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.

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