Refugee Stories

Can You Help Us?: Stories of Refugees in Turkey

This is part one of a series titled “Stories of Refugees in Turkey” dedicated to sharing the stories of refugees with hopes of giving readers a look past numbers and statistics into the dreams and lives of real people. Read part two here.

“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”.

Refugee Stories

Love and Fear Cannot Coexist

It’s during the hustle and bustle of traveling as we leave our hotel in Istanbul and pile into the airport shuttle, coffee in hand and eyes double checking the time on our wrists. It’s in the midst of a frenzied realization that one of our bags is forgotten on the steps outside the hotel, becoming smaller and smaller out of the back window of the shuttle. It happens after an emphatic and relieved “çok sağol! çok sağol!” to our driver as we settle back into our seats, recounting our bags, sighing to each other, and saying “that was close!” while we look over our tickets and itinerary. It’s on a busy road leading our van to the airport. It’s during heavy traffic – bottle necking – something inevitable to a city of this size. It’s on a congested road, with concrete buildings towering a mile high on our right and the blue-green sea sparkling on our left.

A quiet tapping on our window.

Waking us from the haze of our own streams of consciousness, of our thinking and planning for the hours of traveling to come, we lazily turn our attention towards the sound.

For a minute we’re blinded by the afternoon sun reflecting off the churning waters of the Bosphorus. Squinting our eyes we see a man peering into our window, clutching a toddler, two small legs wrapped tightly around his waist. His wife standing next to him, each hand grasping the tiny hands of her children at both her sides. Ten dark eyes stare back at our six light blue.

“Syrians. They want money,” our driver tersely explains through puffs of his cigarette. His words off-handedly tossed towards the back of the van as an answer to a question we did not ask.

…Money. Oh! They want money. Do you have any cash on you? Where’s my wallet? Wait, everything’s packed away in the trunk. Money. They need money. Will money even help? How far will a couple crumpled lira get them? Are you sure we don’t have anything in our pockets? Check again.

And in a moment, much like the nearly forgotten suitcase, the family is left behind in the rear window as the van lurches forward and traffic continues on. Five solemn faces. Five beating hearts. Five humans with five incredible, unique, heart-breaking stories to tell. Five souls that were purposefully formed by and made in the image of God. Five souls whose realities now only know fleeing and fear.

Friends, my heart is really heavy tonight.

I spent a good chunk of my day off from teaching today reading different articles and blogs and watching segments from news channels about everything that’s been happening in the world this past week. The comment sections and the anti-this and anti-that pictures that have been shared on Facebook have left me feeling sadder and sadder each time I scroll down.

Life in America can be so disconnected and easy and comfortable. And so can my little life in Turkey. It’s so easy to sip our coffee as we angrily type our emotion-fueled opinions online about “them” in our warm and safe homes, in a country where our government is for us and protects us. It’s so easy to make incredibly over-simplified, blanket statements about a group of people that we’ve never met or even cared to see the faces of. It’s so easy to dehumanize people when we’re thousands and thousands of miles away in the comforts of our homes.

Lord, have mercy on us.

Lord, breathe your spirit over us.

Lord, build your kingdom right here.

Show us where Jesus is in all of this.

Friends, please, please, please know that life is bigger than America and red cups with no snowflakes and blog posts and social media and you and me.

There are many things I can say here and many Bible verses I can rattle off. But here’s what I want to do: I want you to come here. Pull up a chair next to me. Stop wringing your hands and shaking your fist. Be still and listen – really listen for a minute.

What if Jesus really meant all that stuff? Like, really, really, for real, meant it?

…Loving our enemies.

…Clothing the naked.

…Caring for the sick.

…Welcoming the stranger.

If we take Jesus’ words at face value, then woah, those are some intense commands. Loving enemies? Welcoming strangers? Nope. No way. That’s risky. That’s complicated. That’s messy. That’s hard. That’s impossible.

Let me let you in on a not-so-secret secret: Jesus really did mean all that stuff.

Loving someone is risky. It’s uncomfortable. It’s audacious. But guess what? Perfect love casts out fear.

Did you hear that? Perfect love casts out fear.

Friends, it is my cry that your hearts – my heart – do not become clouded with fear and hate and closed doors and turned backs – no! Fight against it, please.

Perfect love casts out fear.

These are real people, with real stories, real hurts, real souls.

It’s families who have fled to Turkey, only to be denied work visas, living off of quickly disappearing savings, waiting in limbo for their next visa appointment, which isn’t until 2025. It’s a man who has fled here with his family, without work and without money, who’d rather make the dangerous trek back to die in his war-torn homeland than die in a foreign land. It’s a woman with a Master’s in chemistry, with two smart sons, now finding herself working illegally at a hair salon, hours and hours a day on her feet, and getting paid next to nothing. It’s an entire generation of children who will go uneducated because of regulations and laws and language barriers and school fees that are blocking them from learning.

It’s easy to distance ourselves and only see refugees as statistics on the news and angry words on our screen. But, it gets a little  a lot harder when we see ten eyes staring right into our own. It’s get harder when five somber faces are etched into our brains each night we curl up in our warm beds. It gets harder when we realize we’re blessed with a home, a safe place to go, a stable government, a place to belong. It gets harder when we can’t even begin to imagine with it’s like to be a refugee.

These are real people, with real stories, real hurts, real souls.

And when we realize this and let ourselves see this, our hearts make no room for fear. Terrorism breeds on fear, but perfect love is its kryptonite.

I don’t know what the ultimate answer is. I am grounded enough to know that what’s happening in the world right now is really, really complicated. Yes, as a country, we need to be wise. But, I can say that the answer is not wringing hands and shaking fists. It’s not slamming the doors closed one state at a time because fear has overwhelmed us. It’s not generalized assertions about a group of people kept at arm’s length and neatly in the confines of numbers and statistics.

The ocean between us is wide and vast, I know that. But there is room at the table for all of us. Friends, let’s welcome the fleeing, fearful, homeless families to the table. Come. Come. Come. There’s room for you here.

no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark
you only run for the border
when you see the whole city running as well

your neighbors running faster than you
breath bloody in their throats
the boy you went to school with
who kissed you dizzy behind the old tin factory
is holding a gun bigger than his body
you only leave home
when home won’t let you stay.

no one leaves home unless home chases you
fire under feet
hot blood in your belly
it’s not something you ever thought of doing
until the blade burnt threats into
your neck
and even then you carried the anthem under
your breath
only tearing up your passport in an airport toilets
sobbing as each mouthful of paper
made it clear that you wouldn’t be going back.

you have to understand,
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land
no one burns their palms
under trains
beneath carriages
no one spends days and nights in the stomach of a truck
feeding on newspaper unless the miles travelled
means something more than journey.
no one crawls under fences
no one wants to be beaten

no one chooses refugee camps
or strip searches where your
body is left aching
or prison,
because prison is safer
than a city of fire
and one prison guard
in the night
is better than a truckload
of men who look like your father
no one could take it
no one could stomach it
no one skin would be tough enough

go home blacks
dirty immigrants
asylum seekers
sucking our country dry
niggers with their hands out
they smell strange
messed up their country and now they want
to mess ours up
how do the words
the dirty looks
roll off your backs
maybe because the blow is softer
than a limb torn off

or the words are more tender
than fourteen men between
your legs
or the insults are easier
to swallow
than rubble
than bone
than your child body
in pieces.

i want to go home,
but home is the mouth of a shark
home is the barrel of the gun
and no one would leave home
unless home chased you to the shore
unless home told you
to quicken your legs
leave your clothes behind
crawl through the desert
wade through the oceans
be hunger
forget pride
your survival is more important

no one leaves home until home is a sweaty voice in your ear
run away from me now
i dont know what i’ve become
but i know that anywhere
is safer than here

“Home” by Warsan Shire

Father, have mercy on us. Help us to love fearlessly. Show us that there is room. Show us Jesus in all of this. Come, Lord.