Last summer, I arrived in an Istanbul emptied of Westerners and awash in red. Crimson Turkish flags colored the streets and the stern face of the ruler, Erdoğan, loomed large in posters on almost every facade at Taksim square. I’d been to Istanbul once on my way to Israel. But this time was different. More than ever before, I felt like a stranger in a strange land.
I traveled to Turkey to join fellow teenagers with a non-profit organization to help Syrian refugee children learn English and Math. Our larger mission was to help them acclimate to their new life as refugees in Turkey. I was excited to help.
My mom was wary that a 16-year-old like me should go at all. The United States government had recently issued a travel advisory against going to certain parts of the country. My mom’s Turkish friend from high school assured her it would be safe and very worthwhile. I begged. Finally, she agreed to let me go on the condition that she escort me.
Landing at Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport, we realized we had forgotten to take the visa photo at the computer kiosk necessary to pass through Turkish customs. This meant that after our initial trek through a tortuous and formidable line of travelers, the customs agent at the booth announced gruffly that we needed to go back to the beginning with visa in hand. He spoke in Turkish punctuated with angry gestures. We began to snake back, pushing our way against the upcoming one-way traffic and trying to avoid collisions with others. Within the human chaos, we noticed women standing garbed in black from head to toe, like shadowy pillars of order. The women were dressed in burqas, often with just their eyes peering through, staring piercingly through their black cloaks. They were typically accompanied by broods of noisy children and husbands dressed far more casually, in summer t-shirts.
When we re-entered the line, frazzled but carrying the correct visas, we noticed another mother and daughter pair, both covered in the full khimar. They seemed just as frazzled as we were. I could not make out a word of their quick-spoken Arabic, but it was clear the girl had been bickering with her mom over something, just as I had been with mine over the forgotten visas. The girl and I locked eyes for a few seconds as if to commiserate. In that brief moment, despite our different garbs and language, we were both just teenagers frustrated with our moms.
On the morning before the program’s start, my mom and I went searching for breakfast near the bustling Taksim square. We stumbled upon an empty cafe, the entry submerged a few feet below the sidewalk and descended eagerly toward the source of spicy aromas. Stepping down from the winding alleyways into the cavernous abode, I was reminded of Raskolnikov’s wanderings in Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment.” The walls once more were plastered with images of the Turkish President along with black and white portraits of dignified-looking historical Turkish figures. Two solicitous waiters jumped up to attend to us. They seemed thrilled with each additional side dish we ordered, while a short order chef, a couple of feet away, began chopping enthusiastically. A soon as we sat down, a medley of colorful spices and warm doughy pide (flatbread) were presented to us. We ordered succulent vegetable kebabs and meze, including öpoğlu, fried eggplant with a yogurt sauce. It was clear that the neglected establishment sorely needed customers. We tipped heavily.
On the way back to the hotel to pick up my belongings, however, we saw another side of this eagerness. A few men selling their wares sized us up as Westerners and gave hostile looks when we refused their beckoning. On the walk back to the hotel in the Beyoglu neighborhood, traffic was building and the cars and the sidewalks seemed to merge into one. Mopeds, cars and pedestrians all battled it out for their share of the pavement. As we meandered through, we learned quickly the ways of the streets and edged the sides of the buildings.
By afternoon, I had left behind these tourist explorations, and plunged into the refugee program with the other kids at Sayir Çamlitepe Street. Our dorm building was just a few blocks from the palatial embassies that lined the grand Bosphorus. Yet the atmosphere of my immediate neighborhood was modern and industrial. At last, I met the other volunteers who I would work alongside for the next two weeks. They came from all over the world and seemed as excited as I was. A few were Turkish, some from China, Thailand and even a teen was from Hungary, Gustav. It’s actually illegal by Hungarian law to help refugees—a law Gustav was very proud to say he was breaking. I became friendly with Fatma, who was the teacher at the nearby school where we were working, Hatemoğlu Ortaokulu. She was also wearing a hijab. She was passionate about her job, though overwhelmed by the rowdy kids and the lack of resources she was given. She did not speak any Turkish, and I found myself on occasion stepping in to help her translate to the Turkish volunteers, who did not speak any Arabic. There was a sort of comical aspect to the juggling of languages and laborious communications.
Every day we would teach the kids, who ranged from ages five to 13, either Math or English in the morning when the kids had the most focus. Then, we would take a break for the children to play outside. We had a few balls that would be tossed around. Often, we would play soccer, or what they called football. Then we would make them sandwiches for lunch. We would have to drag them back into the classroom for their afternoon studies. It was hard to keep their attention span, perhaps because they were contending with so much at home, including stressed parents struggling to eke out a living. After pushing through some Math or English problems, we would finish with either an art or music class. This was their favorite part of the day. Often, we would end by dancing along to Arabic music, joining in separate circles of boys and girls. Sometimes, we would bring string and bags of plastic beads, and the girls would dive-in to make their own bracelets. They wore their homemade jewelry with an adorable sense of self-satisfaction, that they had made something, and it was theirs to keep. The smallest trifles for us became their keepsakes. The boys and girls would show off the drawings they made. Many of them depicted colored houses with all of their family members, some of whom had been left behind in Syria. Girls already wearing head coverings by a certain age 13 or so, kept a greater distance from the boys, especially during dancing. One girl, whose dad had died in a bombing of their Syrian village before her family could escape the country, would immediately rush to me every morning and hug me. At the end of the day, the refugees would trek back to their homes provided by the Turkish government. These were bare-boned accommodations with dirt floors and up to ten people crowded into one or two rooms. Many families had left their oldest members behind in Syria because they likely could not survive the arduous journey. There was also the broader challenge of acquiring visas for each family member.
There was one Polish girl in our teenage entourage who arrived late to the program. She wore her blonde hair in a bob, smoked cigarettes and had a slight scowl on her face. Her name was Marisha. I found myself seated with her at the rear of the bus on our early morning drive to and from the dorm complex at Sayir Çamlitepe. Our dialogue seemed harmless enough at first, as we complained about not sleeping enough at night. She explained she actually had no jet lag since she had just come from Palestine. I remarked that’s a special place, and she agreed. But then she sighed and muttered, “If only the Jews hadn’t stolen it from the Palestinians.” At that point, I told her I myself was Jewish and supported Israel. The tension was quickly building in our corner of the bus and I began to notice other kids listening in. Marisha continued more passionately now, asserting that there should be a “one-state solution—with no Jews.” She went on to explain her reasoning, that Israelis were targeting defenseless Palestinians. I listened to her perspective, trying to contain my growing anger at her demonizing. Then I countered. Most of the group were nodding in agreement when I explained that Jews needed a home to prevent another Holocaust. Marisha looked puzzled; I then found myself mentioning that many Jews in her own country had been brutally killed during the Holocaust. She paused to consider this but then lashed back how Poland had not treated its Jews badly. In fact, the President of her country had passed a controversial law just a few months prior that outlawed any museums or monuments which blamed Poles for the Holocaust, making it a crime to incriminate them. I was upset but stopped speaking. I realized I was not going to convince her of anything on that bus ride.
I shared with my Mom the anti-Semitic incident and how uncomfortable I was. Had I not handled it well? I had never encountered this before on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.
The incident was not quite over, however. Marisha followed me off the bus. When I walked into the hallway of our tidy dorms, I turned around and noticed she was still following me. She gave me what seemed like a menacing look before disappearing into her room.
I was a little frightened by it all. I called my Mom that evening just to hear her reassuring voice. She had been staying in her old friend’s home not far from me, enjoying wonderfully home-cooked Turkish meals, that generally included leibniz (biscuits) and watermelon. For a moment I wanted to be airlifted out and dropped into the Edenic Turkish domicile along the Bosphorus with the palm trees in the yard. I shared with my Mom the anti-Semitic incident and how uncomfortable I was. Had I not handled it well? I had never encountered this before on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.
My Mom’s childhood friend generously offered to help, explaining the incident to the heads of the program, who had limited English-speaking skills; they seemed to take it seriously and were appalled themselves. Marisha and I were separated from each other. I assumed Marisha was reprimanded about her verbal attack against Jews, but she continued to give me occasional glares. I laid in bed that night thinking that even well-meaning people cannot change things, not even on this small, isolated and high-minded program to help Syrian refugees.
The third day after our bus ride, however, a strange turn of events transpired. The Polish lady who was a key sponsor of the program and responsible for Marisha’s attendance on the trip had hired an Italian film crew. She followed us around all day with her squad to document the help we were providing and showcase the NGO. The co-founder of the program, who initiated it with her Turkish mother, had other ideas. She was a bright, energetic college student, now attending Harvard; she and I had instantly hit it off. She did not want camera crews disrupting the flow of our limited days in Turkey with the Syrian refugees. She was unafraid and demanded that the crew limit their interviewing of the volunteers. This clash helped to distract both me and Marisha and helped diffuse any remaining tension between us from a few days earlier. Perhaps the distraction allowed Marisha and I to take a step back and reconsider. That night, all the volunteers went out together for dinner at Kadikoy Caferağa. I ordered a heaping plate of fries and offered some to everyone. I noticed Marisha took a few and flashed me a smile.
That night, I couldn’t sleep and tiptoed out of my room so as to not wake my roommate. I headed to the vending machine to buy a Snickers bar. I guess Marisha couldn’t sleep either, because she was standing in the hall, lighting a cigarette. I could tell she had been crying, and I asked her why. She told me her boyfriend had broken up with her back in Poland a few weeks ago, that she had not gotten over it. In front of us, next to the vending machine was a large glass window. Through it, we could see an enormous full moon strangely cast in red light. It was a Blood Moon. Perhaps it was the mysterious lunar activity or the shared stillness, or both of us being so far away from home, but at that moment I felt bad for Marisha. She was wiping her tears with one hand and rhythmically moving her cigarette away and back towards her mouth with the other, as she inhaled and exhaled. She stopped crying and asked if I had a boyfriend in New York. I told her not really, just someone I had been out with a few times. She told me not to bother with teenage guys. I agreed. She then mentioned how she saw me speaking to the Syrian children in Arabic and wondered how I knew so much. I told her I had been taking Arabic classes after school in New York City, and she remarked how cool that was, and how she always wanted to go to New York City. She asked if I might teach her a few phrases in Arabic. I said, of course I would. There was another short silence. And then, with a sudden jerk, she put out her cigarette in the garbage can and whispered slowly she was sorry for what she had said on the bus. She said she realized she had only met Palestinian groups when she was in Israel and maybe there was another side to things. I nodded. We left it at that and walked each other back down the hall.
The rest of the trip went smoothly, and Marisha and I got along quite well. I taught her a few words of basic Arabic so she could communicate better with the refugees. One afternoon, I was trying to teach math to an adorable trio of 6-year-old girls and Marisha came over to help. We patiently coaxed the addition and subtraction concepts out of the girls, and eventually, they figured it out. The kids seemed delighted with their small triumph and began jumping up and down. Then they hugged us. We both laughed and high fived first the refugees and then each other. I guess teenagers have their own code.
Claire Schweitzer is a junior at Trinity High School in Manhattan.