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‘I Would Rather Die Than Stay In Turkey’

This is what one of my Syrian friends told me as he waited for a smuggler to take him to Greece. This is a personal report of life against the odds in Turkey. This article is anonymously written and all names have been changed.

The hotel room’s air conditioning is hardly strong, but it’s a relief from the stifling humidity of the neighbourhood of Basmane, Izmir. Each day my friends and I have stayed here, waiting in what seems like an endless fashion, a new influx of Syrian refugees arrives and the city sweats more from the collective struggle of crowded streets and the desperation to reach Europe. We are waiting, second by second, for an opportunity to reach Europe. Which smuggler, which boat, which point? Time is ticking by as summer draws to a close, and dollars borrowed from family members who are spread across Europe and the Middle East are wasted in this temporary home for thousands of Syrians. My friends failed once already: unidentified, but most likely Greek, commandos attacked their boat, destroying the motor and puncturing the inflatable surface, leaving them to drown in the Mediterranean. This constitutes an illegal pushback: illegal under international and EU law. But the words that reach their lips are, ‘what can we do?’

Our routine in Basmane quickly becomes standard: we wake up, late, and laze around in bed for a few hours, reluctant to enter the overwhelming heat that lies outside. I check my Facebook feed for news on the situation in Europe, nervously anticipating drownings in the sea, changes to border practices or more news of law violations by sovereign states on the sea and land. My friends, Ibrahim and Mohammad, spend hours talking to family and friends over Whatsapp and Viber. Whenever Ibrahim’s mother finds an internet connection back home in Latakkia – only available for a few hours every day – she calls him, and I quickly learn to love the sound of her voice on loudspeaker, vibrating around the room through the connection of two shaky WiFi networks. With each call, the greetings flow as usual, no matter what the situation. How are you? So-so. What’s the news today? Nothing new. Once we’re too hungry to play with the internet in the comfort of an air-conditioned room, we motivate ourselves to go and find something for breakfast, though it’s so late in the day that it’s only technically breakfast because we haven’t eaten yet that day.

The day we arrived in Izmir – an over-night bus journey from Istanbul – we took a taxi to Basmane, the neighbourhood surrounding Izmir’s main train station, which is now more famous for its temporary population than its namesake. This is Turkey’s smuggling hub: the gateway to Europe for thousands of people. After spending hours finding a hotel with three free rooms, settling in and showering, we headed back outside. The first appetising restaurant we found was a pide restaurant (Turkish pizza, if you will) run by Turks, like most other businesses in the city. Living in Istanbul, I never would have expected to walk into a shop or a restaurant owned by a Turk and have them take the order in Arabic, or at the very least offer up a few choice phrases. In Basmane, most shopkeepers, hotel owners and restaurant staff could speak a little basic Arabic: they know their audience. For some, who have come straight from Syria to Izmir in order to reach Europe, and thus speak little to no Turkish, I’m sure this linguistic bridge must act as a small source of help in the journey. However, my friends – respectively having lived in Turkey for eight months and two years – found it amusing. I found it odd at best, and at worst, opportunist. Most small stores in the neighbourhood decorated their storefronts with bright orange lifejackets and jet black life-preserving inflatable rings, with signs in Arabic declaring the cost and usefulness of these products for prospective customers. Some even boasted child-size life jackets of various colours and patterns (a few even character-themed) but of dubious aid in a life-threatening situation.

I first met Ibrahim after spending a while hanging out in a community centre for Syrian refugees in Istanbul. I had come to the city to look for some volunteer work, hopefully something that involved practising my Arabic, after my original plan for the summer hadn’t worked out. It turned out that there wasn’t much use for me at the centre, called Ad.Dar (meaning ‘home’ in Arabic), but I stuck around. Twice a week I would take free lessons in Syrian Arabic at the centre with Mazen, a Palestinian from the Yarmouk refugee camp in the suburbs of Damascus who founded the centre. Mazen is practically impossible to describe: an absolutely individual character, with a rough but warm laugh, who lives in the most vivacious manner possible. I have never heard a sentence escape from his mouth completely in English: yani a story must be told with at least a little Arabic involved, an jed. Apart from those lessons, I would spend time just hanging around, listening to the guys play music or watching films at the centre.

During a Couchsurfing meeting, I met an American girl studying Turkish for the summer, and invited her to visit a squat where a party was being held the next day. It turned out she had also been to the centre once before, and she invited Ibrahim along to the squat. This was during the second week of Ramadan, in which I had managed to fast for most of the time, and Ibrahim was surprised that I was fasting at all. It’s never immediately obvious that I’m Muslim, with no sign lying anywhere in my appearance to sound the alarm. He was also surprised that I could speak some Arabic, his eyebrows jumping when I asked him to repeat what he had said in Arabic, not Turkish. I was shy, as I usually am with new people, but we warmed to each other after a few days, when I asked him if he would like to join me for iftar (the fast-breaking meal) one day.

As we met to go to dinner, Ibrahim was characteristically late – characteristically as a Syrian and as himself, a quality that throughout our friendship has endlessly annoyed me, but nonetheless I have continued to keep waiting for him, no matter how long. Heading down from Istiklal, we took the bus to Fatih, a historic district of the city which is now overwhelmingly Syrian. As we rode the bus, Ibrahim encouraged me to speak to him in Arabic, but shy and practically deaf, I failed in all attempts to hold a conversation. We got off in the centre of Fatih, where I had never been, and headed to the colossal mosque to sit on the steps and wait for the sunset. Somehow, during the course of this conversation, I made the best friend I’ve ever had. He’s a truly encouraging person, with an ecstatically addictive smile that impossibly seems to reach across the entirety of his face. Ibrahim’s eye shine as he listens to you, intently, and I find few things in life more pleasant than listening to him play flamenco on his classical guitar. One day, I know, I’ll be listening to him play guitar in my garden at home, and much later, I suppose, on the beach in his home town.

Ibrahim dove straight away into the deep emotional stuff, asking me why I am so reluctant to do or say, well, anything. As the conversation progressed, we became fast friends. Both of his parents had been struck with cancer during his teenage years, his brother with another serious illness and himself with a system which can’t regulate adrenaline levels properly. After having lived in Istanbul for a couple of weeks, most of my friends were Syrian – which, of course, due to Syrians being the most sociable people I’ve ever come across, meant that everyone else I tended to meet was Syrian as well. The topic of conversation that came up most frequently in first meetings between myself, perhaps The Most European-Looking Person Alive, and any Syrian tended to be Europe and how to get there. And, naturally, the same subject came up in my first real conversation with Ibrahim.

Like almost all Syrians I know in Istanbul, Ibrahim was looking to get out of there, towards Europe – and sooner rather than later. In my early weeks in Istanbul, I was still convinced that it would be best to impress my opinion that there was no point in going to Europe upon any Syrian who asked. But this all changed with Ibrahim: I told him, as usual, don’t bother. In Europe you will always be an outsider. Unwanted. You will never build the life that you hoped for, remaining in a job you never wanted or trained for in the first place. You will always be The Refugee. The Syrian. The Arab. Maybe a terrorist, maybe not. Nothing more than that. Ibrahim changed my mind about the Syrian exodus to Europe. I knew the situation in Turkey was no good, but for some it’s worse than that. Paid half the wage for twice the work, it’s almost impossible for a Syrian in Turkey to find work that is relevant to their skills. Even worse, nothing’s official until you’ve forked over $300 for a year’s residency permit which might just dissuade your employer from screwing you over.

Ibrahim believes he has bad luck. With a whole family struck by illness, it’s not hard to see why. The only time he managed to find steady employment in Istanbul was in a restaurant in the old, touristic part of the city. At first, he was employed to spend 2 hours in the restaurant playing guitar. For this, he received 50tl (about £10). The hours per day began to increase, yet the wages stayed the same. Alongside his issues with blood pressure and adrenaline, sitting still and playing guitar for 7 hours without a break was too much. He quit the position in the restaurant, which turned out to be a little more risky than he’d hoped. The Kurdish man who ran the restaurant, which was always packed full of foreign tourists, was also a member of the Kurdish mafia. Threatening phone calls ensued and even months after, Ibrahim would occasionally receive them, as well as having a few times seen the gentleman in question and his apparent right-hand-man following him down the street. He was told never to come back to that neighbourhood – one where Syrians are heavily employed in unskilled trade.

The first time he attempted to travel to Greece with a smuggler’s boat, the boat was attacked by commandos and the 25 Syrians within it were left to drown in the Mediterranean. For hours, the Turkish Coastguard refused to rush to save them. It didn’t matter that there were children, or women, or humans, aboard: they were Syrian. Luckily, one of the refugees on the dinghy had the information of a German organisation called AlarmPhone. The NGO is available through a phone number which connects the refugees stuck at sea with activists, who will then put pressure on the Coastguard to save them, as well as documenting any illegal activity. Ibrahim being the best English speaker on board spoke to the German woman on the phone, and she then sent the Turkish Coastguard towards the boat – who, naturally, needed to spend a little time taking pictures of everyone there instead of pulling them out of the water.

During this attempt, our friend Mohammad had been unable to follow Ibrahim to Greece. The funds required to pay the smuggler – upwards of $1000 for a ride in a small dinghy – are, by and large, borrowed from family members and wired across borders via Western Union. When it was decided that we would go to Izmir together, it took weeks of waiting for Ibrahim’s money to come through. A rich relative living in Saudi Arabia had promised to send him the required amount to reach Europe (an average of $3000 at the least), but after a couple of weeks of dodging calls and messages had backed out. After that, it seemed all hope was lost. I spent days moping in cafes, wondering if all the hours I’d spend researching Frontex practises and laws about smuggling had gone to waste. Worst of all, I felt like I’d broken a promise. I said I’d get him to Europe – to Germany, ideally – and I felt that there had to be a way to do it, even though Ibrahim only had $300 left to his name. Thankfully, money was collected from various extended family members, spread from Romania to Syria to Saudi Arabia, and we were ready to go – after the troubles with the bank refusing to give the green light were resolved, that is.

The money Mohammad was waiting for, however, never materialised. His uncle who had been living in Germany for 30 years refused to send him money, thinking he’d use it to pay for his life in Turkey, instead of travelling to Greece. Mohammad had lent his mother, still back in Damascus, over $2000 before Ramadan, so that she could stock her store with Eid clothes. The money she was meant to send back was never returned. So it was impossible for him to make a move. He would have had the money to travel when he first arrived to Turkey, but he spent $9000 to buy a counterfeit Italian passport for his father and fly him to Germany. So the night Ibrahim and some others left to meet the smuggler, Mohammad and I waited in the hotel room together. Fear is an odd thing. Every day in Istanbul when we thought we might be able to leave to Izmir, my stomach would sink. The original idea was that I would be waiting in the hotel room by myself: waiting to know whether Ibrahim and the others had made to Greece or not. So I expected to be waiting alone to know whether my friends had drowned in the ocean or not. I wasn’t by myself, but I’ve never felt so lonely – sitting there, waiting, in a dirty budget hotel bed and trying not to think about the potential outcomes of the night. I was used to saying goodbye and then hello again the next day. Would this be our last goodbye?

I decided to go to Germany with Ibrahim that day of our dinner in Fatih. He told me that he couldn’t be convinced not to go to Europe, and I knew I had to help. I spent a good week trying to hatch plots where we avoided the sea journey to Greece, which I feared as too dangerous to try, especially concerning the fact that any hitch in the journey could lead to a fatal rise in adrenaline for my friend – but I couldn’t find a way. The land borders were too difficult to find a way around, so we knew that he would have to pay a smuggler to gross the Aegean. Nonetheless, it was decided that I would meet him in Greece. We would travel from whatever island the dinghy landed on to Athens, where he would buy a fake European ID for about €250. We’d decided on Spanish – with olive skin and a head of curly hair, it seemed realistic enough. With the ID we would travel together to a small airport in Greece – probably Thessaloniki – and attempt to pass security and fly together to Germany, or perhaps France. I guess it might sound a little odd if you haven’t heard about it, but it’s not an uncommon strategy to use: Syrians often attempt to pass themselves off as Europeans, along with fake IDs, to take flights to Western Europe in order to bypass difficult border crossings. But I guess this would be the first time a European would be helping one on the way.

The idea is that, accompanied by a European citizen, Ibrahim would look nowhere as conspicuous as other Syrians attempting to pass through Greek airports. We were simply two friends – a Brit and a Spaniard – who’d met the year before travelling through Europe and had decided to do it again. Backpacking is a thoroughly European activity if there ever was one. This plan was definitely illegal, and would brand me as a smuggler in the context of European law. Regardless, it never worked out as we’d planned.

Ibrahim failed in his second attempt to cross the Aegean, just as in the first. Though a more renowned smuggler had been chosen and a better point on the coast to launch from had been found, he didn’t make it to Greece. Mohammad accompanied him this time, though his money had never materialised. The thing is, everyone had to pay the smuggler $1200 for the ride – apart from the driver. The smuggler never comes along for the journey, choosing one of the riders making the journey to direct the boat instead. If you proposed yourself as a driver beforehand, you might just make the journey for free. Ibrahim would pay for Mohammad, at the same time acting as the driver – he comes from a coastal city, and thus has more experience on the sea than our Damascene friend. They trekked for hours through mountainous forested headland to try and reach the point, their legs cut to pieces by sharp rocks on the way, but before they arrived to their desired destination, my friends were ambushed by a group of men claiming to be the Turkish Gendarma.

They told the group that everyone needed to pay them €20. Ibrahim immediately knew something was up. He’d been caught by the Gendarma before, and this wasn’t usual – even though corruption is rife in Turkey. Instead of communicating with the whole group in Turkish, the ‘Gendarma’ men spoke to the Kurds present in their native tongue. At a time when Turkish security forces are battling Kurdish fighters, this was definitely suspicious. Ibrahim told them he knew that they weren’t Gendarma, and luckily the Kurdish mafia men decided to leave the group, instead of attacking them and robbing them of all of their money. The group should have been able to continue to the point after this – but it appeared that the mafia had tipped off the Turkish Coastguard and police, who were now swarming all side of the headland and searching the forest, forcing the group to run and slash their legs further as they stumbled through the forest. The group waited until sunrise – 4 hours – for the police and Coastguard to leave them alone. By this point, Ibrahim was faint – bleeding heavily and unable to move. While the rest of the group decided to stay, Ibrahim decided it was high time to return to Izmir, and perhaps to Istanbul.

Mohammad and the others waited almost 24 hours on the headland, in baking 40 degree heat without anything to eat or drink, for night to fall so that they could find the boat and depart to Greece. The next day, we heard that they’d made it to Kos. After 2 weeks or so, Mohammad was in Germany, reunited with his father and living in Hamburg with his uncle. Ibrahim returned to Istanbul, where I’d already been forced back to by my own money troubles. We sat together for hours that night, almost silent, emotionally exhausted from the stress of the past month and a half spent plotting and waiting. So this is how it ends, I thought. My promise was broken and I had to leave the country soon to return to London. Ibrahim would be left in Istanbul alone – homeless, without a job, and with most of his friends in Europe.

That’s not how it ended. I received a message from Ibrahim a week or so ago, part of our daily online conversation, saying that he’d decided to start university in Istanbul. His relative living in Saudi Arabia said he would fund his education in Mechanical Engineering. I hadn’t known where I would see him next. If I booked a flight to Istanbul in reading week, would it be to see my best friend? Or a city that I love, empty of half the people I know there? So this is how it begins, I’m thinking. I guess I’ll be going back to Istanbul more often than I thought.

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