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 fare. I 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.
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 bring. I 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.
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.