an image of the bleeding flower, drawn in red on the bottom of one of the drawings.  In the top right corner was a warplane spewing out bullets.   Pointing to the male image next to the plane, the translator, who was standing next to me, said after seeing my reaction, "His arm is cut off!  The boy who drew it began telling me how he saw a dead man who was hit by a bullet.  He was so scared talking to me.  He shook as he spoke.  I am glad I earned his trust." 

I wanted to ask the boy about his work.  "He will not talk to you," Altin said.  "You have to wait.  You see he is from Kobani. The kids saw war there.  And some of the kids are from Afarin right across the border."  Right then it made sense to me.  All the kids who drew happy images did not see the horrors of warfare firsthand, whereas the ones who drew tanks and planes had.   Samra and her friend were from Afarin.  I started looking for them.   "Which one is your picture Samra?" I asked, after I found her standing next to the van.    We went through the pile.  "This is mine'' she said proudly, pointing to a purple house in the middle of a purple heart.  "My house and family," she continued.   "This is beautiful Samra.  I am so glad you showed me." 

The food distribution and art session had come to a close.   The frenzied energy at the time of our arrival had made way to one of calm and serenity.   The refugees appeared satisfied, at least for the moment.   Some of the children were walking around with the markers in their hands, unwilling to let go of them.    

We had one more stop to make before we had lunch; we had to pick up the remaining artwork from the pregnant woman's children.    There was silence in the car, as we drove to the woman's house.  We were all tired from the long morning, and the hot sun.    

As we drove up, the mother gathered her kids and the artwork they had drawn.   She handed us two images as soon as we got out of the car.  The translator immediately got out of the car, and came over as the woman began talking to us.  "We cried as we drew this.  It was very hard for us to think about it again, and we cried.  I told my boys to draw every detail they could remember." The two boys each held up very colorful images depicting tanks, warplanes, dead people and explosions.  "Hand them to her."  I received three images, one of which I was not originally shown to me.   It was a man in front of a cross. "It is the man who stops the war," said the boy.   I was overjoyed to see something so hopeful after all the pain the boys were going through.   While I was wondering if they had previously received a children's Bible, Altin exclaimed, "What a miracle! Jesus has spoken to this boy! It is in the drawing!"  I addressed the mother, "Please tell them to continue drawing.  Tell them to imagine a perfect day and to draw what that might look like."

My trip was a success.   Everything fell into place without any problems.  In my first attempt, it seems, some children had fun, while some experienced catharsis.  The images of a few of the children kept appearing in my mind, and had such a profound affect on me that I needed to take the time to process it all before I could begin to understand.   After a successful start, I decided I would return here.  The children loved drawing, and it appeared a few of them needed regular support for any lasting positive effect. 

We arrived at our lunch spot.   It was a lone maple tree in a barren field off the side of the road.    Its long branches with large leaves gave welcoming shade and cool protection.   Our lunch was simple: feta cheese filled pastries and water.   "I miss eating pork.  I just love pork," Altin said, out of nowhere.  "Mmm, crispy bacon.  It's so hard to find in Turkey.  Haven't had it in so long."  "I bet the refugees haven't had meat either."  I replied.    

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The First Gift of Color

"My baby hasn't turned its head downward.  It's two weeks late," she said, pulling her small son close to her.   As she spoke, the man next to me translated the Arabic into Turkish.   I noticed the young refugee's belly protruding from the middle of her long, solid white gown.  We were standing on the side of the main road, and Altin, the woman on the three-person food distribution team, placed two large sacks of lentils and rice on the ground at her feet.  The Syrian woman had fled the war with her family and had found shelter in the abandoned, one room concrete building directly behind us.   A boy and a girl stepped out of their box-like plain grey home. They stood motionless on their gravel and dirt lawn, and were watching us. I caught a glimpse of a wooden table and chair.  Next to them were several green plants now growing out of some old metal olive oil containers, which had once lined the local grocery store shelves.  

9-month pregnant refugee woman who is also a mother of two boys and one girl. 

9-month pregnant refugee woman who is also a mother of two boys and one girl. 

"My son got damaged in the war."  She pointed to his head, as he still clutched her.   The left side of the five-year old's face had webbed skin caused by a third-degree burn.  His hair above the scar was matted to his skin with dried clear pus.  It appeared he had been continually picking at it and had broken the skin.  I couldn't inquire further. The translator had walked way, but I remained fixated on the boy's scarred face: expressionless, yet sad and aged beyond his years.  

The family's father, like many other refugees in the Hatay area (a Turkish province in Southern Turkey on the Mediterranean), had found work as a crop picker in the fields through a çavus, a recruiter who finds workers for the landowners.  The recruiter, claiming the migrants could never have found work without him, gets a major bulk of the money negotiated between the refugees and the landowners.  As a result, they do back breaking work, far below the legal requirements out of desperation to provide their families. I was told they average 8 TL (Turkish Lira) a day and if they work harder 10 TL a day.   The current legal 2015 minimum wage is around 33 TL a day.  

I pulled out a couple of magic marker and colored pencil sets, as well as some paper from the boxes in the back of our black van.   "Let's give these to the kids, " I said.   "These are for you.  Draw whatever you want," said the translator.   "She is going to take your drawings to New York so everyone can see.    Make sure they are pretty. She is going to pick them up on the way, later this afternoon," Altin said.    I turned quietly to Altin: "Tell them they can keep the art supplies, I hope their father doesn't try to sell them for money," I said, knowing this could be a potential problem.  "No, their father is a good man. He won't do that," she replied.

The mother took the art supplies from me, very pleased to see such a unique gift apart from the usual food and diaper donations, and handed the items to her kids.  She seemed to be happier to receive my gifts than the children. They took them, surprisingly, without any observable expressions.   I tried to show affection to one of the boys by putting my arm around him, but he got very nervous and hid behind his mother's back.  

These were the first children I gave supplies to.  I was overwhelmed, and I did not know what I was feeling at that moment.   I did realize, however, that I wanted to spend more time in their presence in an effort to lift their sadness, even if it meant for a brief second.  No child should be that sad. They have done nothing wrong; they are innocent.  

"Are you Christian?" Altin asked me a few minutes after we boarded the van.   She was a Muslim convert who worked for the local Christian church.  Two men, also from the same church, joined us on our journey.  They had earned the refugees trust by giving food, clothing and baby supply donations to them every few weeks.  In doing so, they had compiled a survey and kept records of the poorest migrants in the area.  Altin was very receptive to my idea of art making with children and offered to take me to the camps with them.      "I thought Aysha was a cover name," she said, as if I belonged to some secret group.  "Christians are not liked very much in Turkey.  I got death threats when I converted," she continued.  As she spoke, I looked own and saw a bag on the floorboard next to Altin's feet, which had some books with camel pictures and Arabic writing: they were children's Bibles.  

"You see, I lost faith in everything in my life. I became an atheist and remained that way for a while.  Where I am from, in Diyarbakir, there is no respect for women.   They do terrible, terrible things."   Altin's voice became angry as she continued.    Although I was curious, I did not feel comfortable asking specific questions about her ordeals.  I just let her speak.  I could only assume that she suffered tremendously in the hands of the opposite sex, so much so that she lost all belief in humanity.    "But one day the Lord Almighty spoke to me,  and then I knew my mission. I saw the light. I knew my way. I knew had to be of service to Him.   But you are not serving the Lord. You are not answering His call and you are still here?" Altin looked at me slightly perplexed as she finished speaking.   

Not everyone who had been completely paralyzed in life is as lucky as Altin.  After listening to her, I felt even more strongly about delivering art supplies to the children in plight and making attempts to brighten their day with color before it was too late and depression might start to set.  Children are extremely resilient and creative. If given attention early enough, they can get in touch with their emotions and process them.   The saddened boys I saw today just need to be reminded that they can have fun again, and there are people they can still trust who can guide them, so that they do not feel as helpless.  

 We turned off the single lane highway onto a side road.   The land was flat, and we were suddenly surrounded by planted fruit groves and other crops stretching out as far as the eye could see.  We drove on, under the hot sun, making stops at various registered homes to deliver food and baby supplies. We were on our way to the main camp, which was occupied by both Arab and Kurdish Syrian citizens, some of who had intermarried.  

As we got closer, I became preoccupied in trying figure out how I was going to administer my first art making session with the refugee children that I could no longer hear the ongoing conversations during our drive.  "Would there be a table there for the kids to draw on?  Where do I leave the art supplies? Would their parents take the supplies and sell them? Will there be enough material to go around?  Will I work with all of the kids or just a few to start?  Would they even be interested?"  I was consumed with these questions without finding answers.  There were so many unknowns.  The only way to approach this was to think on my feet and just roll with it when I got there.    

 

Epiphany

Day 2

A large crowd of refugee men and boys holding empty extra large plastic containers rushed to the kitchen.  They had come to pick up their ration of milk and were pushing and shoving to get in front of each other. Standing outside, their hands bobbed erratically through the open window.  A representative from a nearby farm had delivered it freshly squeezed that morning.   After much deliberation, the camp leaders had decided to serve it boiled fresh rather than cooked into yogurt.   It was an assembly line process: one volunteer poured, another carried, and the third went down the list of names and checked off each refugee family as they handed back the filled containers. 

Distributing Milk 

Distributing Milk 

"I would like to invite you to my home to meet my mother," blurted out Hezo, one the three teenage refugee boys I had been chatting and getting friendly with in the kitchen.  We had just finished taking photographs seated in front of the industrial sized metal cookware.   "Why his mother?" I thought. It was was a curious choice of words to my Western ears.  Was my friendliness misconstrued? Perhaps a mere friendly chat between a male and female means something else in Iraqi Kurdish culture.  I nervously contemplated, but then brushed the thought aside and accepted the invitation without further hesitation.  This was a perfect opportunity to see inside refugee homes and to get to know about their plight a little further. 

Kurdish Refugee Teens Helping Out in the Kitchen

Kurdish Refugee Teens Helping Out in the Kitchen

We pushed through the crowd outside and went into the next building about a hundred meters away.   It had one hallway with many doors leading to single rooms on each side.  A slightly overweight woman wearing a long black skirt with the hem dragging on the floor came out of the first door on the right where the teenage boy and his family lived.  "Welcome to my home. Come in please."  The sunny single room had no furniture.  There was a shaggy, high pile brown and white diamond patterned carpet covering the entire floor.  I was introduced to the teenager's father, sister and other younger brother who had intense deepset eyes that looked as if they were lined with kohl.   We all sat on the floor and were mesmerized by each other.  I took turns looking at all of them, one by one, while they all stared at me.  

"I am so glad you are here," the mother Diyla said, breaking the initial awkward silence.   She offered to give me her daily ration.   I was so impressed by their character.  Not many people would be willing to share what little they have after having lost so much.  I didn't want to be rude.   "I am very full, but I will have some water," I replied.

Diyla pulled up her skirt, showing me the scratches on her legs.  Dried blood markings formed thick almost perfect horizontal trails around her calves. "We walked for three days nonstop with no food, no water.  I kept falling down."  She was smiling the whole time she talked about her escape from ISIS.    "We are here now, thankfully.  I don't know what is going to happen.  We are just waiting and waiting.  I don't know what for, but something."  She shrugged her shoulders continuing to smile.  "Can you take us to Europe?'' she said bluntly.   "No, I am sorry.  I don't have that kind of authority."

That was the second time one of the refugees at this camp had asked me that.  I could tell she did not like being in limbo.  It seemed as if they were ready to put their full trust in any opportunity that came their way.   It saddened me thinking how any charismatic person with misaligned interests could so easily take advantage of them.

"Can you tell me a bit about what happened back home," I addressed Hezo.   He broke off eye contact with me and looked down.  His grin started to morph into a grimace for a few seconds as he remembered something painful.  He immediately looked up, his expression changed back and he started grinning again, not saying a single word.  We stared into each other's eyes smiling. 

It is at this moment I realized something was off.   Their facial expressions belied their basic emotions, and what they really wanted to say to me.   Except for that brief second when Hezo caught himself lapsing into sadness, I could not detect any grief, anger or anxiety in their mannerisms.  Their happy demeanors were something beyond hospitality and charm.  They were masking their suffering as a defense mechanism in order to appear strong.  

The Displaced Iraqi Family

The Displaced Iraqi Family

We hugged each other goodbye, and Hezo and I walked back out into the crowd wondering if the driver had returned to bring us back to Şirnak.   The same lanky teenage boy was a few feet away from me.  The hood on his sweatshirt was pulled over his head.   He saw me and blushed again. "Hey come here I want to take your picture," I yelled.   He did an about face and started darting away.  "Hey" I called, laughing out loud, holding up my cell phone.  His friends grabbed him, pulling him closer to me.   They were all jeering.  I put my arm around him and got my picture.  My time at the camp had come to a close with this lighthearted photo session. 

Later that day, before I boarded the plane, I knew what I wanted to do for the children:  I decided to send them art supplies.   A little bit of color and play always does wonders to the spirit.   

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Inside Second Camp: Day One

Two Turkish military personnel, dressed in army fatigues, and long rifles strapped across their chest, appeared across the street out of nowhere and motioned for me to approach them.   The small beige Samsonite suitcase looked awfully suspicious by itself in the middle of the sidewalk.  No wonder I was summoned.

"You are not from this country?'' said one of them.    He scanned me from head to toe, clutching his gun.  Handing him a slip of paper, with address and phone number, I said in my North American accented Turkish; "I'm from Istanbul.   Is this address around here?''

We were at the front gate of one of the four military barracks located in a somewhat depressed section of Şirnak, a mostly Kurdish town not far from the Syrian and Iraqi border.  I had arrived here thirty minutes ago from Diyarbakir to visit the refugee camps, but quickly got lost along the way.   The bus driver had mistakenly let me off in front of the barracks, which carried the same name as the apartment complex I would be staying in. 

"Call the number now," the second soldier demanded. He gently took the phone from me as soon as I dialed it and spoke to Bilge, an Armenian woman from Istanbul who lived somewhere nearby in town.  She was hosting me and had been working in the camps for the last several months.  "Go back across the street and wait for her," he insisted. "And don't forget your suitcase."

The residential buildings surrounding me, three to four stories high: all had unpainted facades and were shoddily constructed with cheap concrete. Big black letters PKK (Kurdistan Workers' Party) were spray painted on multiple walls.   Blocks of much taller apartments colored pink, blue and green multiplied in the distance behind them. The city was situated in rugged terrain, in between hills and surrounded by barren mountains. 

There is not much to say about town with a population of fifty thousand whose main attraction is a building with bullet holes covering the entire facade. The owner apparently refused to repair it in order to make a political statement.   Şirnak only has one decent hotel, which had just opened for operation earlier that year.  With the exceptions of a few kebab, hamburger and pizza places at city center, there were no real restaurants where you could spend a fun evening with friends.  The culture seemed to suggest most everyone one stuck close to home after sunset.  

Bilge drove me to her home, a characteristic nondescript concrete apartment building, in an even more depressed section of town.   It was located down the street from another military barracks.   We entered the building from the side.  The lobby was dark, and the elevator wasn't working properly.  Nevertheless, we took it to the fifth floor and then walked to the sixth.   The apartment was very bright with the early afternoon sun peeping in through the windows.   There was no furniture in the living room, only floor-to-floor white carpeting.   My room had one bed set close to the ground.   After I settled in, we decided to head out the camps for a brief visit. 

"You only drive to the camps with people you trust.  We have a driver," Bilge said as she began dialing his number. 

The driver, a young man with distinctively large hands showed up before we were ready.   Acting as if trespassing into a forbidden place, he sat down on the floor in the living room with legs crossed and kept his head down, gazing at the floor. The sound of the beads on his tespi (rosary) pierced the silence as he nervously flipped them. 

I got the feeling that this was not a place where you asked too many questions or talked much about yourself, especially if you didn't live here.   People were cordial with each other, but there was a clear demarcation when it came to strangers.  Conversations were curt without much eye contact. The atmosphere felt heavy: weighed down with seriousness. There was never the slightest laugh, or moments of joy around, almost as if everyone was in a state of depression.  Şirnak was the epicenter of PKK activity and became a war zone until the ceasefire in 1991.   It was obvious people were tired.  The politics and fighting had adversely permeated everyone's being. People did not trust easily and lacked the ability to truly connect from the heart.   

We drove out of the city down the main highway, past the newly constructed hotel. Fifteen minutes later, we found ourselves down a narrow, twisting dirt road.   There was nothing in sight for a several minutes except for the dust blowing up from the parched earth.  After the haze cleared, I saw a grey building with small white windows on my left and some children playing around it.   It was part of a former military barracks, and the camp was set up inside.   We parked near the entrance. 

Two Kurdish guards greeted us at the gate.  The security was much less strict here than in Diyarbakir.  They recognized all of us: Bilge, the driver and ourselves, and we were able to go in after a few words were exchanged.   Everywhere we looked, there were kids running.   Some of the refugees stopped to stare at us as we walked toward the main buildings.   The camp was small with a total of five buildings in close proximity to each other.   The refugees, a few hundred in number and mostly from Iraq, were housed there instead of in tents, giving them more shelter from the sun and arid surroundings.   There were men and women sitting on the steps to the entrance of each building.  The facades were decorated with laundry and carpets hanging on ropes.  The few adults standing appeared to be the leaders and volunteers. Amongst them, stood a tall blond American woman: a dentist, from California, there to fix teeth.  She was encircled by a mob of children and was posing for multiple photo ops taken by one of the volunteers.   Every time she moved the kids followed her. 

One by one the children tentatively started to approach me.  Some stared, some smiled.  One little girl about ten years, wearing a pink sweatshirt, finally spoke.  "This is how we count to twenty in Kurdish."  (I was not expecting anyone to speak English.)   I repeated this to her satisfaction,   "Yek, doo, se." "Can you take me to Europe with you."  "No, sweetheart," I said stroking her cheek. "If I take you your mother will get very angry at me and besides I would have to take your whole family along with us."  "Yes, you are right." "Chwar, penj, shash."   The crowd of kids continued to grow around me.  All of the children looked beautiful to me; some had blond hair and blue eyes.   I couldn't stop admiring them. 

I heard a shuffle of feet and turned around to see a woman being carried inside on a blanket. "What's wrong with her?" I asked a camp leader.  "She has been fainting the last several days. They will take care of her.  Working here has its challenges.  When these people first came here, they took all the donated blue colored clothes and put them aside refusing to wear them.  We told them you have no choice.  Just yesterday, one sewing machine came but we had to take it away. The women couldn't figure out how to share it and fought over it over whom it should belonged to.  And just this morning, an American freelance journalist made it in here without permission. We had to ask her to leave. She kept saying she was going to call the embassy.  We didn't trust her and think she was trying to smuggle people out of the camp."

"Is there anything for them to do here?' I asked, changing the subject "Not yet.  We are working on it, but who knows how long it will take. Our main priority is to ensure everyone is fed.  We have five hundred kilos of fresh milk coming in tomorrow."

Someone grabbed my arm. It was a young boy with arms too long for his lanky prepubescent body.   He winked at me and took a big step back.   His friends clapped and laughed at him.   Blushing, he kept looking at me and then turned his head away.   "Hey," I said with a big grin on my face. "I am going to get you."  They all ran away and went behind the main building; their cackling laughter fading in with the sounds of other children.

The driver was ready to take us back home.   "You are very lucky," Bilge said later that night, right before I went to bed.  "Why?" "I didn't want to say anything," she paused.  "What, tell me?" "Twice, earlier this week for the first time since I've been here, police sprayed tear gas below us.   My eyes started burning so badly that I had to go the bedroom in the back and shut the door to wait it out.   It always starts after sunset after the shops close.  Smoke bombs go off in the distance and then the police come.  Tonight is quiet.  You are lucky."  Her demeanor was very calm as if this was normal for her. 

I went to bed feeling very nervous, considering whether or not I would have come to Şirnak if I had known beforehand of this disturbing nighttime activity.  I calmed down, thinking of my late afternoon flight back to Istanbul the next day.   

Beyond the Limits

After meeting all the volunteers and staff for about an hour at the Diyarbakir offices, we were finally on the road to the refugee camp, located several kilometers away, in what was once a municipal recreational area.  We drove past all the cities' shops, restaurants and residential buildings and then turned onto a two-lane highway.  The driver next to me, a soft and eloquently spoken older Kurdish lawyer, was a director at the human rights organization.    A younger Kurdish woman, a housewife who regularly volunteered at the same place, was seated behind us with a large notepad in her lap.   This was her second time visiting the camp.

I stared out at the monotonous landscape of billboards and gas stations passing us by.  "I can tell you are from the West," the Director finally said, in an effort to make me feel welcome and to break the ongoing silence in the car.  I was still busy looking around as he spoke to me.  "Many Turks have not been interested in helping the Yazidis.  In fact, just about all of the aid are donations from the Kurdish population in the area.  The Turkish government has been focused on Syrian refugees."  I listened silently. "The winters in Diyarbakir are brutal.   I am so concerned if they are going to have enough blankets and heating."

We were still on the same highway, but the buildings had diminished into nothing more than trees on both sides as we drove further and further out.   I saw a sign indicating the recreation area.  We turned off the highway in its direction.   As we entered the grounds, the serene mood of our drive quickly shifted to one of tension.   We were met by a lot of security at the main gate of the camp area.  They asked us to park our car off to the side, and we had to wait about fifteen minutes as the guards radioed in our arrival.  The woman who joined us glanced at me with a nervous grimace.  Like me, she didn't know what to expect.   

Once in, four camp leaders, managing the welfare of the refugees, came out from a very small one-roomed house.   The Director introduced me in Turkish and told them I had come independently, out of my own volition.   Then, the main guy at the top in the chain of command switched to Kurdish as if I weren't there.  I had no idea what they were saying and stood uncomfortably staring at them.  The leaders all kept their eyes on me as they were talking; they didn't trust me at all.  No one was smiling.  The tone was serious.   I finally passed their initial scrutiny after a few minutes.  The Director must have vouched for me.  Extra chairs were pulled out for us around a table.  Tea was served in the tiny fluted glass Turkish teacups.  Everyone's guard had come down.  I was allowed to speak.

"I'm listening," the main leader said to me in Turkish.  I told them my pitch: I was interested in the children and was there to discover what was needed.  "Listen here, we have turned many people away at these gates," he said sternly.  "If you think you are here to adopt a Yazidi child, let me tell you, you are wasting your time,'' he blurted out with irritation.  "Many people have come here for this reason, and we have turned all of them away."

"No, I wasn't thinking that at all, but perhaps I could sponsor a child," I said as a mere response not knowing exactly what I wanted to offer just yet.  "Impossible!  You help one of them you have to help the entire family.   It is all about community. Not one. ALL."   I was not expecting to hear something like this. Clearly, I had not done my research.  "Let me tell you about the Yazidi people," he blurted out.  "They are Kurds like us.  This is why we are helping them, but they are different. Their thinking and culture are much more conservative than ours.  They worship the Melek Tauz (Peacock Angel) and are not allowed to wear blue or green.  The men and women live separate lives.   If a woman fights with her husband, and she turns her back on him, it means she has dishonored the whole family, and they will send her away.  The other day there was an argument. The woman tried to leave the camp. The family tried to send her back to Iraq.  I had to intervene.  We are like the police here.  These are the kinds of things we deal with."

"Can you buy baby kits for us? There are a few women who are about to give birth. This is our most pressing need at the moment.   We need that and socks," he said.    The woman with us was taking copious notes as he spoke. 

"What about their education?'' I asked. "They educate themselves," he replied curtly and quickly changed the subject, somewhat defensively.

He was being protective.  It made sense. There are only around one million Yazidis in the world. Not belonging to any book religion, they have been subject to persecution and death by their enemies over the years.  Their numbers have dwindled.   They are fiercely loyal and proud of their identity, culture and religious beliefs.  They are wary of outsiders who may try to change them, cause them harm or take one away from their tribe.   The guard was doing his duty to safeguard them. 

All of a sudden out of the corner of my eye, I saw a young boy around age 15, wearing jeans and a button down shirt, approaching our table with a large rock in his hand.  He was pretending to throw it at us, constantly winding up as if he were a softball pitcher.  It looked as if he had Down Syndrome with brown eyes that slanted upward, sagging cheeks and a short neck.    "He is one of our refugees.  Just ignore him," someone responded. 

The distraction of the retarded boy made way for us going into the camp where the refugees were located.   There were rows and rows of white tents set up everywhere on the grass.  We walked along the concrete pathways once used by the general public.   Men and women sat in front of their makeshift shelters, watching the children running and playing all kinds of games around them.  Some of the ladies nearby were washing clothes in plastic basins.  They covered their hair with loose fitting scarves, and wore long sleeved tops with lengthy, floral printed skirts, reaching the ground.   This is a style that is very similar to the traditional clothing  found in Turkish villages.   With the exception of a few adults who looked bored, the atmosphere seemed normal and calm. The grounds were immaculate.  I peered into some of the tents as we walked by them.  Several were full to the top with piles and piles of thick blankets.   The main camp leader proceeded to inform me they were trying to bring more electricity into the camp before the winter set in.     He pointed out into the distance.  "That area will be a recreation area for boys and men."

I was getting a guided tour.   I did not engage any of the refugees.  After the defensive conversation I had just had with the camp leader, it felt as if he had put up a barrier to me getting close to any of its residents.  I did not ask to speak to anyone, believing if I did he would deny me the opportunity.  I just looked in awe at the cleanliness and order of the place.  It seemed like I was walking through a random village in Turkey with well-established functioning community systems in place. 

Refugee camps, in my mind, had always been synonymous with desperation.  I had imagined children with no shoes and tattered clothing in unhygienic overcrowded conditions coming up to me in hordes begging for money or food with teary eyes while tugging at my clothing.   This is why that morning I decided not to take a purse or wear any jewelry.  Nor did I bother taking a shower or combing my hair.  I left the hotel in a plain white shirt, over washed ragged jeans and no makeup.   Unkempt, I was prepared to blend into the imagined dirty atmosphere conjured up in my head.

I was disappointed I didn't have the opportunity to speak to any refugees, but my observations left me with the impression that everything in terms of basic needs and comfort of these people had been thought of.  The camp leader had only mentioned a few items in addition to the baby sets.  I was very impressed with the organization and professionalism of this camp, overturning every preconceived notion I had in mind.   I didn't want to leave without doing anything.  Instead of a baby sets, I decided on donating a couple of barrels of rice and lentils feeling that it would be of most value, and of course, could be shared with the entire family. Back in Diyarbakir, we approached a huge warehouse that looked like an airplane hangar to drop off my purchase.  Inside were stockpiles of food filling up the entire building.  They recorded what I brought and gave me a receipt.   A well functioning system with steady supply was in place here too. 

The people of Diyarbakir had pulled together beautifully to help their own people.   They graciously opened their doors, gave me their trust and let me in.   I was happy I could help out just a little. 

Besides contributing food, I left not knowing what else I could do to help the children. Whatever it was going to be, this wasn't going to be the camp because of the limitations put up by the leaders.  I wouldn't get anywhere if I tried.   My next step was to find another one. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Blind Man and the Musician

"What does it feel like for a child to see someone die?" I asked.  "When everyone thinks it's normal it feels normal," he said.  "It didn't bother me at all."  "Then why are you still talking about it?" I asked.  He glanced at me and changed the subject. 

I was talking to a lifelong Turkish resident of Diyarbakir, a musician I befriended in the cafe of the Diyarbakir cultural center.   He appeared to be in his late sixties, with grey hair and a mustache.  He was about five feet tall and held a guitar in his lap the whole time we spoke.  The man around the same age seated next to him wore a grey cotton blazer and a black and white horizontally striped tie.  He did not talk much but mostly smiled and nodded his head in acknowledgment.  His eyes were closed. He was blind.