"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.
"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.