On the 2nd September the body of a 3 year old Syrian boy washed up on the beach of Bodrum, Turkey. He, along with his brother and mother were 3 of 12 people to drown as their boats capsized trying to cross the Aegean Sea from Turkey to the Greek island of Kos. I’m not going to post the picture here, it’s fairly distressing and to be honest you’ve probably already seen it splashed across newspapers and webpages. It’s the image that brought the plight of Syrian refugees into the immediate consciousness of the rest of the world.
This unfolded whilst I was attending the RGS/IBG Annual Conference at the University of Exeter, a week before my trip to Turkey. Relatives and friends asked, ‘You’re not going to Bodrum are you?’ ‘Ummm I don’t think so’, but as I googled my tour destinations I realised that whilst I wasn’t going to Bodrum, I was going very close, touring up the same coastline.
Debates raged in the media and in conversation around ‘the image of the little boy’. Should this be shown? YES, I though, we need to be shocked into action. We need to see this! But do shocking images really make us change? I thought so, but now I doubt myself.
My week tour of Turkey started in Fethiye, stopping in Kuşadası, Çanakkale and ending in Istanbul. I was on tour with 31 twenty-to-thirty-somethings from Australia and New Zealand (plus a couple from South Africa). We were ferried around in an air-conditioned coach seeing amazing coastlines, ancient ruins and partaking in the important pilgrimage to Gallipoli.
The European refugee crisis was in the back of my mind and I occasionally tuned into BBC World News (because it was the only English speaking TV channel I could find) and watched some coverage. But as I swam in the turquoise Mediterranean and explored some of the world’s oldest cities the crisis seemed far away.
The moment it became real was when we were on the coach heading to Istanbul. Our tour guide, a Turkish local said we might be stopped up ahead and searched by the police. ‘They’re stopping cars looking for refugees.’ ‘What do they do with them when they find them?’ someone asked. Our tour guide replied, ‘They take them off the buses and the money they paid to the people smuggler is wasted and then they start again. They’re trying to get to Greece.’
The day before we’d driven up the Aegean coast, looking out we could see the Greek island of Lesbos less than 5kms away at the narrowest point. A week after this I heard on the radio that a whole family had drowned crossing this same narrow sea. So many families are flooding through Turkey to Greece that Lesbos is at breaking point.
In the end we weren’t stopped by the police, but as we travelled on I began to notice people sitting, sometimes 2 or 3 sometimes 10 or 15, on the side of the highway. They’d been pulled off vehicles by the police or were trying to get new rides.
In Istanbul, we drove past a park filled with people sleeping rough. Our tour guide said to us, ‘This is not the city I know’. They were all refugees. It’s estimated that over a million Syrian refugees have fled to Turkey and more are on their way.
That night after eating our fill at a lavish farewell dinner we sat outside a café drinking apple tea. A man and a young girl were walking up and down the alley way. He had his hand on her shoulder and she was holding a sign. ‘I’m a Syrian refugee, please help us’ it said.
I felt confronted, accosted and slightly angry. Was this man was ‘using’ his daughter/niece/granddaughter to beg for money?! Maybe it’s a scam? I though. What if they aren’t real refugees? What if it’s a distraction, and they pick-pocket us? As we walked back to our hotel the daytime hustle and bustle of the Old City had gone and only stray dogs and stay people remained. Mothers with babies and young children sat on the sidewalk. But we didn’t stop, we tried not to stare, we tried not to make eye contact. I could have given them money, but my fears of ‘personal safety’ stopped me. What if I give this person money and the man down the road wants some too? In hindsight I wondered why I felt like these were authentic refugees over the girl and the man asking for money outside the café? And why did I think that young girl was being ‘used’. Surely she wants to help her family anyway she can.
In Turkey I was put out my comfort zone in many ways. But the ‘us and them’ still remained for me. I feel a great deal of remorse over thinking this way and not helping. I was confronted by real life loss and struggle of people with nowhere to go and I didn’t feel like I could do anything. The sad scenes I saw were not enabling, rather they were disabling.
It’s all well and good to be outraged and say, ‘Someone should help these people’ from our living rooms in Australia. But what will it take for my own personal actions to be moved and changed? More than an image of #KiyiyaVuranInsanlik (#humanitywashedashore) it seems.
I will end this post with a message from our tour guide. At the final dinner he thanked us for choosing Turkey as a holiday destination. Turkey hasn’t had a great deal of good publicity lately, the terrorist threats and the refugee crisis is making the tourism industry suffer. Çanakkale, the biggest city closest to Gallipoli Peninsula (where we stayed a night) basically exists because of tourism to the nearby ruins of Troy and the Gallipoli National Park. What will this mean if the tourists stop coming? Everywhere we went people spoke to us in English, they could tell where we were from. ‘Aussie, Aussie, Aussie!’ the shop owners would yell as we walked through the bazaars. They love ANZAC’s; we spend a lot of money. If I helped at all, it was just through being there, spending my money in hotels, bars, shops and restaurants and sharing my travel pictures and promoting Turkey as a holiday destination. I just wish I had have done more.