Refugee Stories

The Girl at the Bus Stop: Stories of Refugees in Turkey

This is part three 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 one and part two.

The bus stop overhang offers a feeble attempt at shade from the Middle East sun, but I arrived too late to snag a spot underneath it
. The stop is full of locals on their way to work and a few adventurous tourists keen on taking local transportation while visiting.

I drag the back of my hand across my forehead and consider what’s worse: dry heat or humid heat. The taxi stand poised next to the bus stop serves as a temptation to leave immediately in the comforts of an air-conditioned ride by paying more than ten times the bus fareI gaze at the seducing yellow cabs as I wave my cell phone back and forth in front of my face in a failed experiment to create a breeze. 

As we all peer down the road, waiting for the bus to turn the corner, a beat up car pulls up and out tumbles more people than a vehicle of that size should be able to fit. We all look up from our phones and our wristwatches and our conversations. Out steps several women dressed in layers of thin, draping fabrics and floral scarves wrapped around their faces, the cloth pooling at their necks. They carry a flurry of children, some anchored to their hips, some by the hand, and some running, happy to be out of the cramped car.

I notice the reddish brown hair, sallow skin, and tattered clothes and shoes from the children running in circles, the throaty, melodic sounds coming from the mouths of their mothers, and stares from the locals and am able to assume they are Syrian refugees.

Currently, there are 973,200 Syrian school-age children in Turkey with the number on a steady increase. As of the 2017-2018 school year, about 63% of Syrian children were enrolled in Turkish public schools or temporary education centers. In Turkey, all children have a right to free education including those from families who have sought asylum. And yet, many barriers still remain. Because Syrian families have hopes to return to Syria, parents have expressed concerns over their children attending schools taught in Turkish, for fear of losing their native language. Along with language barriers, Syrian refugees cited economic hardship, social integration with Turkish children, and lack of information on how to register for school as issues preventing them from enrolling their children in school.

Syrian refugee children play in a kindergarten at Midyat refugee camp in Mardin, Turkey. (FILE Photo) | Daily Sabah

Watching the women attempt to gather their energetic children close, one small girl makes her way towards me, giggling and staring. I make a mental note to look up how to say, “What’s your name?” in Arabic. The few lone phrases I do know escape me and wouldn’t have helped anyway. So I resort to smiling back at the child and giving a small wave.

Just months earlier, the body of a three-year-old Syrian boy washed up on the shores of a Turkish beach. Alan Kurdi, dressed in a red shirt and blue shorts and with both of his shoes still on, had passed away in the waters of the Mediterranean Sea. His family was determined to reach safety and security, but only his father survived. The photo of Alan had sparked outrage all across the globe, particularly in the West. And yet, now, three years later, little has been done to help the plight of Syrians and other refugees here in Turkey. 

With nothing to say to her, I contemplate jogging over to the market across the street to buy a treat for her and the other children but am stopped by the logistics of missing the bus and the awkwardness that giving food might bringI don’t have time to make up my mind because the bus approaches and everyone begins to shift, gathering their things and making way to the curb.

For a second I am amused at the mix of people – the tourists and me, local Turks, and Syrian refugees – all partaking in the same mundane activity. We all step on the bus and I still keep my eyes on the women and their children as everyone settles into the empty seats.


Turkish Coast guard member carries a baby into rescue boat after total of 174 Syrian refugees captured by Turkish coast guard while they were illegally trying to reach Greece's, in shores of Antalya, southern province of Turkey on March 12, 2016.
Turkish Coastguard member carries a baby into a rescue boat on the shores of southern Turkey after a total of 174 Syrian refugees tried to reach Greece.

There’s a commotion at the front of the bus between the driver and one of the Syrian women. The questions she is asking fluster the driver as he is likely impatient at the interruption to his clockwork routine. There’s some more back and forth jabber before the driver throws up his hands and exclaims, “Allah Allah!” (“Good Lord!”) in exasperation. I watch in sympathy, wishing I had the language to help get across what they were trying to say to each other. As everyone stares at the action unfolding, I hear the word hastane exchanged between the two and there is a final understanding that the group wants to go to the hospital.

Turkey hosts 3.5 million refugees (over 90% are Syrian). Registered refugees have access to free medical care and prescription medications. However, there are few Arabic (and Farsi and Dari) speaking medical staff and translators making it difficult to go to hospitals for medical concerns. Furthermore, according to Human Rights Watch, Turkey has begun turning away Syrians who cross into Turkey and denying asylum registration to those who are already here making it difficult to access free medical care.

Through the small opening of the two seats in front of me, I see a pair of round eyes staring back at me. It’s the same girl from the bus stop. I wave and smile again, my only offering. She peers her head into the aisle and around the seat. I motion for her to sit next to me and she gets up and takes the empty seat. We continue our same nonverbal exchange: smile and wave until we come to the stop in front of the hospital. A woman motions to the girl to get up, they gather the rest of the children, pay the driver, and step off.

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.