Compulsory Tourism III (Athens – Analysis)

I was staying at a flat in Uskudar, Istanbul when two Syrian flatmates with whom I would become great friends and stay in touch arrived.

When I heard the friend whose story I am about to share was going to take one of the sea-crossing journeys from Turkey to Europe I was less than thrilled with a world that would put someone in this predicament.

But he assured all of us who asked that he would be fine, so we had to believe that.

The situation is terrible, and it doesn’t look to be getting better anytime soon, but my friend is fine, and about  month ago he sent me a forty-page document detailing the whole story of his journey. 

Having read (as we all have) so many “ripple-effect” refugee stories (I talk about this elsewhere on this blog), it was almost calming for me to read a first-hand account. Mostly I feel really happy for my friend that he made it to somewhere he wants to be. 

Please read (and share!) this story written by my friend: the more people who can understand the “refugee crisis” as it affects the whole world, the better.

Jamie Lynn Buehner, December 14, 2015

Καλώς ήρθατε στην Αθήνα

The ferry docks and the boarding process is repeated in reverse order. What a nice feeling to be here at last, especially when you have a good surprise waiting for you…the public transport is free for five days! We board the bus going to the nearest metro station.

I didn’t have any clue about what to do in Athens, but I said to myself that I would follow my intuition and ask the people about the next steps. So when we land on Athenian ground and hear people say they were going to “Amonia Square,” me, Hadikun, Wallow, and a guy called Abdou decide to go along: I ask at the information desk at the metro station. “You mean Omoneia? Yes, it’s this way.”

Helpless migrants everywhere, I am thinking to myself when I hear a female voice speaking in Turkish! Although I was in Turkey only five days ago, it seems like a long time for some reason. I get closer to the source of the voice, and there I see a Turkish woman talking to a Syrian woman (who apparently knew Turkish to a good extent).

The Turkish woman seems very compassionate, asking the Syrian about the journey and other generalities concerning the situation, so I join the conversation because I am curious to know more about this woman. She asks me and the Syrian woman about the other refugees who were around.

While talking, I noticed that she was with a man, who seemed like her husband/boyfriend, and she was translating everything to English for him. It turned out that he is really her husband and he’s Greek, and as he joined the conversation in English, we were already in Omoneia Square, and we had to get off.

The good thing is that Gozde and Panaiwtis (The names of the Turkish woman and her husband as they will tell us later) are also getting off here, and not only that, they are also going to help us find a cheap hotel around the area!

We get off with Gozde and Panaiwtis and a Syrian family of five or six people, and roam the surroundings until we find a hotel for 15 EUR per night! The Turko-Greek couple give us some extra info about the locality, and a contact number to call them if we need anything. What a nice start with nice people, I say to myself: it’s going smoother than I thought!

Anyway, we don’t book in that 15 EUR hotel, preferring to keep walking and looking for extra clues to help us plan our next step. We come across a falafel place with a signboard written in Arabic (“Falafel abu Michel”) and ask the guy where to find cafes or places Syrians sit to discuss the next steps. With a clear Lebanese accent, he shows us a route and we follow it.

We spot a cafe called “Cafe of Omoneia” in Arabic, and in front of it meet Tarek and Ramez, the Damascene guys who were with us in Izmir and on the boat. All of us decided to take a rest for a while. We were missing one phone because Abdou was bankrupt on the road and had to sell his to earn some 30 EUR. We had huge cups of delicious tea.

Afterwards, we stop at another falafel place, and when I talked to the “falafelist” he knows at once that I come from Latakia, as he is from the neighboring city of Jableh. He has been in Greece for 21 years. This conversation gets interrupted because another guy comes in, and everybody starts talking about how to reach Macedonia.

The new guy advises everyone to go to Thessaloniki as soon as possible, and says that we should book the night train right away, because it’s much cheaper. Thessaloniki is the next stop on the way for those who will be traveling through the Balkans, but Hadikun and I haven’t decided yet, and we prefer to go by air with fake documents.

We leave the falafel shop with that new guy, and as a last piece of help he shows us a cheap hotel for 10 EUR per night. I decide not to go back to that falafel shop because I don’t know anything about the background of the owner.

He seemed nice, but usually when dealing with Syrians I try to hide the fact that I’m from Latakia in order to avoid any troubles related to political or sectarian reasons, because Latakia is known to be a supporter of the Regime with a majority of Alawites (one of the many religious sects in Syria).

For a huge percentage of Syrians being from Latakia is suspicious because it means “Supporter of the Regime” or “Alawite,” and even if someone is Sunni (Islam’s mainstream sect) from Latakia, there is a widespread belief that these Sunnis “betrayed the revolution.”

Based on all of that, I thought it better not to get in close touch with the guy, because he might ask where am I from, to which sect I belong, and what I think about the situation while I’m trying to avoid all these topics – if not the pertinence to the entire poor social system that lead its people to such an abyss!

Stationary for a While

Hadikun and I decide that we are going by air, so we stay at this 10 EUR hostel at Victor Hugo street (I hope we’ll not be Les Miserables if we stay here, I think to myself jokingly). The others book their train tickets to Thessaloniki on the night train going next day.

The next thing we research is how to receive our money from Turkey, because the whole financial system -including banks and money transfer companies – is closed till further notice, and even Greeks can’t withdraw more than 60 EUR per day from ATMs.

After our comrades leave for Thessaloniki, Hadikun and I start our daily walks exploring Athens, pretending, even to ourselves, that we are ordinary tourists, and to look for a solution for our financial problem.

The first thing we notice is that the buildings which belong to 70s, 80s, and 90s are so similar to their counterparts in Syria, and, architecturally speaking, Athens gives the same impression as that of the chaotic Syrio-Lebanese cities in their contemporary versions.

It reminds us of place we’re trying to escape, but we’re able to forget this when we look at the people around us and see that the society is different and already liberated from the useless “conservations” of previous ages – unlike the Arab societies still imprisoned in ages of needless, even harmful, traditions.

We could see in some parts that Athens, before the emergence of these “Polykatikeia” buildings, was a beautiful place from an architectural point of view – the same as the cities of the Levant.

The (natural) beauty and ugliness  (architecture) of Athens.
The (natural) beauty and ugliness (architecture) of Athens.  Γκρεμίζουν την Αθήνα την παλιά του παλιού του μάγκα ραγίζουν την καρδιά 

These daily walks lead us to different places, like the old city (which we like too much at night), and to other “Syria-like” neighborhoods. Our focus on finding cheap shops always was fruitful: we ate daily at Abu Michel’s Falafel, because we could get a huge sandwich for 1.5 EUR, and Abu Michel himself had a good sense of humor and was always welcoming.

We discovered places we could buy natural juice for 1.20 EUR, semi-shops that sold clothes starting from 3 EUR, a cheap Bulgarian supermarket, 1 EUR shops, and other low budget options. It seemed that other fellow Syrians were doing the same, but too many of them used to stay at the Omoneia Square awake all night, waiting for the next step, whatever that next step is.

A few days later, we arrange a meeting with the guy who is supposed to provide us with the fake documents to fly away.  We go to the mentioned address on foot although it seems a bit far, because we like walking, not to mention our low budget.

On the way to this guy (whom I’ll call Faggio), the “Syrian Architecture” feeling gets stronger, but we always remember that we’re somewhere else by looking at the people, Greek flags, and Greek Style buildings that we see on the way, like the National Archaeological Museum. After about 30 minutes walk, we met Faggio at the agreed point, and he takes us to a shaded cafe in a nice side-street.

I get a good impression about him, because he reminds me of our mediator in Izmir: aa calm person, not much influenced in the Syrian/Middle Eastern mainstream culture, caring…one of those who got involved in this business because he had no other choice, NOT because he has a huge appetite for fast cash.

I expected Faggio to be such a guy, because I knew about him from a friend of my friends from Latakia who had come to Istanbul trying to make his way to Germany. We became “mates” faster than we would have if we’d have been in Latakia. I’d expected this Latakian friend could lead me to such people as Faggio.

While sitting in the café Faggio tells us that originally he tried to go to Europe illegally after losing almost everything in his native city of Aleppo, but he found himself stuck in Greece with no money, so he had to find some work quickly. Also, he had to pave the way for his family to go north.

That’s how he ended up doing this business in Athens. With Faggio we talked about different issues also, like what we used to do in Syria, what are our plans when we reach our destinations, and how we liked Athens.

When the meeting finished, we came back with a good impression, plus the info we needed to receive our money from Istanbul: there were Syrian “bureaus” working behind the scenes to provide such services for reasonable prices.

We went back “home” to our hostel at Victor Hugo’s, our “headquarters” to plan all our steps, where we were always warmly welcomed by the receptionists, exchanging greetings with the people sitting in the small lounge downstairs, including a Syrian handicapped guy who used to welcome us with a smile every day as we passed by.

Soubhi was his name, and he had problems walking normally, so he used a cane. Once as I was passing through the main lobby, he greeted me with “Why are you still here? I thought your wings were ready!” At that moment I decided to get closer and hear his story. He used to sit in the small hostel lobby alone every night, waiting for his “wings.”

After chatting for a while, I felt comfortable about that he had an open view of the situation. He was against the regime, his father and brother having died in the dark cells of the secret service. It took two years after his father’s disappearance for his family to learn that the father died after two days in prison.

According to Soubhi, the father was very keen not to talk politics because his other son (Soubhi’s brother) was an army officer, and if the family showed any symptoms of opposing the regime, the first victim would be the officer. The officer was never imprisoned nor interrogated, but the father and his other son (another brother of Soubhi) died in prison.

In this system people get arrested on so-called “reports” suspecting that they might be involved in anti-regime activities. These reports can be written by other people who have personal issues not related to politics at all. In these cases, the accused are considered guilty until proven otherwise – that’s why they get tortured or neglected until a clear decision – which takes a whole eternity sometimes – is made.

Soubhi left his wife and children in Istanbul at his brother the officer’s house. (He’d deserted the army to escape any possible persecution after his brother and father died in prison.) On the way to Turkey, he was caught by some Islamic militants who wanted to execute him, knowing that he was an officer in the army.

He managed to get loose and reach Istanbul after a scary journey. Soubhi’s wife is an Alawite from the Syrian coast, which is another testament that the guy is not sectarian nor Islamist in any way. He is afraid of the Islamification of the country more than he is afraid of the regime. “This is not a revolution, what we are seeing now is horrible….” he repeated on several occasions.

Soubhi decided to go to Europe in spite of his handicap, in order to ensure a better life for his family away from hatred. He had been in the hostel for 40 days, had had three attempts with different passports, but nothing really worked. However, he kept trying because he had no other choice.

Hadikun and I kept “voyaging” through Athens organizing my money transfer: I’d left my money with my Turkish flatmate in Istanbul in order to send it to me via Western Union, but since the financial system not working in Greece, I had to send it through this Syrian alternative.

"No more walls in the sea:" the same poster in different languages
“No more walls in the sea:” the same poster in different languages 

Days pass by, and we keep wandering around the city, this time more carefully as we are now carrying a huge amount of money with us all the time. Ready to try his first attempt, Hadikun deposits his money into a black-market bureau that works as a financial guarantor between the traffickers and traffickee.

Neither the mediator nor the trafficker gets their money if the refugee doesn’t reach his/her destination, because the refugee has a password agreed upon with the bureau, which the traveler discloses to the mediator/trafficker only in the case of success. It is only then that the mediator/trafficker can get the money – the refugee has the right to retake his/her money after a certain time if attempts to reach the promised land didn’t work. The same mechanism is used in Izmir for boat journeys.

I can’t do this step because I have to wait for my friend (Dave Hume), who was originally supposed to be my journey companion. The reason why I had to wait for him is because I had his money!! We kept our money with the same Turkish friend who was leaving Turkey for a long-term journey.

Dave Hume is an exceptional personality – one of those who works hard and is smart at the same time, never gives up, and represents a good living example of “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” Hume was the one who planted in my head the idea of reaching Europe illegally, because it seemed much easier than obtaining a visa (which might be impossible). He even gathered all the information needed about the route through the Balkans.

We got acquainted in Istanbul, where he had many ups and more downs. When I first met him he had a good job, but was fired because his boss was exploiting him and overloading him with huge tasks as if he was some kind of servant. He also had a huge amount of money stolen by impostors who promised him different things and then faded away.

Despite all of this, and although there was a big possibility that he wouldn’t be able to make it back to Istanbul since Istanbul has a bad reputation as a “capital for the Syrian Opposition” amongst the supporters of the regime, he was brave enough to go back to Damascus for his last university exam.

He almost got stuck there, but his quick-witted mind allowed him to pass through the military checkpoint safely. He wanted to graduate and keep moving on to higher educational degrees, so this last exam in Damascus must be passed.

Similar to me, Hume got sick of the sectarian, religious, social, and political limitations and tensions in Syria and has an ambition of becoming a world citizen who achieves success in various fields. Europe is the closest place which allows us to achieve that.

The Wanderers House

So I can’t make my move before Hume arrives – or at least before I find an alternative way to deliver his money – so I keep hanging around Athens for a bit longer. I have to find an alternative to Victor Hugo, because Hadikun’s attempt will be coming soon and we are 80% sure that he’s going to make it with his new Malaysian passport.

I was writing to one of my good acquaintances in Croatia, and she told me that there are some Serbian guys organizing a good initiative – a house where travelers can sleep for free in exchange for contributions and donations. I found the house on Facebook and asked if I could join.

They approved my request, for four days (the maximum, in order to allow other travelers to come). When the agreed day arrived, I exchanged “farewell” wishes with Hadikun and followed the instructions to reach the house, where I’m welcomed.

It was a normal apartment with no furniture, because everyone has to bring their own sleeping bags or whatever they like to sleep on. When I first got in, one of the travelers provided me with a general overview about do’s and don’ts. It’s a great idea, someone hires a house in a city, free of furniture, in order to provide a platform for travelers to meet and cooperate in a very minimalistic environment materially, but very rich intellectually.

Everyone is a guest and a host at the same time. There is a minimum required level of discipline in order to keep it going smoothly for all, but there is also a huge margin of freedom: freedom in contributing, freedom in communication, freedom from the monetary system (at least in terms of paid accommodation).

The house was a great chance to meet different interesting people, the most prominent of whom was the main organizer (Elia), a calm personality who seemed to have traveled a lot. He told me his idea was born in Istanbul, and having achieved success there, organized similar houses in Granada and Tbilisi in addition to Athens.

At about 14:15 on the first day I open the door and see a guy who speaks good Japanese, is a graphic designer, and artist – whose name is Hadikun! He came to the house after the failure of his first attempt. I had given him the info needed to register in case he failed.

Lina, the organizer who provided him with the instructions when he got in, thought he was from Switzerland! We wondered how it could be, but countries separated by huge Tempo-Geographical gap in reality – like Syria and Switzerland – are only one click away from each other on an online country list.

That evening we had a delicious Greek dinner cooked by Nadora (also not real name), a nice girl from Albanian origins, who cooks delicious Greek meals for everyone in the house once in a week. These dinners are a great chance to socialize, as everybody sits in a circle and talks about whatever, and a good example of the common spirit since everyone participates by money or contributions.

These initiatives are really important in our increasingly integrated world: we need such bridges of mutual understanding and examples of common non-monetary lifestyles in order to achieve our next evolutionary leap – avoiding conflict as much as possible – successfully.

There are a huge lot of reasons and tools for destructive conflicts based on all kinds of differences (political, racial, religious, regional – you just name it): Greek dinners (or other dinners if you would like) can be our savior.

 Ready to Fly

A few days after I deposit my money in an “insurance bureau,” I receive a midnight message from my mediator Faggio telling me to get ready – he has a Polish ID for me. I meet him about 2:00 AM at some forgotten corner. He shows me the ID with my picture on it (a picture that I took 2 days ago).

It really looks very original, except Warsaw is written in English instead of Polish, and even misspelled! Warsow! Where is this city? He assured me that there was no problem at all.

Back at the house, everybody seemed excited to see this Polish ID – most of them didn’t have to deal with fake IDs/Documents since they had European/quasi-European documents – for them it was really exotic to see firsthand someone paying huge amounts of money in order to pass those 10-15 seconds of passport control.

The next day, all I hear is “I hope I will NOT see you today,” as a wish of good luck in this attempt of mine.

At the airport, I follow the instructions that Faggio had provided: “Be confident, live your life normally, and way to go.” First gate, passed. Second gate (baggage control); third gate (boarding control), passed. I reach Gate B31 and sit down with everyone else waiting for the plane going to Modlin airport in Warsaw.

When the boarding time comes, I move on very confidently, but confidence doesn’t mean anything if your document has a shouting spelling mistake, which the controller’s eye can hear from miles away. The controller says to me “Please sit aside, we have to check this.”

At this moment I was sure that I was busted, but I was at least happy that my skills of paying attention to details are good enough. A few minutes later the security officer comes and asks me in a very polite manner in English “Where did you get this?” I answered him in Greek that I bought it.

“So you speak Greek?” he asks. “Maybe,” I answer. He guesses that I’m from Syria, and asks me to follow him. He accompanies me to the first gate, and tells me “Here you leave my friend.” I thanked him for his real politeness and went away. It seemed that he felt more sorry for me more than even I felt!

Athens’s airport staff is tolerant with Syrians who travel with fake documents. When they realize that someone is Syrian trying to get to Europe with a fake document, all they do is just take the document away and ask you go back. They don’t take any serious measures.

From my personal experience, and the stories I heard from others, I think that Greece was very helpful to Syrian refugees during this crisis. They are the first and the biggest station for the refugee tsunamis, but in comparison to other countries on this migration road the Greeks are extremely patient and tolerant although they have their own economic troubles.

Back at the house, everybody seems more disappointed than I am. Anyway, this was a chance to cook more, chat more, and do more collective activities, until I get my new document as promised by Faggio.

Faster than I thought, Faggio calls me the same night and tells me there is an Italian ID with a booking to Germany. “Would you take this?” he said. I say yes and meet him at 11:00 PM to give him my personal pictures for the new document. He says the document will be ready at 1:30 AM.

Everything goes as planned, and I get the document and the ticket. When I first saw the Italian ID I thought there was no way I was going to fly. It seemed very primitive, and the name and surname of the guy were not Italian at all. “Anyway, it’s just another attempt,” I said to myself.

I liked the idea that the ticket was to Berlin – this way I would get a chance to drink coffee with my sister (she was studying there at the time) before moving forward to Warsaw. But of course, everything depends on these ten seconds at the passport control.

At the airport I repeat the same steps, only the last step is different. The controller just looks at my face to compare it with the face in the ID and lets me in.

Personal Analysis & Opinion

I’m expressing my opinion regarding the refugee crisis here as a person who doesn’t belong to either side, yet belongs to them both at the same time.

Who are the refugees?

From what I read on the net, the stories I hear from friends, and my personal experience, I could say that there are three categories of (at least Syrian) refugees.

Real Refugees

Poor or helpless people who have lost almost everything, including hope to see the end of this mess: that’s why they decided to move on to Europe (namely Germany, Holland and Scandinavian countries). There they can find peace, hope for a better future, and reasonable financial aid until they’re able to stand on their feet again.

They come usually from conservative communities, but their version of Islam is what I call “Popular Islam,” which is not dangerous against others. They have a positive attitude toward the Europeans who they see as having saved them while their own compatriots and fellow Arabs and Muslims didn’t give a damn about them.

Amongst this category there is a huge sentiment of thankfulness towards the receiving countries, and a will to be positive contributors themselves. A significant portion of this category is determined to “go back home” when it’s finished. I think they’ll remain conservative in Europe (at least the first generation if they stay there). They understand that European societies have different standards and will not try to impose anything on Europeans.

Bad Refugees

One can also see a visible (not huge, but also not very small) category of “negative refugees.” The common denominator amongst these is the ingratitude toward receiving countries. Bad refugees are the examples that scare some Europeans from accepting refugees, and fuel right-wing arguments against “The Islamic Trojan Horse” coming to Europe.

Some of them look at Europe as a place where they can get easy money, without paying any real respect to the fact that these new countries have welcomed them much better than their fellow people.

Others can be dangerous: they have an “Islamist” background (“Islamist” in the sense of aggressive religious fanaticism, or compassion with fanatics). These don’t have any respect for the “infidel” people they criticize. Fortunately, it’s easy to distinguish them, as they will always be trying to make demonstrations or other activities to express their discontent, or to impose their opinions.

This part of the second category is especially responsible for increasing Islamophobia amongst the Europeans who deal directly with them.

Cultural Refugees

These ones are the skilled, the creative, the ambitious who felt always as strangers in the socio-political systems of their original societies, which at the least didn’t support anyone trying to behave “outside of the matrix,” and at the worst waged war against any new or unfamiliar personalities/ideas.

After the war, they’ve felt more alienated in a country divided between a totalitarian regime and Islamic militant groups, and the zealous supporters of each party.

Some of the cultural refugees were opponents of the regime and participators in the demonstrations. They had to flee Syria to escape persecution. Most of them have become now opponents of both the regime and the Islamic militant groups, which for them represent a huge disappointment in this society.

Another part of the cultural refugees are the ones who were keen to avoid any tension from the beginning. They didn’t participate in any activity (on purpose), thinking that this will only lead to more blood and tension with no “victory” for anyone. They were aliens before the war, and after the war they’ve become even more alienated.

Some cultural refugees are/were regime supporters. They’ve lost their hope in any “victory” because of the corruption of the regime and the vicious circle that doesn’t seem to be ending quickly as they expected. This is what made them revise their opinions, and reach the conclusion that it’s best to live somewhere else where a human being is more respected.

It is worth mentioning that they support/supported the regime not because they are ready to fight and kill for this cause, but because in their eyes it represented the best possible choice on ground – they are intellectuals and university graduates who had nothing to do with weapons, same as the intellectual supporters of the opposition, who were hoping to create a democratic and free Syria.

Of course, you can find people who belong to a mixture of these categories at the same time.

 And the Europeans?

“Welcome Refugees”

Free of any kind of discrimination against any racial, ethnic, religious group of people, they think that everyone on the planet deserves a decent life, and the priority is for helping fellow humans rather than caring about “who’s legal and who’s not.”

“Right Wing”

Refusing to accept refugees based on discriminative (racial, anti-Islamic, nationalistic) reasons, for them these migrants/refugees are at best inferior people/unwelcomed guests, and at worst, enemies.

They can’t see the distinction between the aforementioned categories of refugees. Usually one can recognize this category by their hate language, which is similar to the hate language that Islamists and other fanatics use against “others.”

“No Hatred, but No Refugees”

People in this category are not racist and have nothing personal against Muslims/Arabs, but they think that accepting this amount of people coming from a different culture (inflicted with wars, conflicts, fanatism, ignorance, etc.) will have negative effects.

They might even have friends from Muslim/Arab backgrounds or countries, but they think that the majority of the newcomers will not be as nice as their Arab/Muslim friends, especially with what they see about Muslim countries through different media, or their own personal experiences sometimes.

Personal Opinion

Pragmatically speaking, I think for the EU it’s not a matter of accepting or not accepting; rather it’s about the way to receive the refugees. Greece, Italy and Hungary will keep witnessing an influx of refugees as long as there are wars/troubles in the poorer regions of the Mediterranean and the Middle East.

It’s not practically possible (let alone ethical) to stop these waves of refugees in a world that is becoming more integrated – where a war in one place might have far-reaching echoes in ways never before seen in the history of humanity. This is what “Right Wing” Europeans can’t understand, apparently.

The EU countries are obliged to help Greece, Italy and Hungary as members of the same union. However, they have to come up with a plan to welcome refugees. This plan should be well designed, fulfilling the following elements: (1.) finding out “who is who” (i.e., who belongs to each category) amongst refugees.

(2.) Avoiding any troubles that might be caused by “bad” refugees (this can be done with the help of other Syrians who are willing to demonstrate the bright face of Syria, and don’t feel comfortable towards the negative deeds done in their name).

Here it is worth mentioning that many Europeans from the “Welcome Refugees” category should pay attention to the fact that not all the refugees are “nice,” and refrain from arguing with the opponents of accepting refugees – because arguing just leads to more polarization and complications.

I think it would be better if they could keep working, but avoid direct confrontations with Right-Wing. Eventually, it’s about building a positive sentiment (as much as possible) among all the parties concerned, from both the Europeans and the refugees.

(3.) Designing different integration plans according to each category, and according to the country situation, down to the very local level.

I know my view might be very short-sighted, but this is everything I can come up with so far, based on my knowledge and observations. If you have any new suggestions, comments, or ideas, they are more than welcome…especially with a cup of coffee or tea.

(Understanding the crisis)

(Humanity Thanks)

Thank you for reading, and if you have any questions about anything here please contact me via the “contact” link at the top of this blog. 

With love

Jamie

Compulsory Tourism II: Mytilini

I was staying at a flat in Uskudar, Istanbul when two Syrian flatmates with whom I would become great friends and stay in touch arrived.

When I heard the friend whose story I am about to share was going to take one of the sea-crossing journeys from Turkey to Europe I was less than thrilled with a world that would put someone in this predicament.

But he assured all of us who asked that he would be fine, so we had to believe that.

The situation is terrible, and it doesn’t look to be getting better anytime soon, but my friend is fine, and about  month ago he sent me a forty-page document detailing the whole story of his journey. 

Having read (as we all have) so many “ripple-effect” refugee stories (I talk about this elsewhere on this blog), it was almost calming for me to read a first-hand account. Mostly I feel really happy for my friend that he made it to somewhere he wants to be. 

Please read (and share!) this story written by my friend: the more people who can understand the “refugee crisis” as it affects the whole world, the better.

Jamie Lynn Buehner, December 12, 2015

Entre Dos Aguas

As we move away from Turkish waters, everything becomes smaller behind us: the houses, the hills, the beach….but it seems as though we’re not getting any closer to the Greek island.

We can see it floating on the azure serene water, and the boat is moving well, but nothing is becoming bigger and we feel as if we’re stuck between two waters; neither of the two shores seems near.

We see what seems to be another boat of refugees and wave our hands but get no answer. Some of us agree they are refugees; others say it’s just a fishing boat. This “small dot” seems to be not moving anyway, with no response at all.

We try to forget the time by talking about different things – our previous lives, our future destinations. Some prefer to sing, others try to force themselves to sleep. I keep receiving calls from the guys on the Turkish side, checking that everything is going well.

After two hours we start to feel hope again: the Greek island of Lesvos starts to get clearer; one could see smiles starting to shine on everyone’s faces. An old man at the front of the boat starts to give us “directives” about where exactly to go next!

As we approach the island, waves start to get a bit higher, so our two great captains make use of their 2-hours’ experience to make some maneuvers which turn out to be successful. While celebrating one of these successful maneuvers, we see a huge ship coming very fast towards us, so we stop the move until it passes to avoid the huge waves it causes.

We keep our eyes on it as it passes about 600 meters in front of us – really fast in relation to its huge size. Then, as expected, the biggest waves start to rock us and this time we feel the boat might flip upside down. I wasn’t really afraid because I can make to the shore somehow, but the majority of those on board have never been to the sea before, even for swimming.

We make it again thanks to our “veteran” captains. Everybody claps and some guys stand up to dance or make cheers of happiness, forgetting that if they fall the Captains can’t do anything this time!

I keep receiving calls on my nylon-wrapped mobile, keep answering “30 dakika icinde orda olacaz….ama emin degilim” (“We’ll be there within 30 minutes….but I’m not sure”). I added “I’m not sure” again and again for about an hour and a half – it always seemed to me we’d hit the mirage-like shore within 30 minutes maximum.

Receiving one of those calls on the" floating carpet," the "Captain" in orange vest, my travel mates looking directly towards their future. (Taken by Hadikun)
Receiving one of those calls on the” floating carpet,” the “Captain” in orange vest, my travel mates looking directly towards their future. (Taken by Hadikun) 

The Saviors

After a while of meditational silence while the boat kept moving forward, we see a fast boat heading towards us. The captains decide to let it pass, but instead it moves directly towards us. “What’s this all about?” we stand amazed. As it comes closer, we hear a voice shouting through the speakers “Stop the engine, we came to save you!”

I see the word “Limeniko Soma” and tell the guys it’s the Greek Coast Guard. We didn’t really know what to do, but we decide to stop because we have no other choice. Sometimes having no choice is the best choice, because it makes us avoid a lot of thinking and accept facts as they are.

They ask us to tie our boat to theirs, and repeat the phrase “Don’t worry, we will save you” in English. We followed their instructions, and everything seemed to be alright.

As we began to climb onto their boat, they start to shout with an aggressive tone in order to keep things in order. Syrians (like most “Third World” people) usually lack a sense of general discipline for the collective interest; they act very chaotically in such situations.

The Coast Guard perforates the rubber boat and it starts to sink – with our stuff still on it. I decide to use my good knowledge of Greek, which I always wanted to be a language of music, of food, of love etc.: “Mipos boroume na paroume tis tsantes mas parakalo?” (“Can we take our bags, please?”) I asked one of the crew members.

The guy looked at me happily: finally they found someone to help them keep discipline onboard. He told me that one of us can jump to the slowly sinking boat and throw up all the bags. One of the Syrian guys volunteers quickly and saves what were our “precious treasures” at the time!

I start to play my new role as a mediator to help the crew keep things in order. “Please sit down,” I say to one guy. “Please remain silent,” I say to others. “Please put the bags there, please don’t move,” the crew threatening jokingly all the while that it’s easy to send us back to Turkey if we don’t keep things in order.

And yet – it seems that we are moving towards Turkey. “Maybe they are not joking,” I think to myself. Did they really mean it? Everybody panics. Some of the guys even wanted to throw themselves into the water – seriously. They are determined: no going back.

At this moment one of the crew members uses me as a mouth to tell the guys to remain calm: “We’re NOT going back to Turkey; we’re going to save another boat of your fellow Syrians.” Everyone becomes quiet again, while crew members start talking to each other about the next rescue steps.

While moving towards “saving” the other boat, my ear catches that one of the crew members is called “Sotiris:” it’s another optimistic sign, like the Tango in the Izmir park, I said to myself. “Sotiris” means “Savior.” We’re really saved.

The same procedures are repeated with the second boat, which is nothing but that far floating dot about which we had the discussion. The guys on the other boat were really in a miserable situation. Their engine had stopped after one hour of moving, and they couldn’t do anything but keep going with the flow until a miracle happens.

Thanks to modern technology, this miracle happened and the Greek Coast Guard spotted them, and spotted us. I called all the members of the Greek crew “Sotiris” and forgot which one of them was the real “Sotiris.” They were all saviors at this point.

Now we’re heading to Lesvos, quickly this time: everything is getting bigger faster on the land. We were about 15 minutes from the shore. During this time I took a scanning look at the faces of the tired refugees enjoying this moment of relief. “No way,” I say to myself: I recognize one of the faces from the other boat as one of my acquaintances from my hometown in Syria.

The last update I heard about him said that he was detained in an unknown place by the secret service. I was really happy to know that he made it here. He recognized me at once, but we preferred to remain silent until we reached the shore.

As we headed to the shore, I had casual conversations with the crew members:
“Why do you know Greek?” “What’s your destination?” “How much did you pay for this journey?” “What’s happening there that made you leave everything behind and come here?”

Soon we are in the port. We get off quickly, but the guys in the port are not as nice as the Coast Guard crew: they are very aggressive and screamy. Again I was asked to mediate and explain everything to the Syrian fellows. It was a hard time because the tension was so high!

After standing in lines, we head to a closed sports hall near the port of the city of Mytilini where they gather us, collect our names and data, and provide medical care to those who need it. After a while I realize this aggressiveness isn’t based on discriminative reasons – it’s the only way to maintain discipline: the same guys who were aggressive acted differently as soon as everything was in order.

At this closed sports hall, there was a nice old lady from the medics team taking care of children and the old people. On the other boat there was a 70 year old lady, and two three and four year old children accompanying a woman who seemed about 35. The children were hers and the old lady was her mother!

We are told we will move to the camp within the next few hours.

Mytilini after the end of what seemed to be "endless 30 minutes" (picture from the net, but it would seem the same if I took it)
Mytilini after the end of what seemed to be “endless 30 minutes” (picture from the net, but it would seem the same if I took it) 

The Camp

It’s been two hours since we arrived. A blue bus comes, we get on, and we go to the camp. As we go through Mytilini, I enjoy the views of the colorful houses, the blue sea, and the beautiful castle.

The camp is a horrible place. It stinks in the heat and is overcrowded by refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, Bangladesh and other poor countries. There are white tents provided by the government or some organization, but they are really dirty and full of flies.

Other black, small tents are much cleaner and are privately bought for about 30 euros. When a family or a group leaves, they sell their tent to other newcomers.

Hadikun and I decide that we can’t sleep in the camp, and we do not spend too much time in the camp, but move around the city exploring it like very poor tourists. When we go to the public beach to swim, they tell us we can’t swim in shorts but we must buy official swimming suits!

Hadikun is an interesting personality, and I am happy that he was my companion. Originally I was supposed to go with another friend, but he couldn’t come with me because he had other things to finish in Istanbul.

Hadikun is a very quiet person, a visual artist and graphic designer, interested in Japanese culture. These elements made him very comforting to me, because I prefer to avoid close contact with the mainstream Syrian conservative mentality. Hadikun had the same attitude, and was a good match for the journey.

He also had his part of the Syrian misery: his father has been missing in the regime’s prisons since he was arrested the same day he was supposed to go a gulf country based on a job contract. They accused him of “supporting terrorism” because one of his relatives was involved in the “Free Army,” but Hadikun’s father didn’t even know about it.

Hadikun himself also had a taste of this. He was at the wrong place in the wrong time, so the secret service arrested him with accusations of being involved in anti-regime activities. He spent one week in a solitary cell that barely was enough for him, until some officer noticed that this guy is not into this business at all, and opened the cage for him.

Camp life selfie: Hadikun and me
Camp life selfie: Hadikun and me

In the camp, all kinds of misery is visible, and people are escaping from all different kinds of persecution – wars, poverty, you name it. Unfortunately, the cultural gap is very huge between these people and the ones of the “advanced” nations. The environment is totally different. This is a bad omen for the world.

The majority of humans on earth live in ignorance, poverty, and conflict; in misery that will explode into huge catastrophes, which will make huge and incontrollable migration tsunamis, which will reach the “advanced” world sooner or later.

There is an urgent need to deal with our planet as a whole – soon it will not be possible to have a culturally and technologically advanced minority and a vast majority afflicted by poverty, fanaticism, useless traditions, wars, sectarianism, and other diseases.

It is not a “luxury” of the “rich nations” to help the “poor nations;” it’s a must if the “advanced world” wants to protect itself from such scenarios. “We need a new Planet Comprehensive System,” I repeat in my head each time I hear one of these stories or witness one of these cases that reminds me of this huge gap.

We used to sleep under abandoned trucks, sometimes above them or inside them. Each one of the guys had his favorite place. I even was invited to drink wine on a corner of an abandoned warehouse. Other guys slept on the edges of the main road, others on the beach.

We kept coming back to the camp everyday to check if the “papers” which would allow us to go to Athens were ready. We had to make sure to come over and over again, because if our names were announced in our absence, we’d have to stay there for a few more days until they re-announce them again.

We bought Vodaphone SIM cards for ten euros from a nice guy and two girls who came especially to the camp to sell us these windows to the outer world. Nevertheless, we couldn’t keep in touch with the “world out there,” because we had no possibility of charging our phones except for a small kiosk we visited every morning to enjoy some snack or a drink and charge our mobiles (others had their own alternative ways of charging).

The kiosk-keepers were extremely nice and compassionate, and the kiosk was a platform to hear all kinds of stories from all kinds of refugees. The Eritrean guy escaping from the persecution of the authorities, and the Iraqi guy pretending to be Syrian who had his own story with ISIS (ISIL) who wanted him to fight on their side.

Mustafa’s family (this Iraqi guy) had a history of persecution from different sides, starting from the previous Saddam Hussein regime, passing through the local parties, and finally ISIS! Mustafa was a simple person from a conservative family, he was not “fanatic” at all; he had a good friendly spirit towards everyone.

Another example of misery was an old man from the northern parts of Syria who didn’t know exactly where he was going and kept asking everyone “which country is the best, I have to bring my family?”

On the other hand, there were some examples of people who might become “fanatics,” like a guy who was criticizing the “infidel lifestyle” all the time, so some guys asked him “Why are you seeking refuge in the lands of the infidels then?”

When you see this category of “refugees” you can understand why some people in Europe are afraid of the “Islamification,” especially in that this category might represent all the refugees in the eyes of some Europeans, like the right wing, or the Islamo-/xenophobic movements, who think that everyone coming from the Middle East belongs to ISIS or something like it. This might be partially true, but a huge part of refugees are actually escaping ISIS and its likes!

After four days of sleeping in the nowhere, not having enough water to wash our hands, much less our dirty and stinky clothes, and lacking of clean toilets, we cheered when the guy from my hometown (whom I will call the Egyptian as Hadikun called him, because he looks like an Egyptian and has a name used in Egypt more than any other Arab country) discovered a tap that we can use near the main road. We bought soap and headed directly there just to get rid of the stink a little bit.

I was going to use that tap in the midst of a hot day when I started to hear beautiful melodies, as if somebody was playing Oud (the Oriental Lute). I thought maybe I’m hallucinating because of the heat. However, while I was washing my head, I turned left, and saw a group of eight guys, with the one in the middle playing real Oud.

I did what I expected of myself: I went to the guys and asked them if I could join as a listener, so they welcomed me. After these two refreshing baths (one with water and the other with melodies), I had a nice chat with this group, who had made their trip from Turkey on their own.

They bought their boat and the fuel, mounted the engine, and chose the track all on their own. The Oud player (I’ll call him Moe) is rather a famous professional player (a graduate of the High Institute of Music) who used to live in Damascus.

Of course musicians are very alienated in the times of war, so it’s better to get moving somewhere else where people are interested in playing and listening to music instead of playing reality show Counter Strike.

Another evening as I was strolling in the city of Mytilini enjoying all kinds of beauty – the sea, the smells, the buildings, the whole atmosphere – I met the Egyptian by accident sitting with other friends, so we sat on an edge on the seafront, and had a chat about everything.

He told me his story about how he was accused of being from the “Opposition” although he is trying to avoid politics in every way possible being that he is a peaceful person, and politics in Syria nowadays means losing too many friends and having endless conflicts, most of which are useless and needless.

After hearing about his tragic 66-day journey through different prisons, he said a sentence that made me laugh although it should make me cry, “There is no way I go back to Syria, I would rather working here as a fish, but I will not go back to Syria!”

Each time we hear about some new batch of papers coming, we head to the camp, just to be disappointed that these papers are for Afghanis, Bangalis, or another group of Syrians. At the end of the 4th day, the police closed the camp and asked us to stay inside.

They closed the main gate to prevent anyone from leaving, which we considered a good omen: maybe the next day they would distribute the papers, and we’d be delivered finally. That night we slept on the beach in a tent that our friends had set under a tree in a clean place a bit far from the camp. It was the nicest sleep in a long time.

We woke up fresh, happy that today at five o’clock we’ll finally receive our keys to freedom. While eating, we hear someone calling us to go up to the camp. A friend of friends of mine said that we should go up immediately, because they were announcing the names. We left everything – we didn’t expect this at 12:50!

As we enter the camp, we see a huge crowd of Syrians in the middle, and hear the shouting voice of the police officer, asking everyone angrily to keep order. “If you don’t remain quiet and disciplined, no papers are going to be distributed,” he said, with some Greek swearwords.

We could manage to get the crowd calm, and succeeded to make everyone sit on the ground after about 20 minutes of struggling with this disorder. I start announcing the names with the help of another guy, and the situation becomes easier. It took about an hour before I spotted my name and put my paper in my pocket.

People who didn’t hear their names desperately asked me and the other guy what to do, so we asked the police officers, and they in turn answered that these people should wait, maybe their papers weren’t ready yet. “We’re trying to help as much as possible, but the numbers are huge – it’s getting out of control,” the police officer told us.

As soon as we got our papers we, a long convoy of “armless infantry” occupying about 500 meters of the road, headed directly to the port to catch the ferry to Athens. We took a shortcut through the castle, and there we met a group of girls in bikinis. It had been a long time since I’d been in touch with such a phenomenon.

I approached the girls (but not too much, because my clothes stank) pretending that I wanted to ask them about the way to the port. I don’t know why I did that – I know where the port is, and obviously nothing will come out of it. Maybe I wanted any type of contact with any beautiful ladies?

Some of the other guys – who come from conservative environments where the connections between the two sexes are very constrained, limited and full of needless obstacles and complications; where maybe they hadn’t gotten in touch with any girl (in a sensual-sexual sense) – are very poor in this sense.

While talking to the girls, I kept watching the guys (I think Hadikun was also watching them, because we both were observing the Syrian mainstream culture), and noticed how the guys were amazed by the scene of the girls, but at the same time acted as if they don’t care.

You could see also, we all were happy that some mermaids appeared to us on the road to give us a slush of soothing energy and guidance.

After ten minutes of walking we finally reached the port, stood in line, and booked our tickets. We saw a huge ship arriving from far away, the same type of ship that caused the huge waves when we approached the island five days prior. What was scary then was now our ally.

Swimming with my "long shorts" - the best way of taking a bath here, and a very refreshing one indeed! (Photo by Hadikun)
Swimming with my “long shorts” – the best way of taking a bath here, and a very refreshing one indeed!
(Photo by Hadikun) 

The Exodus from Lesvos

After 20-25 minutes’ walk (which seemed like ten minutes, but our telephones told us the objective truth) we reached the port, and stood in line to buy tickets, which cost too much for a budget of a refugee (47 EUR, about 52 USD).

Waiting in line I was again reminded of how “orphaned” these refugees are. A huge portion can’t speak even English, so they had difficulties buying the tickets and required the help of others who knew English. They are powerless, like fishes thrown out of water – but who can’t swim.

“I’ve lost 5 EUR in the sea, man, damn it!” I hear someone shouting and, turning around, see it’s Tarek, one of the two Damascene guys with whom we shared the waiting in the Izmir Kultur Parki and the ride thereafter. When I approached, he pointed his finger to a hat floating on water, and laughingly said: “Imagine man, I just paid 5 EUR for this, and it’s gone with the wind….or maybe with the sea!”

While talking about our future plans and how we felt so far, the boarding of two types of travelers – tourists, who were mostly northern Europeans escaping the routine of their lives in their rather cold countries, and refugees, mostly Syrians and Afghanis escaping from their “heated” lives back home, to the routine life of the cold northern countries – began.

Back in humanity, we were treated as travelers on a huge blue ship, while five days ago we were on a small floating rug with a motor. Some of the migrants fell asleep as soon as they saw the comfortable clean seats; others got out on deck to enjoy sea views without being afraid of drowning this time. I joined some new friends and the Egyptian on deck for a coffee and a chat.

While chatting, we felt the need to do a “toilet raid,” based on an order from our bladders. As soon as we reached the bathrooms, the Egyptian decides to take a bath using the hose in the closet! We burst out laughing, but he really meant it and did it! “I can’t stand my smell anymore, man!” he explained.

The next step was to recharge our phones, although no sockets seemed visible. The Egyptian (yes, again him) and another friend of his found sockets behind the TVs, but somebody warned us it was not allowed to use them for personal needs. We plugged in our phones anyway, as we can’t afford staying out of touch.

For the travelers on these journeys, smart phones were a very inevitable tool to keep connection with each other and exchange the needed info. They can even not buy food from time to time, but they must buy smart phones, even if they are used.

After about 3 or 4 hours of sleep, I woke up by the voice of the announcer saying that we will be in Athens within 15 minutes or something like this. Another step forward.

The tsunamis of migrants and refugees: a reflection of a more integrated world…a world that needs to be redesigned.

Compulsory Tourism I (Foreword – Into Smyrna)

 

I was staying at a flat in Uskudar, Istanbul when two Syrian flatmates arrived with whom I became great friends and stayed in touch.

When I heard the friend whose story I am about to share was going to take one of the sea-crossing journeys from Turkey to Europe I was less than thrilled with a world that would put someone in this predicament.

But he assured all of us who asked that he would be fine, so we had to believe that.

The situation is terrible, and it doesn’t look to be getting better anytime soon, but my friend is fine, and about  month ago he sent me a forty-page document detailing the whole story of his journey. 

Having read (as we all have) so many “ripple-effect” refugee stories (I talk about this elsewhere on this blog), it was almost calming for me to read a first-hand account. Mostly I feel really happy for my friend that he made it to somewhere he wants to be. 

Please read (and share!) this story written by my friend: the more people who can understand the “refugee crisis” as it affects the whole world, the better.

Jamie Lynn Buehner, December 12, 2015

Foreword

This story by itself is literally nothing compared to the suffering of other people (refugees or others…not only Syrians) around the world. Actually there is no suffering in this story.

The reason I’ve written it is just to share it with anyone who is interested, and to give a hint about the stories of other people I met on the road. Another aim maybe is to provide you with an example (even though this example is not really “hardcore”) of how crossing the borders illegally as a refugee works in case you have no idea.

“Refugee” is the last thing I am, unless you would like to consider me a “Cultural Refugee” who escaped the limitations of a society still confined by rules of bygone and pre-WWII eras, to seek refuge in less “totalitarian” societies.

At the end of this file, you will find my analysis of the situation and my personal opinion.

Chapter One: Into Smyrna

Goodbye Istanbul

Winter 2014 from the window of what I called home in Istanbul. This place with the magical view on the Bosphorus is to be missed really, especially that it doesn't exist anymore.
Winter 2014 from the window of what I called home in Istanbul. This place with the magical view on the Bosphorus is to be missed really, especially that it doesn’t exist anymore.

I took my time saying goodbye to Istanbul before heading to Izmir, because the road to deliverance starts from there (and from Bodrum [Turkey] for others). A friend of mine was waiting for me there after his first attempt to reach the Hellenic [Greek] shores had failed because of the wavy sea.

I arrived in Izmir feeling free of many things, because I had to let go of almost everything and the “luxury” life in Istanbul. Left is some clothes and money in my backpack, my laptop, clarinet, university diplomas, and the money to cover the journey, all of which I left with my trusted flatmate at my Istanbul house.

I arrived in Izmir at 5:00 o’clock in the morning, I called my journey companion, so he came to meet me at Basmane Square, the epicenter where all the “Tra”s meet each other- the “Tra”ffickers and the “Tra”velers. However, my trip was already planned with the same “Mediator” that my companion in this journey relied on.

It was a rainy night, so my journey-companion (I’ll call him Hadikun) had slept at some house rented by 20 Syrian guys for 150 TL per day…but that day we didn’t sleep – we just stayed awake walking from street to street all day.

The "whole world" at Basmane Square (not my photo, because my priority was to save my phone battery)
The “whole world” at Basmane Square (not my photo, because my priority was to save my phone battery)

The Mediator

Mediators are people who mediate between the Travelers and the Traffickers, but they are mistakenly sometimes also called Traffickers (the real Traffickers are hidden behind the scenes).

Our mediator was a real human being (not a money eating creature) – he was a decent person that circumstances led to do such a thing. Unlike most of the Mediators, he is a man of his word, really caring, and he always gave us extra info about Izmir and the best things to do to spend our time fluently until the commencement of our journey.

There were no more cheap hotel rooms left in the city, so we had to sleep in the
central park called “Kultur Parki” for three days, waiting for our lucky day.

In Kultur Parki, two worlds collided: a world of happiness and cheerful events and activities, since it was the main park of Izmir, a city full of beauty and life; and a world of misery – hundreds of Syrians and refugees from other nationalities waiting for the moment.

Hadikun, myself, and another guy whom I shall call “Wallow,” who has a very interesting story, joined the participants in the latter of the two worlds.

Wallow began receiving his lot of this war by serving in the Republican Guard for two years, which he then deserted to join the Free Army. His experience with the RG was positive as he told me – he didn’t feel any discrimination against him as a Sunni Muslim, although the majority of the officers were Alawites (another Muslim sect).

However, he wanted to join the “revolution” to be on the side of his family in the city of Homs, which was officially the birthplace of the Syrian War (for some it’s the “capital of the revolution,” for others it’s the “birthplace of terrorism”). After Wallow fought with the FSA for a while, he started to feel disappointed.

He’d expected a dogmatic revolution, but what he saw was chaos, division, and corruption. For example, in some cases they would ask for backup from other groups, but those groups wouldn’t respond, or would say things like “solve your problems on your own.”

Wallow started to reach the conclusion that needed to get out of the mess as soon as possible, so he found himself a way to Turkey, where he worked for about a year and a half in hard conditions – 12 hours a day in a textile factory, while he lived in a common dormitory with other guys.

He aimed to go Europe and start all over – it was the only possibility to leave the chaos behind, at least until the end of the war.

Joining us in the park were two other guys from Damascus who’d arrived a few days earlier with plans and hopes for their kids and their future. Damascus is a relatively safe city except for some rocket attacks from time to time, but the rest of the country is just hopeless. Everything is madly expensive, there are electricity and water outages, depression…you name it.

Ramez and Tarek, 40-year-old engineers, were shocked at their new reality of sleeping in the park under the rain in a strange city, preparing for an unexpected journey to hunt better lives for their families.

They kept repeating “If someone had told me 4 years ago that I’d be going through this someday, I wouldn’t have believed it.” They hadn’t wanted to leave Damascus, where they’d had acceptable lives before the war – but they didn’t want their children to grow up in a climate of scarcity, despair, and depression.

During our stay in the park we heard different stories: some were running away from the regime; others from ISIS and different militant groups; still others just trying to see the light at the end of this seemingly endless tunnel.

The First Attempt

We receive a call from our gentle Mediator telling us to prepare ourselves, because our trip starts today at 24:00 o’clock [midnight]. He comes to us to the park at 23:00, sits down with us, and we have a nice chat. He tells us about his life in Damascus, where he used to have a jewelry shop.

He had a wide knowledge about everything in life, except maybe that life would throw him into this fate. He was different from the mainstream Syrian culture in the way he that he talked, dressed, and gestured: this was very comforting to me.

When the time came, he told us to follow him to a taxi nearby. We walked through the park hoping it would be our last walk (at least before we get a passport from another country, and come back to Turkey as visitors).

We arrived at a bus stop, and suddenly we heard someone calling us from the other side while trying to make as little noise as much as possible so as not to draw attention.

“Which one of you is the Mediator?” he shouted silently. Our Mediator flew to him and had a 10 seconds talk with the night shouter. After a while came another group of five women and two children, obviously Kurds. After another while, two taxis appeared to take us to the “gathering point.”

The driver took us to a remote place about 45 minutes from the city. It was pitch dark, we could see only the light of the stars, and the light of a cigarette about ten meters from us. As we approached the “light,” we heard a voice saying vague words. Then when we reached that phantom, he showed us the way to the group through the black forest.

It was a group of other phantoms – for whom we were new phantoms also – so all the phantoms waited together in silence for the “moment:” the moment the guy with the cigarette would show us the way.

After enjoying the magical dual absence of sounds and lights, an Izmir-ish version of Van Gogh’s “Starry Night,” the main ghost told everyone to move on – except us. He told me, Hadikun, Wallow, Tarek and Ramez to wait aside, because there was a mistake, and our attempt should be tomorrow, not today.

After accepting this destiny, we said “at least we enjoyed some hope under the starry night,” and waited in the woods for the taxi to take us back to the city.

The black car, which was actually yellow, came after 20 minutes, the place coloring everything in shades of black and dark blue. We hit the road back to Izmir and received a reassuring call from our Mediator telling us that this was a mistake of the Trafficker, and we shall try again tomorrow.

The fact that he called us at five o’clock in the morning, and stayed with us on the phone all the time, was really significant for us. The man almost doesn’t sleep just to serve his clients. He never complains; he always answers any call. Is that an Übermensch?

“Anyway, it’s just another day of forced Tourism in Izmir,” we thought to ourselves and went on sleeping on our green or brown beds in the park.

A group of "waiters" near Basmane Square (not my photo)
A group of “waiters” near Basmane Square (not my photo)

The second attempt

 I spent my day exploring the beauty of Izmir. I really like the city, especially the seafront – an amazing meeting between the hills, the dark blue waters, and the Greek islands in the distance. I took a nap on the green grass by the sea, enjoying the sounds of the city and the sound of the islands, which I could hear through the visible distance.

Izmir's seafront ca. 60s or 70s (it's still that beautiful!)
Izmir’s seafront ca. 60s or 70s (it’s still that beautiful!)

Here comes the night again, and with it another hope. The same scenario repeated: the 5 of us with the Mediator gathering at 23:00 in the park; again to a Taxi (but this time with no guy shouting from the other side).

As we were moving through the park, I saw what I considered a “good sign,” a familiar melody in the form of a Tango piece by Carlos Gardel called  “Yo no se que me han hecho tus ojos.”

The new part this time is that we were taken to a car wash away from the city – no forest, no starry night. When we reached this car wash, a guy welcomed us and told us to get quickly into a closed trailer without wheels or anything, used as a storage room.

There were already 5 people there, and as time went by, new taxis with new “five peoples” came over and over again. The trailer was full, so we waited for the next step. The Turkish guy from the car wash got in again, counted us, and then told us to stand by for the car that would take us to the “start point.”

The next ten minutes we would be the worst and most dangerous part of the whole trip, at least for me. A mini-van with no windows came, and we were asked to get in fast. How could a car like this with no windows have enough room for 47 people? Everybody was asking, but we got in because we had no other choice.

Inside this moving casket, our freedom of movement was limited to a four centimeter perimeter. But I had a flash of relief, for there were constellations of small bright holes, which looked like the stars from last night, in the ceiling, and they provided us with the air we needed to breathe.

During the dangerous, crazy-speed ride, which lasted two and a half hours, we felt that any time this car could turn upside down and fly to heaven instead of taking us to the start point. At last the car started to move slowly on what seemed to be an off-road path and stopped there as we expected: finally we could breathe fresh air again!

When the Turkish guy began to show us the way through an olive field, and asked us to run after him as fast as possible, everyone forced their legs to run because they couldn’t fly. After ten minutes of running we reached the shore, where two guys were pumping the boat and mounting the motor on it. We started pumping our vests.

When the boat was ready, the Turkish guy asked “Kapitan nerede (where is the Captain)?” We all looked at each other searching for the Captain and were shocked that we had no pre-appointed Captain, because usually on these journeys the Captain is chosen in advance, and he pays no money: here no Captain was chosen, and everybody had paid.

Two guys volunteered to be Captains, and the Turkish guy teaches them the basics. They learn fast and everyone is on board – a small boat supposed to carry no more than 20 People is now loaded with 47. Luckily the water was extremely calm that day – the strongest wave was ten centimeters high.

The Turkish guys took my number to keep in touch with us, and it seemed that this sea journey is much safer than the mini-van ride. We hit the sea, nothing interesting happens, everything goes as expected and planned, and I receive calls from the Turkish guy every ten-fifteen minutes to check if everything is going fine.

The real surprise was that the Turkish Coast Guard didn’t appear to try to stop us like they did with everyone else – even some guys with us on the boat had some advice about how to avoid the Coast Guard they’d gained experience from their previous attempts.

Why should we care? It was a good surprise. We headed forward to the Greek waters with no sign of the Turkish Coast Guard, or any high waves.

Good Guys

This last weekend when 700 refugees vanished from a German center in Lower Saxony, migration experts said they had ‘no idea’ what could have motivated the young, able-bodied refugees, some of whom have just walked across nine countries, to leave, instead of sitting around waiting around for their half of a banana.

Movement is helpful – it gets the blood flowing to the brain – and you don’t need to tell a war refugee that any actual place is better than purgatory.

It is difficult to handle this influx: that’s the main sentence these days. It’s about much more than that.

The EU look pretty bad for supporting Turkey, whose (‘snap’) recently re-elected government has made things so difficult for its own people in its quest for power, intellectuals will opine it is ‘corrupt from the inside.’

But Turkey, who is more hospitable, and more tolerant, and who has been dealing with Syrian refugees a lot longer than have the Europeans, didn’t even raise a fuss until the Europeans, who are sick of the refugees already after only three months, brought them up.

Here’s how they ‘brought them up’: Germany’s chancellor, who ‘knows all about’ Turkey’s recent ‘humanitarian’ record gave Turkey money to deal with the refugees, which is not a bad thing on its own, but the EU should know that they can’t give three billion dollars to the current government two weeks before an election, and then be upset that now they have to play by that elected government’s rules.

When all the refugees started flooding into Germany I had just arrived here to live as well, and was proud of the German chancellor’s welcoming stance, but now in her selfie with the refugee all I see is a grimace. She didn’t take a principled stand for the good like people thought she had, because no one does in politics that I can see.

My grandfather used to wear a ball cap that said “Good Guys” in white on black, and last night when I was up thinking about all of this my mind went to the way he thrashed around while he was dying and they kept giving him more morphine. After he was gone, it took my mother and my grandmother and me exactly ten minutes to clear everything out of his room at the nursing home, and the last thing I placed in the box was a shirt my mother bought for him that still had the tags on it.

What is the point of having people in charge if no one can be a good guy, if no one can help the good guys?  A complete free-for-all would be better than this “let’s have a meeting about this transit zone” or let’s get together to discuss the possibility of that refugee status card,” because in a borderless free-for-all, at least it would be our own individual lives that were the guiding force. As it is now, babies are washing up on shores, and thousands more people are about to freeze, because of others’ indecision.

We need new ideas. The US and the EU both need to stop placating Saudi Arabia. If we could lessen our dependence on Saudi Arabia’s oil, for example, suddenly that country would find themselves with less money to send weapons to Syria.

No one in the US understands how deeply Iran is involved in Syria. We’ve been willing to bomb Syria for the past year, but we only started talking to Iran last week? When did sitting down and talking about something face to face become more threatening to us than military action? When did we all become such pussies?

I did hear a good story about astronauts. On the first three days of their mission this is how it went: on the first day, they talked about which country they were from. On the second day, looking down at Earth, they talked about it in terms of their continent. By the third day, they were speaking of their planet.

To Armenia (and back) with love

On E9 bus to Sabiha Gokcen
On E9 bus to Sabiha Gokcen airport, Bostanci, Istanbul. Credit: Filip Warwick
Catching the last snowfall of the year while waiting for a pide in Kars, Turkey. Credit: Filip Warwick
Catching the last snowfall of the year while waiting for a pide in Kars, Turkey. Credit: Filip Warwick
Walking the main street of the ancient city of Ani with Ricardo and Jake. Credit: Filip Warwick
Walking the main street of the ancient city of Ani with Ricardo and Jake. Credit: Filip Warwick
Jacob in Ani. Credit: Filip Warwick
Jacob in Ani. Credit: Filip Warwick
Listening to a story in Akyaka, Turkey. Credit: Filip Warwick
Listening to a story in Akyaka, Turkey. Credit: Filip Warwick
Leaving Gyumri, Armenia to catch the early morning train to Yerevan. Credit: Filip Warwick
Leaving Gyumri, Armenia to catch the early morning train to Yerevan. Credit: Filip Warwick
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Yerevan, Armenia. Credit: Filip Warwick
Tbilisi metro. Credit: Filip Warwick
Tbilisi metro. Credit: Filip Warwick
Packing up to leave Gutsa Artist Guest House, Tbilisi. Credit: Filip Warwick
Packing up to leave Gutsa Artist Guest House, Tbilisi. Credit: Filip Warwick
Listening to another story on an island ferry en route to Kabatas, Istanbul. Credit: Filip Warwick
Listening to another story on an island ferry en route to Kabatas, Istanbul. Credit: Filip Warwick
Evet, adalar. (It was a long trip, okay?) ;) Credit: Filip Warwick
Evet, adalar. (It was a long trip, okay?) 😉 Credit: Filip Warwick

http://www.filipwarwick.com/

Lemons, stars, and two nights in Gyumri

I like too much, our hostess Vartuhi confided, smiling knowingly and pointing at a halved lemon resting face-up on a saucer on her kitchen table. My partner Jacob had just finished interviewing her for the radio, a special segment about life along a closed border (listen herehere, and here), and she and I were still sitting in her high-ceilinged kitchen as the last hours of the day slowly faded.

Our ‘crackpot team,’ comprised of Jacob and Ricardo (print versions of Jacob’s are also available here and here), Fil, a photojournalist based in Ukraine whose work can be seen here, and myself, a teacher with a week off school, had arrived at her house in Gyumri, Armenia the previous evening from Kars, Turkey after about twelve hours of hard (read: bus) travel.

I’d been prepped about it being a long trip overland via Georgia – all those miles later, I think we may actually have been ready to kill each other. So when Vartuhi opened the door to her house before I even had to knock, and proceeded to show me to a room with soft, heavy pillows ‘normal for Armenia’, I knew that everything was going to be just fine. (Note to self: buy gorgeous pillows.)

She had shared the house with her mother and her two daughters, but they have since passed and moved on. She had just returned from Berlin, where she had been visiting her daughter, and had stopped into the market to buy lemons, when she heard about the murders on her street, a whole family. She ran home, without the lemons, to her empty house, and commenced jumping into the air each time a piece of paper shifted.

It had been a soldier, the murderer. Completely random, or so it seemed. Asked for a glass of water, killed a family. And then she told me her grandmother used to like her to get her attention if a soldier was going by – maybe he would need something. And I got to thinking about all of the ways in which we close ourselves off to each other, divide each other, annihilate each other.

And I know what it’s like to be a woman by herself in a big house, all of the noises you hear. My mother used to tell me she would hold the cat in front of herself while checking the closets: I, too, have been frozen in bed, imagining that the lamp I will touch will be a face; that the one benefit to still sleeping on a mattress on the floor means no one is waiting under there with a switchblade to slice my Achilles.

In the room where my friends were working, there was a Statue of Liberty snow globe filled with multi-colored stars where the snow should have been. I’d like to say I spent the time that followed thinking about where people are born, and whose stories they hear, and how everything eventually collides and intersects, but the stars kept falling so fast, so I just kept flipping it over, again and again.

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Crackpot team