|Lucy Dunkerley meets Syrian women in Adana|
Adana is a beautiful place - a golden yellow train station standing in a square surrounded by fluttering flags strung between lampposts and date palms, orange trees heavy with fruit lining every street, poinsettias grown to glorious shrubs showing off their deep red foliage and putting Christmas window-sill versions to shame; streets that fill with the smell of grilled aubergine and kebap as night falls, hookah cafes with apple scented tobacco smoke on the air; and mosques dating back to the 1500s, calls to prayer rolling and echoing between Turkish delight shops, market stalls, and clouds of swooping pigeons. There are shops with stacks of functional, everyday pottery; baskets of herbs; furniture makers; and street cats galore. There’s a great, turquoise river that curves through it all, and a back drop of snow-capped mountains towering in the near distance. It feels like the sort of place that gets on with things without much fuss.
We were a group of academics, business people, theatre practitioners, educators, writers, students and NGO workers, all sharing our understanding and experience of the current refugee crisis. During our time together we began to understand the specific legal context of Turkey, the migration routes of refugees to Turkey and beyond, and to think deeply about how we each respond to the opportunities and challenges this brings.
Finding shared ground with refugees wasn’t hard: swapping plant names with Kurdish park gardeners (poinsettia is ‘Attaturk çiçeği’, orange is ‘portakal’, and crocus is ‘çiğdem’); talking to Bushra, a young Syrian woman striving to learn Turkish to pass the entrance exam to university, who declared a love of Shakespeare; and meeting Fatima, a shy three-year-old who liked counting and loved her dad. These are the ordinary, exceptional people who become refugees, bounced between systems that are confusingly complex and disempowering, navigating an unplanned new path, and hoping for home.
In the NGOs ‘Association for Solidarity with Asylum Seekers and Migrants’ and ‘Support to Life’ we heard stories about the current situation: informal tent settlements dotted throughout the city, the challenges of supporting a transient population making a meagre living through migrant agricultural labour, tension between local and new populations and concern about rising costs of living for all, and the challenges of supporting children traumatised by spending their early years in a war. Amongst workers, there were familiar narratives of resilience and hope finding their way through a context of limited resources and restricted options, and a drive to raise awareness and bring about change with compassion, hard work, and front-line action.
Coming back to London and life at CARAS helps to create a wider context. In Turkey, we were with people at the start of one of the world’s huge forced migration routes. Many Syrians will remain in Turkey under temporary protection, and some might seek citizenship eventually, but for others their migration will continue. Some will be granted third-country resettlement in EU nations, some will ultimately consider it safe enough to return home, and others will make their own way via informal networks through Europe to reach a place that feels safe to them; others still will achieve their ambitions, gaining well paid employment and opening up opportunities again: Abdullah wants to continue his medical studies and be a heart surgeon, Burhan is an engineer, and Roshan is aiming to continue her career as a researcher in biochemistry.
Crossing the vast distance that is Turkey by air, seeing snowing mountains and plains, patchworked fields, a blue expanse of coast dotted with islands, rivers and power-stations, hilltop wind-farms, tiny villages and the great metropolis that is Istanbul brought home just how far people flee in order to feel safe. It’s not just Syrians crossing into neighbouring countries, but Afghans embarking on enormous overland journeys, sub-Saharan Africans crossing the harsh expanses of desert and the treacherous Mediterranean sea, everyone driven by fear and nurturing an aspiration to reach a place that allows them to live freely and safely.
People we meet in London are sometimes at the end of their journey, although some will have applications refused and will continue to be moved. The context in the UK is very different too- we are not experiencing a mass humanitarian crisis on the scale that Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Italy and Greece are. But we are working with the same human needs for connection, advice, access to support, and recognition of trauma and the ongoing impacts of forced migration. We face similar myths and stigma about asylum seekers being given better support than others (have a look at these for some myth-busting: asylum accomdation and asylum support payment report), and an ‘othering’ of refugees that prevents people meeting connecting on a human level.
As this project continues, there will be time to consider alternative responses, how we work together across sectors and throughout the EU, and to deepen our understanding of a whole host of human experiences. Stay with us. Follow the story. Next stop: Bologna.
Read more on the dedicated PROMISED LAND blog.