Ayham was a Syrian activist exiled in Turkey. Sania was living in a part of Syria reportedly under siege by ruler Bashar Al Assad’s forces. They didn’t know each other, but when Ayham’s friend called him saying he knew people that needed help, Ayham couldn’t say no.
“When we start talking about this story my memory goes right back to the beginning, as if it’s in front of me all over again,” Sania looks back. “The massacre isn’t something that can be forgotten; 125 people were killed, 60 of who were from my family.”
“I gave her my number and my real name and I told her if you need anything you can call me,” Ayham remembers. They kept chatting online deep into the night, until Sania asked, “Ayham, can I hear your voice?”That was the first time they spoke.
“It was the start of a new love,” Sania adds, smiling shyly for a brief moment, “but our conversations were really painful.”
The next day, while Ayham was in Friday prayers – the holy day of worship in Islam – he got a few missed calls from Sania. “I called her and she was screaming and crying, ‘Ayham another massacre happened to my family!’” She told him her parents were old, her brother-in-law was wanted by the government, and no one in her family knew what to do or how to escape. “When I get home, I’ll make some calls with my friends – activists in the land,” Ayham reassured her.
He found a friend – a rebel fighter in the Free Syrian Army – who would get Sania and her eight family members to take them somewhere safe. “I told her that I know it is hard to trust me. But if you want to survive, you have to trust me,” Ayham recalls. Sania and her family understood.
“Don’t ask him where you are going,” he warned them.
But with the safety of her entire family resting in her hands, Sania wanted to reassure them. “This is the first time we see this guy, we just want to know where we’re going. He would just look at us through the rearview mirror in the car, but he would not answer a single word.”
“Ayham told us, don’t worry. You need to have confidence.”
And he was right. He got a call from Sania as soon as they got to their destination, “She told me, ‘This man took us to his house, [and kept us safe] between his children.” The fighter later took them to another town in Syria, where Sania’s sisters lived.
“She called me from there and she said, ‘Ayham, I love you.’” Ayham was overcome with emotion. He was so glad they were safe. “I was very happy. I cried so much that day.”
They got married a few months later.
In December, they celebrated their first anniversary, with a new addition to their family. “Now the baby in our life is like a flower,” Ayham says, smiling ear to ear. But their situation isn’t ideal: as Syria’s violence rages on, the young family is exiled in Turkey for the foreseeable future. “We will try to take care of him [as best we can].”
Note: The written post has been corrected to correct a mistake in the original reporting: the parliamentary rules referred to at the end of the piece were changed soon after parliament member Safak Pavey made her speech. The audio, however, could not be changed.
(Photo credit: REUTERS/Morteza Nikoubazl)
Almost immediately after coming into power, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced he would work to end a long-standing ban on wearing Islamic headscarves in schools and government buildings.
And this past fall, he and his socially conservative Justice and Development Party did just that.
They argued that the ban unfairly restricted religious Turks. But it seems that Turkey has exchanged one freedom for another.
The restriction had been around since modern Turkey was created in 1923. Founding father Kemal Ataturk hoped to shape a democratic, secular society.
But Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) argued the ban was discriminatory and at odds with the country’s democratic ideal.
And that’s pretty much what Huri Inegol thought ,too.
“I actively protested for the right of women who wear headscarves to get into universities,” Inegol says. “Because if I can go to school in my miniskirt, they should be able to come to school in their headscarves.”
Inegol is a secular-minded Turkish language teacher in central Istanbul. While she supported the idea that lifting the ban would mean more freedom for everyone, she says, in practice, that’s not how things are playing out.
“Previously, when I wore miniskirts, I felt fine,” she says. “There wasn’t any social pressure or negativity. But today, a lot of people, whether it’s with their facial expressions or their gestures, they make me uncomfortable and I can see it very clearly.”
Inegol says that lifting the headscarf ban has emboldened her more conservative neighbors to feel free to judge her for her clothing. And she says the AKP isn’t doing anything to discourage that attitude.
“The conservative people feeling more freedom and more comfortable, is in exchange for me feeling less comfortable and less free,” Inegol says.
As a result, society has become more polarized. Inegol says she can point to many other examples of ways that the AKP, over the years, has made a secular lifestyle uncomfortable.
Last fall, for example, the prime minister and other government officials attacked university students’ living arrangements, railing against men and women living together as roommates. Erdogan said it was important that Turkey raise “a pious and conservative youth.”
But Berna Aydin doesn’t see it the same way. She’s still smarting from the old laws and social stigma associated with the headscarf which kept women like her out of the work force.
“I applied for a job in a company and everything was alright … and then they called me for an interview,” Aydin says. “When they saw me with a headscarf, they decided against hiring me. Actually in 1999, we moved from Turkey to the US because I was really upset with the system and with this headscarf issue.”
But she and her husband moved back in 2006 when she saw attitudes in Turkey changing, becoming more open thanks to the AKP.
“Our government has eliminated the headscarf issue and many women started going to universities and working,” she says. “More women entered the working life because of lifting the headscarf ban.”
Aydin says she sees life is better for women these days. But Parliament Member Safak Pavey recently chastised the government for hypocrisy. Pavey stood up in the chamber and lambasted the AKP for a rule that still stood when the headscarf ban was lifted.
“If the AKP really cared about everyone’s personal freedoms, they’d take a few minutes to change the ridiculous parliamentary rules that forbid me, as a woman, from wearing pants to work,” Pavey said. Soon after her speech, the ban on trousers in parliament was lifted.
In early 2013, Turkey’s Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan issued a call to arms, of sorts. Speaking at a conference on family and social policy in Ankara, he urged married couples to produce at least three children; saying Turkey’s economic stability depends on it. Or as he stated it: “One or two children…equals bankruptcy”. And he called it an issue of family values.
That triggered a wave of outrage from women’s rights groups in Turkey. Lawyer Nazan Moroğlu says that was for good reason. She says it’s just one more example of the message coming from the highest levels of government: that Turkish women should stay at home. She says it comes at a time when leaders aren’t addressing the real threats to Turkey’s progress: “If the people running the country said ‘this shouldn’t be happening’, ‘end child marriages’, ‘end women’s violence’ then it would be different. ‘Our women should work’ for example, this is never said.”
Moroğlu offers some disturbing numbers: a quarter of Turkish marriages involve a child bride. Half of women over the age of 15 have reported abuse at home. Only 26% of girls graduate high school. Women make up just 28% of the workforce, and even that’s a 45% jump from eight years ago. She argues that the ruling Justice and Development Party, the AKP, should train its focus on those areas, and not on family planning.
“Women could have gone much further in the past 11-12 years,” says Moroğlu. “The law supported us but because of the mentality we couldn’t.”
The mentality she’s talking about is the one that has parliament passing laws to address those inequities. But these days, she says, without the AKP’s blessing, there’s no follow-though.
“On one hand starting from the constitution onwards, in terms of rights there are laws being passed etc, things were moving forwards. Whereas in actual life, things are getting harder for women,” she says.
It’s a split between democratic process and deep-rooted social conservatism, as Moroğlu sees it. She explains that the Turkish Republic’s first constitution back in 1923, enshrined the rights of women. And those rights advanced more or less in step with other Western nations.
“And as with more conservative countries, women’s rights started going backwards,” she says.
Documentary cameraman, Koray Kesik, who just completed work on a film about child brides, sees decades of progress being reversed.
“Today there are women suicides, honor killings, child marriages. It’s a serious issue in Turkey, and it’s a serious problem today. I’m married. I have a daughter. She’s sixteen,” says Kesik.
Entrepreneur Bedriye Hülya agrees there’s a serious issue and she’s doing something about it. In 2006, she founded B-Fit, Turkey’s first – and only – chain of women’s fitness centers. She’s driven mainly by a social mission: to encourage low and middle-income women to get out of the house, maybe give them a sense of a life beyond the home, even if it’s just going to the gym a few times a week. She says that with all the pressure on women to focus only on family, the concept was, and still is, kind of revolutionary. To buy a B-Fit franchise, you have to be a woman, and B-Fit owners don’t typically fit the entrepreneurial mold, coming from more modest backgrounds. No surprise that Hülya had to overcome a good number of skeptics.
“No one knew what we were doing, there was never anything like this. So we had to make it legitimate for people’s eyes,” says Hülya.
Berna Aydın, a B-Fit owner in Istanbul’s Fatih district, a deeply conservative Muslim neighborhood, sees B-Fit as a model for women helping women.
“One of the women here was actually having a problem with her boss and another woman’s husband was a lawyer and they’re suing the boss,” she mentioned.
Another owner, Ayda Tarakçian, who runs a B-Fit near Istanbul’s Taksim Square, agrees it’s so much more than the workout or the social interactions. For some women, it’s just the act of showing up, claiming some time for themselves.
“These 30 minutes are mine,” women tell her. “This is my right. I feel great. Life at home is better.”
Ayda hears it all the time: getting out into the world, it changes your whole outlook. And, she says, she also sees an attitude shift among men who now know her as a successful business owner. One man in particular.
“For example, before owning this business, my husband was not listening to me that much but now I feel stronger. Now he’s listening to every word I say,” Ayda says.
Lawyer Nazan Moroğlu sees the women’s movement as an important counter-balance to the AKP and Prime Minister Erdoğan’s rhetoric. But it’s those small shifts as well, like the one between a woman and her husband, that keep her optimistic.
I’m optimistic because women are aware. Even for those who are not aware, others will support them to gain more power within their families or in terms of their rights,” says Moroğlu.
One day last winter, exhausted after a long shift at the hospital where she works as a doctor, a woman we’ll call Ezgi got on a crowded bus to go home. It was just like any other day, except for the shifty young guy sitting next to her.
Ezgi knows what a potential threat looks like. Being groped on Istanbul public transport isn’t exactly uncommon, and women learn to be especially vigilant on congested buses and trains.
Before Ezgi knew it, the man had slipped his hand under her skirt and it crept up her thigh near her crotch. She lost it.
She yelled at him, got others on the bus involved, and kept him on the bus until they got near a police station.
“I think, he must have been afraid of me.”
When Ezgi and her harasser finally got to a police station, things got worse.
First, the cops said they couldn’t do anything. One officer even told her, “of course you’ll get groped on a bus.” The officer said she must make enough money as a doctor to drive her own car to work.
“That’s the main reason no one goes to police after harassment,” Ezgi said.
Nihan Guneli is Ezgi’s lawyer and a friend from high school. She says the vast majority of harassment and rape cases go unreported in Turkey in large part because the police station experience can be more traumatic than the harassment.
“When you go to the police station, you give your address and personal information to the police in most cases,” says Guneli. That information becomes part of the public record, making it easy for suspects or their families to find victims and pressure them to drop charges.
In Ezgi’s case, the suspect’s mother showed up at her work place. The woman begged Ezgi to drop the charges.
But Ezgi and her lawyer pressed on and, surprisingly, won. Guneli says it was a rare victory. “The reason, I believe, that he got one year and eight months in prison is because Ezgi is a doctor, and she didn’t know the guy.”
Guneli says it’s likely a higher court will overturn the verdict. Still, the win is a huge one.
In a recent survey about harassment, two thirds of the women who responded said they were pestered on Istanbul streets and in public transportation more than once a month.
Ezgi says she went to court for them, to make sure there’s one less harasser out there. But she still thinks about her safety, and avoids taking public buses these days.
Ezgi laughs nervously looking back at the experience. “Now, I still wait for something to happen,” she said. “And I bought [a] motorbike.”
It’s that time of year again. The mall is festooned with lights, wreaths and ornaments. What looks like a giant evergreen tree towers over the atrium. In one store, there’s even Christmas music.
The thing is, I’m not back home in Virginia. I’m in Istanbul, Turkey — a country that is officially 99.8% Muslim. It’s not a place where most people actually celebrate Christmas.
“The decorations are gorgeous!” Esma says. “I love that they do this for New Year’s and we exchange gifts on New Year’s — I think that’s very nice.”
If you notice, she says this is all for “New Year’s.” That would be the trees with ornaments, the reindeer bedecked with lights, the very Christmas-like tchotchkes in the shops … and Santa.
“To be honest with you, as I was growing up, I was not aware of the Christmas concept at all,” Zeynep Akialp confessed. But she’s aware of it now. She’ an Istanbul native with a luscious fake tree in her living room decorated with colorful ornaments, white lights and tinsel.
“What’s happening in the malls is only for economy, to get the economy going,” she said. “They’re just combining this season with sales this year, if you realize it, it’s huge sales everywhere, and it wasn’t like this before.”
But it’s not as if Santa Claus is entirely unknown in Turkey. He’s called Noel Baba, kind of like “Father Christmas.” And Saint Nick was a real guy — a Greek saint — from Lycia in southern Turkey.
But not everyone is happy about the rising popularity of Santa. Just this week, an Istanbul municipality announced it was banning Santa from the neighborhood. And there’s a call for Muslim youth to protest against Christmas and Santa.
For some Turkish kids though, that particular debate is irrelevant, or so say Zeynep and her daughter Selin, who’s 6.
“They somehow know the real Santa is parents with wallets,” Zeynep told me as she eyed Selin. “Uh huh!” Selin confirmed. “Santa isn’t real!” she announced.
Real or not, Santa is good for business, in Turkey as everywhere else.
In Turkey the refugee crisis has reached unprecedented proportions. Tens of thousands of Afghans have arrived in an effort to get to the European Union, as well as thousands more from Asia and Africa. And more recently, war ravaged Syria to its south has sent more than half a million refugees across the border. But Turkey’s complex refugee laws have left the vast majority of these asylum seekers in legal limbo: they can’t leave Turkey to seek asylum elsewhere, and they’re not legally allowed to work or gain access to basic services like health care.
You’ve probably seen videos of flash mobs: people going about their business, say in a train station, like this one in Antwerp a few years ago, when suddenly, the music starts. Then folks in the crowd start dancing in sync, and, eventually, they’re singing.
It’s usually just for fun, sometimes for wedding proposals, or a poke at authority. But in Istanbul, in the wake of the Gezi Park protests against the government, that kind of poking could get you into trouble.
That hasn’t stopped people like Kemal Uzun and his friends from teasing officials with an upbeat, ska-like song and dance routine that delivers the message, “We’re not backing down.”
“It should be a funny and happy dance, but also giving the message,” says Kemal, adding that by not making it a serious song of protest, they probably attract a bigger audience. “That song was the best because it says, ‘This is just the beginning and the struggle must go on.’”
Kemal and his group perform in public spaces and at big events to get lots of visibility. The audience gets into it, shaking off the initial surprise and eventually clapping along and chanting with the song: “This is just the beginning, the struggle continues.”
Kemal has created a kind of flash mob collective. Sometimes a performance results in new members.
When the weather is nice, Kemal uses an Istanbul park to teach the choreography to newcomers who want to participate in the next flash mob. But at a recent rehearsal, the park guards stopped him from plugging in his stereo or publicizing. In the past, police left him alone. Kemal joked that he hopes it’s happening because his group is finally big enough to be noticed.
“Our goal is to do it with, like, 100 people in Taksim Square without any prior notice. We are going to show up in the street and it’s going to be spectacular, we hope,” Kemal says. “We want this to be remembered as the dance of the protest of Gezi Park.”
Until then, Kemal and his growing band of 35 or so will keep popping up at different venues, before they make their debut in the city’s central Taksim Square.
In my latest for PRI’s The World, I got to visit Nif Vineyards in Izmir, on Turkey’s western coast, to talk to the vineyard’s co-founder, Gaye Ozcan, about what Turkey’s new complete ban on alcohol advertising and promotion means for the country’s budding wine-making industry. The ban also affects lifestyle magazines, like TimeOut Istanbul and large alcohol producers as well. Listen to the piece by hitting the play button above or visiting this link. Below is the text version of the script.
Is the new booze ad ban in Turkey about health or religion?
Tucked away in the rolling hills of Izmir, on Turkey’s Aegean coast, men and women harvest the grapes of Nif Vineyards. It’s a young winery run by a young woman, Gaye Ozcan.
“We are such a new company, such a new wine brand,” Ozcan explains. “2013 was going to be the first year for promoting and launching our wines.” If Ozcan seems worried, it’s because she is. The country’s new alcohol law makes it illegal to advertise or promote alcohol “under any circumstances.”
“Of course I was planning to do many tastings and events to get in contact with my potential consumers,” Ozcan says. The promotion ban is a big blow to her budding business.
Ozcan is only 27, yet she has spent the past 10 years building the winery with her dad. After being the only girl from her high school to study agricultural engineering in college, Ozcan went to San Francisco to get her master’s degree in enology — the science of wine making.
While she was there she got a lot of questions about how she could produce wine in a Muslim country. At first, she says, she was a little offended. “OK, yes this country is Muslim, but we are democratic and liberal. I am proud that this country has that flexibility, that, you know, I’m a Muslim, I’m a winemaker, and it’s not conflicting,” she says.
But that seems to be changing quickly. “Now I’m finding it hard to defend my country in the same way as I did a couple of years ago,” she adds.
As Ozcan’s team bottles hundreds of this year’s vintage Nif wines, she is reminded of how the new regulations have put her in a really tight spot. While Ozcan can court other professionals in the wine business, she doesn’t really have any way to get to consumers. Even storefronts are supposed to take down alcohol ads visible to the public.
For wine, it’s all about making your brand stand out from the rest, and Ozcan says the restrictions cover everything she could do to get Nif’s name out there. “I can’t have people taste my wine, to see how it’s different from the other ones. I can’t talk about it; I can’t give brochures; I can’t even show my wines on my website; I can’t make events like wine tasting,” she says.
If companies are found violating the law, they can be charged anywhere from $2,500 to $250,000. Ozcan isn’t the only one facing a new reality with the promotion ban.
Deniz Huysal, the Editor-in-Chief of TimeOut Istanbul, said the Turkish version of the magazine lost 20% of their ad revenues because of the new rules. A magazine about life in the city, TimeOut also regularly recommends restaurants, bars and cocktails.
“You can’t create anything that’s going to ‘enhance the wish to consume more alcohol,’” says Huysal, so they will have to be more careful about what they recommend. “I’m not sure how much would entice a person to go and consume. That’s pretty broad, you know.”
Until they can figure out exactly what could get them into trouble, TimeOut Istanbul’s English edition has suspended a popular column that recommends Turkish wines from the country’s burgeoning boutique industry. But it’s not just small producers feeling the squeeze. The big boys could be in trouble as well.
Raki is a traditional Turkish liqueur made from anise seed. Yeni Raki is Turkey’s biggest brand, and is often advertised in some pretty exciting commercials. Ads often feature raki playing a big part in a night out on the town with friends and family, as they clink glasses and sing along to music over the course of the evening.
Yeni Raki’s parent company, Mey Icki, is owned by Diageo, the world’s largest producer of spirits. When asked about Turkey’s new promotion and advertising ban, a company spokesperson said they’re still committed to their business in Turkey, and they see plenty of value in their Turkish products. They said net sales have been up 8 percent so far this year.
But it’s hard to see how that will continue. Yeni Raki — and Turkey’s largest beer brand Efes Pilsen — used to sponsor concerts and festivals. Now, their brands can’t be visible in public, or on TV. When images of alcoholic beverages do show up, they must be blurred, the way Turkey does for cigarettes, which is exactly the comparison the government is making.
Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan explained earlier this year that his government is banning the promotion of booze — as it did with the promotion of smoking — to keep people safe and healthy.
But Ozcan doesn’t buy it. She says there are lots of things dangerous to people’s health, but unlike booze, they are not forbidden in Islam. “If you consume something too much it can harm you. Like fast food, isn’t that harmful? It’s harmful. It’s like all that fat, trans fat,” she says. “Do they have labels? Do they warn kids about that? Do they have any restrictions on advertisement on McDonalds or Burger King or any kind of thing? They don’t.”
At this point, Ozcan says she feels abandoned by a government that gave her a license to produce something she can’t promote anymore. She and the rest of Turkey’s alcohol producers will probably have to start looking abroad to sell their products.
On the bright side, says Ozcan, maybe it is a good thing that Nif wines go global sooner rather than later.
In this piece for Deustche Welle’s Living Planet, I got to spend a day with a group of women who collect food and feed over a thousand dogs that have been banished to a forest in northeastern Istanbul. My good friend and colleague, Jodi Hilton, took some excellent photos to accompany the piece. Click play to listen above, or visit this pop up link. I also wrote an accompanying article in which Jodi’s photos are featured that you can read below or at this link, so you can see the pictures. To learn more about how you an help the women featured, visit their Facebook page here. They’re called Goksu Evleri Hayvansevenleri, and while they post in Turkish, there are English-speakers among them.
Istanbul’s forgotten dogs struggle for survival
Istanbul boasts a population of 14 million people, making it the eighth largest city in the world. But it is the city’s estimated 150,000 stray cats and dogs that draw a lot of attention. For centuries, locals have left out food and water for their beloved street creatures. Some city residents, however, complain of dirt and disease, and of aggressive animals.
As a result, some people call their local governments to get rid of the dogs. For example, more than a thousand dogs have been sent to live in a wooded area in northeastern Istanbul.
“These animals’ natural habitat is not that area,” said Ahmet Senpolat, an Istanbul-based lawyer who runs Turkey’s Animal Rights Federation (HAYTAP). “They were living in our own streets. I call them ‘social animals.’ [The term] social animals means that for example these animals know to stop at red lights and go at green lights,” he said.
So when Turkey’s Ministry of Forestry and Water drafted a law that would send city dogs to “wildlife parks” on city outskirts, Senpolat and thousands of animal rights activists were outraged. The law was set aside because of broad opposition.
Senpolat says the animals have gotten so used to city life, they know where to find food in trash dumpsters, or they depend on humans to feed them.
A group of animal volunteers, led by Semra Tecimen, agrees. “That is why I am concerned,” Tecimen said. “In the forest there will probably not be enough food, and the dogs could hurt each other when they are hungry.”
That is also why Tecimen and her friends shuffle through swaths of unkempt grass and shrubbery in the forest in northeastern Istanbul to feed the stray dogs that already live there.
But if more dogs are sent to wooded areas even further from the city center, “there are not going to be volunteers like us to go and feed the dogs,” Tecimen said.
In a statement shortly after the draft law was proposed, however, the Ministry of Forestry and Water said, “The proposed law aims to make animals live. The aim is to prevent bad treatment of animals, clarify institutional responsibilities, and to strengthen the mechanisms of animal ownership.”
Opponents of the draft law say they are reminded of a similar move in 1910. In an effort to “westernize” the city just before the fall of the Ottoman Empire, Sultan Mehmed V ordered tens of thousands stray dogs from Istanbul to be sent to a nearby island.
The island did not have food or water for the dogs. “Most of the animals were just eating each other,” Senpolat recounts. According to records, residents on Istanbul’s mainland could hear the dogs howl in agony from starvation. “These dogs tried to swim to Istanbul’s Anatolian side [out of desperation],” Senpolat said.
If the draft law is re-introduced and passed, Senpolat calls it an inhumane and insufficient way to control the stray animal population.
Failing to target the root causes
Senpolat says the draft law does not address the problem at the core: animal smuggling and illegal pet shops. Animal smugglers only face a fine of a few hundred euros at worst, they continue to bring expensive pure-bred puppies and sell them to pet stores. People often buy the puppies from pet stores, and abandon them when they become too tough to handle. Since the draft law does not address animal smuggling at all, Senpolat says even strict neutering practices will not control the stray animal population.
Although Tecimen and her fellow volunteers are hesitant to support the law, they are not sure the streets are much better for them either. Another woman in the group, Ayse Sözer, says the dogs face abuse in cities. “We hear about this [violence] a lot,” she said. “We complained about it too. But the laws are not enough, so we don’t get results. That is why we choose to look after them the woods.”
Still, the women realize that what they are doing is not a solution either. “They will bankrupt at the end just like so many others did,” Senpolat added.
Tecimen admits that money is tight these days. Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday they drive through the neighborhood in a rickety white van, filling it with scraps from a local school, stale bread from grocery stores and whatever restaurants have left over from the night before. But often the food is not enough, and they buy 15 bags of dry food each time they visit the forest to supplement their supply. That comes out to 675 kilos of dry food a week, which equates to roughly 2,000 Turkish Liras (800 euros).
“It is actually the municipality’s responsibility [to take care of the dogs], so we talked to them. We had a lot of debt and in the past we felt really bad about it and depressed about it. They at least accepted to pay for our gas,” Tecimen said.
“This van is very old and it breaks down often, so we have to spend a lot of money on that too.” Added to their debts are private vet bills for dogs with serious injuries or illnesses, because municipality vets are only equipped to handle basic treatment.
“We are all middle aged women,” Sözer said. “I have three hernias and I was operated on my left hand.” Her cousin, another one of the volunteers, is battling heart disease. “But we are just stuck with this option, we are doing our best.”
Senpolat, however, encourages volunteers like Tecimen, Sözer and their group to push the municipality to do its job.
“Don’t spend money from our own pockets,” he said. “Force the governments and the municipalities to do it. If you do not force them, they just ignore [their responsibilities].”
Despite the lack of support, Tecimen says she and her neighbors will keep doing what they can to keep the dogs healthy. Meanwhile, Senpolat says he and HAYTAP are focusing their efforts on campaigning for laws that address the root of the problem.
In this piece for PRI’s The World and its special podcast The World in Words produced by Patrick Cox, I look at the proposal to lift a ban on certain letters that had previously been forbidden to use in Turkey, namely, Q, W and X. I look at the reason for the ban in the first place and if things are really changing for Turkey’s Kurdish population in terms of language rights. By clicking play above or visiting this link, you’ll get the World in Words podcast, which starts off with a conversation between the producer, Patrick Cox and The World’s anchor, Marco Werman, before going into the story I report. Take a listen to the whole thing because they talk about some other interesting language issues in the US and abroad. Below is the text version of the script I wrote up.
Turkey is set to end a ban on several letters of the alphabet
Kurds make up about 20% of Turkey’s population – around 15 to 20 million people. But until the early 1990s, it was illegal in Turkey to use Kurdish in public.
Turkey went even further by banning several letters of the alphabet - X, W and Q – because they are associated with the Kurdish language.
The taboo against these letters has been fading, and now the Turkish prime minister is proposing an end to the ban.
Turks have long flouted the ban because, even though these letters are not used in traditional Turkish words, they are common in words loaned from English and other languages. “These letters have been used widely in the Turkish society,” says Welat Zeydanlioglu, founder of a research group called the Kurdish Studies Network.
“You have like one of the biggest TV channels, like Show TV, that has a ‘w’ in its name, and you have major companies that use these letters. It’s when Kurds have used them when using their language that they have been persecuted.”
One example was in 2007, when the mayor of a city in southeastern Turkey sent out a greeting card wishing citizens a Happy “Nowruz”, the Kurdish and Persian New Year, or first day of spring. That’s with a “w”, as opposed to the Turkish spelling, “Nevruz”, with a “v”. A case was brought against him for using the illegal letter, but later dropped.
Recently, Kurdish has become more commonly seen and spoken in Turkey. Many popular musicians sing in Kurdish. There are Kurdish TV channels, and even the Turkish state broadcaster, TRT, has a channel that airs solely Kurdish content. The channel’s website is in Kurdish and the illegal letters appear all over it.
But learning Kurdish is much more restricted. Istanbul, Turkey’s largest city, has only a couple of Kurdish language institutes. The reforms announced this week would expand language classes somewhat, but only in private fee-paying schools.
Many Turkish commentators have welcomed the moves as progress in a fledgling peace process. Kurdish rebels declared a ceasefire earlier this year after a 30-year struggle.
But Kurdish leaders are saying the proposed language reforms do not go far enough.
Gulten Kisanak, co-chairwoman of the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), an opposition party sympathetic to Kurdish issues, said it was an insult to Kurds to tell them they could learn their mother tongue only if they paid for it.
Zeydanlioglu agrees. “It is difficult at this stage to tell the Kurds they have to pay to teach their children their own mother tongue,” especially after decades of what he calls a “linguicidal” policy in which Turkish authorities sought to eliminate the Kurds’ ethnic identity by eliminating their language.
Today, Kurdish kids who enter school often do not know what is happening around them because they do not speak Turkish at home. International human rights groups have reported that Kurdish children have been held back because of discrimination against their mother tongue. In some cases, kids having trouble with Turkish are designated mentally unfit and sent to special education centers.
Meanwhile, Kurdish has been associated with ignorance and its linguistic development has stagnated, says Zeydanlioglu. “The main dialect, Kurmanci, is a very dire situation,” he warns.
“Although certain things have improved, but it’s not passing on to the next generation because there are no avenues for it to evolve like all the other languages.” The problem for the continued evolution of the Kurdish language is that it’s not just a language. It’s also a symbol of the Kurds’ desire for autonomy and, for many, independence from Turkey.
For this piece on PRI’s The World, I had the pleasure of working with my colleague and good friend, professional photographer Jodi Hilton. You can listen to this piece on Syria’s Alawite refugees taking refuge with Istanbul’s Alevi community by clicking the play button above, or visiting The World’s site. Be sure to visit the site to see Jodi’s moving photo slide show as well–her work is phenomenal. The written version of the script is below.
Fleeing rebels, desperate Syrians find refuge among Istanbul’s Alevis
When he heard the rumors that Syrian Alawite refugees were sleeping in Istanbul parks, Ali Kenanoglu decided he had to help. Kenanoglu, who heads the Hubyar Sultan Alevi Cultural association, asked people to stay in one of the Alevi cemevis, or houses of worship. But the refugees refused.
Kenanoglu says they felt safer outdoors. “They said, ‘We don’t want to go indoors because when we do, our women and children are being raped. But outside, here in a public park, people can see us and we feel safe.’”
Kenanoglu and his volunteers eventually earned the refugees’ trust, and brought them back to the cemevi. They set up two large tents with beds and blankets, and food. The refugees, who are mostly children, are fed and get medical care.
Several hundred of these refugees have come through the cemevi since early September. So they’ve avoided living in parks and begging for food. They stay for about a week until Kenanoglu can find them a more permanent solution. “We’re finding them cheap homes to rent, we’re finding them work as well. Let’s be honest they’re cheap labor, so in textile factories and places like that, we’re finding them work.”
The refugees’ initial fear was hardly surprising. Alevis and Alawites share a common Islamic heritage – and a similar minority status – in Turkey and Syria. But they’re not the same group. In Syria, Alawites these days are especially persecuted because they have the same religious identity as the president, Bashar al Assad. As a result, they have been targeted by the various Islamist rebel groups.
“I told them I’m Alawite, my mother was Alawite, my father was Alawite, my grandparents were Alawite,” Abu Rida, an elderly Alawite man, tells me. “Just go ahead and kill me. They said, ‘No, we’re going to kill you slowly.’”
Clear signs of torture cover his body. His back is covered in scars from being whipped, and his shoulders are bandaged from being burnt with melted nylon. He tells me his daughter was taken about two months ago, when he says he was abducted and tortured for 27 days. He hasn’t seen her since. Calling me over he yells, “Mademoiselle! Come on, come on!” His daughter had been teaching him English.
“These people they have no mercy,” Muhammad says. “This old man as he told you, they took his daughter and they beat this elderly man and tortured him senseless. He played dead for them to leave him in a ditch.”
Muhammad is about 30. He’s from northern Syria, an Alevi of Turkmen descent. He didn’t want to share his last name either because he didn’t want any chance of being recognized if he goes back to Syria.
Muhammad reached Istanbul after a week-long bus journey with his wife and kids, seven brothers, two sisters and all their kids too. When I asked him why he didn’t just go to a refugee camp by the border, he said they were scared.
“I heard that there are people who are getting bribed in the refugee camps in Turkey. They get a tent or a container and food and blankets, but at night they’re given guns and are forced to go fight.”
Now that they’re in Istanbul, Muhammad, Abu Rida and the others have to think about how to get by. Winter is coming and they have to keep warm.
Kenanoglu says the Turkish government needs to stop focusing on whether or not to attack Syria, and start helping these refugees. But the government doesn’t recognize Alawites or Alevis as a group to protect, he says, because the ruling Justice and Development Party has a clear Sunni-Islamist agenda in Turkey, and supports the Sunni-led opposition in Syria. “Tayyip Erdogan’s government is allergic to Alevis. It’s the same case with Alawites from Syria.”
Until there’s a guaranteed safe place for them, Kenanoglu says the cemevis’ doors are open to refugees of all stripes.
This is a brief update for PRI’s The World, on Turkey’s position on Syria and its push for a military intervention after the use of chemical weapons in a Damascus neighborhood. You can listen by clicking the play button above, or here. The written version is below.
In Turkey, the government has been outspoken in its support of a foreign intervention in Syria. The country currently hosts close to half a million refugees from its southern neighbor, and thousands more pour in through Turkey’s borders each week. Turkey’s Prime Minister Reccep Tayyip Erdogan has spoken out against Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad from the start of the turmoil in Syria two years ago, and Erdogan says that if there is an intervention, al-Assad must go.
But not too long ago, Turkey prided itself on what it called its “zero problems” foreign policy. “It was a distinctly neutral position from which we had our leverage,” says Professor Mehmet Ali Tugtan from Istanbul’s Bilgi University.
Tugtan says Turkey was the one-stop shop for problem solving in the Middle East.
“The Israelis were coming to talk to us, the Palestinians were coming to talk to us, the Chechens were coming to talk to us, the Russians were coming to talk to us. But now, we have become a party to the conflicts. We are against Israel, pro-Muslim brotherhood, against Al-Assad, pro-Free Syrian Army and within the Free Syrian Army we are more pro-Sunni elements.”
Tugtan wonders whether Turkey will ever recover from the course it’s taken, at least in the short term.
But Professor Howard Eissenstat of St. Lawrence University disagrees. He says that, unlike the US, Turkey is sticking by its principles and supporting the popular uprisings in the Middle East. “They decided they really needed to step forward as a supporter of democracy in the region, that that’s their brand in the region, and I think they did that for strategic reasons and because they really believe that.”
Turkish officials relish the possibility of the US finally getting involved in the Syrian conflict, though Ankara says it’s more than willing to take matters into its own hands.
Earlier this week, Turkish government spokesman Bulent Arinc said the military is already drawing up plans. “We have a parliamentary mandate for strikes against northern Iraq. We have a mandate for strikes against Syria,” he said. “We’ve studied what we need to do to maintain our country’s security.”
But much like President Obama, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan still has to work on drumming up support at home.
Ozge, who didn’t provide her last name, says she doesn’t buy Erdogan’s argument that he wants to get rid of Assad to protect human lives in Syria. “I don’t understand why the Prime Minister is so in favor of this war?” she says. “Maybe it’s for economic gain but this is against humanity.”
Ozge is not alone in her aversion to getting involved. Demonstrators who oppose Turkish military intervention in Syria, formed a “human chain” last weekend in honor of World Peace Day. Selen Uzeroglu Kaya was among the protesters. “In Syria, in Egypt, in different parts of the world, no matter their languages, religions or color, people are dying,” she says. “And while we can’t do much, we are here because we believe our voices can at least be heard with love.”
The Turkish government still has time to garner support, since the US won’t be making any decisions until Congress comes back into session next week.
While many think that there is a widespread backing for the protests in Turkey, the truth is many citizens are skeptical. My most recent piece for The World is centered on conversations I had with two guys from socially conservative backgrounds who had two very different reactions to the protests and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). Take a listen above by clicking the “play” button. Below is an accompanying blog post I wrote up that adds more of what both Emrah and Emre said.
Turkish Protests Receive Mixed Reception Among Moderates
Like their names, Emrah and Emre have some similarities. They are both from Ankara, the capital of Turkey. They both come from religious Muslim backgrounds. They both consider themselves politically moderate.
But their reactions to the recent protests in Turkey, and to the ruling Justice and Development party (AKP), have been very different.
Emre has looked to Turkey’s past in processing what has been called the biggest challenge to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s rule since he took office in 2003.
Emrah, meanwhile, has been looking at the leadership’s present day policies.
Emre did not used to support the socially conservative party. The 48-year-old runs a textile business.
“We are being ruled by someone who has not done any business before,” says Emre. “That is why I never supported the economical politics of the AKP.”
He says Turkey has now become an import-based economy thanks to AKP policies.
He says he fully backed the recent protests when they were a small group of people seeking to protect a city park. But he grew suspicious when hundreds of thousands poured into Turkey’s streets after police used tear gas and water canons on a group of sleeping protesters at the park. He says they were too organized to be a spontaneous people’s movement.
“In this country always there has been a dirty game being played,” says Emre. The “dirty game” Emre is talking about refers to a time when the country’s politics were riddled with conspiracies, power plays and military coups.
He says he was reminded of the country’s dark past when he saw guys throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails at police.
“I was not supporting AKP at all, I was not going to vote for them,” he says. “Now, if you go for elections tomorrow I’ll have to give my vote to AKP.”
On the other hand, Emrah cast his first vote ever in favor of the AKP. Ten years later, he is now 28-years-old and works as a software developer for a major financial institution. But his support for the AKP has waned. When the protests grew into demonstrations of citizens expressing their dismay at what they have called an increasingly authoritarian rule, Emrah joined them.
He says the party’s power has gone unchecked.
“Any law that they would create would pass through parliament so easily,” says Emrah.
Along with many other demonstrators, he was moved when he saw the police crackdown on the sleeping protesters.
“I don’t know,” he says. “I felt really angry about it. I guess that is when I said ‘enough.’”
Now that protests are less frequent, many think things have calmed down, but Emrah points out that things are getting worse in some ways.
Lawyers were denied access to detainees at one point during the protests. The Prime Minister called Twitter “a menace to society,” and the government says it is investigating millions of tweets for inciting riots. Some have already been detained for their activity on social media.
Journalists have also been searched or detained and photos erased from their cameras. Reports of physical, sexual and psychological abuse have emerged from detainees of all stripes.
Much of the protesters’ activity has also changed. Most of the time, people gather peacefully in local parks and discuss the changes they want in government.
These days, those in favor of the AKP and those against them have become increasingly polarized. Groups claiming to be Erdogan supporters have violently attacked several of the park forums. Others claim those who look like protesters have attacked religious women in headscarves.
Emre blames the radical groups amongst the protesters for the polarization. But Emrah says it is Erodgan’s provocative language that has pitted supporters and critics against each other.
For example, Erdogan claimed that in early June, protesters entered a mosque with beer. In Islam, alcohol is forbidden, and drinking inside a mosque is an incredible insult. Erdogan’s supporters shouted in dismay.
“In this digital age everybody should know he is lying,” says Emrah. “Even the guy who works at the mosque even came out and said, ‘No I did not see anyone who was drinking.’ Still people believe that.”
Emre says he is willing to concede that the photo he saw showing beer cans inside the mosque could have been photo-shopped, but insulting Islam was pretty common in the days before the AKP, so Emre says people like him are inclined to believe Erdogan.
“We think, ‘Oh, it is happening again.” he says.
It’s too early to tell whether the protests will have a long-term impact on Turkey. But Emre and Emrah agree that the AKP still has a great deal of support throughout Turkey.
“The liberal people, which mostly are young college students, make me really hopeful about our future,” says Emrah, adding the students are discussing ideas for a more democratic future.
But in the mean time critics like Emrah say there is no party that represents them, or one that is organized enough to take on the mighty AKP.
Weeks ago, I produced this piece for The World on the alternative media that arose from the Gezi Park protests. I spoke to one journalist from the mainstream media, and one of the founders of CapulTV, an online video live stream channel that has been covering the protests. You can listen to it by clicking the “play” button above. Below is the accompanying blog post on the story.
Capul TV: Turkey’s Alternative to Mainstream Media
When Turkey’s mainstream news networks failed to broadcast the first days of the protests and police crackdown that swept the nation, demonstrators and viewers were outraged. A few of them took matters into their own hands and created their own alternative media outlets.
Photos from CapulTV.
Mustafa Aldemir is 30-years-old. By day, he is a software engineer. But at night he transforms into a goggle and gas mask-wearing citizen journalist. “We actually are activists, we say that we are activists and that we are doing journalism because the journalists are not doing their jobs,” Mustafa says.
His engineering skills come in handy running the live-stream online channel, Çapul TV. He and his friends launched it to show the protests in Gezi Park that the Turkish mainstream media were ignoring.
In just two weeks, Çapul TV has gotten over 2 million views, tens of thousands of followers on Twitter, and donations from over the world. They have received two high definition cameras, an audio mixer, a laptop and some microphones. Their studio is mobile so they can broadcast from wherever.
Photos from CapulTV.
When police cleared Gezi Park last weekend, Çapul TV was live inside the park. A teargas canister landed in their makeshift studio. The crew donned gas masks and continued to broadcast until the police kicked them out. Then they went to another part of town and broadcast clashes there between protesters and police.
“Of course we are scared but we take our cautions like wearing a helmet and a mask and running as fast as we can when needed,” Mustafa says. “We believe that we should do it, someone should do it and because no body else is doing it, so we have to do it.”
At this point Çapul TV only broadcasts when people are around after work, like in the evenings or on the weekends. Right now, they’re airing from different parks throughout the city, where protesters are holding forums to discuss reforms moving forward.
Mustafa says they’ll need more volunteers to keep it going longer-term. “I hope that after some time, some professional guys will come and take this job back and do good journalism,” he says.
Korhan Varol says he was ready to go live from Gezi Park when the police first tear-gassed the peaceful demonstrations. But his network wasn’t. He is a senior correspondent for NTV, one of Turkey’s largest TV news outlets.
Korhan says when he got back to NTV headquarters, the network only gave him 30 seconds of airtime to report the news. “I was angry, the people were are angry,” he says. “The protesters were there and they said ‘show this show this,’ we were shooting but we were not live. So it was a bad day for me, really, because something was happening there and I could not report it live.”
He still covered what was happening. Korhan live-tweeted what he saw to his few thousand Twitter followers.
Photos from CapulTV.
Eventually, NTV did start broadcasting news of the protests after they drew international attention. The company’s head even issued a public apology for failing to broadcast the initial events. But for the protesters, it was too little too late.
Demonstrators in Istanbul marched to NTV’s headquarters on June 3, three days after the initial police crackdown. Protesters chanted, “Sell out media,” waving cash in their hands. NTV aired that live.
The waving cash was a jab at Turkey’s media tycoons, who have big investments in industries that rely on government contracts. Korhan of NTV says that’s probably why they’re leery of angering the government. As a result, there’s self-censorship, as well as heavy-handed government control.
NTV was not the only outlet getting criticized. CNN Turk aired a documentary about dolphins and penguins while people were out demonstrating. So critics started using penguins as a symbol of the media’s silence.
Korhan says protesters have been unforgiving even after channels started broadcasting the demonstrations. “For many people the target is you,” he explains. “Why? Because of your company, I think it’s horrible.”
But he doesn’t blame the protesters for their anger. He’s even impressed with the live stream channels that have sprouted up. “I think this shows us that if something happens like this from now on,” Korhan says. “They will make their own media, a protest media, let’s say.”
Mustafa says he can imagine a permanent place for some kind of protest media, but he would still like the mainstream guys to do their jobs.
In my latest piece for The World, I got to use some of the fun sound and pictures I collected of chants, word play, songs and signs, but the story here is much bigger than that. In every step of these protests, demonstrators have used humor to get their message across. It’s usually sarcastic and ironic humor, really aimed at ridiculing the authorities. Take a listen, and below is the accompanied blog post. It’s very similar to the story with a few additions, including photos and other examples of creativity and humor.
When Prime Minister Erdogan called the protesters çapulcular (pronounced cha-pul-ju-lar), he wasn’t paying them a compliment. The term translates roughly to “looters”, “marauders” or “bums”.
“For him çapulcular was an insult,” community organizer, Ezgi Bakcay, explains. “However, for the protesters, similar to the way some threw back the gas canisters at police, we threw this word back at him.” Although people all over Turkey have been protesting for different reasons in the past two weeks, they came together under this term.
To make sure people around the world knew how to use it one protester made a tutorial video. He starts by teaching viewers the simple present tense, “I chapul everyday…he chapuls everyday.” He moves onto the present continuous tense, “I have been chapulling for six days.” To protect him from teargas while “chapulling”, the instructor dons a surgical mask and some swimming goggles.
Turks now have been using the English -ing form, “chapulling”.
It means “a resistance to force, or to demand ones rights.” Some protesters wear t-shirts with “chapuller”, or the Turkish form “çapulcu” , scribbled across them. Others labeled their tents at Gezi Park things like, “No. 1 chapul street”. With this word it seems like a wave of creativity and humor was unleashed amongst the protesters.
A choir from the Bosphorous University took a traditional Turkish song and outfitted it with some new lyrics. They sing of gas masks and protests. They sing that the teargas is sweeter than honey.
Instead of writing “Recep Tayyip Erdogan”, protesters played with the prime minister’s name. “Cop” means baton, “tazyik” means pressurized water, and “gaz” refers to teargas.
Community activist Ezgi says protesters used ironic humour every chance they got. Graffiti scribbled across walls and sidewalks as well as signs played with Turkish words and Erdogan’s name.
One night, a group of football (soccer) fans even commandeered an earth digger and charged it at one of the police’s “public intervention vehicles”, or TOMA for short. They called it the POMA, for “police intervention vehicle.” To add insult to injury, protesters later painted it pink to soften its look. “The earth digger was lying here like a killed beast,” Ezgi says, “as if a captured enemy.”
The humor was also present in the chants and songs protesters created. Ezgi gave the example of a group of women came up with a slogan that said “Dear Tayyip [Erdogan], thanks to you we will look great this summer, because pressurized water is good for our cellulite!”
In Taksim Square guys chanted, “Let’s see you use that pepper spray. Take off your helmets, drop your batons and let’s see who’s the real man.” Meanwhile, feminists warned Erdogan to “run away, because the women are coming.”
Not everyone could make it out to the street to have their say, so they did so from home. Every night at 9pm for the past two weeks, neighborhoods throughout Istanbul have erupted with the clanking of wooden spoons against pots and pans, silverware against plates.
It’s not the first time pots and pans have been used to express discontent in Turkey or abroad. But this time, the sound has inspired musicians.
Kardes Turkuler, or Songs of Fraternity, are a well known ensemble. This song they just released has become a sort of anthem for the protests. “Enough with the headstrong decrees and commands,” they sing, “We’re really fed up!”
Music has played a major role in the Gezi Park protests. Throughout the park, many played instruments, from beating their drums to blowing into bagpipes. Others danced to the music and chanted. Some created new songs based on the protests, while others sang traditional ones that passersby joined in on.
Many of the protesters say they want to hang onto this spirit of humor and creativity especially now that their argument with the government seems to be entering a more complicated phase.
Here’s my latest for Canadian public radio’s CBC Day 6. Click the play button above to listen!
At the end of May, Turkey erupted into nationwide protests after police cracked down on peaceful demonstrators in Istanbul’s Gezi Park, protesting plans to raze the green space in favor of a mall. Beyond the environmental protests seeking to protect the few trees this district has left, Istanbul’s LGBT community have come out to protect one of the only safe spaces they have. In Gezi Park, lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgender and transsexuals could take refuge from harassment and beatings they were threatened by beyond its bounds. They could meet with friends and lovers, rest under the trees and escape from their families who they often can’t tell they’re gay. This is a small glimpse into the lives and journeys of two gay men fighting to protect Gezi Park.
Thousands gathered in Taksim Square and Gezi Park in Istanbul to demonstrate against police brutality and government policies
As protests erupted throughout Turkey, I had the chance to talk to PRI’s The World about what’s going on here. Take a listen above to our first two conversations. The first conversation aired on May 31st, the first day of violence between protesters and the police. The second aired the following Monday, June 3, when I was joined by Deniz who’d been sitting in at Gezi Park–the beloved green space that fueled the country’s unrest.
My sincerest apologies for such a delayed post on this one. I had the honor of meeting Ahmad and Meriem, a beautiful young Syrian couple, when I visited Kilis refugee camp back in January. I produced the piece for Bending Borders’ Love is Complicated series for the PRX Global Story Project.
Ahmad sits in his shop inside Kilis refugee camp, selling candies, cigarettes and goods brought from Syria.
Ahmad and I met when I was roaming around the camp, checking out the little makeshift shops the residents had built out of box-springs and tarp. We immediately took to each other, and while we talked about his little business and what he had done before fleeing Syria, he couldn’t contain himself with his news, “My wife’s pregnant!” In that conversation he gave me a little glimpse of how they fell in love, some of the troubles they encountered and the joy that gushed out of him when they did finally get married. We had to meet again.
I ended up visiting Ahmad and Meriem nearly everyday I was at the camp. I met Meriem’s family, who were so warm and welcoming, and Meriem herself, although very shy, welcomed me into her container she shares with Ahmad and his brother’s family. It was just a few days, but we bonded.
This piece is beyond a love story. You know that feeling, when you meet a person and you are so attracted to them there’s almost a literal force pulling you together again? That is what Ahmad and Meriem felt when they met. Anyone, anywhere in the world who has fallen in love knows that feeling. That itch to be next to that person all of the time is irresistible — even when you are escaping a war.
I won’t ruin the story here, just take a listen, but I will say this: what I love so much about Ahmad and Meriem’s story is that they take the listener, no matter how far away, right there next to them, as they secretly communicate without their families knowing, as they struggle to keep in touch as they flee persecution, as they finally meet again, face-to-face. It is a strong reminder that Syria’s war isn’t just between pro-regime and anti-regime “forces” — there are real people, whose real lives are being affected. They want to go on living, falling in love, starting and raising families, working and going to school. Some of those things they simply cannot do, but somehow despite all the cruelty of war, they are able to find joy and compassion in one another. They do what they can to go on with their lives and they do a damn good job of it. Their resilience is inspiring and humbling.
For now, I’ll leave it at that. This story is the first of its kind I have ever produced. I’m proud of it, and I especially thank Bending Borders for all their help in putting it together. I hope to keep producing stories like this one in the future, and each time it will hopefully get better.