They enjoy posing in front of my camera, too. Cautiously, I start asking questions. Why are they in Turkey? „We couldn’t stay in Syria. My father’s brother was killed,“ one of them says, „my cousin, too, my mother cried the whole way, she is still crying.“ And the others have similar stories. These children know what’s going on; they know there’s a war and that they had to flee because of it.
I show them a photos of Evangeline and Laura, my niece and my cousin’s daughter. They spent Christmas collecting money for Assyrian refugee children and managed to gather 6,800 Swedish kronor ($1200). For that amount you can get a lot of children’s shoes. Evangeline and Laura didn’t want children to walk barefoot in winter.
The Assyrian refugee children are happy. Their prayers have been heard. When I was a child in southeast Turkey, we learned to snitch to God, to tell when there was some trouble.
These children have also learned to snitch to God, so they did. And He has heard them. He has sent them shoes, because they need shoes, being driven away from home by „bad people.“ They miss their family and friends — not least those who have been killed. But they have talked to God and He has told them that they will meet again. He has also told them that they soon will have beautiful new shoes.
World Observer Online published a photo of a three-year-old Syrian child, who right before he died said „I’m gonna tell God everything.“ I don’t know whether the photo is genuine or not, but I know that it’s what children say in Syria. We have always done that, snitched to God.
When the children run into the crammed Syriac Orthodox Church assembly hall, I follow them. I stand in a corner of the stage. Hidden behind a piece of cloth, I look out on the refugees. Some of them have kidnapped family members, not yet released, the ransom being negotiated, or who have disappeared without a trace. Others have witnessed their beloved partner or siblings being killed. And then there are those who have been raped, but this is a taboo subject, and none of the victims speak openly of it. It’s the persons that they have confided in who have told me.
Maha Aras, an Assyrian woman from Syria and longtime resident of Turkey, is one of those who have paid for food and drink so that approximately 200 refugees can celebrate New Year’s Eve. „A little light in the darkness“, she says, dancing on. When she has finished, she and Yahkup Altug, another philanthropist, join me for a few minutes.
I ask if they know how many of the refugees are in contact with smugglers. „A few of those who stayed in our apartments have reached Europe, but most of them got stuck in Greece. All of them who are still here are in contact with smugglers. One of them ran out of money and gave up, but the others keep in touch with smugglers continually. They want to get out of here, most of them to Sweden, since they get residence permits there. Some of them want to go to Austria, since they have family there.“
I know this already.
Then, somewhat unexpectedly, Altug says „Everyone, absolutely everyone, except those who have arrived from Syria this week, were arrested at the border when they tried to get out with the smuggler. The Turkish authorities keep them for a week, and then they are released and come back here. They knock on our door again to get shelter.“ Aras fills in, „The refugees know the police officers at the migration authority so well that they greet them with names when they meet. They have been arrested so many times by the same people. That person, who has been dancing for a good while now, was arrested 16 times. His brother was arrested 10 times before he could finally make it to Greece. He hopes that a smuggler will take him from there to Sweden.“
I go the dance floor. When the music stops and we sit down wiping the sweat off our brows, I ask a few of the guys about their attempts to get out. „I managed to get all he way to Italy, it took me five months and a lot of traumatic experiences. Then I was arrested and deported back here. If I hadn’t know about the refugee apartments of Maha, Istir and Yahkup, I would be yet another of those potential criminal refugees on the streets of Istanbul.“ He points to two other men who have been deported back from Italy. I follow them out for a smoke. „The rubber boats that they make us get into are the worst. We know that one Assyrian family from Syria drowned — the entire family. And those containers, with up to 40 people packed in like sardines.“
A young woman interrupts us. She asks if this is the party for Syrian refugees. She has one small child in each hand. She stays at a hotel by herself and feels very vulnerable. She has come to the party to seek shelter and safety. The Islamists murdered her husband and she has lost contact with the rest of her family in Syria, she tells us. Her money is almost gone and she is fed up with all the sexual innuendos at the hotel. She went to a church to pray and someone tipped her off about this party. I look at her children. They are tired, with dark circles under their eyes. Have they snitched to God today, I wonder, on New Year’s Eve 2013?
Nuri Kino is an independent investigative reporter, filmmaker, author and Middle East and human rights analyst.
Translated from Swedish by Agneta Wirberg
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