“He is asking you,” my translator quietly tells me as she places her hand on the arm of the sofa where I’m seated.
I look up from the coffee table. I had been examining papers laid out before me from the UN, precious papers that give evidence that this family has been accepted as refugees.
I had assumed the question was rhetorical but her emphasis on the last word told me otherwise.
“They are asking, ‘What can you do for us? Can you help us?’” she repeated, her soft Arab accent woven like silk around each word.
I placed the handful of worn papers back on the table, and my eyes went from her hand to her face and then to the eyes of a man sitting across from me. A 54-year-old man who had been a refugee for 14 years, seeking safety first in Syria, then back to Iraq when the Syrian war broke out, then to Lebanon, then back to Iraq, and now in Turkey, where he waits with his wife and teenage son. Their first appointment with the UN isn’t scheduled until 2019.
“Can you help us?”
The question hung in the air and suddenly everything felt heavy, like lead. I became painfully aware of the sound of the string of plastic prayer beads rolling around the palm of the man’s hand, the black and white static of the television in the corner, the picture of the Virgin Mary hanging above the sofa, and the fact that I was the only non-refugee in the room.
His wife comes through the doorway holding a tray of tiny teacups filled with black Turkish coffee. I quickly sip from the glass of water offered and accept the coffee, thankful that her entrance shifts the mood and the interview continues on without me having to provide an answer.
The story of this man and his wife and the trauma and loss they have experienced and are still experiencing is not an uncommon one. Most stories begin with a painful retelling of ISIS invading hometowns, stories of people fleeing with only the clothes on their backs and their children at their sides, just one hour – 60 minutes – before the invasion occurs. Fleeing at a moment’s notice, leaving behind homes, memories, and lives that they will never know or return to in the same way again. Each story stops here, in Turkey, where thousands of people’s lives hang in the balance, where every family is forced to hit the pause button and wait in agony for an unknown, unclear future. Working stops, school stops, money stops. The decision to freeze in place, unable to move forward and unable to move backward, is made for them.
The bones of each story, weighted with grief and torment, are the same, yet the details that fall between are unique. Entering homes, sharing a cup (or two, or three, or four) of çay, sitting across from one another, laughing and crying with each other, and hearing their stories hardly leaves the listener unchanged. Each story I heard, I cherish with such respect. Each story that entered my ears lays heavily on my heart. Such courage was shown as each story was spoken out loud, as thoughts and feelings that have stayed locked inside for so long come tumbling out, like rain pouring down in torrents.
These stories are with me now as I lie in my warm bed. These stories will stay with me as I hop on a plane to Italy and Greece. These stories will stay with me as I freely move across the ocean, home to America for the summer.
“Can you help us?”
What do you say when a 60-year-old woman shows you to a bedroom in the corner of her apartment where her debilitatingly depressed brother lies in a bed, not showering, not eating, waiting to die?
What do you say when a family of seven all sleep in the living room of their tiny attic apartment and have gone three full years without being in school yet still have dreams of being doctors and engineers when they grow up?
What do you say when a woman shares that one day her husband just disappeared in Iraq and has not been seen or heard from since 2014?
What do you say when a Yazidi family with five beautiful, graceful girls have no food in their cupboards, who have crossed into Turkey on foot, escaping sex traffickers, whose father has crossed into Europe on a boat and they live in fear that their neighbors will find out who they really are?
What do you say when a man shoves a photograph of his dead brother in front of your face, his body filled with bullet holes placed there by ISIS?
What do you say when everyone in the room turns to you and asks, “can you help us?”
What do you say when you are a white girl from Midwest America who has the entire world at your fingertips, can go anywhere, be anything, yet cannot help these families?
Sometimes it is okay to be silent. There are times when words ruin the moment, a contrived response minimizing what was just shared. Sometimes there are moments that call for sitting in uncomfortable, awkward stillness, and to just grab the shaking hand across the table and pray.
That uncomfortableness, that awkwardness, that frustration of wanting to say something, to do something, anything to help – that’s what we all should be feeling when we hear stories, numbers, and statistics of these hurting souls on the news. We need to be uncomfortable. We need to fidget in our chairs. We need to feel the injustice rise up in our chests, like lava threatening to erupt. We need to do something, anything to help.
“Can you help us?”
I’m still figuring out how to answer that question. But I can listen. I can pray. I can carry these stories in my heart and share them with you. You can listen to these stories and you can pray. We can keep these stories moving and alive. We can watch the news and see hearts and souls and real human beings.
“It’s a kind of healing, to speak the hard things”, my translator told me after I assured her she only had to share with me what she wanted to share. We had just met and sat at a çay bahçe, a Turkish tea garden, discussing what tomorrow’s interviews would be like. “It’s difficult. But I think we all want our stories heard”.