‘I always carry Syria in my heart’

Turkey
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The huge building on the outskirts of Gaziantep, Turkey, where almost 180 Syrian families living in inhumane conditions. © Rana Taloo

It has been three years since I arrived in Turkey from Aleppo, and whenever I speak about the year 2013, I still refer to it as ‘last year’… As if time had been caught in a nostalgia loop ever since my nose came across the scent of canon powder for the first time, when I grabbed whatever I could save and rushed out of my house, leaving my heart hanging on the clothesline next to my favourite dress.

I still think of the dress that I left behind before it had even dried, and I am still searching for a balcony that looks just like our house’s balcony.

Spices have no taste here. There is no cardamom in the coffee. My memories have not left me, not even for a moment, and I haven’t stopped complaining about things since that day!

At 6.30am the white curtains bow to the rising sun, which not only interrupts my dreams, but also precedes my alarm clock. When will I get used to these white curtains, and these rooms surrendering to the morning joy? In my city, windows were not only protected with curtains, but we also used what we call ‘a louvre’, a type of blind. It not only protected our windows from sunshine, but also ourselves from each other. We, who never trusted each other! And the Turks are still amazed by our ability to sleep till two in the afternoon! We who clipped the sun’s hair with our louvres, offering it as a sacrifice to our loneliness.

I curse the white curtains, the louvres. I put on my sleep mask again and try falling back to sleep. After tossing and turning uselessly in my bed, I go to the kitchen and start looking for the coffee pot.

My mom always says, ‘I wish that you would one day make coffee without spilling it all over the stove.’

She is right: once the coffee spoon falls into the bubbles of the boiling pot, I get lost in its smell. I suddenly return to our big salon, smelling jasmine and hearing the sound of the neighbourhood kids on their way to school mixed with the sound of my youngest sister thinking out loud about what she is going to wear and my brother looking for his socks. And echoing around all these sounds everywhere is the radio warbling with Fairoz: a beautiful symphony created without any dissonance.

Suddenly the sound of the pot boiling interrupts my symphony and the coffee has overflowed again just as my heart floods with pain and memories.

‘Dear God, the coffee has spilled and I don’t have time to clean the stove!’

I clean the stove quickly, as I have no more time even though I woke up before my alarm went off. My clothes wear me. I did not focus on the eyeliner I put on that day. I did not even look closely at my face in the mirror… I put my memories aside. I leave my spoilt cup of coffee to cool off alone, and slam the door shut behind me without caring.

The manager of our project told us yesterday, ‘Try not to be late tomorrow, we have important work to do.’

My work is what I love the most, despite my suspicion of humanitarian relief and my constant wish for more than one food basket or a bloody bag of rice for a human being’s dignity. However, what we offer is good: a neat electronic card that does not cause me any pain and helps the poor to find a lifeline.

My work keeps me close to Syria that I always carry in my heart. It is my weapon in the face of geography, and a painkiller that I take from 8am until 5pm except for Saturdays and Sundays, helping me withstand the onslaught of destruction and death across the news channels.

At 8.30am, we are scattered around the office rooms of the NGO we work for, talking and laughing loudly at the same time. Our German boss, with his friendly face, starts looking for us, repeating his famous line in a gentle tone and pointing at his big wrist watch, ‘prepare your coffee and let’s meet in the meeting room.’

Sometimes I feel a cultural barrier between my hazel eyes and his small, fair eyes. Except that he is not tall and big like other Germans. Maybe he’s not even German. That would explain his compassion for our cause. I feel myself starting to smile and shrug my shoulders about how naive my thoughts are. I cup my hands around the coffee mug and head to the meeting room, where I sit on one of the chairs.

The meeting starts. Some of us have been checking our Facebook accounts, others whispering among themselves, and another flirting with his girlfriend. This continues until we see the redness in our boss’s green eyes and his pale face changes the frivolous air in the room. Suddenly everyone becomes quiet and all eyes stare in one direction, giving him their undivided attention.

‘We received information from one of your colleagues that there is a building on the very edge of Gaziantep with almost 180 Syrian families living in inhumane conditions… I want them all to be registered, regardless of our registration criteria, and I want you all to take good care of yourselves while you are there – the place is inhumane.’

A Turkish colleague interrupts him: ‘I have never cried before, until I saw that building.’

The meeting ends in a different manner from how it started. We leave without talking to each other, each of us headed to our locker to put on our uniforms. It is cold. Cold like it could be on New Year’s or during Christmas: a bitter cold that crawls into the bones of the lonely. I hide half my hair that I did not find time to brush underneath a knitted cap, and I conceal my neck with a scarf that my older sister knitted for me. I put on work boots and go out.

On the way there I try to imagine the building. However, after seeing it for the first time, my earlier imaginings do nothing to help me raise my dropped jaw, and it remains like that for minutes. A huge building. Cold as a morgue or detention centre. There are puddles everywhere. Even the rain is cruel here.

I walk slowly, my eyes moving around the awkwardly disproportionate dimensions. This is Gaziantep. Here live around 180 families who fled death to live through another form of death.

Everything seems different here. Everything looks hideous.

There is an unbearable and unfamiliar scent. It is the smell of heating stoves. Here, everything gets burnt for warmth, even garbage. I cannot help thinking, ‘Isn’t the cold more merciful?’

Rooms stuffed with breath. Helpless children so preoccupied with matters of electricity bills and bread that they don’t find enough space to play. There are no doors or windows here. Only curtains separate the many families sharing each room.

I feel ashamed for complaining about my white clean curtains that wake me up before my alarm. ‘What about these poor souls, and what about the curtains’ ascendency on the privacy of their conversations!?’ There are many stairs, but none lead to something beautiful. The higher up we go, the colder it gets and the more misery we find. They are no rooms, there are holes with curtains. Not a kitchen, nor a bathroom. Nothing. Nothing at all. Only stuffed heads between walls with no air in between. We move heavily from one hole to the other, registering them. Until my heart gets attached to one of the holes. I raise the curtain and my eyes record instantly a young girl’s features and tragedies.

Sara, the daughter of seven winters, looks a lot younger than her actual age. Her eyes are very wide; maybe they got caved in from the severity of the pain. Her hair is strong and bright despite her weak body. Her clothes are old and patched up, but very clean.

She looks up at me with distress while I smile and try to reach her with my hand. She hides between her mother’s legs and starts crying. I try approaching her, but the intensity of her crying increases with every step I take, and prevents me from moving closer.

Sara lives with only one kidney. Her foot is swollen, making it difficult to cover it, and forcing her small feet to remain bare, during summer and winter. All seasons are the same in Sara’s life.

‘Do you know why Sara cries?’ asks her mother. ‘Every time she sees a stranger, she thinks they want to take her to the hospital. Sara does not think of playing or school. She only dreams of a small pair of shoes and a day that she does not go to the hospital.’

I storm out, my face flooding with tears. It has been a very stressful day. I want to finish my work quickly so that I will not have time to see Sara again. Maybe she has calmed down by now. I wonder if she is still crying?

I am lucky enough to get the chance to see Sara’s face again, however. I lift the curtain up cautiously when her mother calls out, ‘Sara, come here, they are back.’

As if Sara has been waiting for us. As if she has felt how her cries for help lodged in my heart like bullets. She stands shyly behind her mother and smiles.

I try reaching her again with my hand. She ignores it and she hugs me. I feel as if it is God hugging me!

‘Look aunty, isn’t my hair beautiful?’

‘Your hair is gorgeous, like a mermaid.’

‘Aunty, I am no longer scared when I see new people and I want to go back to school, too.’

‘And I no longer want to complain about the curtains, and no longer want spices in the food, and I want to love coffee with no cardamom in it.’

Sara smiles, not because she understands what I have said, but because she feels it.

‘Come back always to visit us, aunty.’

**

I will never forget Sara. I won’t forget her beautiful, ill eyes. I won’t forget her eerie foot. I won’t forget the hoarseness in her voice while she was delightfully talking to me after she had stopped crying.

From that day I made peace with my curtains, and decided to love my new balcony and fill it with flowers. And maybe my favourite dress that is still hanging on the clothesline does not even fit me any more. I will look for a new favourite dress.

As long as you can wear your shoes every day; smile and learn how to live from Sara.

Rana Taloo is a doctoral student and humanitarian aid-worker working near the Syrian border in South-Eastern Turkey.