Tears in Istanbul
It was one of those perfect moments in time. We were sitting on the smooth stone steps in the square outside Yeni Cami, the New Mosque in Istanbul, devouring fresh doner kebabs from the nearby spice market. Surrounded by pushy pigeons, we were also drinking in the bird’s eye view of city life with awe and delight: the skyline minarets, the water, the bridges, the red and white flags flapping gaily in the breeze, the throng of local inhabitants celebrating Turkey’s National Day and the fascinated tourists sharing in their excitement. We saw stray cats ambling among the amicable crowd and stray dogs sporting ear tags to confirm they were kindly vaccinated by the Istanbul city authorities against disease.
The now familiar sound of the Muezzin calling people to prayer competed with traffic noise as we breathed in the aromas around us. We considered sampling corn on the cob or roast chestnuts from other nearby vendors, and even contemplated buying a packet of pigeon seed from one of the Mary Poppinsesque old seed sellers who, I assume, were calling out the contemporary Turkish equivalent of “feed the birds, tuppence a bag.” We were all very happy, right there right then.
Lunch over, it was time to move on. My mother had managed less than half of her kebab and I was about to toss the remainder into a nearby trashcan when a tiny child suddenly blocked the bin. She stared at me for a split second before grabbing at the kebab with both hands. In stunned amazement, I gave it to her. By now several other children had appeared and we were surrounded.
I recognised these kids as being the young children of Syrian refugees. They were all filthy, all hungry, all homeless and all had gorgeous dark eyes and dark hair. One little girl was wearing thick socks and tiny plastic flip-flops. She stumbled along as she tried to keep up with the others, some of whom were barefoot. One small boy was fully occupied with holding up pants that were too big for his diminutive size and scrawny hips. His pink girly sweater was stained, but his eyes were bright and intelligent. We’d seen many a Syrian family begging on the streets since we’d arrived in Istanbul. Survivors from a country practising chemical warfare, they squatted on pavements, cap in hand, with their worldly possessions wrapped in large plastic bin bags that could be trundled around on battered strollers when they gently carried their babies in unwashed blankets.
Still standing in the middle of the square, a slightly older child now snatched the kebab from the little one’s hands and bedlam broke out among the kids. Howling with anger and outrage, the little one lunged after the older girl, tackled her on the steps and caused her to fall. She was unhurt, but the tiny fighter regained possession of the kebab. She ran back to me for help. “You gave it to ME, didn’t you?” she indicated in desperate hand gestures as tears of despair trickled down her cheeks. The young kebab thief was also back and frantically trying to communicate with me. She pointed wildly at the four or five other small kids who were now gazing up at me with their tired, sad eyes. She hadn’t been stealing the kebab for herself; she had tiny hungry siblings.
I made a decision. Holding out my hand, I asked the hungry child to give back the kebab. Surprisingly, she did. I tore off a piece for her then shared the rest out equally among the other children. They swiftly swallowed their portions before rushing off as a flock, presumably to scavenge for their next bite to eat.
The whole incident was over in just a few minutes. Shaken, I now regretted not buying each child an own kebab. It would have been so easy. And a tiny contribution to their existence.
Some of the local people who had witnessed the division of half a kebab among several children made it clear that they, too, were unimpressed with my effort. But for entirely different reasons.
They don’t want fleeting tourists encouraging Syrian refugees to beg in Istanbul by feeding the children. They want these people to move on to another city or, preferably, to another country. Or another planet. Anywhere but their backyard. Their message was clear:
Feed the birds, not the children. These refugees are a shameful blot on the Istanbul landscape.
And it would be very easy to judge Turkey. To criticise this proud and historical country for not welcoming these poor, war-torn people into their home. These people who have witnessed horrors beyond our imagination; who have left behind their own homes, livelihoods and loved ones in a bid to survive and give their children a safer future, or indeed any future at all. But Turkey is a country that is struggling to get ahead and – with the best will in the world – the Turks simply cannot afford to support all the refugees who are pouring into their country by sheer geographical fluke. They just can’t do it. And no country should be left with the dilemma or being forced to swallow more than they can possibly chew or the shame of not coping with another country’s problem. Alone. Syria needs an internationally agreed-upon solution, and fast.
Because Syria’s refugees need a long-term, sustainable solution. Now.
Because these children are hungry, weary, dirty, and homeless victims of a war beyond their comprehension.
But a shameful blot on the Istanbul landscape? No.
A shameful blot on the global landscape? Absolutely.