Suzette in Turkey and a Syrian Refugee
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October 10, 2015. After an 11 hour flight from Boston, we arrive at Ataturk Airport in Istanbul. A young man in a suit and tie holds up a sign, “David Standring.” In a foreign country, it’s sure nice to have someone know your name. His name is Wassim, and he navigates us through the crowds, reassuring us in very good English. Wassim is 20-something, slender and sweet-faced. At an appointed pickup spot, I tell him how excited we are to be in his country, but he says, “This is not my country, but it’s a very nice place,” and explains that he’s from Syria. Of course, we want to know his story.
After earning a degree in business administration from a university in Syria, he was expected to serve in the Syrian army. “I didn’t go to school to kill people. I don’t want to be killed and I don’t want to kill anyone.” Wassim’s family fled Syria almost two years ago, his father and brothers to Germany, he and his mother to Istanbul.
“I’m here legally but if I waited another week, they would have put my name on a list for the army and I wouldn’t have been allowed into Turkey.” He works 14 hours a day for very little, and since he is a Syrian refugee he cannot work freely. He gets nothing from the government. “My mother is here with me, so I can’t go anywhere else.”
Wassim is grateful to have escaped Syria and said, “Assad kills his people, ISIS kills the Syrians, Assad is using the Syrians to fight ISIS, and now the Russians are coming in to support Assad. It’s crazy.”
As to the refugee crisis, he said, “The problem is not going into other countries. We want to go back to Syria. The problem is getting rid of the root problem that is causing people to leave Syria.”
Besides returning to his homeland, where he would choose to go? His face brightened. “New York City or anywhere in America. But I want to go home. There’s no place like home.”
Now a car picks us up, and Wassim runs off to the next client. From the airport, it’s more than an hour’s ride through heavy traffic to Sultanahmet, the ancient and exotic section of Istanbul.
Our hotel room overlooks the bustling streets below. After hours of sitting on our duffs, we throw down our bags and head outside. Later we discover Alburo Bistro, where we feast upon sautéed octopus, spinach with toasted pine nuts, and artichoke hearts with diced vegetables. I plan to duplicate their slow roasted lamb in pomegranate sauce, walnuts and saffron.
At nearby bazaar, night life was in full swing and a whirling dervish in white made hypnotic revolutions before an audience.
We go window shopping and the prices are so good – a silk scarf for $12, a hand-painted ceramic bowl for $20, fragrant spices for a fraction, but I tell myself, “Cool your jets. You only just got here.”
The minarets of the Hagia Sophia are enchanting against the night skies and the surrounding streets feel very safe. There are signs along the cafe-and-shop-lined streets that read “Hassle Free Zone,” meaning hawkers can’t accost outdoor diners. They can only wave and wink from a distance.
Somehow I expected to see the streets flooded with Syrian refugees, but no. One nicely dressed couple pushed a baby stroller with two kids and carried a sign, “Syrian Refugees. Please help.” They looked just like other tourists on the street, but when they made eye contact, their expressions were so tragic. I gave them money. We ran into them throughout the night. Later I asked Swat, the hotel clerk, about them. He said, “They came over a year ago, and they walk up and down here all day. I think they make more money than I do, but yes, they came from Syria.”
Maybe they live off the charity from the huge turnover of tourists. On the other hand, they are displaced and no doubt grieving their losses. If they are good at their “new job,” should I hold that against them? I’m still processing my feelings as I’m sure there will be more encounters, but basically, I lean toward helping.
After strolling the ancient stone paved streets, we return to our hotel with two pieces of baklava and eat them overlooking the lively streets below.
(Note: I have great photos but I’m having problems uploading them from my camera. You’ll just have to suffer through a post without pictures).