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.