BODRUM, Turkey, September 3, 2015 — Turkey is in limbo. It is a country of juxtapositions, a state of contrasts and contradictions. East meets West, Europe meets the Middle East, comfortable modernity meets sickeningly non-potable tap water.
But mostly, Turkey is the meeting place of frustratingly massive wealth and unjust poverty. The poverty is so extreme it could rip your heart out and punch you in the throat — verily the most precise feeling I can provide, and how I feel again after another evening of running food to the countless, constant refugees lining the marina.
For Turkey is a nation in limbo — so many wait here, for the end of war, for the coming of a boat, for the arrival of uniform, global compassion.
What is it like to run food to refugees?
After arriving in the beautiful marina, without realizing, you develop tunnel vision as you approach the small patches of those in need and without the voice to articulate this need. Soon, you move more deliberately, more quickly shoving past the endless tourists, lugging your heavy bags of fruit, sandwiches, soaps.
You begin breathing differently, and rapidly lose sight of the rich and welcoming cafes, bars, and luxury stores around you.
Your eyes adjust to the darkness as you mentally categorize everyone you see as either likely refugee or not. The latter soon fail to even register because your focus is entirely on seeing only the ones who need you and your supplies. Fortunately for your eyes and tragically for your mind, new to this type of work, it is easy to spot refugees and their lack of material comforts.
Do you know how long it takes to distribute 200 sandwiches along a stretch of beach here? Less than 30 minutes. I target families and try to watch their eyes. If the kids barely look at your face but find the food in your bags immediately and don’t look away, I give them double. I give soaps to mothers with kids. It’s never enough.
To run food and supplies to refugees is to adopt a different view of the world and to enter a different environment. It is a dark and difficult world, and much easier to slide into than to depart from. You berate yourself for hours after for not making more food, for not spreading it more thinly. Your appetite and heart are both shot to hell, and it is difficult to re-enter your comfortable life.
For in those moments when running food, you see the environment of a refugee. The air is heavier, the world darker and possibilities few. Strangers are unfriendly, probably unaware and unsympathetic of the hell from which you as a refugee and your family have fled, and the hell to which you’re fleeing. The stress is as thick as the humid air and only getting worse. You remain silent, invisible, rarely leaving a small patch of park or playground because it is known and safe. The tourists around you are streaming past, loud and oblivious. Contradictions are rife everywhere, from current lifestyle to manifestations of experience.
Maybe you will eat some good food, donated by another passing stranger or cafe. Maybe you will get by on some basic biscuits or sandwiches. There is too little water, because water must be purchased, and those plastic bottles just are too heavy and too expensive for a family on the run. This is the world of a refugee.
A refugee is one seeking refuge from a well-founded fear of persecution based on at least one of five categories of self: race, religion, nationality, political opinion or social group. A refugee is, fundamentally, seeking haven from the environment of being a refugee. What group of people is more pitied, more loathed, more assisted, more demonized? What group of people is more in need of the best of the world, yet consistently shown the worst?
But, as said, Turkey is a state of contradiction and contrasts. Against this impossible reality of poverty, loss and trauma is another reality, one as unstoppable and surprising.
This morning, while preparing for another day of sandwich-making and wracking my brain to remember the dolmus (shared bus) system to take down to the marina, my friend’s neighbors pulled me into their beautiful apartment to enjoy a coffee and the morning sun.
We chatted for about an hour on this and that, touching more and more frequently on the refugee crisis sweeping through their little city. I bragged about my friend, their neighbor, who had quietly and without comment begun cutting down all the grapes lining his lanai (porch) when he saw I was preparing some food to bring to the refugees. On his tiny moped that first night, we delivered 100 sandwiches, fruits — including many kilos of grapes! — and soap.
They beam — isn’t it great to have an awesome neighbor? — and bring me another coffee. The next thing I know, this power couple has shoved aside their plans for the day and thrown themselves full force into helping me. Incredibly, they know others in the area who have organized themselves into a tiny army of food and necessities runners.
The husband speeds me to a store (the first of two store runs) and weighs down his scooter with my bags of fruits, biscuits, sandwich supplies. The wife briskly cleans up her counter and begins “operation sandwich.” Four or five hours later, we’ve made 200 sandwiches and various individual fruit and veggie packets. Following an on and off conversation between sandwiches, I’m friends with the head of Bodrum’s unofficial mission of compassion for refugees.
Then the neighbors downstairs get involved! Suddenly, I find we have even more food and a giant van. I’m a little overwhelmed — I’m too used to running little missions of aloha on my own around the world. I never expect or assume help from others, and I’m taken aback and hurting for words of thanks when help does come. I had expected another day of internalizing the emotion of this kind of work, but instead found myself surrounded by the best of people and twice as much food to run.
This is the contradiction of not only of Turkey, but also of humanity. Compassion folds into itself and expanding, envelops the world. Find love in your heart, and soon all you will experience is love.
The powerful force of compassion and shared empathy paves over the horrifying feeling of trauma existing around you, propelling you to the next day, the next round of food preparation, the next round of showing all the hope and love you can because in the environment of a refugee, you are the world, and dammit, you better show the best side of it.
Today, some good was done. I’m profoundly grateful to be here, to be able to have time and resources to do some good. In seeking out the forgotten and the demonized, I’ve found the most compassionate and generous. Life is pretty wonderful. If we can keep going, if we won’t give into apathy or fear, and maybe at some point, life will be phenomenal for someone helped tonight.
That one possibility is the most beautiful contradiction in this country.