After… from Lesvos to Turkey
I don’t know what to say, I’ve had writer’s block for months. Since I haven’t been writing, I have been acting.
I know a lot more about the war in Syria than I did when I wrote my “before” piece, but I would rather write about the solutions I’m taking part in. My experience in Lesvos was life changing, most definitely. I cried every single night after I got back from Lesvos last November. What has ensued is beyond my comprehension. I was heartbroken and unequivocally inspired by my experiences. I have moved on from heartbreak and continue to be inspired in Istanbul.
They are not all Syrian, the “refugees”. If you have read the news, you would know this by now. However, I was very surprised when I was volunteering in Lesvos, to meet people fleeing other countries by the masses. As you may have seen or read about on the news, this has caused quite an upset throughout Europe as countries continue to change their border policies in deciding who can and can’t come in based on the asylum seeker’s nationality. This is no longer interesting, rather it is extremely frustrating and tense. If only there were a better system…
I would like to take a moment to highlight something from my Lesvos experience, which is the individual efforts of humanitarians from around the world who responded to a real and urgent humanitarian crisis. I only volunteered in Lesvos for 5 days and it is so very apparent for me that I cannot express enough that I think that we can do so much better to aid the refugees arriving in Lesvos and all the other “hot spots” in Turkey, Europe, and the Greek islands. Wow, just, wow. By “we can do so much better” I DO NOT mean the volunteers and all the people who have already dropped everything and put efforts forth in helping the situation (volunteers on the ground, those coordinating efforts and funds from afar, etc). Much love to all of you ANGELS, SAINTS, picking up trash, used diapers, water bottles of piss, left over life jackets and dirty thermal blankets from the roads, scrubbing toilets, swimming out to make sure there’s nothing floating underneath a rogue life-vest, getting your feet wet, working 16+ hours per day, making endless amounts of sandwiches, playing taxi, reconnecting families, being the bearer of often horrible or bad news, pulling all-nighters in the cold, and basically setting aside all of your own needs to be of service to everyone else who so direly needs it. Seriously, bless all of you.
There are still many refugees taking the dangerous journey from Turkey to Greece by boat every day. Yes, they are welcome in Turkey; BUT life in Turkey is hard, even for Turkish people. Until very recently, Syrians were not allowed to apply for work permits which means they couldn’t legally work in Turkey. This policy has changed, but there are no jobs. There are over 2 million registered refugees in Turkey alone, (many are still not even registered), and the job market was very competitive before the war and before the new influx of people into Turkey.
There are so many problems with current systems and lack thereof it can be hard to grasp or even approach problem solving. The biggest problems I have personally seen is an overwhelmingly large gap of information: what rights does an asylum seeker have once they leave their country? once they have information, how can they move forward in a life where they are seemingly stuck? It has become a personal mission of mine to actively participate in the solution(s) to these problems.
I am currently involved in a variety of projects in Istanbul, aimed at getting children enrolled back in school, providing social support, integrating displaced persons into life in Turkey, attending to immediate needs, directing volunteers where needed, creating and renovating schools/homes/spaces to build and bring together communities, literacy classes to bridge language gaps, skills trainings, and well, just trying to empower and give strength and protection to people who need help. I still give food out on a daily basis, it’s not always a sandwich, but it’s usually a hearty meal for the day. I am telling you this because if you are reading this, I am asking for your help. My friends and I can’t do it alone. We need funding. We need to keep the conversation going. We need to make sure that just because Turkey is “keeping” the refugees, it doesn’t mean Turkey is taking care of all of them; because they aren’t.
You will see a lot of updates from me regarding the efforts I’m involved in. If you really want to help, you can help, even if you don’t think you can, I am telling you that you can. Volunteers are needed in Turkey. We need items for community centers I volunteer with (school/classroom/office supplies). We need money to build and renovate homes and buildings so the kids have food to eat and clean water to drink. Yes, this is a developed country. Yes, I’m aware there are greater needs in the world. But this is my immediate cause, therefore I am focused on this disaster for now. We could use help with website design, picture editing, contract writing, grant writing, and many other things that can be done from afar. We’re taking donations of food, clothing, and housing needs. We want to build and we want to help the refugees help themselves in the end by providing safe places that they can call home no matter how little or long they decide or are able to stay.
IF nothing else, you can freely share the content that I share openly with you. When I did my fundraiser to help the refugees in Lesvos, $1500 was raised in 4 DAYS. That was because my AMAZING friends and family not only donated, but were moved by the cause and shared my content and stories and their friends and families were moved. I was blown away by the connections I made with people I had never met who donated to that cause, so I am hoping to achieve the same outreach success through my current and ongoing efforts.
I will list fundraising links at the bottom of this post for anyone who wants to donate to our current projects or help spread the word and thank you from the bottom of my heart for doing so:)
The most important thing I have learned in this process, is that everyone is in a position to help someone else. We can do more. Wherever you are, whatever your situation, make a decision each day to be better than you were the day before. Look for similarities rather than differences. Recognize that everyone is human. If you aren’t already, get involved in your community. Think about the information you share through spoken word or social media, is it true? positive? negative? necessary? thought provoking? how would you respond to yourself?. Never stop asking questions. Advocate for and make a point to protect people that are more vulnerable than you. Work toward including those people in your community. Learn about other cultures. Be good to yourself so you can be good to others.
Fateh, Yahia, and Mohammed are all doing good. Fateh and Yahia are finishing their degrees in Cyprus and Mohammed is teaching English in Istanbul. Mohammed has become my personal translator as I communicate with people on the streets of Istanbul that I pass by every day. I call him every time I want to speak to someone on the street who only speaks Arabic to find out if they need more than just a hot meal for the day. He picks up his phone 100% of the time and always encourages me to call him for this purpose any time of day or night. By the way, we have helped some people with some serious medical issues get the help they need, just by getting over the language barrier. Fateh will finish school and return to Istanbul this summer. He is excited to get involved with our volunteer projects.
So, how can you help me help people? These are three groups I am affiliated with, please share the information freely, and donate if you can. I can say for 2 out of the 3 organizations that there are absolutely no overhead costs because they are not registered NGOs, rather they are community projects. I will not get into the bureaucracy of what it takes to register as an NGO in Turkey, but I will say that the two community projects are just kicking off as organized groups (as opposed to individual efforts) and as the needs and projects increase, plan to register if needed. For now, 100% of the funds will go directly to the people who need it the most, and we would like to keep it that way:
YUSRA– This is a community center that my friends and I are opening this month which will cater to about 300 neighborhood children (many of them are not enrolled in school), plus their families who have all been displaced by the war. We saw the need for a space for donation collection and distribution in the neighborhood of Balat, Istanbul (where many Syrian families are living in very bad conditions). After months of going to Balat on the weekends and meeting all of the families and catering to basic needs and a few extra special medical cases, we found a space to operate out of and plan to provide everything from food, to kids programs, to basic needs donations, to literacy classes, skills trainings, refugee resources, and community events. We have paid for the space for 1 year and currently the landlord and his team are fixing the place up for us to move in and open the doors in the next week. We need many things for this project, especially classroom materials (white board, notebooks, art supplies, books, projector & screen, etc). We are also looking for assistance with the monthly bills which will be somewhere around 200TL per month ($70 USD/Month). This is the most immediate project I would prefer anyone who is able to donate, please donate to YUSRA’s cause HERE. By the way, YUSRA means “ease” in Arabic:)
TURKEY VOLUNTEERS– This is a community effort that covers all of Turkey, with many projects based in Istanbul. Our team is currently working with local Syrian schools and medical professionals to assess needs and develop and fund projects. We also coordinate volunteers from all over the world and will work with other groups to funnel volunteers where they are needed most. I am blown away by the response we have received after launching our website last week. You can view our website and find out more information about our group, participating partners, efforts, and view a comprehensive list of all organizations helping refugees in Turkey (at least that we know of) HERE.
SMALL PROJECTS ISTANBUL– This is an officially registered NGO located in the Fatih district of Istanbul. I have been participating in their weekly Sunday night activity group and providing help to students displaced by the war who are studying for English proficiency exams as they prepare to apply for university abroad. They have many great programs including language classes, kids classes, skills classes, and they also partner with other organizations to provide resources to persons displaced by the war. You can read more about their incredible organization HERE.
So, that’s it for now (short and sweet, right?). If you made it this far, THANK YOU for your time. THANK YOU for caring enough to read this all the way through. THANK YOU for sharing. THANK YOU for donating. THANK YOU for your continued support. I promise to write more often from now on, and I promise to keep it short and sweet… maybe.