The Turkish Life

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Filling the gaps on Lesbos

Refugee families arriving at the Moria camp on Lesbos.
Photo by Ashley Anderson
Last month, some 125,000 people fleeing violence, oppression, and abject poverty in their home countries made the treacherous journey by sea from Turkey to the Greek island of Lesbos in hopes of starting new lives in Europe. Though their numbers threaten to overwhelm the infrastructure of the small island, they are just a small percentage of the millions of displaced people currently on the move worldwide, as many as a million of them heading for Europe alone this year.

As border crossings become tighter or less restricted and as weather and other conditions change, the routes taken by these refugees and migrants are constantly in flux, making it difficult to direct aid where it's most needed. This is especially true in places such as Lesbos, where unpaid volunteers are shouldering much of the load due to what appears to be a vastly insufficient response from large aid agencies and governments.

During the four days I spent on Lesbos, I met some of these devoted volunteers and learned about the challenges they face and the needs they are trying to help meet, including hunger and a lack of shelter among refugees, and difficulties coordinating and building capacity for the emergency response. I worked with a small group of independent volunteers dedicating to filling the humanitarian gaps on Lesbos in order to direct funds where they are most needed now.

The money so generously donated by friends, family, and complete strangers has been used to purchase:
  • 100 rain ponchos to be distributed during the next rainstorm to people without warm clothes and shelter

  • 30 tents, which refugees will take with them as they continue their long journey in increasingly wintry conditions

  • Ingredients for a hearty breakfast for around 350 people, many of whom have been eating at most one meal a day

  • Four crates of apples distributed at the port area to children and others who have very little fresh fruit in their diet

  • Five industrial-size cooking pots that are being used to prepare and serve two additional meals per day to chronically underfed refugees on the island
Two of the new cooking pots being used to prepare and
serve additional meals to refugees on Lesbos
Thank you all for your compassionate and generous response! For those who would like to continue to support this effort, additional donations can be sent directly to the "Filling the humanitarian gaps on Lesbos" fundraiser, which is administered by the trusted people I worked with on the island.

If you want to aid refugees elsewhere in Europe, the crowdsourced is a fantastic resource for up-to-date information on where, and what kind of help, is most urgently needed, both in terms of donations and volunteers.

No matter how dedicated and well-funded, however, volunteers can't -- and shouldn't -- do it alone. Dozens of volunteer groups that have been helping refugees across Europe have come together to "call on all the governments of Europe to act immediately and decisively to alleviate the situation." You can support their #europeact open letter by calling, emailing, or visiting your elected officials and asking them, "What are you going to do to prevent suffering and death among refugees?"

Other recommended ways to donate to Lesbos:

Buy items needed by refugees arriving on the island through an registry created by Lesbos residents and longtime volunteers Eric and Phillipa Kempson

Help fund the Migrant Offshore Aid Station, a search and rescue charity that has been saving refugees' lives in the Mediterranean and is launching a new rescue mission in the Aegean

Help Proactiva Open Arms expand their team of volunteer lifeguards, who are helping refugees disembark safely as they arrive on Lesbos and another Greek island, Chios

Support a Greek NGO providing interpreter services on the islands to help register asylum applications and escort unaccompanied minors from detention centers to proper accommodation facilities

Other volunteer groups working on Lesbos:

Lesvos Volunters

Lighthouse Relief

Starfish Foundation - Help for refugees in Molyvos

Full series of posts on refugees and relief efforts on Lesbos: 

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Stranded by a strike, and dangers still ahead: Day 4 on Lesbos

People wait to buy tickets and board the ferry to Athens
Each day, a massive, cruise-ship-sized ferry leaves Lesbos, transporting refugees who've been able to secure the necessary permission to move on to Athens -- and the money to buy a ticket for their passage. Neither task is an easy one.

Non-Syrians in particular face long waits for registration papers, and with high prices and limited public transportation on the island, the poorer refugees can run out of funds for a ticket before they even have a chance to leave.

Now, another obstacle has been thrown in their path: a port strike by the Greek seaman's union in protest of austerity cuts. The strike means a halt to ferry operation, though travel companies continue to sell Athens-bound tickets to refugees.

One wild-eyed man storms up to volunteers serving free food in the port, waving his ticket and screaming in a broken mix of languages as he points to the dates on his and his friend's tickets, dates for which the scheduled departures have now been cancelled. Another man quietly explains that he and his family of nine had been booked to leave today but now have nowhere to sleep tonight.

Life jackets and the remains of rubber rafts litter
the coastline in Lesbos after recent arrivals by sea
Meanwhile, yesterday's calm already seems poised to end as reports come in from other parts of the island of dozens of boats arriving or en route, including one that is said to have left Turkey with 300 people onboard. The mayor of Lesbos told reporters this week that the island has run out of room to bury the 55 bodies still in the local morgue after being recovered from previous shipwrecks.

Those who survive the sea voyage still face many uncertainties and risks, even once they are able to leave Lesbos. Winter is coming to the Balkan countries that tens of thousands of refugees are crossing, often on foot, after reaching Athens, and to the northern European destinations where they hope to eventually settle.

A special report by The Guardian details just some of the perils: "Hypothermia, pneumonia and opportunistic diseases are the main threats now, along with the growing desperation of refugees trying to save the lives of their families. Fights have broken out over blankets, and on occasion between different national groups.
Crowds of people stranded at the Lesbos port
Now sex traffickers are following the columns of refugees, picking off young unaccompanied stragglers." Other journalists have reported how women and children fleeing through Europe have little protection from the sexual assault, coercion, and exploitation that are an ever-present risk on their journey.

For now, though, being stuck on Lesbos for yet another night has its own prosaic concerns. As the sun starts to fall below the mountains, we see men digging through a dumpster for cardboard boxes, which will provide a thin layer of insulation from the cold ground.

Full series of posts on refugees and relief efforts on Lesbos: 

Monday, November 2, 2015

From chaos to eerie calm: Days 2 and 3 on Lesbos

Rice to feed thousands being prepared at a Lesbos
catering company
If a refugee on Lesbos had a meal today, chances are good it came from a nondescript warehouse tucked away on a rural road lined with olive trees outside the town of Mytilene.

Inside this building, the staff of a small Greek catering company stir pots of lentils and rice so heavy they need to be winched out of the cooker, make sandwiches assembly-line-style, and pack thousands of small single-serve containers of salads each day. Aid agencies, governments, and other donors contract with them to prepare the food, but the company's cheerful young owner keeps the meals coming even when he isn't getting paid for the work he's been asked to do -- which has sometimes happened for months at a time.

Waiting in line for breakfast at the Moria camp

As soon as the company's van pulls into the parking lot at the port, or into one of the refugee camps, people begin to line up -- women and children in one line, men in a much longer one -- to take the bowls of simple but hearty food as fast as volunteers can dish them out. Some wait patiently, others try to cut the line. Nearly everyone seems to have a reason to ask for another bowl -- a sleeping child back in their tent, a relative who couldn't make it to the line-up. It seems cruel to say no to obviously hungry people, but impossible to say yes when there are still so many more mouths to feed.

So much suffering is in evidence on the island: A young boy takes his bowl of food with one hand, his other arm hanging limply by his side. A man walks by with his ear bandaged and half of his forehead raw from severe burns. Children carry their baby siblings up to the food table, asking if we have any milk. An elderly woman plods along in men's trainers many sizes too big for her feet; many kids run around in no shoes at all. A man asks for someone to come help his sick children; a volunteer nurse who visits their tent reports back that they all look severely malnourished. Attempts to distribute small amounts of additional food and donated clothing out of the trunk of a car draw crowds up people pushing up against each other to grab whatever they can.

An outdoor community kitchen also serves food to refugees
It's eerie, then, to drive up to the encampments one afternoon and find them nearly empty. A rumor is going around that they've been cleared ahead of a visit by the Greek prime minister, all the Syrians pushed through registration and packed onto boats to Athens, leaving the Afghans, Pakistanis, and other increasingly desperate people behind.

Volunteers say this happened before, ahead of another official delegation's arrival, and that the coast guard was out in force during that previous period, keeping boats from entering Greek waters. After the big-wigs departed, they say, the held-back boats poured onto Lesbos' shores at a rapid pace -- which means another onslaught could be just days away.

Full series of posts on refugees and relief efforts on Lesbos: 

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Paradise turned purgatory: Day 1 on Lesbos

"The weather's a bit bad, is the ferry still running today?" a woman asked upon entering the ticket office, visibly worried. The man behind the counter nearly rolled his eyes. "The fishing boats have gone out and they have only one motor. These ferries have three. There's no weather in which we don't go." The woman did not look reassured. "Well, can we change our tickets, then?"

Her fears were unfounded. On this clear, sunny day in late October, the high winds and choppy water indeed posed no more threat to the ferry running between the Turkish town of Ayvalık and the nearby Greek island of Lesbos (Mitilini) than the possibility that a passenger might spill her tea as the boat crested over a rolling wave. But for the thousands of refugees making the crossing on leaky, overcrowded rafts in search of sanctuary in Europe, the rougher weather can be fatal.

A rescue off the coast of Lesbos.
© 2015 Zalmaï for Human Rights Watch
"People have been sending me photos of their family members lost at sea, and now I'm getting photos of the bodies that have been washing up onshore today in hopes that I can make a match," one long-term volunteer on Lesbos explained after our small group arrived on the island this afternoon.

Volunteers like her are saving drowning people from the waves, and burying those who don't make it. They're serving food and buying tents and providing medical care -- "not only in Greece, but all along the dismal journey that people fleeing war and persecution follow through the Western Balkans to reach asylum in Western Europe," Peter Bouckaert of Human Rights Watch wrote today. "All along the route, there is virtually no humanitarian response from European institutions, and those in need rely on the good will of volunteers for shelter, food, clothes, and medical assistance."

The scene on Lesbos is a surreal one -- looking out at the green hills and the blue sea, driving past stately mansions, and strolling down picturesque side streets filled with cafes, it's easy to see what an idyllic place this must have been, not so long ago, for a holiday. Today, the visitor disembarking from the ferry enters a parking lot packed with people, entire families in tents, makeshift shelters, or completely exposed to the elements, waiting for their chance to continue further into Europe. Bright-orange life jackets and parts of deflated rafts scattered on the island's beaches attest to the continuing arrivals on the dangerous journey by sea. At one camp, we met a pregnant Syrian mother of six whose husband had been killed in the ongoing war. Her young son pulled his shirt half-off to show us the scar where a bullet had passed through his arm.

An encampment on Lesbos. Photo: IRC
With the sun shining, people seem relatively relaxed, spared from the torrential rain and mud that just a week or so ago was causing cases of hypothermia and trench foot as people waited for days in kilometers-long lines to register under new Frontex procedures. But the need is still dire, the resources and infrastructure limited, and the efforts disorganized.

Many refugees staying on Lesbos are eating only one meal a day, a foil takeout container of lentils and rice doled out by some ad-hoc kitchens operating on the island. Most of our day was spent sourcing industrial-size cooking pots, basic ingredients, and a kitchen in which to prepare vats of porridge so at least some people can have an additional meal tomorrow morning. In the evening, as the wind whipped fiercer, we took crates of apples and oranges into the parking lot by the harbor, passing them out to men, women, and children who formed a crush of people in just seconds, holding out their hands, pleading for just one more. I fall asleep to the sound of the wind whistling outside, hoping that it will not capsize any boats tonight.

Full series of posts on refugees and relief efforts on Lesbos: 

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Let's vote! What's the ugliest building in Istanbul?

From the great Ottoman palaces of old to the graceful late-19th-century apartment buildings lining many of Beyoğlu's winding streets, Istanbul has much for the architecture-lover to appreciate. Even some of its umpteen malls are award-winning.

But as you venture out further into the city's endless sprawl, the situation gets grimmer: kilometer after kilometer of cheaply put-together apartment blocks, office towers, industrial facilities, and strip malls. Amid that drab parade, however some buildings still stand out -- for their absolute atrociousness.

Since Turkey has yet to follow Britain's lead and invent an "award" for the ugliest new building of the year, let's get the competition going ourselves...

A friend threw down the gauntlet on Twitter, asking "Is there an uglier building in #Istanbul than #Bakırköy Adalet Sarayı?"

Can't deny it, that's pretty ugly. My money, however, has always been on the 212 Power Outlet in Bağcılar, a landmark on my former daily commute:

And the nominations kept rolling in...

The Perpa Ticaret Merkezi in Şişli:

The rather phallic (and completely out of sync with its surroundings) Ritz-Carlton hotel near Taksim:

The TRT building in Tepebaşı (of which I must admit I've become strangely fond):

The Doubletree hotel in Moda:

The so-kitschy-it's-almost-cute Mustafa Kanat Camii (aka "the Darth Vader mosque") in Ataşehir:

And last, but certainly not least, the under-construction Andromeda Plus residence in Ataşehir, aptly described by a friend as a design that "has to be modelled on [developer Ali] Ağaoğlu's infant son's first Lego creation. No other explanation":

Now it's your turn to weigh in:

What building deserves the title of Istanbul's ugliest?

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Election slogans and Internet snark

Weary of fretting about the upcoming Turkish election, the terrible things that could happen between now and then, and the uncertainty of what might happen afterwards? Me too. Let's try to have a laugh about it instead, at least for a moment.

During the last election, all the way back in June, the ruling party plastered the country with billboards proclaiming "The others talk, AK Party does" (Onlar konuşur, Ak Parti yapar). Which, of course, left the question of "does what?" open to Internet jokesters to fill in:

"We are making the biggest thing in the world"

"We are making oven-baked pasta"

"We are doing something very super"

"We are making Turkish subtitles"

"We are doing whatever our hearts desire"

... and on and on.

The party's new election slogan, "There is no you or I, there is only Turkey" (Sen ben yok, Türkiye var) was of course also quickly appropriated by online critics:

That's a good one, for sure, but plenty of other alternatives could be similarly Photoshopped, don't you think? A few ideas to get the ball rolling...

Sen ben yok ayran var
(There is no you or me, there is only ayran)

Sen ben yok biber gazı var

(There is no you or me, there is only teargas)

Sen ben yok beton var
(There is no you or me, there is only concrete)

Well, how 'bout it?

Sen ben yok _______ var

This week, astute wags pointed out that a new ad campaign touting the party as "the women's party" was slyly colored pink but featured only the visage of the male, mustachioed prime minister. I'm just waiting for the memes to pop up on this one too...

Although, frankly, given the poster boy's most famous recent gaffe, I think I may have come up with a winner already:

Geometri ustaların partisi
(The geometry experts' party)

Got a nice ring to it, değil mi?

Monday, October 12, 2015


Graffiti in Istanbul:
"If only it was a dream"
Turkey is still in mourning after the worst terror attack in its recent history, a suicide bombing targeting a peace march in the capital city of Ankara that killed at least 97 people. Flags are at half-mast, heartrending photos from funerals around the country are filling social media, and the sound of pots and pans being banged in protest echoes through the night air in many Istanbul neighborhoods.

Much has been written, and will continue to be, trying to explain the attack, what led up to it, and what its ramifications may be for the next election, and for the country in the longer term. Instead of rehashing them, or trying to add my voice to the many clamoring for attention right now, I'd rather share some pieces that I think are worthwhile reads, and some photos and other imagery that seem to capture the current mood -- or, at least, my mood.

"We are dying in order to live as humans.
You who have lost your humanity, you are already dead."
Photo via @sweidius
"95 dead, 85 million injured"
After such an event, it's easy to fall into despair, but the resilient spirit of the people who rallied to donate blood after the attack, to bring food and blankets to family members waiting outside Ankara's hospitals for news on their loved ones, and to attend funerals and demonstrations, despite the fear that undoubtedly now hangs over any large public gathering, is inspiring.

These people, and everyone else who fights for a better, more compassionate world, are living the words written on a protest sign by a young woman killed Saturday and laid to rest this morning in her Black Sea hometown of Arhavi: “Beautiful days don't come to us, we march to them.”

Protest sign in Antalya: “Our pain is great. So is our indignation.
We are bereaved. We are in revolt."
Photo via İleri Haber

Selected reading:
How to help:
  • The "10 October Solidarity" civil initiative is organizing volunteers and donations to help survivors and their families
  • A scholarship fund for archaeology students in Turkey has been set up in memory of Dilan Sarıkaya, 22, who was an archaeological student at Çukurova University

Sunday, June 21, 2015

(Almost) alone at the Artemis Temple

I'm not proud of it, but I've got to admit, over the years, I've become a bit of a ruins snob.

I've been lucky enough to be able to visit some stunning, awe-inspiring, downright reverence-inducing ancient sites -- from the colosseum of El Jem, where you can walk through the cellars that once held wild beasts of all types, to the temple complex of Baalbek, with its mysterious megalithic stone blocks -- many of them blissfully free of crowds.

The downside of this good fortune is that it takes more than a towering structure or a well-preserved frieze to impress me (and that it makes me embarrassed to feel so blasé when other visitors are clearly wowed). A ruin usually sticks in my mind and my heart not because of its size, age, or level of preservation, but because of its setting and the experience I was able to have there -- whether hearing the call to prayer rise up from the modern city of Bergama while gazing out over the ancient ruins of Pergamon, poking my head into the 2,000-year-old shops of Ostia Antica, or rambling freely over the remains of Patara.

So while intellectually I can appreciate the value of Ephesus, heralded as the the best-preserved classical city in the eastern Mediterranean, traipsing down its mile-long main avenue along with thousands of other camera-toting, flag-following tourists can feel more like a slog than a privilege, especially in the midday summer heat.

The Temple of Artemis, annoying tout not pictured

I thought I'd found my Selçuk-area bliss instead at the Temple of Artemis; one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, it now scarcely merits a single-line mention in most guidebooks. But what could be more evocative of the tides of history and twists of fate than this once-grand temple reduced to a scant few architectural remnants rising out of a murky green swamp, birds nesting atop its scattered capitals? I sat happily on part of an old column in the shade of a mulberry tree for some time, listening to the birds all around and watching them wade, swim, and dive in the plant-filled waters. The dusty, hot modern town was largely hidden behind layers of green, affording a wonderful view of the İsa Bey Mosque and the Basilica of St. John.

Just one thing disturbed my reverie, like the buzzing of a mosquito all the more difficult to ignore the longer it went on: the insistent voice of the sole other person at the site, a vendor calling out "Lady, postcard! Postcard, lady! Laaaady!" 

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Ode to the night bus

I love the feeling of waking up in a new place, of drowsily realizing that the rolling hills out the window are not the concrete caverns you left behind....

I love the bustle of the mola dinlenme tesisi, with its rows of giant buses being hosed down and crowds of people shopping, eating, and smoking as if it was midday and not two in the morning...

I love arriving not at a sterile, interchangeable airport but at a dusty small-town bus station or boisterous big-city otogar, its halls echoing with the shouts of touts calling out their company's destinations, or the drumming and singing that sends a young man off on his way to become a soldier...

I love watching families being able to accompany their travelers until the last minute, coming onto the bus to make sure they're settled into their seats, waving madly as the engine starts, even running alongside the bus as it starts to pull away...

I love stamping through snow at a midnight stop en route to the beach, where it's still warm enough to swim in the sea, reminding me how big and geographically diverse this country is...

And, I'll admit it, I love the little paper cups of Nescafe, and the snack-packs of processed cookies too.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Race day, Istanbul style

Most runners expect to complete a race to the sound of spectator cheers, announcers calling out finishing times, and some high-energy music from the post-race party.

What participants in the Istanbul Half Marathon on Sunday heard at the finish line instead were religious chants and songs, amplified to ear-splitting volume, from the gender-segregated celebration of the Prophet Mohammed's birthday that some city official had apparently seen fit to schedule for the same time in the same concrete wasteland, er, "meeting area."

Photo: Hope Gross Mandel
The incongruous pairing could be seen as a metaphor for the mix of ideologies and cultures jostling, not always comfortably, up against each other in Turkey. It certainly created humorous juxtapositions, with lycra-clad women -- some stripping down to their sports bras to change out of their sweaty race shirts -- gathered on one side, those swathed head-to-toe in black robes (an unusually conservative mode of covering for Turkey) on the other.

Istanbul's disparate realities also intruded into the day's sporting event in the form of bedraggled Roma and refugee children wandering around the race course, alternately trying to high-five runners and block their path. (In general, little effort is made at Turkish races to keep bystanders and runners separated, as the photo below demonstrates, and as any runner who's had to dodge around a street vendor and his simit cart mid-race can attest.)

Photo: Vodafone İstanbul Yarı Maratonu
Certainly, local flavor can add to the racing experience: Running past tanks and military bands along the route, and having the post-race entertainment include a show of soldiers performing rappelling demonstrations from helicopters hovering overhead made completing my first-ever 10k as part of the Beirut Marathon particularly memorable.

But after an 8k, a 10k, two 15ks, and a half marathon's worth of Istanbul races with chaotic starts so jam-packed as to drive people to walk on top of the portable toilets to bypass the crowds; emptied-out water stops; nonexistent crowd control; self-aggrandizing speeches by public officials who've done nothing to encourage sporting culture; mis-calculated route mileage; spectator-less sidelines, cars zipping onto the course before the race is over; and bag-retrieval melees, someday running a properly organized race is going to seem like the real novelty.