This blog has been particularly difficult for me to write. This morning we went to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) headquarters in Ankara. We started out with a half hour briefing on refugee rights (or lack thereof) in Turkey. Due to the fact that Turkey is party to the original UN convention on refugees, but not a signatory to the New York Protocol on Refugees it means that the only people they are legally required to declare as refugees and the only people who actually have the right to become refugees in Turkey are people from Europe. This stems from World War II. This means that Bosnian’s would have been able to take refuge in Turkey in the 90’s. The New York Protocol means that people from any other part of the world are able to claim refugee status for legitimate reasons in any signatory country.

With the civil unrest in countries such as Iraq, Iran and Syria, Turkey has seen an influx of asylum seekers from those countries. These people are fleeing to Turkey and then when they get in overstaying their visa’s and seeking refugee status. The problem with this is that the only thing Turkey can do to get them refugee status is to place them in a European country, and the xenophobia of European countries (specifically Germany) pretty much guarantees that these people won’t be placed in Europe. What Turkey does is while their application is under review they are placed in numerous communities in housing, and their children are supposedly guaranteed public schooling up to age 14. They aren’t allowed to work however as they have no work visa. This creates the problem of exploitation of workers because in Turkey they pay wages monthly and at the end of the month the illegal workers won’t get paid, but they know (and the employers know) that if they take the matter up with the courts they will be deported back to the country where they face anything from imprisonment to torture or brutal executions. This creates a vicious cycle, if nothing else. The current government, recently re-elected, has promised to change the constitution allowing asylum seekers the right to health care and work, but who knows if this promise will actually come to fruition. Asylum seekers who have been placed also have to check in nightly with the local police department to ensure that they are where they are supposed to be. This allows no chance for travel to try to find better fortunes elsewhere. It also makes applying and appealing refugee status decisions difficult as families must travel to Ankara for their appointments at the UNHCR and many people have to travel an entire day to get to Ankara as the placements are often in small towns in the middle of nowhere.

After our very short briefing we were actually taken down to the “waiting area” where asylum seekers wait for their turn to be interviewed. The room felt more like a holding cell than anything else. It was a small room. Smaller than my living room in fact. The walls were concrete, the floor was concrete. There was a small television with small, uncomfortable chairs crowding most of the room and a corner of the room held a small play area for children. This small area held one of those little plastic “mini playgrounds” that most people in the US or Australia would put in their living room. You know the one’s with two holes like Swiss cheese that had a little slide. The one’s that aren’t any higher than 2 ½ feet tall. It was definitely a dismal and grim area to sit waiting for hours on end. If the asylum seekers wanted any fresh air they’d have to go outside to a small caged area about 5 feet by 10 feet and they weren’t allowed out of that area once they had entered the premises. How these people can remain hopeful and positive after I had endured only 3 minutes of this awfulness is beyond me.

We were allowed to speak with the applicants in the waiting room and I have never felt like such a privileged little princess in my life. Words cannot describe the feelings I had talking to these people. I held my feelings in for the most part until I left, but on the bus to the next briefing I couldn’t hold back the tears. Who am I to complain about not having enough money after payday and bills one week to buy myself some chocolate when these people have no jobs, through no fault of their own? Who am I to complain about the cost of rent and the fact that my laptop is on the fritz when these people aren’t able to go back to the place they call home? Who am I to be annoyed that my friends are unable to come visit me when these people don’t even know if their closest family members are still alive? Who am I to complain about the cost of tuition when these people have to explain to their nine year old boy why he can’t go to the local school?

I, being the shy person that I am (shocking, I know) didn’t actually really speak with any of the applicants. I did listen while other people spoke to them about their stories. My only wish is that we would have had the chance to spend more time with them. We listened to a man from Nigeria, who has been an applicant since he was a young boy. His parents moved to Turkey due to civil unrest in Nigeria when he was very, very young and he’s been trying ever since to stay in the place he pretty much calls home. This guy had to be in his late twenties at the very youngest.

We spoke to a family from Iraq. The parents spoke very little English. Their boys, aged 12 and 9 both spoke perfect English though. I spoke with the boys about soccer. They seemed more interested in talking about that then about life in Turkey. They did say they enjoyed their life in Turkey though. They have friends and soccer. The family left, as far as I could make out, because they were no longer safe in Iraq due to the current climate now that Saddam is no longer in power. I’m unaware as to whether they were Muslim or Christian, but with the current climate, about the only place you are safe is in Kurdish Iraq. Ironic, isn’t it?

We spoke to another family fromIranwho had the most beautiful woman with them, who turned out to be their niece and she spoke perfect English. They had two young boys with them. I had so many different emotions going through me while speaking to this woman that it was completely overwhelming. She told us how they gave up everything and left everything behind to seek refuge in Turkey, which doesn’t allow them to receive refugee status, but can’t send them back if their applications go through. They were appealing the decision of their original applications, which denied them asylum and they had apparently been waiting for about 14 months for their interviews on their appeal applications. Generally speaking, most applications go through on appeal, so they shouldn’t have too much to worry about. However, there is still the issue that they are simply granted asylum. They still have no rights except for the right to housing and the right to have their children educated up to the age of 14. This actually presents a problem for them as their satellite village is a small one. They took their young boys, this woman’s nephews, to the local school where the principal/headmaster promptly told them that they were not welcome there and to not come back.

These boys have to be home-schooled as there is nothing that the family can do about getting them into school. They also have no way of making any money to feed the family and have serious issues with money and poverty. This story made me feel despairing, desperate and guilty. But she also said that she is so grateful that this part of her family is alive and no matter what happens to them in Turkey it is infinitely better than what would happen to them in Iran and they know they are not going to go to bed concerned about whether they will wake up the next morning or be taken into custody, never to be seen again. This woman was so inspiring. It never ceases to amaze me how hopeful and positive refugees and asylum seekers can be when so much has happened to them. It never ceases to amaze me how these people can live everyday and believe that things will get better, even when everything has been taken from them and things seem so dire. It makes me feel guilty that I bitch and moan about not having the money to afford a new pair of shoes that I want when the money I spend on them would probably buy the entire family food for at least a month.

While we were in the room we took a look at our surroundings and one of the most noticeable things was all the drawings on the wall. Many, many of the drawings had pictures of militia shooting civilians and families and burning houses. But the one’s with writing in English contrasted the pictures by saying things such as “I love my country” or “I want to go home”. Many other’s had pictures of families or the same pictures as previously described and said things like “I love Jesus”, “I love God”, “I love Allah”, “Jesus loves us”, “Allah loves us”, etc. Some said “Please save our country” or “Please save our people”. Many called upon European countries or theUSto save them.

One common misunderstanding that I have discovered is that a fair few westerners believe that Arabs or Muslims in general hate theUSAand hate the west. This is simply not true. There is an interesting dichotomy between Muslims growing up in the western world and Muslims growing up in Africa and theMiddle East. Many Muslims growing up inEuropefeel alienated by the culture they grew up in while trying desperately to hold onto the culture of their parents. Many Muslims in theMiddle Easthowever are fascinated by the western culture. The big problem is that many westerners don’t understand that people from other parts of the world actually understand that there is a difference between the government and government policy and the people that are being governed. This is something that seems a bit obvious when you look at the riots and revolutions in theMiddle Eastat the moment.

One of my peers who went down in a different group met a gay couple who wanted to get their message out to the world. Unfortunately, they didn’t speak English and their sign was not written in English so we couldn’t translate.

This was an extremely difficult and moving experience for me and I left the place crying just thinking about how these people may never get to go home, may never get to see their families or friends ever again while I would be heading home from Turkey in 2 weeks and I can easily go see my friends and family in the US if I need/want to.