I’ve been bunking out in my brother’s bedroom for the last week or so, home alone while my family is taking a vacation up the coast. I’m currently in recovery from a major surgery following a medical crisis that turned my world upside down this spring, and I am still too unwell to travel, so I stayed home alone instead of joining the family vacation.
In addition to my physical recovery process, I’m also fighting my way through a fog of depression – and so, injured, depressed and alone, I’ve spent untoward amounts of time hiding in a blanket fort, staring at a screw in the wall just to the right of my brother’s bedroom window. Other popular activities in the last few days have included listlessly scrolling through Facebook, ugly face crying, washing my blotchy face with a hot washcloth, nibbling on toast, and crawling back into bed to stare at the screw a little longer.
I’d already decided early in the morning that today was a day I would not be completely defeated by depression, and I fully intended to get up and do something productive. I was just about to rally myself to rejoin the living for a few hours, but reflexively I reached for my iPhone and started to scroll through Facebook before peeling myself out of the covers. Bad move.
Instead of a few minutes of mindless entertainment before getting onward with my day, I got smacked in the face with this little gem:
Hello to another round of gut-wrenching, ugly face crying.
If anyone was reading my blog a year ago, you’ll already know why this story hits me close to home – minus the Hollywood happy ending. (And if you don’t know what I am talking about, you can get all caught up on my gut-wrenching heartbreak here.)
What you don’t yet know is that, unfortunately, my story of heartbreak doesn’t end there – and (spoiler alert!), I learned this spring that lightning really does strike the same place twice.
After unwittingly watching the movie preview, I was hit with another flash flood of grief, after which I responded with a self-indulgent emo Facebook post and approximately 20 minutes of staring blindly into space with hot tears rolling down my cheeks.
Eventually, I decided if I wasn’t going to spend the day doing something productive that would move my life forward, then I might as well spend the afternoon writing this blog post instead of contemplating the paint on my brother’s bedroom the wall.
Yes I do believe in giving trigger warnings, because they are a matter of trauma response and wellbeing for the reader, not a matter of protecting someone’s “fragile snowflake feels” (as I’ve seen many people implying on social media in recent months).
So … If you are someone who has experienced rape, sexual trauma, domestic abuse, or if you have survived war or armed conflict, please proceed with caution through the rest of this blog post, or consider not reading it until you reach a time when you can process other people’s stories without taking on their pain or reliving your own experiences.
Picking Up In Cape Town…
The last time I wrote a blog post, I had recently arrived in Cape Town and I was confessing my less-than-impressed experiences with life in Muizenberg. I had just decided to move onward to Durban, but had not yet left the Cape.
What I didn’t mention in my last post, because it was still taking shape at the time, is my “dark night of the soul” epiphany and ensuing plans.
In short, I had a middle-of-the-night, “crying out to God” moment in which I confessed all my grief about hating. so. much. to be alone, and my terror at still being single as I reached the end of my 35th year. Would I ever find lasting love? Would I ever have my own family? Was it too late for me to have a baby?
I know it doesn’t sound terribly feminist or self-empowered to say it, but the deepest truth in my heart is that everything I have worked for in my life – putting myself through high school as well as college, building a career, any energy I have put into “self-development” etc. – it’s all been in service to my cherished goal of creating a stable, healthy, happy family. And yet, despite my best efforts, I have failed at achieving this one goal for nearly twenty years.
In my darkest moments, when I contemplate the possibility that it’s just not going to ever happen for me and I’ll always be alone, I hit a place inside me where I honestly don’t know how I will continue to find the strength to keep living and moving forward.
The Answer: Volunteer
Alone on the far side of a continent I’d never visited before, ticking off the days until my 36th birthday, this was the demon I was doing battle with in the middle of the night when an unusual thing happened: instead of my typical experience of “crying out to God” and not feeling much more than a deafening silence in return, this time I actually felt like I received an answer – and the answer I received, surprisingly, was that I needed to spend some time volunteering to help the refugee crisis.
Mmm, ok… ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Logically I was not sure what one thing had to do with another, but somehow it made sense.
In a crazy broken world, it’s hard to know why one “cause” or issue will affect us more strongly than another, but for me, the plight of refugees leaving conflict zones in Syria, Iraq and beyond, making their way to Europe across the sea, was the issue that had grabbed most poignantly at my heart in recent months.
When I received and then considered the guidance to actually go and do something constructive to help, it felt like an obvious choice for me: I had a bit of money saved, I had time on my hands, and I even serendipitously had a plane ticket to Istanbul leaving from Johannesburg in just over a month – so why not act on the guidance I’d received?
Picking A Project
Once I decided to move forward, I began searching for volunteer opportunities in refugee camps. From what I could find online at the time, it seemed unlikely that I could just show up at a camp in Lebanon or Jordan and say, “Hey guys, I’m here!” and expect an NGO to put me to work. The “get involved” page of the website for every NGO I could think of basically said that only employees could work in conflict zones, and if lay people wanted to help, they could send money or share something on social media – which was not the level of contribution I was looking to make.
One place where this was not the case, however, was on the Mediterranean shores of Europe. Throughout 2015 and into 2016 there had been little to no response from the local governments, the United Nations, or from major NGOs – essentially meaning that while literally tens of thousands of people were arriving from over the seas, local communities and grassroots volunteers were solely responsible for organizing a response.
Aha! I’d found a place where I could be helpful!
I began joining “information point” groups on Facebook and following various efforts on Instagram, and eventually I connected with an organization called Team Humanity, who was working on the island of Lesvos. I reached out through their web page and made a connection with a volunteer named Mirlinda, and she & I began chatting with each other on WhatsApp almost every day.
Unexpected Political Developments
During the time I was becoming acquainted with Mirlinda, a disastrous agreement was announced between Turkey & the European Union. The goal was to stop the flow of refugees making the dangerous trek across the Mediterranean, but the means by which this was accomplished was deeply cynical, and had grave consequences for refugees who were already en route. The borders in Southern and Eastern Europe were locked down, and nearly all grassroots volunteers were banned from working on the Greek islands. Team Humanity was one of many of organizations forced to leave their work and find another place to volunteer.
When the border between Greece and Macedonia was closed, it had the same effect as throwing up a dam in the middle of a river – all traffic came to a stop at the border crossing in Idomeni, which was essentially an open field with no infrastructure (no shelter, no hygiene facilities, no food sources, no clean water). Some people would leave, deciding to sneak across the border through the mountains or to head back south towards the cities, and meanwhile, other refugees would trickle in – but at any given time, there were somewhere between 10,000-12,000 people at a standstill in Idomeni, waiting for the borders to open or for something else to happen that would let them proceed on with their journey.
Given the gravity of this situation, Team Humanity decided to relocate their efforts to Idomeni.
Launching The Fundraiser
With Ramadan approaching, I decided to create a fundraiser to provide food and water for refugees under Team Humanity’s care. (You can view the campaign & results here, which includes many photos from their work in both Lesvos & Idomeni.)
I also made plans with Mirlinda to come and volunteer in Idomeni – although, before locking in these plans, I’d already made arrangements to stay with a local family in Turkey that I’d met on Workaway, and so I wasn’t planning to join Team Humanity until later in the summer.
I will save most of the stories from my travels in South Africa for another blog post, but suffice it to say, it was an absolutely amazing experience. I found myself camping in the middle of Kruger National Park in an area enclosed by electric fencing – you know, to keep out the lions and other wild animals roaming around on the other side of the fence.
I spent my evenings under the stars, pecking out donation letters on my iPhone, then holding up the phone and wandering around the camp site trying to pick up a cell signal so I could mail out the letters, all while listening to a pack of elephants trumpeting just a few yards away – one of the most meaningful and exhilarating experiences of my life.
More Political Developments
As you can see from the campaign, my fundraising goal was met and exceeded – although the circumstances of Team Humanity’s volunteer activities changed dramatically once again, just before the beginning of Ramadan.
Towards the beginning of summer, the government of Greece decided to evacuate the refugees living in Idomeni, sending them instead to live in various abandoned factories around the city of Thessaloniki. The factories themselves were not fit for human habitation – they were (actually, as of the day I am writing this, sadly they still ARE) dangerously falling apart, with unsafe electrical wiring, water unsafe to bathe in let alone to drink, and abysmal sanitary conditions (imagine 1,000+ people using a handful of port-a-potties in 100+ degree heat for months at a time).
When this relocation first happened, Team Humanity was assigned by the Greek ministry to operate in Oraiokastro refugee camp, and for the first month and a half, they were the only volunteer organization providing support at Oraiokastro above and beyond the meager rations dispersed by the government. The money raised by my LaunchGood fundraiser ended up being almost exactly the same amount of money Team Humanity needed to provide food and water to the entire refugee camp for the whole month of Ramadan. It still brings tears to my eyes to think about how perfectly that worked out.
Arriving in Turkey
I left Johannesburg and arrived in Istanbul in early May. I planned to spend only a few days to see the major sights before journeying on to stay with the family I had met on Workaway, who lived in a small town in the mountains. However, I was absolutely smitten with Istanbul from the first moments I arrived. I did travel to Kutahya province for a few weeks and made what I hope will be a lifelong friendship with the amazing family I stayed with – but my plans serendipitously changed during my visit, and I didn’t end up staying with them for as long as we both expected.
It started with my new friends mentioning that their sister was graduating from university, and that they would be traveling for about a week to join their family and celebrate her graduation. They suggested a few possible locations where I could sightsee during this week, with the intention that I could come back and stay with them a while longer, after the graduation week.
At just about the same time, an old friend of mine from college contacted me to say he would be flying from Central Asia to the USA, and he happened to have a layover in Istanbul, so if I was around would I like to meet up? With both of these circumstances coming together at the same time, I decided to travel back to my newly beloved Istanbul and meet up with my friend instead of going sightseeing in other locations around Turkey.
Stumbling Into Romance
While I was back in Istanbul, shortly after my friend had left the city and traveled onward, I was riding the Metro and apparently I caught someone’s eye. After a few shy smiles, the train arrived at my stop, and he followed me out of the station and struck up a conversation – albeit a very limited conversation, because he did not much speak much English and I spoke even less Turkish.
One of the things I do remember him saying several times – adorably, not knowing that I understood him – was “çok güzel” … That’s “so beautiful” in Turkish, something I probably could have guessed at even if I hadn’t already known, judging by the lovestruck puppydog look in his eyes.
Now, before you judge me or otherwise tell me what a fool I was for falling for some Turkish guy’s tricks, I’m just going to have to ask you to please believe me here when I say that Sedat was not at all like the smarmy, aggressive men who hit on Western women in the touristy areas of Istanbul (usually with the intention of charming them into buying something, and probably some of whom are secretly hoping to wrangle their way into a foreign visa).
I’m not naïve and I figured out that dynamic within about seventeen seconds after arriving. However, I want to point out that outside of the touristy areas, Turkish men are absolutely not like this. Also, for what it’s worth, both Turkish men and women are among some of the most level-headed, open-minded, intellectual and refined people I have met. I’m terribly sad that this is not the cultural impression people have in the West, but it’s absolutely what I have personally found to be true.
But, I digress… Back to Sedat.
The day after we met on the Metro, Sedat took me on our first date – dinner at an outdoor café on a charming cobblestone side street, followed by walking around in the gorgeous downtown of the city. We spent probably hours sitting on a bench in front of a big fountain between the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sofia, managing half our conversation through Google Translate on our phones. Eventually we reached the point where we had to go home before the Metro stopped running, and he got off with me at my stop and escorted me all the way to my front door before continuing on his way home.
We saw each other nearly every single day for the rest of my time in Istanbul – and needless to say, I couldn’t tear myself away from the city a moment sooner than I absolutely had to. Ramadan came and went. We broke fast with each other each evening with a picnic in the park, and we kept staying out every night until the Metro threatened to stop running.
Tolstoy famously said that “happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” There’s a way in which I think the same could be said for people falling in love – at least, I cannot think how to describe the experience of getting to know Sedat without employing tired romantic tropes that would make anyone’s eyes roll. Although of course, every experience feels singular and exceptional while you’re living through it.
I’ll spare you the tropes, and keep what is sacred to me private. However, one significant detail that it does feel important to share, is that I have never felt so cherished and accepted exactly the way I am.
Even Junaid, who I’d thought completely “saw” me, also gave plenty of airtime to subtle criticisms of me. My weight, my hair, my clothes, my career choices, and so on – there were so many things that failed to meet Junaid’s approval. I suppose I had spent so much of my life believing I was unworthy that it didn’t even register with me as strange that someone who I thought loved me would also find so much at fault with me – even with things I wasn’t particularly insecure about myself before meeting him.
My experience with Sedat, however, was completely different. He only ever looked at me with pure adoration in his eyes; he used to take my face in both his hands and say to me, “Baby, you perfect.”
Ramadan Ends, Volunteering Begins
Eventually, my golden Ramadan of 2016 came to an end. I had made a commitment to volunteer with Team Humanity, and Sedat was planning to travel back to his home city of Malatya in southeastern Turkey, to visit his family for the Eid holiday and spend some weeks of vacation. He would be back to work in Istanbul after his visit, and my plan was to volunteer in Greece for about a month, and then return to Istanbul as well. We planned to stay in contact by WhatsApp until being reunited in person.
I arrived at Oraiokastro around the same time that the UNHCR and several larger NGOs were also arriving at the camp – so instead of Team Humanity carrying the entire burden of caring for the camp, they began to divide their time between working at Oraiokastro and also going into the city of Thessaloniki to help refugees who were living in the streets.
On my first day of working with Team Humanity in the city center, we encountered a large family group of Yazidi refugees who were living in a municipal park behind the city’s train station. Yazidi people bear a double burden: not only are they fleeing from conflict zones in Syria and Iraq, but they also fear for their safety on the refugee trail. Yazidis follow certain religious teachings that some Muslims misinterpret as worshipping Satan, which leads them to face persecution even among other refugees.
Fearing violence if they are integrated with the general refugee population, the Greek authorities established Petra camp exclusively for Yazidis – but this camp has a reputation for being one of the worst among a set of camps in very bad condition, and it is also much farther from the city than most camps. Consequently, some Yazidi refugees – especially ones who are considering going with smugglers the rest of the way to northern Europe instead of submitting themselves to the lengthy formal resettlement process in Greece – choose to live in the streets rather than go to Petra camp. This was the case with the family we met on my first day of volunteering.
In case it wasn’t enough to tear at the heartstrings to meet a scared and exhausted family, living with several children in a park, we discovered that one of the women in this family group had just given birth two days earlier, right there in the park, with no medical care. Her newborn baby girl was sleeping in a cardboard box on the ground. Another one of the women was hugely pregnant and appeared ready to give birth any day. The family was unwilling to seek medical care for either woman because they feared they would be forced into Petra camp, and the family had already paid smugglers to take them from Turkey all the way to Germany. Their time in Thessaloniki was supposed to be only a stopover while they waited for a call from their smugglers to take them on the next leg of their journey.
After meeting this family, we rushed over to a nearby volunteer warehouse filled with donations that had been sent from all over Europe, where we picked up baby and children’s clothes, diapers and prenatal vitamins. We brought these items back to the Yazidi family, and just as we were giving them the items, they received a phone call from their smugglers, telling them to be ready to leave immediately. Within minutes, a couple of cars pulled up to the park, and the entire family of approximately 20 people piled into the cars and sped away.
I assumed that would be the last I saw of this family, but sadly, we saw most members of the family living in the same park again just a few days later.
Apparently, there is a little game that smugglers play, where they bring refugees to the border, point them in the right direction and tell them to start walking – usually five or six hours through the forest and mountains. Assuming they make it over the border, they will be picked up by another set of smugglers who will take them on the next leg of their journey. However, the smugglers often tip off the authorities to make an extra buck, meaning more times than not, refugees will be intercepted by soldiers, detained at gunpoint for however long border control feels like holding them, and then they are eventually brought back to Thessaloniki and let out again in the city center.
The family we met on my first day went through this process literally five times, each time becoming more and more heartbroken and exhausted. The family group also dwindled in size by about half, as some family members made it through the border crossings and others were detained and sent back.
During this process, I tried to find temporary housing for the family, so they could at least take showers, do their laundry and sleep in a bed for a few days while waiting to go with smugglers again – but over and over again, I was unable to find local lodging that would accept refugees. Not with an extra deposit, not if we agreed to pay extra rent or fees, not if we left a credit card on file with them to cover any potential damages, not if all of us volunteers left copies of our passports… Every single place I contacted was unwilling to let refugees stay in their property under any circumstance.
A few weeks into my stay, we were with this family again during a long afternoon and evening. As I mentioned, the family had tried to cross out of Greece literally five times, and the group remaining in Thessaloniki had been reduced to about half the number we originally met. Among the group remaining were two older women, a pregnant woman and two more young mothers, as well as several young children (approximately five years and younger).
By that time, the city had fenced off the municipal park with bright orange construction fencing, effectively keeping out any refugees. Consequently, this family was sitting in a filthy, trash covered alleyway a few blocks from the park. We had exhausted every attempt to find them alternate lodging, so we brought them sleeping bags, food and water, and spent some time just sitting and talking with them. I hugged crying mothers, and made paper airplanes out of trash for the kids. At one point, we fended off an angry yelling man, at another point, we shouted down a Greek grandmother who came over to throw rocks at us.
One of the children – maybe four years old – had an angry, infected, open wound on her foot. I went to a local drug store and bought disinfectant, bandages and cookies, and then (with no medical training, mind you) I attempted to clean out the puss and dirt from the wound and patch up her foot with bandages, and gave her cookies for being a brave girl.
While we sat with the family on this day, they told us the story of their life since the war started – they were among the Yazidis who were held captive on Mount Sinjar in Iraq, as ISIS surrounded and sieged the mountain communities and cut off all food and water. They were eventually liberated by Kurdish PKK forces, and evacuated into Turkey.
Not all of their family had been so lucky – many Yazidi women have been kidnapped and held in sexual slavery by ISIS, including several of their cousins. In fact, they lived in constant fear of being kidnapped, as Yazidi women are frequently abducted and trafficked back to ISIS even from Europe. They told us the story of crossing Turkey with smugglers, and of their terrible fear of drowning while they crossed the Mediterranean in a tiny, overcrowded raft.
We discussed with them their plans for the future – they were so desperate about their conditions in Greece that they didn’t know what to do. Should they keep trying to cross the border, or check themselves into Petra camp? Should they give up altogether on their dream of joining their family in Germany and head back towards the conflict zone, where at least they had more family?
Although it broke our hearts to leave this family in the alleyway, eventually we said goodnight. By the time I arrived back to my room at the volunteer hotel, I felt totally wrecked. For the first few weeks of volunteering, I had tried not to absorb the horrible realities I was witnessing – but on this day, the insanity of what humans are capable of doing to one another, the cruelty and the suffering that people were experiencing right in front of me, and my own feelings of doubt that I could do anything meaningful to help, all began to crack me open.
Additionally – and quite unexpectedly – I noticed that certain scenes had started to play in my head, from an experience I’d had long ago as a teenager, kind of like a movie reel shutting on and off, but totally unbidden by me.
I have already written fairly candidly about a few of my own experiences of sexual assault and abuse, especially the experiences as a teenager that I wrote about in my post called Consent & The Teenage Brain. One experience I did not discuss, however, was a