The Normal Life

Years ago, I worked with Vietnamese boat people in Hong Kong. For the decade before, anyone who had survived the treacherous journey from Vietnam to Hong Kong was automatically declared a refugee. Magazine advertisements soliciting money for UN projects declared “If They Arrive Alive, They’re Refugees,” and “Einstein was a Refugee.”

But in the mid-1980s, the policy changed. Thousands of Vietnamese were repatriated because they were deemed “economic migrants,” not bona fide refugees. Appealing on their behalf meant demonstrating that they had a well-founded fear of persecution if they were sent back to Vietnam. These appeals were very hard to document, and most failed.

Now, in 2016, a new refugee crisis dominates the news. The Syrian civil war has created such a mass migration that relief services in Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, Greece, Germany, and other countries have been swamped.


Finding Refuge in a Monastery, Southeast Turkey


Refugee Camp Near the Syrian Border


On the Street, Istanbul


Seeking Relief at Midnight. Someone Gave Her an Ice Cream

Because of my prior experience with refugee work, I decided I should try to help. But the nature of the work has changed, and opposition to resettling refugees has become a serious political and moral issue in Europe and in the United States. Accepting refugees into a new country may be expensive, and the argument about economic migration continues to limit the help countries are willing to provide. But now, a new rationale, a powerful deterrent to resettlement has arisen: the threat of terrorism, the fear that terrorists will infiltrate the hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers and will thereby gain easy access to Europe and America.

But the war continues, cluster bombs still fall, sieges starve populations of whole cities, families take the decision to flee across the border into Turkey, and Syrian toddlers drown in the surf.

The stories of human smuggling, the perilous crossings from the Turkish coast to a Greek island, the chaos visited upon the islands and the Greek mainland impelled me to volunteer in Greece. There was something heroic about volunteers wading into the rough surf to haul ashore a leaking rubber raft and to rescue infants and their disconsolate mothers. I confess I imagined myself as that kind of hero. In my more sensible moments, I reminded myself I’m in my 70s, so I tempered my idea of heroism and decided I might distribute blankets, or clear the beach of discarded life jackets, serve hot soup, or hold a baby while his mother slept. It was these sensible thoughts that later led to my understanding of the existential needs of refugees: normalcy, a sense of the daily, safety, calm. It’s not only heroism the refugees need. It’s presence, willingness, comfort, everyday help.

This spring, the EU and Turkey reached an accord to reduce the number of people who braved the sea (and paid the human smugglers). All those already on Greek soil would be returned to Turkey, and Turkey would nominate one asylum seeker for resettlement in Europe for each boat person returned. This policy hoped to discourage refugees from the dangerous passage and would put the smugglers out of business. I thought, therefore, that the islands might be emptied of asylum seekers before my trip in mid-summer, so I changed my plan and decided to focus on Turkey. Estimates claim that between two and four million refugees now live in Turkey, 300,000 in Istanbul alone. Those living in Istanbul are not in camps. They’re more invisible. Several families may band together to share a small apartment. Some adults can find work, but it’s often the children who support the families since they can find undocumented jobs. People who were once professionals in modern Syria are reduced to begging on the street. Families wander through tourist areas carrying forlorn signs: “We Are Syrians. Please Help.”


So, I went to Istanbul to volunteer in the Balat district where many Syrian families have settled. Balat is a fifteen-minute bus ride along the Golden Horn from the central bus, tram, and ferry connections that can get you to historic Sultanahmet, or across the Horn to the so-called European neighborhoods of Pera and Taksim, or across the Bosporus to Asia. The waterway is lined with green parks, soccer fields, and outdoor cafes. Inland, the neighborhood rises steeply—Istanbul is one heart-stopping hill after another. The hills are crowded with private houses, apartment blocks, churches, mosques, synagogues, fruit stands, banks, local eateries, the magnificent Byzantine Chora church, gentrified buildings next door to collapsed 19th century houses yet to be cleared away.


Looking Across the Golden Horn from Balat at the Galata Tower


Awaiting Demolition and Gentrification


Waterside Park in Balat


Balat Bed and Breakfast


Interior of a Neighborhood Mosque


Entrance to the Synagogue


A Commercial Street in Balat

And here Shahla Raza has established the Yusra Community Center. The center occupies a former warehouse on a corner just a block from a pleasant upscale coffee shop. Down the hill towards the water, you’ll find the fruit stand where I bought cherries for the volunteers every day. The fruiterer and I became hand-shaking friends who were sorry when I left Turkey three weeks later.

The center’s two rooms are, each, the size of a small hotel room. The classroom and the all-purpose room are separated by a foyer closet where donations are stacked up to the ceiling. The classroom sports two glass walls, an important feature when you consider that the sun spends much of its day assaulting those windows, that there was no air conditioning, that the temperature rose well into the 90s, and that every day up to 70 children crowded in to play, draw, learn how to use scissors, and try to share toys without too many tears. Often their mothers came, too, volunteering with the volunteers. Most of the volunteers spoke Turkish, and a few knew at least some Arabic. One day at lunch in the neighborhood down-market, spicy restaurant, nine volunteers from nine countries ate kebabs, lentils, and rice together.

The center opened a few weeks before I arrived. Volunteers whitewashed the walls, built crude shelves to store the donations—clothes, shoes, toys, Pampers—that arrived with almost magical regularity. Ms. Raza registered more than 150 families, mostly mothers with children who ranged from a one to ten years of age. How many were single mothers who had lost their husbands to the civil war, I do not know.


Donations to be Sorted and Stored


Children at Work


Inimitable Desire to Teach Herself


Preparing for Class


What Hope Looks Like



My Little Project: Build a Reading Corner


And the Chair is Just Right


Learning to Read in a New Language


Some Characters:


Being an English-only speaker in an Arabic/Turkish environment is a bit like being deaf. Your other senses need to compensate; you watch more carefully, you interpret actions, however inaccurately, more rapidly; you draw conclusions you need to evaluate later, deep into the night, in your rented apartment across town. You stockpile anecdotes you hope will convey meaning.

For instance: A Syrian girl, perhaps six, wore the most complaisantly happy face, sitting contentedly on the floor surrounded by three dozen other busy, often grasping, children. She embraced a doll. She cooed to it, reassuring it on some issue only she knew. When another child wanted a turn with the doll, the dismay, the outright tragic wail that arose, silenced the room.

My own granddaughter can have meltdowns, too. Once she disapproved of the color of her mac and cheese and, it seemed, the world was shattered. In that instance, of course, I did not entertain fantasies of a family bombed out of its home, or witnessing a younger sister crushed by rubble. Here in Istanbul, I could neither confirm nor dispute my interpretation. I only knew that every one of the children in the room, and all their mothers, had fled unfathomable violence and that that violence was likely to haunt them, perhaps forever. Every moment thin-skinned emotions combated the desire to play and be happy.

A steadfast girl: She sits on a pillow in bright sunlight. On her lap she holds a game board which she uses as a portable desk. She has a blue marker and a piece of paper. She’s studied the letters on the game board, and she is now teaching herself the alphabet by copying the letters as well as she can. If you sat by her and observed her concentration, her desire to learn her letters, her innate hunger for an education, would you tell her the board is upside down and that the letters she is making so painstakingly are likewise upside down and meaningless?

The Ring Leader: S. is ten or eleven. She’s been in Istanbul for a year and she’s already completely fluent in Turkish. She has anointed herself second in command at Yusra, happily taking direction from Shahla and just as happily giving directions to everyone else, volunteers, children, mothers. While I was assembling Ikea bookcases in the 95-degree heat, she brought me something cold to drink every quarter hour. She compelled children to share. She helped sort and store the enormous piles of donated clothes and toys. One day, when the storeroom was overflowing and the office space was swollen with fifty-gallon trash bags of donations, a woman volunteered her basement to store a dozen or so large bags. Shahla went down the hill to fetch a taxi. The driver, when he saw what we wanted him to transport, declined. All the adults pleaded with him; I offered him what turned out to be ten times the fare. He still declined, got in his cab, and put it in gear. S. then stepped to the window and knocked. “Please, sir. These are all for the orphans. Won’t you help the orphans?” After a moment of serious eye contact, the driver opened the trunk and helped pack the baggage. He was not embarrassed or shamed; he was not contrite. He had simply been won over by a superior ethic. In my mind, he became, I hoped, the model for any American community to accept S. and a fair share of the millions driven from Syria.

A Focused Heart: Shahla Raza is Indian, trained as a documentary filmmaker in America. She’s also an activist who, some years ago, opened a shelter for homeless boys in Mumbai. Now that that program is running smoothly, she’s moved on to Turkey. She worked for two years in the camps in southeastern Turkey, the first refuge for hundreds of thousands who cross the nearby border from Syria. She’s been in Istanbul for several months now. She is founder, chief organizer, program planner, volunteer master, second mother, strict nanny, daily lunch partner, seeker after good ideas. She’s generous with praise and humor, but stern enough to cope with landlords, workers, screaming children, mothers who seek private advantage by claiming the miseries of their disenfranchisement. She understood she had to establish a place first. She did. Then the center had to register families, campaign for volunteers, approve the plans and opportunities offered by the volunteers. After she accepted my little project to build and stock a library corner, she gave me free rein to conduct the project as I saw fit. “Really?” I said. “You don’t want to supervise?” She smiled, just faintly. “You think I didn’t vet you?” I got to work.

A Head on his Shoulders: I heard O’s story in small doses, and am not quite sure I have it right. In any case, the differences between the temperament I saw and the crises he endured describe an extraordinary character. O. and I worked on the Ikea bookcases together. Easy enough—just follow the illustrated instructions. No language necessary. But then, attaching the bookcase to a concrete wall so that it can’t tip over on some child foolhardy enough to climb it, required McGiver skills and patience. O. spent maybe an hour and a half sorting through screws, scraps of wood, drill bits to accommodate the fact that we had no concrete screws, no washers, and only one drill bit that could claw through concrete. No sign of frustration on his face. Rather, an “All right then, what’s next?” kind of handsome puzzlement animated a vein in his temple. I fixated on that vein as I tried to imagine the day the Syrian army (or the Russians, or the Americans, or the Kurds) blew up the ISIL warehouse where he was imprisoned while he waited to be beheaded. In the resulting confusion, he escaped, made his way to the border, slipped into Turkey, and landed, finally, in Istanbul, Balat, the Yusra Community Center where, during Eid-al-Fitr, the feast that ends the fasting days of Ramadan, he dressed as Batman and cavorted with his compatriot children with an unbroken joy.


The Tasteful Women: (I posted this section earlier, but it needs to be here, too.)

The tasks were 1) separating out winter clothes irrespective of size or gender; just get them out of the plastic bags and into the cardboard boxes we could slide into the shelves in the overstuffed, over-narrow storeroom; 2) sort the men’s clothing with a haberdasher’s scrutiny. These duds were to be separated into Pantaloons, T-Shirts, Buttoned Shirts. Then they were to be further separated into small, medium, and large. And, finally, all the pantaloons and shirts were to be held up before the searching eyes of four Syrian women, each one covered from head to foot in black, their robes well-fitted and their head cloths carefully draped. Watching for their decisions was like witnessing Robespierre’s French Revolution or Torquemada’s Spanish Inquisition. A rolled eye was enough to condemn a tasteless shirt to the steadily rising refuse pile. An exasperated cluck tells you that you haven’t yet mastered the judicious taste that dominates the room. The mood brightens when a quick nod directs a T-shirt to the private stash of one wife or another. A squeal of laughter and an elbow poke of the neighboring judge greets a pair of pajamas so large two women could easily occupy them. And then, I hold up a button-down dress shirt that obviously provokes an unexpected reverie. The woman gasps, reliving, I assume, better days in a better house than this.


Volunteer Helping to Celebrate the End of Ramadan


Shala Raza, Mastermind of the Yusra Community Center


Neighborhood Fruit Vendor and Generous Gentleman


Survivor as Batman, My Nominee for Hero


An International Lunch Club, Every Diner from a Different Country

Culture differs from place to place, but some fundamentals seem common: human beings need food, clothing, shelter, education, some glimmer of cultural life. When we consider our own lives, most of these essentials are so foundational we barely think of them. When the fridge looks a little bare, we go to Publix. Split sole in the running shoe? Off to Footlocker. Educating the young is so ancient an idea, so essential, that we still unconsciously link the school year to an equally ancient harvest calendar created ten thousand years ago. Clothing is now as much a function of cultural life as covering what we inherited from Adam and Eve.

For the refugees in Istanbul or along the Syrian border or in Jordan or on a Greek island, people have suffered the essentials being wrenched away, burned, denied, withheld. We, on the other hand, are often blind to the fundamentals because they are so rarely in doubt. Thus, for example, we may need to be told not to send high heeled shoes. We can’t tell the practical from the superfluous. We don’t know what it means not to have a children’s book or to reach the age of six or seven and not yet know what a schoolroom looks like or how to write the letters of the alphabet.

In this regard, the evolution of the Yusra Community Center parallels the development of human society. First, find or create a place, a center around which a society can form. Name your compatriots; register them and their common interests. Provide the individuals and family groups what they cannot supply for themselves. Find common purpose. Once these first steps succeed, expand your efforts. In the case of the Yusra Center, the library and its reading corner are in place. Next, reading hours will teach children to read and give them the time and welcoming space to read for themselves. The space has a new air conditioner.

Projects now beginning will further expand the cultural life of the community: health monitoring for the mothers; dental care for the children; introducing children into the Turkish school system.

Next? I don’t know. Maybe music lessons. Or a soccer team. An organized school accredited by the Istanbul government? In short, anything that obliges us to champion normalcy for our fellows for whom the normal life has been ripped away.

Supporting a normal life hardly seems heroic when you consider Doctors Without Borders surgeons working in tents on the battlefield or fishermen scouring the Mediterranean to rescue terrified families from overcrowded rubber rafts. Still, it is also so that daily, calm, patient, observant, thoughtful, caring insistence on a normal life animates refugee work and fills the heart.


2 thoughts on “The Normal Life

  1. Peter, thanks for this inspiring blog. I commend you for your acts of kindness. Your work and that of the other volunteers at the Yusra Center are glimmers of hope for a world filled with so much cruel insanity. Thanks for making a difference.

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