Categories
Refugees

Sanctuary

Introduction from Diane

First, a bit about me. I was born in Boston and spent my teenage years wrestling with an urge to get out and see the world. For almost 20 years, I’ve taught linguistics at the University of Leeds in England. In 2004, I took a career break to go backpacking and met a Turkish man. We got married, had two children, and then the marriage came to an end. Along the way I learned to speak basic Turkish and met a collection of friends, both Turkish and foreign, who are still an important part of my life. I love Turkey and go there once or twice a year so that the children can spend time with their father and his family in their village. Some of my friends there are now involved in the efforts to help the Syrian refugees living in Turkey. There are an estimated 3 million Syrians in Turkey (probably more, since many are still undocumented). Only about 10% live in the UN-funded refugee camps near the Syrian border. The rest are distributed throughout Turkey. They’re not entitled to any housing or financial support directly from the Turkish government but can get support from charities and NGOs working in the country. Most Syrian adults speak little or no Turkish, and a lot of their children aren’t enrolled in schools. This year I spent my Christmas vacation talking to people who are running projects to help the refugees. I wanted to tell their stories, the stories about what happens after the newspaper headlines die down, the stories about lives passed  in years of limbo, waiting to go home or to feel at home in a place that is not home.


Sanctuary

The village sits on the high plateau in the center of Turkey. Until recently a conservative and insular agricultural town, its 2500 residents now rely heavily on tourism. A few foreigners live there, drawn to the beautiful landscape and the slow pace of life. For the past three years, a steady stream of Syrian refugees has quietly arrived in the village. Early in 2016, some local residents got together to set up a small-scale organization to help the refugees settle into their new lives in Turkey. One of the residents provided most of the funding, and a lot of advice and help came from Narjice from Open Arms in Kayseri, another charity in the area. The day-to-day organizing is done by a Syrian named Ahmet, who came to the area because his friend Juju grew up there, along with Juju’s mother, Nell, and other friends in the village. These grassroots projects are springing up all over Turkey to help the roughly 3 million Syrian refugees living there, and they all face the same kinds of challenges. Our news headlines are about dramatic raft landings on Mediterranean beaches or evacuations into UN camps, but for the refugees, getting out of Syria is only the beginning, the first step in a much longer process. I spent some time in the village in December 2016. Nell is an old friend of mine, and I spent long hours in Nell’s cozy kitchen while the snow fell outside, talking to Juju (who works for a refugee NGO in Ankara), Ahmet, and Nell herself. I wanted to hear all about their project.

Before starting work in the village, my friends tried to get official permission from the kaymakam, the governor of the provincial district. They sent in a project proposal in Turkish, and then another one in English. The kaymakam replied to their request in a terse email. The answer was no, with no reason given for his decision. The mukhtar, the elected local leader of the village, was just as unhelpful. Ahmet was demoralized, but the others gave him a pep talk, and they decided to start work anyway. The first stage was setting up a database of the Syrian families in the village, to count them and assess their needs. In the beginning, it was hard to find them, as it is in the refugees’ best interests to avoid attention. As is the way of grassroots organizers, Ahmet walked around the narrow streets with a paper questionnaire, but abandoned that system when he realized that the forms made most of the refugees uncomfortable; a lot of them are illiterate, and they’re wary of visits from officials. To gain their trust, Ahmet stopped using paper forms and broke the ice by telling them about his own experiences in the war. Once he had talked to a few families, he tracked down the others through word of mouth, until he had made contact with all of the Syrians living in the village.

In the space of 3 months, Ahmet found 37 families (around 340 people) for his database. Another 7 families completely refused to talk to him and are still off the register. In order to get a sense of each family’s real situation, Ahmet made a point of going inside their homes and counting their children. Some families had enough money to live pretty comfortably. Other families were destitute, living in absolute poverty in substandard housing. Most families were large, some with 7-8 children, and he found 7 orphans being raised by relatives among them.

It turned out that most of the Syrians had been in the village for around 3 years and were from the same area in eastern Aleppo (the part now being flattened in the war). The first families came to find work in the village, the men in construction and the women in agricultural jobs, attracted by cheap rents and a low cost of living compared to other areas of Turkey. Once safely in the village, they had contacted neighbors, friends, and relatives back in Aleppo, who followed them to settle.

Turkey is famous for its hospitality to outsiders, and the Islamic faith strongly emphasizes the importance of helping the needy. When the Syrians started to arrive in the village 3 years ago, the local belediye (town council) gave them free coal to heat their houses in winter, their usual policy to help any struggling family. Villagers brought food to the Syrians, gave them jobs, and helped them set up their homes. The belediye also started out by giving them a living allowance of 300TL/month (about $85). But things started to change. However, the monthly payments were quickly stopped by the hostile mukhtar. In the past couple of years, as perceptions and portrayals of Muslim countries have become increasingly negative in Western countries, the Turkish economy has gone downhill, tourists have stopped coming, and local people have started to struggle financially. The Syrians still need to pay their rent, but there aren’t enough jobs to go around. In this tight-knit village, where most people are related to each other, life is far from luxurious. The Turkish villagers see the Syrian children hanging around in the street, and they see the adults who still only speak Arabic taking charity, and they feel like their own needs are being overlooked. Thus, anyone working with the refugees in the village needs to keep a very low profile to avoid stirring up even more resentment.

Once Ahmet had finished counting up the families, the obvious next step for the project organizers was to think about education and schooling for the children. Most of Syrian kids in the village were not in school, but everyone working with refugees in Turkey sees school as vital for social and language integration into the community, and groups of Syrian kids playing in the streets is not good for PR. This turned out to be a tricky problem. The local elementary school at first refused to take the children, arguing that they had full enrollment and no extra support for refugees. But, legally, schools aren’t allowed to turn children away, and in other parts of Turkey schools are splitting the school day into two sessions to create class time for the influx of extra children. More pressure was put on the school, and eventually they agreed to accept the Syrians. Yet at the same time, it became clear that the Syrian parents were not pushing very hard to enroll their kids. In Aleppo, most of them had worked as casual laborers selling vegetables, in restaurants, or at construction sites. They have little education themselves and are illiterate. As a result, getting their kids into school isn’t high on their priority list, especially for girls. At the time of this writing, only about 17 of the 93 Syrian kids in the village are enrolled in school.

The project organizers considered trying to run Turkish lessons for the kids but decided to wait until their more basic needs had been met. They collected second-hand clothes and distributed them to the families. Then they heard about ASAM (the Association for Solidarity with Asylum Seekers and Migrants), a charity that gives out monthly food cards to each family and hires lawyers for refugees who need legal representation. Ahmet managed to register all of the families with ASAM. As winter set in, he visited each house, and if the family seemed to be in bad shape, he gave them food parcels. Winters are bitterly cold in the village, and when the weather turned last fall, most of the children had no winter clothes. Nell and her friends took up a collection. They bought new winter coats for 93 children and shoes for 69.

A few of the Syrians also need extra medical care. One 21-year-old man came to Turkey maimed in the war. His leg is badly fractured; he needs surgery, and maybe amputation, but his leg has developed a chronic infection, so he needs to wait. He is in constant agony, but his family can’t afford strong enough painkillers or regular trips to the hospital for treatment. Another family had been living for three years in substandard housing: 15 people in two rooms. While a contractor was working in the development above their house, the roof collapsed on them in the middle of the night. The neighbors dug them all out alive, but they suffered terrible injuries: the grandmother had 3 broken vertebrae and broken hips, and the 33-year-old uncle injured his groin and can no longer have children. The worst victim of the roof collapse was an orphan boy of 10 years old; he lost his foot, suffered smashed buttocks and internal injuries and now lives with a colostomy bag.

This has been a hard year. With work drying up, most of the Syrians in the village are destitute. At first, landlords were gracious about tenants who had fallen into debt, but as the local economy nosedives, more landlords have started evicting families. The atmosphere in the village is tense. Last summer there was a drunken squabble between a group of local men and two Syrian teenagers. One of the Syrians pulled a knife and stabbed one of the Turks in the neck. The boys were chased into a nearby hotel while a lynch mob formed outside. Someone called the jandarma [the local Turkish army] and they managed to discreetly put the boys on a bus to another town. Soon afterwards, in July 2016, there was an attempted military coup in Turkey. The coup failed, but President Erdogan embarked on a brutal purge of suspected plotters and whipped up nationalist feelings against perceived enemies of the state. For a few weeks after the coup, he asked his supporters to take to the streets to demonstrate their loyalty. Every night in the village, men roamed the streets banging drums to intimidate anyone not quite patriotically Turkish enough. The mukhtar and his supporters drew up a petition to evict all of the Syrians from their homes and throw them out of the village. Several of the local landlords stood up to him and refused to evict their tenants. Meanwhile, Ahmet contacted a friend at the UN. Someone high up contacted someone higher up than the mukhtar, and he was forced to back down. The Syrians stayed.

So I spent 2 weeks in the village, listening to these stories and more (and I take responsibility for any mistakes in my retelling). I did what I could to help, which seemed like a drop in the ocean, but at least a tangible drop. With some donations from work colleagues, I helped give out warm gloves and hats, bought food to give to the families whose food cards still hadn’t arrived, helped with some medical bills, and bought some more winter coats. I met a series of small children as they turned up asking Ahmet for mittens and shoes and groceries. I wished that I could speak Arabic so that I could ask about their lives. The good news is that these children’s stories have been heard and drawn and painted: just after I left, I heard that Léonie, an art therapist who works with refugee children, was about to start running art therapy workshops with them.

In his own way, Ahmet has become the mukhtar for the Syrians in the village, the fixer, guy who can solve everyone’s problems. I could see how hard this role was. His phone never stopped ringing, always with a human drama at the other end of the line. As tempting as it was to give candy to Samar (an especially cute little girl) when she turned up at his house, he couldn’t do it; playing favorites would make the other kids feel bad and would make him seem less impartial. Ahmet doesn’t know how long he’ll be able to stay in the village or who will be able to take over from him if he leaves.

I left the village feeling overwhelmed by the scale of the refugee crisis. I’d seen a tiny sample, 350 out of millions of displaced people. Nobody has counted up how many Syrians are living in places like this, out of sight of most tourists and aid agencies, and experiencing a mixture of kindness and unkindness from the Turkish people who took them in while the West looked away. There’s no end to the war in sight, and there is every chance that these families will still be here in 20 years.

The more I think about it, the more I’m sickened by the waste of this war: the waste of so many adult lives and of so many children who are missing out on a childhood. Most of all I’m sickened by all of the profiting-from-human-misery going on. Turkey has used its Syrian refugees as a bargaining chip to negotiate deals with the EU, which doesn’t want to take any of them. The weapons manufacturers, like the ones based in the rich Western country where I live, are making billions. Further billions are pouring into Turkey for humanitarian aid, only for big chunks of it to get siphoned off by corrupt NGOs and politicians. And just like in Iraq, private contractors in Turkey and Russia have already sealed deals worth further billions to reconstruct Syria when the war eventually ends. Interested parties are profiting from a longer, more destructive war. Someone is making money from every apartment building in Aleppo that gets flattened. In the middle of this maelstrom of cash and favors are the Syrians, disconnected from their homes and their livelihoods, not knowing if they’ll ever find sanctuary.

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You can find out more about Open Arms in Kayseri and make a donation at:

http://oakcharity.co.uk/

https://www.facebook.com/pg/OpenArmsinKayseri/

https://www.paypal.me/OpenArmsinKayseri


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Categories
Refugees

A War Story

This post is the second in a series of four guest essays written by my friend Diane, whom I met during our family’s year in Turkey:

First, a bit about me. I was born in Boston and spent my teenage years wrestling with an urge to escape from the suburbs and get out into the world. For almost 20 years, I’ve taught linguistics at the University of Leeds in England. In 2004, I took a career break to go backpacking and met a Turkish man. We got married, had two children, and then the marriage came to an end. Along the way I learned to speak basic Turkish and met a collection of friends, both Turkish and foreign, who are still an important part of my life. I love Turkey and go there once or twice a year so that the children can spend time with their father and his family in their village. Some of my friends there are now involved in the efforts to help the Syrian refugees living in Turkey. There are an estimated 3 million Syrians in Turkey (probably more, since many are still undocumented). Only about 10% live in the UN-funded refugee camps near the Syrian border. The rest are distributed throughout Turkey. They’re not entitled to any housing or financial support directly from the Turkish government but can get support from charities and NGOs working in the country. Most Syrian adults speak little or no Turkish, and a lot of their children aren’t enrolled in schools. This year I spent my Christmas vacation talking to people who are running projects to help the refugees. I wanted to tell their stories, the stories about what happens after the newspaper headlines die down, the stories about lives passed  in years of limbo, waiting to go home or to feel at home in a place that is not home.

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Ahmet now lives in a small village in central Turkey, where he is running a project linked with Open Arms in Kayseri (OAK) to help other Syrian refugees. He was born in Raqqa, one of 8 brothers. His father owned several factories, and he grew up in privilege, playing football, driving around, buying clothes, clubbing, and chasing girls with his friends. He moved to Aleppo at 17, studied law in Beirut for a year, and then at the start of the revolution in 2011 went back to Aleppo to continue law school. That year his brother Brahim started organizing anti-Assad protests and later formed a cell of the Free Syrian Army. Because of his brother, Ahmet’s name was on Assad’s list as an insurgent, so he was forced to leave college. Ahmet moved back to Raqqa.

Brahim’s life was in danger, so his father sent him to Saudi Arabia to protect him from Assad’s police. Then he went off the radar for 4 months. The first news of Brahim came when a family friend called to say that he had been badly wounded in a battle nearby with Assad’s forces. He had come back into Syria quietly, via Turkey, to lead his Free Syrian Army unit. The family waited until 11 p.m. when the coast was clear to pick him up off the battlefield. Brahim had been shot twice in the stomach and once in the hip. Raqqa was too dangerous, so the family took him across the border to Turkey. Ahmet spent the next 6 months living in a hospital with his brother in the city of Urfa, changing his dressings, feeding, and bathing him. (In Turkey, as in many countries, hospitals are short-staffed, so family members are expected to do most of the nursing care.) His brother had had a colostomy and needed more surgery, but the doctors said he needed to wait another two months for the next operation, so the family brought him back to back to Raqqa for the holy month of Ramadan. Raqqa felt like a safe place at the time because Assad’s forces had failed to take control of the city.

As soon as the family returned home, ISIS launched itself in Syria with Raqqa as its base and started to take over the city. (ISIS originated in Iraq but draws its aim of creating an Islamic state from a section of the Koran which forsees the final war between Muslims and unbelievers as taking place in Sham, an ancient kingdom in what is now Syria.) Ahmet says he had a lot of conversations with guys in ISIS, who started in Syria as a small group of around only 70 people. Most of them were from outside Syria, from Egypt, Tunisia, Iraq, and the Gulf, and had spent 3 months in intense indoctrination. Many ISIS members were intelligent and creative, but they spoke with brainwashed certainty about their mission and had absolutely no concern for the lives of the Syrians. It was also clear that even though some may have had their doubts about the killing and torture that had become their everyday lives, they were locked into the organization. ISIS fighters didn’t fear death, and that made them very frightening opponents.   

Most of Ahmet’s cousins and brothers were fighting in the Free Syrian Army against both Assad and ISIS. At one point, the FSA captured 3 tanks from Assad’s army and then managed to capture the local ISIS leader. A street fight started for possession of the tanks. After 20 days of fighting, ISIS detonated a car bomb in the train station that served as the FSA base. Three of Ahmet’s cousins were blown to pieces, including the unit leader. Ahmet, who had stayed out of the fighting, got a text message from his brother inside the train station saying that he and others were trapped inside, surrounded by ISIS. Ahmet dithered. He didn’t have a gun or other weapon and wasn’t sure what to do. He went to tell his family the news, then left to see another brother at a friend’s house. In shock, Ahmet made the decision to save his brother. Somehow – he doesn’t remember how – he managed to slip past the ISIS watchmen and get into the train station.

The building was still on fire, with bodies littering the ground. He found his brothers hiding inside, safe because when the car bomb went off they were somewhere else eating their evening meal to break the Ramadan fast. Later an ambulance managed to reach them, so Ahmet helped load the burned bodies and body parts of his cousins into it. Ahmet found a rifle and called his brother to find out what to do. ISIS still surrounded the building. His brother told him wait for a while. At 1 a.m. the order came from the main FSA base telling all of them to leave Raqqa. Their leader, Ahmet’s cousin, was dead, and they needed to rest and regroup outside the city. Ahmet watched as 65 men loaded up their weapons and started to leave, but he didn’t want to abandon his family. At 2 a.m. the remaining FSA in the train station fired huge anti-aircraft guns into the air to create a diversion so that they could escape. Ahmet and two of his brothers and two cousins didn’t follow; they took their guns and 150 bullets each and ran off behind the train station to the Kurdish FSA base where they asked for protection until morning.

Ahmet stayed awake all night keeping watch while the others slept, not knowing how far to trust his Kurdish protectors, but they were kind to him. At 5 a.m. he looked across at the empty train station and saw ISIS fighters streaming in. They put up flags and shouted “Allahu akbar!” over and over. At 7 a.m. Ahmet and his group left their guns with the Kurds and took a taxi to a friend’s house. The taxi driver was a Kurdish friend of his brother’s, and he brought his children in the taxi as a cover for Ahmet’s group. They laid low for a while.

Ahmet had another brother, Tarek, who lived in Saudi and had no involvement in the war. He had come back to Raqqa for his wedding and lived with his new wife in a different neighborhood, away from the fighting. One day he was coming home with some test results from his mother’s doctor. ISIS kidnapped him. The family searched everywhere, fearing the worst. 10 days later, a friend who worked at a local hospital called Ahmet to say that an unidentified body had come in. In accordance with Muslim tradition he had been buried the next day, but hospital staff had made a video of the body so that it could be identified. Ahmet watched the video and recognized his dead brother, horrifically tortured. Ahmet took the video home to show his family. He broke the news to Tarek’s wife and to his father. Everyone was crying and screaming. Tarek had lived a peaceful life, and he and Ahmet had been very close. Ahmet spent the next few days consoling his distraught family. It’s God’s will, he told them. You have to accept this. He struggled to be strong for everyone else when he felt destroyed by grief.

Ahmet took his injured brother back across the border to Urfa and left him in the care of friends. He went to Mersin, also in Turkey, with his friend to search for a job and to start a new life. His parents left Raqqa five months later and settled in Mersin. After 20 days in Mersin, he got a Facebook message from another Syrian he had met in the hospital in Urfa while he was looking after his brother. Yusuf was in Istanbul, paralyzed by a sniper bullet. His brother had been taking care of him but left him after they had an argument. Ahmet went to Istanbul and nursed Yusuf for 6 months, taking him to the hospital for physiotherapy every week. Eventually Yusuf was well enough to travel, so Ahmet traveled with him back to the Syrian border, where his family collected him. (A few months later, Yusuf died in Syria, emaciated and neglected.) 

Ahmet again got ready to join his parents in Mersin, but was approached by a man who was involved in setting up the interim Syrian government in Turkey. Political opposition groups (bankrolled by Qatar) were optimistic that they would defeat Assad, and the man said they needed trustworthy people to work for them as bodyguards. Ahmet worked for two years in the Turkish city of Gaziantep. Eventually, plans for the interim Syrian government fizzled. Ahmet tried to figure out what to do. He had a passport and could have gone to Europe, but he wanted to stay in Turkey to help other refugees.

In Gaziantep, Ahmet’s friend Memo was going out with a young woman named Juju, who worked for an NGO. The three became good friends. Juju invited Ahmet home to central Turkey, where he met Juju’s mother and her friends and learned that there were several hundred Syrians in the village who were struggling to survive. Ahmet, Juju and Memo wrote a proposal with help from a friend and worked out a budget for a project to help the Syrians in the village. Ahmet moved there in the spring of 2016. He lives a modest life and hates the label “refugee” because he feels it puts him in a box and limits what he can do.

While living in Istanbul, Ahmet says he felt destroyed inside but didn’t talk about his loss anyone. One event changed his perspective completely. He was in Istanbul taking care of his paralyzed friend Yusuf. One day Yusuf told him that his barber, Abu Mohammed, would arrive soon to give him a shave. Ahmet put him in his chair in the lounge and got him ready. A few minutes later the barber arrived with a young boy standing next to him, so Ahmet went back to his room. Then Yusuf called him into the tv room, asking for towels. The barber’s son was sitting on the floor with his legs straight out in front of him, the towel behind his back. “Ammu,” he asked the boy, “can you please sit on the sofa so that I can get the towel?” The boy just stared at him helplessly.

From the next room, Abu Mohammed said in a loud voice, “You put him on the couch.” Ahmet bent down to pick up Mohammed. He put one hand behind his back, and as he went to put his hand under the boy’s thigh, he was shocked to feel not warm flesh but something felt cold and hard – both legs were made of plastic. He put the boy on the couch, gave the towel to Yusuf, and then went back to the tv room, sitting next to the boy and wondering how bad the story was. He asked his friend what had happened.

The family were from Aleppo. Abu Mohammed, the father, went out to work one morning and then heard an explosion. He ran back to find his house bombed. There was no trace of his wife, his mother, or his two other children. Five-year-old Mohammed was on floor, his legs mutilated. Ahmet says was haunted by this story for a month afterwards. He came to understand that the father survived because his child survived. For Abu Mohammed, there was hope: taking care of his disabled child was a reason to continue with his life. If his entire family had died, Abu Mohammed would have allowed himself to die, too. After that day, Ahmet says, he “stopped feeling like shit.” He had lost a brother and three cousins, but he realized that he had lost nothing compared to others in this war. “This is the thing about the Syrian situation”, he says. “It doesn’t make you feel good, but it makes you feel stronger. If you lost a brother, someone else lost two brothers. If you lost two brothers, someone else lost their entire family. This is what makes us continue with our lives. I am so thankful and grateful that I still have something, when so many other people have nothing.”

Ahmet is now 29; if the war hadn’t happened, he would probably be practicing law in Syria. When he was growing up, he says, Syria felt completely stable. War seemed unimaginable. Everything unraveled so quickly. He feels that the war has made him stronger, and working to help other Syrians is a catharsis, the only thing that makes him feel happy. “The hardest thing in life,” he says, “is not breaking up with your girlfriend or losing your money. It’s seeing someone that you love get suddenly taken from in front of you when they’re young, before it’s their time, and you can’t do anything to save them.” Ahmet has keep his sense of humor, though he says his jokes have turned from “white” to “black.”  He desperately misses city life and playing football.

And he is kept awake by terrible nightmares.

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You can follow OAK on Facebook and make a donation at:

https://www.paypal.me/OpenArmsinKayseri

https://openarmsinkayseri.charitycheckout.co.uk/

https://www.facebook.com/pg/OpenArmsinKayseri/

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Categories
Refugees

Open Arms: Syrians in Turkey

This post is the first in a series of four guest essays written by my friend Diane, whom I met during our year in Turkey:

First, a bit about me. I was born in Boston and spent my teenage years wrestling with an urge to escape from the suburbs and get out into the world. For almost 20 years, I’ve taught linguistics at the University of Leeds in England. In 2004, I took a career break to go backpacking and met a Turkish man. We got married, had two children, and then the marriage came to an end. Along the way I learned to speak basic Turkish and met a collection of friends, both Turkish and foreign, who are still an important part of my life. I love Turkey and go there once or twice a year so that the children can spend time with their father and his family in their village. Some of my friends there are now involved in the efforts to help the Syrian refugees living in Turkey. There are an estimated 3 million Syrians in Turkey (probably more, since many are still undocumented). Only about 10% live in the UN-funded refugee camps near the Syrian border. The rest are distributed throughout Turkey. They’re not entitled to any housing or financial support directly from the Turkish government but can get support from charities and NGOs working in the country. Most Syrian adults speak little or no Turkish, and a lot of their children aren’t enrolled in schools. This year I spent my Christmas vacation talking to people who are running projects to help the refugees. I wanted to tell their stories, the stories about what happens after the newspaper headlines die down, the stories about lives passed  in years of limbo, waiting to go home or to feel at home in a place that is not home.

________________ 

While visiting Turkey April 2016, I heard about a grassroots charity called Open Arms in Kayseri (OAK) set up to work with refugees. A sprawling, industrial city a few hours’ drive roughly due north of the Syrian border, Kayseri has been a magnet for Syrian families for several years. Some friends and I arranged to visit OAK’s new premises in the Danisment neighborhood, where a community of Syrians has sprung up. We filled a van with food and household provisions and set off for the center.

OAK’s director, Narjice Basaran, greeted us at the door. I have never met anyone quite like Narjice. A British-Iraqi consultant from North London who married a Turk, Narjice is a whirlwind of energy in her fashionable headscarf, talking a mile a minute, zig-zagging around Kayseri while taking calls in English and Arabic. She started food deliveries to around 10 Christian and Muslim families in Kayseri in 2012 after meeting Iraqi and Syrian refugees who had settled there. As the war intensified and more and more Syrian families turned up in the city with no housing, food or medical care, Narjice dedicated more of her time to OAK. She joined forces with Nilgun, a soft-spoken Canadian accountant who gave up a lucrative salary to work with her. OAK now has about 150 families on its register, and more arrive every week.

After a huge bureaucratic struggle, OAK was able to legally acquire a 3-story house and was registered as a charity in May 2016. The center is a distribution point for food and clothes, and children’s groups staffed by volunteers meet there for play, crafts and language classes. Narjice showed us the basement full of racks of donated clothes, the ground floor level with children’s activity rooms and a kitchen, and the upper floor, set aside for women. The center is bright, warm, and welcoming. The aim, Narjice explained, is not charity but social enterprise: OAK provides a safe space where women can learn knitting, crochet and beadwork and then use their skills to generate an income for their families. OAK wants to help Syrian families become self-sufficient, to help themselves instead of taking handouts.

Schooling, specifically integrating Syrian kids into Turkish schools, is a big priority. OAK volunteers provide Turkish language classes to prepare them for entry, and school attendance is a requirement for registration at the center. All of the children from all 150 OAK families go to school. As is the case in a lot of towns in Turkey where Syrians have settled, the local schools in Kayseri have come up with creative ways to handle the influx of extra children: from second grade to high school, the school splits into two sessions, running classes for Turks in the mornings and Syrians in the afternoon. OAK also invites local Turkish children to the center to help with the integration process.

Listening to Narjice, I was in awe of her passion and dynamism, and she and Nilgun quickly became personal heroes of mine. They’re not people who read about the refugee crisis in the newspaper while wringing their hands and wishing they could do more to help, like I do most of the time. Narjice and Nilgun simply put in the work to do what is needed, often at the expense of sleep and time with their families, and by all accounts, OAK is a huge success. But the obstacles are huge, and both women are starting to feel exhausted. While dozens of “humanitarian” NGOs in Turkey are creaming off aid money to pad salaries and find ever more creative ways of embezzling funds, Narjice and Nilgun don’t get a salary or even enough money cover their expenses; they work very long hours for free, and their money and energy are starting to run out. They need more full-time staff to help them cope with the expanding scale of the project. Last year Narjice worked for OAK full time for nine months without taking any paid work, so she recently went back to London to recoup her losses and continue to fundraise for the families. The center has a grant from Concern Worldwide to pay for the Turkish classes, but the red tape is overwhelming.

Most irksome for Narjice and Nilgun is the bureaucracy and administration they face. Despite being a licensed charity, as Narjice explains it, the Turkish system has no room for an organization which is neither charity nor business, but social enterprise helping generate an income for the families through their own work. Having grown up in vibrant, multicultural London and being British Iraqi, she sees the roots of the problem in Turkish attitudes toward outsiders. Turkey’s century-long suspicion of foreign powers and intense focus on ethnic, linguistic and religious national “unity” seems to have damaged its ability to deal with diversity and this massive influx within its borders. The three million Syrians in the country are now suffering from this legacy, and it can be a struggle to help them integrate.

On the day we visited OAK, two of our group stayed in the center to do a movie project with a group of children. Léonie, a French art therapist who works with children with special needs and trauma, worked with Ahmet, a Syrian, to help them write a screenplay, make play-doh animals and create sets for their movie. She uses art to try to give the kids a voice, and give them a chance to tell their story.They were soon completely engrossed in the project.

While the children were making their film, the rest of us went to distribute food and clothes in the van. Narjice had heard about a family of recent arrivals living in a run-down neighborhood in another part of the city, so we joined her while she did her assessment of needs. The family lived in a tiny concrete house with a small dirt yard. About a dozen children flocked around us as we got out of the van. They ranged in age from about 3 to 8, and it wasn’t clear how they were related to each other. Some were barefoot, and they eagerly snapped up the lollipops we brought for them.

Inside the house, six or seven men and women wearing drab clothes sat on foam cushions on the floor. One of the women was severely disabled and lay on the floor on a filthy mattress. As I looked around the house, I wondered how the family had managed to get her this far out of Syria. Another bare room was a makeshift bedroom with half dozen foam mats on the floor. The kitchen of the house was grim, bare concrete, with a sink and a single cooking hob but no other furniture. A few dishes were stacked on the floor, but I couldn’t see any food.

Narjice spoke to them in Arabic, gathering as much information as she could about their circumstances. A man arrived waving a piece of paper, and the room erupted. He had just come back from the hospital with test results confirming that he and his wife both had Hepatitis B and would need treatment. The rest of the household, including all the children, would have to be tested too. We went back out to the van and handed out second-hand clothes from a huge bag, trying to be discreet to avoid stoking tensions with the Turkish residents of the slum neighborhood. More kids emerged from the surrounding houses, pulling faces for photos and asking for more candy. They had no toys and only the streets to play in, so the arrival of foreigners with lollipops was the most exciting thing to happen to them in a long time. Narjice went back later to help with medical care and deliver food, housewares and other supplies.

In the car she told us about some of the other refugees on OAK’s register. There were a few Romani Gypsy families who lived in the same squalid conditions they had lived in in Syria. Then there was the was blind family, whose story was, as Narjice put it, “like something out of a horror movie.”  All five members of the family are blind because of an inherited condition. Narjice first encountered them along with their extended family – 32 people were stuffed into two rooms, in some of the worst conditions she had ever seen – living in filth with no shower and wet from the snow leaking in through cracks in the windows and doors. They had paid traffickers to get them out of Syria in small groups when ISIS took over their village and had endured unimaginable hardship and danger on the way. Narjice organized housing, food, and clothes for the entire extended family. She tried to arrange cornea transplants for the blind children, but Turkey has a law that donated corneas can only be used for Turkish citizens, so their vision may never be restored. More pockets of the family continue to escape to Turkey, but only some have made it, others having been shot at the border. 

On our way back to the OAK center we stopped off at a small house in another suburb of Kayseri. Narjice asked us to wait while she took a shopping bag of food and went to speak to the woman inside. She came out a few minutes later, rolling her eyes. “She told me she’s pregnant again!” she said, waving her hands in exasperation. “I told her, what the f**k are you doing? You have six kids already; you’re like one of those cats on the street!” I asked Narjice why people so destitute would want to have more children when they couldn’t feed the ones they had. “Arabs like big families,” she said. “And they want to build up their country again. But I really lose my patience with them sometimes.” 

We returned to OAK to see the children finishing up their film project. Their faces were glowing with pride as they showed us their drawings, their play-doh animals, and the set they had created. The story was about a lion and giraffe walking by a lake. In the story, the animals are tired and bored, so they decide to have a picnic. Then a bus arrives and takes them to that glittering destination for Syrian refugee children: Istanbul.

We walked into the kitchen, where volunteers were sorting the food we had brought into plastic shopping bags. Some of the Syrian mothers helped too. One woman looked thin, pale, and exhausted. Not knowing any Arabic, I tried to catch her eye over the piles of food to smile at her, anxious to convey that I cared, that the world cared and was trying to do something to help. Her eyes stayed glued to the floor. The surge of self-congratulatory pleasure in me ebbed away. She is too tired and traumatized to share in this happy moment, I told myself. Only later did I understand that her response came out of deep shame. Syrians are proud people, and their instinctive response to visiting strangers is to spoil them with Arab hospitality and feed them delicious things until their bellies explode. She had nothing to give. For her, taking charity was the ultimate humiliation. She accepted it to keep her children alive, but she hated having to take it at all. And so we stood in that kitchen in a deadlock, on one side the American with a burning liberal do-gooder’s urge to help and to have that help acknowledged because it would make me feel good, and on the other side a Syrian mother, unable to meet my eye because it would mean a loss of her pride, her face, her honor. 

This crisis is not about me. It’s about her, and millions of others like her, who don’t want to be where they are.

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You can follow OAK on Facebook and make a donation at:

https://www.paypal.me/OpenArmsinKayseri

https://openarmsinkayseri.charitycheckout.co.uk/

https://www.facebook.com/pg/OpenArmsinKayseri/

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running

Sloggin’ in the Rain

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I like to pretend that life is a musical wherein all the Best Moments are enhanced by atmospheric lighting and the promise of a standing ovation. For me, everything — from the making of pancakes to the folding of laundry — takes on a brighter sheen if it is accompanied by high kicks and jazz hands, all the better if someone emerges from the wings wearing crinolines or drops from the rafters strapped into a harness.

One autumn day in the Cappadocia region of Turkey, however, I was forced to concede that sometimes drama is overrated.

Three months into our whimsical sabbatical year of living abroad, my family had experienced stunning summer heat, but the change of seasons introduced us to a new genre of weather. That October, the stage had been draped with striking scenery: the skies were unrelentingly grey, with ominous clouds hanging overhead that unleashed into pounding sheets of rain which seeped under the door jam and soaked the threshold of the 400-year-old stone house we were renting. Contemplating this dreary backdrop, I was reluctant to explore new valleys and canyons around the village when I went out running, thinking that I’d rather venture into new landscape theaters on sunny, classically-autumn days and avoid the stark topography that smacked of Ibsen more than Gershwin.

Since the weather didn’t seem to be shifting, though, and my time in Cappadocia was ticking away, I decided to throw myself out there and break a leg.

Late in the afternoon, I headed towards the crumbling monastery outside of the village and navigated the warren of trails that zigzagged throughout the valley below. Humming, I took a left whenever the trail diverged. Eventually, I was beneath a panoramic overlook frequented by tour buses that disgorged French and Korean travelers in search of a photo op.

Soon, I realized the overlook tourists were noticing me far below them on the stage of the valley floor–a living, breathing part of the spectacle they’d been ogling, and I fought the impulse to belt out an echoing “Everything’s coming up roses and daffodils” à la Ethel Merman in hopes that my performance would be rewarded with a shower of Turkish lira, raining down from the appreciative audience.

At that moment, a long roll of thunder resonated across the valley, and the action began to rise. Looking up, I saw not stage lights but a black cloud moving with startling swiftness towards my mark. Just above the rapidly re-bussing tourists, the sky popped white with lightning.

There’d be showers raining down upon me all right, but it looked like my show had received the worst of reviews, and early cancellation was imminent.

Crikey. I was a half hour’s run from home, standing at the foot of a cliff somewhere in a confusing valley in the middle of Asia Minor, and the sky was roiling with noise and light.

I was shaking like an understudy who’d forgotten the lyrics.

Taking stock of the situation (dire), sorting through the options (limited), I felt panic dancing in my balcony. Before that moment, my greatest stressors had been adjusting to life in a dusty village, living next door to a donkey, learning to eat drink salted yogurt, and attempting to communicate without verbs. All of that seemed like ice cream at intermission, however, compared to the fast-moving blackness that hung over my solitary figure, threatening genuine danger.

Exposed and alone, I stifled a scream as a bolt of lightning burst from the clouds and connected with the dirt fifty feet away. Fear-driven clarity entered my mind. No one knew where I was. No one was coming to “save” me. No one and nothing on earth was going to fix this for me.

Quite unintentionally, I had been cast as the star of a one-woman show. Quickly, I decided that crouching down and balancing on the balls of my feet felt too passive, too much like allowing the scene to unfold rather than being an active player in it. Despite the cautionary voice in my head telling me to hunker down in the open until the worst had passed, I threw my shoulders back, inhaled from my diaphragm, and took charge of my fate.

Feigning confidence as lightning continued to stab down from the clouds, I ran well for the first few minutes. Even though my glasses were being pelted by raindrops, I could still find the trail. Minutes later, however, my vision blurred into nothingness. The raindrops hardened into stinging. My mood slid into alarm. My pace slowed. There wasn’t a jazz hand or high kick in sight.

A complete inability to see where I was going; a tragic sense of direction; clothes completely sopped; trails that had turned into rushing creeks; impulsive shrieking whenever lightning zapped around me; and a sky that had turned so dark that visibility was nil—all of these realities synergized into a single thought: “Keep moving.”

With less than an hour until dark, I hacked my way around dead-end trails and decided to believe that if I just kept trying, eventually I’d find my way back to something familiar.

However. The lightning was truly on top of me, and that created a danger bigger than dark. More than anything, I needed to find shelter.

In an irony so sharp it could have been scripted, I discovered that, in a region with thousands of abandoned pigeon alcoves, cave homes, lemon caves, and early Christian churches, I couldn’t find a single carved-out opening. If I could find the trail back to my starting point, it would take me only a few minutes to get to the ancient, crumbling monastery—an idea that roused my waning dramaturge and caused her to muse, “What a lark! Then you could tell people that you once sought shelter in a monastery!”

Early Christian monks didn’t know jack about signage, though.

As I kept running trail after trail, unable to find any overhang or refuge, I lapsed into a chant of, “One foot. Now the other. One foot. Now the other.”

Just as I convinced myself that dogged diligence would see me through, the Great Director in the Sky decided to kick up a frigid wind.

On the positive side, the onset of shivering meant being lost suddenly dropped much lower on my list of worries. Completely soaked and well into the second hour of running, I imagined my children introducing themselves to their future in-laws with a fraught summary of youthful tragedy: “My mother was killed by a freak intersection of lightning strike and hypothermia one day when she got lost in a wild valley in Turkey.”

Naturally, states of heightened dramatic tension always break, and it apparently wasn’t time for my grand finale just yet. The orchestra in my heart swelled as—trumpet fanfare!–the sky magically lightened, and the storm blew past, leaving behind only a gentle, steady rain.

I smeared my glasses “dry,” and after five more false starts, I finally happened upon the road leading towards the monastery. Soaked to the marrow, but with a song in my heart, I trotted the last fifteen minutes home, down the main street of the village. Each step squished loudly. My hair dripped rivulets down my torso. My pants refused to stay up, due to the weight of the water pulling them down. My shirt clung to my torso, providing show-stopping burlesque for onlookers accustomed to body-obscuring, layered clothing.

I’ve never before had a more rapt audience than I did on that long stretch from the monastery to the village square. At one point, near the taxi stand, I stopped and took a bow for three men who couldn’t believe the soggy apparition that had emerged from the raindrops. Had one of them not finally blinked, I would have been forced to burst into the chorus of “Sunrise, Sunset” to snap them out of their reverie.

By the time I made my way through the center of the village, the square was Standing Room Only. As had been the case for the previous two hours, I pointed my eyes to the ground and just kept moving…albeit with one hand holding up my sagging pants.

One foot. Then the other.

Nearing home, I considered the power generated from placing one foot in front of the other. Pushing back against fear, carrying on in the face of uncertainty, and moving forward blindly had brought me out of the storm; months before, these same abilities had given me the gumption to pack up my life and plunk it down 7,000 miles from home, in the midst of fairy chimneys, headscarves, and The Call to Prayer.

None of it had been easy. Much of it had been nerve wracking. All of it had been amazing.

A grin spread across my drenched face, and my free hand rose and pointed to the still-clearing sky. Fingers splayed wide, palm pulsing, I saluted the clouds with a triumphant jazz hand of joy.

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travels

Going for a Run in Turkey

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I wrote the post below five years ago, when our family lived in the Cappadocia region of Turkey. Since that time, not a day goes by when I don’t feel some resonance from that experience. I look in our spice drawer in the kitchen, and I see bags of pul biber. The kilim rugs under my feet, as I walk through the house, were carried home in our suitcases. The hamam soap I use in the shower is Turkish. Messages I receive on social media are from friends who sustained us.

During weeks when there is an election in Turkey, as there was recently, that country is even more on my mind. It’s playing a huge role on the world stage these days–hell, it always has, if one looks at history. While my Western sensibility is saddened that this past week’s election indicates the majority of Turkish citizens are supporting a trend towards autocracy over the democracy established after WWI, I also realize that it’s important to consider why so many Turks are behind the platforms of former-prime-minister-now-president Recep Erdogan. For millions who live in Turkey, the move towards conservatism feels like the best choice. I don’t get that. But I wasn’t raised there. As was the case during our time abroad, Turkey illuminates my cultural blindness–how hard my head has to work to wrap itself around politics, values, and history so foreign from my own.

Good on you, Turkey. I need your lessons.

Here, then, is a callback to that year, a time that bred an enduring love of a hospitable, bewildering land. This is what it took to head out the door of our 400-year-old Greek home and head through the village, out to run on the dusty roads of Cappadocia.

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First, I have to brace myself, especially if it’s a hot day, and I’ve decided that wearing shorts is the only choice between me and heat exhaustion.

Secondly, I replay in my mind the guidebook phrase that informs, “Turks don’t consider staring to be rude.” As I remind myself of that phrase, I try not to flash back to high school, when all the boys over six feet tall sat on “Jock Rock” in the front entry of the building and assigned scores to every passing female.

Thirdly, I shield myself with sunglasses, hat, and earbuds–devices that serve as interference between me and the stares that are not rude but that, nevertheless, feel like a challenge.

Fourthly, I prepare myself for the audible commentary and mock applause that Turkish men over 50 produce at the sight of a woman running. It’s a bonus day when they pump their fists in the air and act as though I’m crossing a finish line. As well, I do a special “dodge and weave” stretching routine that limbers me up so I can maneuver my way through the gamut of neighbor housewives who badger me to buy a doll, a scarf, a pair of socks–despite my refusal to do so every single time I’ve passed their houses for the past 11 months.

Fifthly, I ready myself for defense against passing adolescent males on motorcycles and scooters who enjoy a quick game of “Buzz the Runner” when they spot me out on a country road. When this happens, I count myself lucky that I’ve never had men in loafers smoking cigarettes pretend to chase me down–proving their macho by keeping up with the runner–as Byron has. Fortunately, when it happened to Byron, the two faux chase runners, cheered on by their compatriots, had to drop out after a few meters due to hacking and an inability to draw breath.

Six, I try not to laugh visibly at the disconnect between the podcasts I’m listening to and the landscape and people I am seeing. It tickles me immensely to be listening to fairly, erm, hardcore advice being dispensed by Dan Savage as I pass a grandpa on a donkey.

Seventh, once I am out of the village, I pick up handfuls of rocks, all the better to use when and if I encounter the myriad wild dogs. Byron remains genuinely traumatized after his major showdowns with packs of thirty and, most recently, ten angry and aggressive dogs circling him. For the most part, the feral dogs retreat in the face of a rocks and shouting, but even still, Dog Rendezvous adrenaline trumps a “runner’s high” any day.

Finally, once I’ve run the gauntlet of staring; attempted to explain in my limited Turkish the idea that I’m not running any place specific but, instead, am doing spor; and equipped myself with nature’s weaponry, I turn up the volume and set to the jog. On the days when I find the entire endeavor tiresome and just wish for an easy, anonymous run,

at least I can comfort myself with the knowledge that I’ve provided the natives with some new entertainment–which, clearly, they were needing–and then, smiling, I imagine the neighborhood aunties, so puzzled by my actions, witnessing Duluth’s Grandma’s Marathon and watching 9,000 runners pass by in the space of a few hours.

They would wet their shalwars.

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gratitude

In the Bag

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I had quite a tussle in the kitchen the other day, and Mario Batali wasn’t even trying to abscond with the dark chocolate. 

(Good thing, too, for I am not above take-down by pony tail).

Rather, I was attempting to demonstrate my General Maturity by making dinner.

Planning began at 10 a.m., moved through a stop at the grocery store at noon, and transitioned into pre-meal preparation at 2 p.m., at which time I measured out and stirred up something called “steak spice” before dissolving it in balsamic vinegar. Dramatically, I hefted two pounds of pork loin and anointed it in

a marinade.

In the moment, it seemed practical that the recipe recommended plunging the meat into a plastic bag full of the marinade. The bag would be malleable, letting the juices work around the hunk of protein for several hours, permeating every pore of the pig. Throughout the afternoon, whenever I stopped by the kitchen, I would be able to squeeze and adjust the pounds of meat–much like my strategy for packing breastual tissues into a bra–and swirl the marinade around a bit.

There was just one itsy problem.

Once I poured the marinade over the meat and sealed the Ziploc bag, the thing became Mount Etna: several holes in the bottom of the bag created channels for the marinade to ooze out, bubbling over the counter top. Yelping a loud %&*@#!, I grabbed the sponge and a handful of paper towels before scrabbling into the drawer for a spoon: so much marinade had seeped out in thirty seconds that I was able to scoop it up and, illogically, dump it back into the holey bag. Gathering my wits–both of ’em–I changed the order of attack.

With my less-sticky hand, I pulled open the drawer where we keep plastic bags and riffled around for another big one. As quickly as possible, I transferred the loin and remaining marinade into the new bag. Cussing one more time at the holey bag, I threw it into the garbage and set about scooping and mopping the gunk off the counter, musing that the recipe hadn’t listed “sweat of your brow” on the ingredient list.

Daunted, I considered slurping the liquid off the counter but, instead of getting licky, bolstered my spirits with a personal affirmation: “It took the great Oscar Wilde an entire cast of characters to construct a comedy of errors, yet you have always manged to achieve states of nonsensery without a single assist!”

Finally, I deposited ten more paper towels into the trash and gave the sponge a thorough rinsing. There.

Now I could toss the loin into the fridge, ignore it for a few hours, and get down to grading some student work.

…or, as it turned out, I could spend another ten minutes wiping up marinade off the counter. Because holes. In the replacement bag. That invisibly damaged mo#^erfu@@er.

By the time I was done prepping the first stage of our “quick and easy dinner,” I was tired, sticky, and fed the hell up with plastic bags. Flippin’ stupid micro-punctured Ziplocs.

But then I sat down and started working through students’ paraphrasing activities, and because their work failed to hold my attention (Who assigns this stuff?), my brain took a meander down a path of memory, to the year we lived in Turkey.

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After an evening of dinner and movies at a friend’s, we were putting on our shoes before walking back up the hill to our 400-year-old Greek house. As I zipped my jacket, our hostess came out of the kitchen waving a plastic bag we’d forgotten on the counter after unpacking our dessert offering.

“You don’t want to leave this behind; this thing is like gold. Not only is it a Ziploc, but I’ve never seen one this big before. It’s a treasure.”

The bag was a treasure. It had slipped into our sweaty clutches a few months earlier, when friends from the United States had come to visit during our year in Turkey. Before their departure, my friend Pamm–true to form in both generosity of heart and desire to shed random tangle of Stuff–had gone through her bag and sculpted a clump of unwanted items that she thought we might find useful. Among other things, there was a comb she’d picked up in a hotel somewhere between Istanbul and Cappadocia; multiple bottles of shampoo; a few note pads; a nail clipper; a specialized implement for starting the peeling of an orange; hotel slippers; a pair of Crocs. All of her discards were handed to us in an enormous Ziploc bag.

Like a preschooler who spends Christmas day playing with the cardboard box his new scooter came in, we were most excited about the packaging.

A ZIPLOC BAG? IN TURKEY?

Golden. Treasure.

It speaks to the fine character of our hostess that she didn’t let us leave it behind. A lesser woman would have shoved the thing into her silverware drawer while calling out a hasty, “Don’t trip on the uneven stones on your way out! Keep the kids close because, you know: feral village dogs!”

Gratefully, I took the big bag from her and hugged it to my chest. In a pinch, I could slip it over the head of an aggressive dog and zip it shut.

Fortunately, the return home was uneventful (only one near miss as a sixteen-year-old with Flock of Seagulls hair on a motorcycle came within half a foot of our second grader). Tenderly, we tucked Baggie in that evening, assuring it of our love, its value, and a long future together.

The next day, as I started to make cookies, I pulled Baggie out and set him on the counter. He was always more accepting of inserts if he knew their origins, so I let him witness the baking and ready himself for action during the cookie cool-down period.

Naturally, because this was Turkey, and because dumb situations crop up wherever I set my feet, shortly after I got the first pan of cookies into the little oven (essentially a toaster oven the size of a microwave), the power went out. Since the cookies only needed a few more minutes of baking, I decided to let the remnant heat in the oven finish them off.

As I waited in the dark, walking tentatively since the door frames in Cappadocian stone homes top out at five feet, I decided to call a friend and have a chat. After all, she was on her third Turkish husband, and if we missed a day of catching up, I feared the announcement of a fourth might slip by. Thus, when it was time to remove the pan of cookies from the oven, I was laughing, hunching, and stumbling (just another Thursday, really). Stabbing around in the darkness, holding the phone to one ear, feeling around for a dish towel to wrap around my free hand, I located the door of the oven and pulled out the baking sheet. Sweet Martha Stewart in menopause, but was hot!

I slammed it onto the marble counter top, grateful that the stone surface could handle heat.

What couldn’t handle heat was the enormous Ziploc bag I’d just set the pan onto, there in the darkness.

Immediately, huge holes melted into Baggie, rendering him unusable, fit only for the huge trash heap outside the village–where the feral dogs gathered before pack hunting my husband when he went out for a run. RIP, Baggie. Choke not a doggie.

Standing there blindly, unable to see the melted bag, I ran my fingers over the holes and felt a genuine sense of loss. That bag had come all the way from the United States before joining our family. That bag had once held a specialized implement for starting the peeling of an orange. It had gone to movie night. It had held bread, leftovers, cookies, and little crumbles of our hearts. A true treasure, admired by others, Baggie had come to us as a glamorous piece of “home,” one that made our year abroad feel the eensiest bit less foreign.

That Ziploc bag had been a great deal more than a Ziploc bag.

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Although it could be argued that the world would be better off if plastic bags didn’t exist at all, that’s not the point. I realized, as I sat not grading paraphrases while recalling Adventures in Ziplocs, that the point was gratitude. If I was lucky enough to have something, and if I was happy to have that thing because it was useful, then I should forgive its failings and appreciate that it had tried to help.

My attitude thusly adjusted, I stood up, cracked my back, and walked into the kitchen. There, I stuck my head into the garbage can and yelled, “Thank you for your service, you holey bastards. You make me crazy, but what a privilege it’s been to have you.”

With that, I took a quiet moment to massage my loin.

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Mamalode

Live & Learn

These past few months, I’ve been fortunate enough to have the online magazine Mamalode publish a few of my essays. Every month, Mamalode announces a theme and then accepts submissions; this month, the theme is “Live & Learn.” In response, I recalled our family’s year in Turkey–a time of intense living and learning–and, specifically, a day on the bus as we headed out of the village.

If you’re interested, you can read the piece here:

Compulsory Ignorance

Compulsory Ignorance

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