By Kardilyn Ellis
When I moved to Istanbul, it was Trip Advisor’s “Number One Tourist Destination” of the year. When I left two years later, Turkey was in a nationwide State of Emergency after an attempted military coup. In between those extremes, the Syrian Refugee Crisis was full-fledged with increasing numbers of Syrians filling the crevices of Istanbul’s already crowded streets.
I watched as massive city bridges were used as coverings for the families that made their homes beneath them. And wondered what happened to the little girl with the sun-kissed hair after her family moved and new ones came. I watched my favorite district of the city, the one Turks always told us was the bad part of town, become sprinkled with Syrian community centers and Arab grocery stores. Over time refugees became my friends. Places like Aleppo and Damascus weren’t just familiar because of the news, they were the homes of people I knew.
For the last seven months of my time in Turkey, I taught English once a week at a makeshift Syrian school. Before that, I had visited refugees in their homes, shared meals, and had countless cups of Syrian coffee. Soon, I was visiting the families of my students with a dear Turkish friend who translated from Arabic to Turkish. The hospitality we encountered from people who had lost so much humbled me. Their eagerness to share their stories taught me listening was sometimes enough. Laughter, dancing, and lots of smiles proved we had a lot of things in common, even if language wasn’t one of them.
As I was welcomed into more and more homes, I noticed patterns. Pictures came out quickly and excitedly, educating me on various Syrian cities and landmarks. Wedding, baby, and party pictures showed off what life used to be, where “home” would always be. Just as quickly, however, came the stories of tragedy. Sometimes these stories came second, as past and present untangled and my friend added a solemn, “but it’s not there anymore.” Other times, stories of sorrow came within the first cup of tea, never ceasing to catch me off guard, surprised they would entrust something so personal to me, someone they had barely known only a few sips of tea earlier.
The stories they shared burdened and broke me, leaving me sobbing on our apartment’s hardwood floors at the end of the day, finding their way into the subconscious of my dreams. I wanted to do something, but no matter what I did the war continued on, more people died and more people were displaced. All I could do was keep listening, so I listened.
The stories I collected are personal to me. I haven’t found a way to share them well. I’m afraid of violating an intimacy given to me over that cardamom-spiced coffee. But, I want you to know. I want you to see their smiles and hear their laughter. I want you to feel their pain and experience their hospitality. I invite you to join me for the next few posts, as I attempt to relay to you stories I hope will shape the way you view refugees and put faces to the numbers you hear on the news.