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.
"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.
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.
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.