Out of Istanbul. It’s rarely easy to hitch out of a big city but Istanbul is special. 15 million people are living and moving in this city, an endless stream of cars speeding around the city on long highways passing shopping malls under construction.
We, me and Paul are in Turkey. A country that has been undergoing a massive modernisation for the past decade. Whole new areas of the city are built, with sky scrapers shooting out of the ground, desperately creating expensive living space for more and more and more people. Istanbul has one of the biggest airport hubs with an airline that now flies to more countries than any other.
The new middle class is a direct result of that and this real life improvement gives Erdogan the immense support in rather religious conservative groups of the Turkish society. His non-secular policies of encouraging the wearing of head scarves in schools and universities after an 80 year secular rule additionally strengthen his support within those groups that have felt suppressed for a long time.
That is very well reflected in Istanbul. You can feel the polarisation between a secular, educated young generation that organised the Gezi Protests and is pro joining the EU on the one hand and conservative, religious groups on the other. The demonstrations on Taksim Square and their brutal push down showed this very clearly two years ago.
They changed everything.
We walk over Taksim Square. Where does our Bus leave? We pass roughly 40 armed soldiers standing guard in front of the former Atatürk Cultural Centre which got stormed and destroyed by demonstrators during the protests. It looks like a big remembrance memorial, apart from that Taksim is calm. No protests or demonstrations.. It is September 2013. Summer break for public servants. While the sun dries out the earth, people travel to the coastal regions to cooler air flows, to the coast in the south. We walk down streets, ask Taxi Drivers that give us wrong directions because we do not take their services and end up at the Bus Stop. Our bus to the main bus hub is leaving here.
The Istanbul Bus Station
Under a bridge we find a place to put our thumb out. Three lanes full of cars pass us in endless, slow streams, all little ants hectically sworming around. Dangerous territory for Pedestrians. As my mother used to say when we passed streets in Iran: The streets are like the jungle. The strongest wins. So if you hesitate while crossing the streets you will be run over.
The sound of the cars echoes back from the bridge and create a nerve wracking background noise. It makes you feel very, very small. In the masses of cars one stops and we hop in. The man takes us 5 minutes down the road and drops us of again. After two more short lifts we walk a few kilometres down the highway. We pass one of those colossal new malls that shoot up, directly connected to the highway but without a single footpath near it. A new kind of city, made for cars only.
With planted trees and gardens all around it, waiting to grow for the visitors to look at. Sweat and the smell of cigarettes blur my senses. I think about how exhausting streets are and the irony of having to spend so much time next to them while hitch hiking. My thoughts get overrun by passing, dirty trucks. The sun burns. Nobody stops. My face gets stuck in a less and less motivated smile. An hour passes. We are so close.
In the distance I see two silhouettes walking down the highway towards the Toll station. They wear backpacks. Fellow hitchhikers from Germany that are also hitching back to Europe. The spot is on hitchwiki.org which is the only reason we had been on the road to this spot for the past 6 hours. We chat away while I am still getting ignored by almost every car that passes. One of the two, a blonde woman takes over thumbing and we find a ride within a couple of minutes.
It’s boiling hot in the car after we all squeezed in. The others are a couple trying to cross the border to hike through Bulgaria. They keep going on the highway and jump out. We get out of the car in town, put our backpacks on and have a look at our place for the night.
In front of us lies a Park with tea houses and a play ground. It is bordered by three central Mosques that rise in the sky and dominate the surroundings. One of the mosques has a little Bazaar attached to it where cheap plastic ware from China and traditional tea ware and sweets are being sold. Families are sitting in the Park with their kids playing on a big, shaded playground. After cooking some pasta on the grass we sit down in one of the tea houses and drink tea, served by a german-speaking waiter. We discuss a newspaper article on Sociopaths in powerful positions and how our system encourages a lack of empathy.
After some two hours we walk into the mosque. At the toilet near the entrance Hassan, who has lived in Bremen for 6 years of his life, chats with us and eventually offers us to sleep in the garden of the mosque, under some huge trees. He confirms with the Imam and the Imam says yes.
All excited about this sudden offer we go to get our bags. Approaching the cafe I can see a group of 6 young men that had sat down at a big table earlier. They are nicely dressed but look pretty bored. They get up and ask us where we are going. “To sleep in the garden of the mosque” we say. “Can we join?” they ask. “Sure.”
But Hassan says no, 8 are 6 too many. Bummer we think and walk back out.
Darkness is falling and the street lights are turning on. The Park is still full of people that slowly leave.
We sit down on the grass and they tell us their story.
It turns out they are six cousins from Aleppo and Homs that fled Syria a month earlier. They had lost contacts to their families and did not even know if they are still alive.
Back then the situation in Homs and Aleppo was bad, now it is way, way worse. Some of the fiercest fighting has taken place there and wide parts of the cities are no mans land.
So they decided to leave the turkish refugee camp to travel to more promising lands.
Their eyes reveal their deep desire, lighting up whenever they talk about it. Two of them speak decent english. We discuss for hours, sitting on old cartons. Many questions have to be asked. It seemed to all lead to the one big question. How can one cross the border to Europe, legally or illegally? We wish we could say “Hey guys, I know this guy at immigration, he can get you in, no problem.”
But we can’t.
Paul and me had been discussing the topic with different people recently and feel that the only honest answer is that it is incredibly dangerous and expensive to do. Even in the case they made it to say Germany, the police would still send them back to Turkey, the first safe country they got registered in. And we tell them. We try to explain it. But there is a language barrier and it only leads to the one, inevitable question. The elephant in the room:
“What else are they supposed to do?”
Yeah, what else are they supposed to do? Go back to the refugee camp to hang around? Stay in Turkey, be an outsider without money and wait for the conflict in Syria to end?
I could not come up with a good alternative and I had to realise that they were way too focused on their goal to listen to us. They had nothing to lose. That kept them going. Everyday. To one day live and work somewhere.
Most of them are college graduates that had studied in Syria. They are wearing button-ups and jeans. F, the oldest, bends over in pain from time to time. I see him struggle. His stomach pains make him lie awake at night. They seem to be coming from the cold nights. From sleeping under the stars with only a shirt on. I take out the sweater from my high school graduation and hand it to him. He looks at me and smiles, then starts to thank me. The irony kills me. There he sits with all of our names on his back, thankfully smiling about the fact that he is not freezing.
At around 1 am, while we are talking, silhouettes approach us. We see a whole family walk over from the restaurant and drop plenty of plastic beverages with Basmati Rice, Salad and vegetables into our hands. We all can’t believe how lucky we are, it’s their left over food. We thank them dearly and they give us blessing smiles, then they walk away, home.
They leave us with the food, we look at each other and the guys tell us that this happens quite a lot. People are still sympathising with Syrian refugees and help them out when they can. But as the conflict goes on, more and more refugees flood into Turkey. The official numbers are that 9 million Syrians have been displaced since the beginning of the conflict in March 2011 and an estimated 1.6 million have fled into Turkey. As the number of the refugees rises the tolerance of the people sinks.
So we eat the rice, all together, while being taught phrases in Arabic. It is too much and they keep a whole plate for the next day. Our minds fade away. It has been a long day since we left our Hostel in the morning. We snuggle together on additional card board and Paul and I get our sleeping bags out. We spread them over the 8 of us and we all slowly fall asleep. A shallow sleep on a cold night on wet card board.
Paul and I have promised to get up at 5 am to witness the morning prayers and see the mosque from the inside. We set our alarm for 5 and go to sleep. I wake up in this weird state where you are unsure if you have slept at all because you just about started to reach the deeper realms of sleep when the alarm goes off and violently pulls you back in the world that you just forgot exists. Everything is sore but I open my eyes and the Blue Hour presents itself in all it’s beauty. Everything is over layered with a dark blue that slowly fades into a brighter grey while the sun climbs the sky. The bakery on the other side of the street is just opening up and stray dogs run through the empty streets. A really old man and some cleaning personnel are wandering through our little Park while the verses of the Imam calling for the morning prayer fade in with the endless singing of the birds in the trees.
We get up, I photograph Paul.
Back at the cafe we have a round of tea on the house and freshen up at a Park bench. The crooked beauty of this new, sunny day collides with the plans of our new friends. They barely have any luggage, only a backpack with some personal stuff and a rope. Because three of them cannot even swim, two will swim across the river that marks the border with the rope to tie it to a tree. Then the others pull themselves through the ice cold water. At night. In the current. While Frontex soldiers watch the border with military grade equipment.
They prepare for their big hike at night and we pack our bags. We will be heading in the same direction and the thought that the only difference between us and them is our Passports makes me sad.
We take photos while hanging out. One of the guys comes to me and hands me little metallic pieces that sparkle in the sunlight. Studs that his parents gave him. The only ting he could give me as a thank you for… meeting them. It is an unspeakable honour and I am missing the words. I look at him and think I will take good, good care of them. I still carry them with me traveling, where ever I go.
In those few hours we all got to spend together we really started to like these guys. A bond between two very, very different worlds. They separated shortly after we went our ways.18 months later I know that one of them, F, the oldest and the leader of the group went back to Syria and died there. As far as I know he got killed by Assad’s army. One of the cousins is in Sweden now, others are still in Turkey and on Malta.