As I stood on the tarmac of the small airport on the border between Turkey and Syria, looking into the clear blue sky, I wondered what God had in store for me.
My two daughters and I had long thought about ways to help the Syrian refugees and orphans as their stories poured in over social media time and time again. We were bombarded by images, each more horrible than the next. But what could we do? We are Muslim and knew we needed to find a real way to help. We donated of course, but we wanted to physically DO something.
I knew Dian of Givelight, had taken care of Syrian orphans the previous Winter via a campaign to distribute blankets to those in need. We donated, then we started asking questions: Are you going to do this again? Will you go to Turkey? Will you have another campaign to give to those in need? Little by little we started to get involved. My oldest daughter, Maryam, and her friend, Taylor, needed a community service project to complete their Junior year requirements at their high school, so I suggested getting in touch with Dian and they took it from there. They created a backpack drive, and set their goal at $600 and received $1,500. Still, we felt something was missing. We met Dian for lunch one day and discussed various fundraising ideas and she mentioned Turkey. We decided that day, we would, God willing, join her on her next trip to Turkey.
Our next venture in fundraising involved teaming up with my dear friend, Lubna; together we hosted an afternoon tea. I have never done fundraising before, so this was all new to me. But with the help of many friends, we managed to host a pretty amazing event. We brought together family, friends and acquaintances for an afternoon of tea, sumptuous snacks and most important, a purpose. We had a wonderful day and we raised $6,000 for Givelight in just this one event. I also set up a crowd funding campaign on Facebook which was super easy as Givelight is already on the list of recipients that have been approved for funding. We raised a little over $1,000 from this campaign! Once again: minimal output, maximum funding.
Next came the actual planning to go to Turkey. I knew it was something I wanted to do, to show my girls the world. It involved a whirlwind of planning, texting between multiple people before we actually set off. When we finally set foot on the plane to Turkey, we had so many emotions running through us, fear of the unknown (we weren’t traveling with my husband), having to be responsible for my girls by myself in a foreign country, excitement, anticipation and so much more. Before we left Dian had told us our presence was most needed in this little town called Reyhanli, about an hour from the Hatay airport and about an hour from Aleppo (Haleb). I said yes before I knew how close it really was to the border. I said yes before telling my mother! My husband told me God is with us and would be our Protector. We were going to be in the hands of a large organization (IHH-The Foundation of Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief), one that has set up many areas of help for Syrian refugees. Turkey was now home to more than two million Syrian refugees. We were going to be distributing the blankets and stoves purchased with the funds raised by our campaigns as well as my traveling partner and friend Zohra Arsala and her son Ilyaas’ fundraising and Givelight’s sources.
As we stepped off the plane, we saw vast amounts of land. Sparsely populated, unlike the constant movement in Istanbul, it seemed so different, yet similar. The mountaintops had scatterings of snow dusted on top. The air was crisp from the cold and brown from the pollution. We met our guide and scrambled into the van. Most of us were quiet, deep in thought I suppose. The drive was long, bumpy and windy. We bounced along road after road until we came to a little town full of life. Cars and motorcycles crowded the roadway as pedestrians wove their way expertly through the traffic. Seems we arrived at rush hour. It was a dirty little town, beggars on every corner, buildings crumbling, horns honking, people yelling. Our hotel was apparently the best this town had to offer, complete with a red carpet that had seen much better days, laid out before the front doors. The building was creaky, the elevator gave me nightmares of being stuck between floors. My eyes welled with tears. What were we doing here? How could we possibly help? I’ve traveled before, I’ve seen poverty, but it was different here. It seemed like a blanket of despair lay on top of the town. Little children selling tissues, asking you for a lira or two. Our guides dropped us off and told us to stay in the hotel. We were a group of eight: seven women and one 16-year- old boy. Apparently it wasn’t safe for us to venture out at night. We made our way to our rooms, my girls and I giving each other looks as we had just left our lovely room in Istanbul and were greeted with bare bones accommodation here. The carpet was stained, the toilet was dirty, the shower delivered hot water when it wanted to. It was not what we were used to and we were complaining.
Then came the morning. We were picked up from our hotel and driven to the IHH headquarters, a massive facility, that awed me. So much organization in the middle of chaos. They had a bread making facility that made and distributed fresh bread daily. They had a warehouse, filled with so many supplies including our blankets and eventually the stoves. It seemed like so much was here, so many logistics were involved. I never thought about that. Simple logistics. How to get items from point A to the needy at point B? It was so interesting to see the facility, the organizers and their dedication to helping the refugees.
We met our crew leaders and Mihrap, our guide and interpreter, loaded the van and headed out into the little town. It was home to 19,000 Turkish citizens a few years ago, then came the beginning of the war and this little town became stretched beyond capacity to hold 129,000, mostly Syrian refugees. Anything appears to constitute a home. Crumbling buildings hidden behind broken walls, housing family after family in single rooms. Our first stop on this wet, cold morning brought us to a family with a wounded father who could no longer work. Two children who were mentally handicapped, a mother and an older brother, also injured from the war. This was just one family behind the wall surrounding the courtyard. The courtyard held multiple rooms, each room held a family, each family it seemed had someone injured from the war and anywhere from 5 to 10 family members. The courtyard was wet, the little room was dark and damp, the atmosphere was dismal, yet they insisted that all of us (10 by now) enter their home. They wanted to offer us tea or food but I couldn’t see how they could, I couldn’t see any necessities for them let alone ten extra people. They seemed embarrassed by their situation but so grateful for the blankets we distributed. Our guide knew each family member by name and each child in every household. The children called him “Uncle” and greeted him with hugs. What started as gloomy ended as heart warming. We went house by house, distributing blankets by need to every one on the IHH official registered list. With each visit, we saw wounded men, women and children. But we also saw the resilience of a determined people. The first homes were mostly new members of the community, scared, owning literally next to nothing, dependent on the goodwill of IHH and others. Towards the end of the day we came upon a part of town that seemed more settled, more like a true village. We stopped at one house and tens of people quickly made their way over, eager to meet our group, which probably seemed a bit strange to them in all honesty. Mostly women, one young man, various ethnicities and all Muslim. One of the older ladies in the square brought her blind granddaughter to amaze us with her ever so beautiful Quran (Holy book for Muslims) recitation. Another little boy kept ducking out of my vision, only to reappear quickly, making it a game. His smile filled my heart. My daughters showed the kids their cell phones and took pictures with these beautiful children. Little by little chatter and laughter filled the air. The kids in the group gathered the children in the street and all started spontaneously singing, “Ring around the Rosie.” These refugees had had more time to settle, adjust to their circumstance and begin anew. They allowed themselves happiness again. It was a perfect end to a beautiful day. When we went back to our hotel that night, we saw the Taj Mahal instead of the creaky hotel from the night before. We didn’t complain again. We were grateful for water in our rooms, for having our own room, for a comfortable bed, for everything. We knelt in prayer that night truly grateful to God.
My final thoughts revolved around knowing that days or weeks before these amazing people had to flee for their lives. And to leave everything behind. It amazes me. It scares me. I cannot even imagine being in their shoes. No wonder they seem empty. Eyes filled with no emotion except sadness. But no tears. Just a deep sadness. I imagine they are also wondering how they got to this town and what happened to their lives. Just as I stood on the tarmac in amazement of how I got to this town. Yet our circumstances couldn’t have been more different. I came to Turkey to help others, but I feel after coming to Turkey I came away with so much more. I came away with experiences to last a lifetime, with a desire to continue to live with a purpose in everything I do. I came home knowing how blessed I am. I know now if you desire to make a difference, you just need to take that first step forward and say bismillah (In the name of God).
~ Laura Anderson-Eldeeb
To view more pictures of our trip, click here.