For Syrian refugees, even jail is paradise

In Istanbul, travelers exchange stories of destinations and setbacks

December 14, 2013 10:30AM ET
Nearly 150 asylum seekers arrested in a people-smuggling operation, Oct. 29, 2013, in Turkey’s Mugla province.
Ali Balli/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

“I know a woman in Izmir who has tried three times to make it to Greece by boat,” a Syrian traveler named Ammar told me.

“What happened?” I asked.

“Three times it sank, ” he replied

We met in the rooftop bar of the Nomade Hotel in Istanbul, enjoying the spectacular view of the domes and minarets of the Blue Mosque. I was in town with my friend Tzeli for a symposium celebrating Semiha Es, Turkey’s first female photojournalist, and we were chatting with Colleen, a woman from Philadelphia who had been traveling the world for almost two years.

That morning Colleen told me she was heading to Athens the next day, but then she was talking about going to Geneva or the U.S. instead. Her face glowed blue from her laptop screen as she clicked through plane fares on a discount travel site. “I don’t know. Maybe I should go to the States for a bit,” she said, tapping on the keyboard. “It’s so cheap now. My dad is 84. I could see him for Christmas.” Tap, tap. “But Geneva is so great in the winter!”

Ammar, a handsome man, maybe 35, with dark eyes and hair, dressed in neat jeans and a pressed shirt sat down at a nearby table. He and Colleen, who was divorced with grown children, had struck up a hotel friendship and talked about his trip up the Bosporus that day, how his baby girl had slept the whole way. Ammar was a businessman based in Qatar who moved with the elegance and grace of a dancer.

As he sipped his mint tea, I asked him about the situation in Syria. Speaking in a quiet, refined voice, the stories started to come out. The woman in Izmir, on Turkey’s west coast, was one of the only female engineers in Syria. Like so many of his family and friends, she had fled the civil war in her country and dreamed of reaching Sweden, which recently offered to grant permanent residency to Syrian refugees. Over 2 million people have left Syria since 2012. 

A few made it into the European Union. Others, like the woman in Izmir, were paying huge sums to unscrupulous traffickers who put them on unsafe boats and then abandon them, pocketing the money. If they are lucky, the Greek coast guard plucks them out of the water and puts them in a refugee center — or prison — in Athens. But getting from there to Sweden is extremely difficult, since the E.U. requires the country of entry to process all refugee claims first. 

Tzeli, a Greek, said to Ammar, “Refugees keep coming to Athens. But we have the crisis. We can’t handle them. There is no work.” 

“I understand,” he replied. “But for them, even jail is paradise.”  

‘It’s very common to find dead people in the sea off of Lesbos,’ Tzeli said.

He then told us a story about a Syrian friend who tried to get to Italy. The captain of the boat told them they were 20 kilometers from shore and transferred them to a smaller boat. “But they were 200 kilometers away, not 20,” Ammar said in the same quiet voice. “The big boat left and abandoned them in the middle of the sea.”

Tzeli is a native of the Greek island of Lesbos, which is just a few miles off the coast of Turkey. This summer in the resort village of Skala Eressos, where the poet Sappho was born around 600 B.C., two bodies washed up on the beach.  

“It’s very common to find dead people in the sea off of Lesbos,” Tzeli said. She didn’t know if they are identified, but everyone assumes they are refugees. “I’ve seen lots of wrecked-up boats.”

Ammar went out on the veranda to smoke. I followed him. We watched the steady traffic of massive cargo ships passing through the waters where the Sea of Marmara and the Bosporus meet.

“I’m from Aleppo,” he said. In my mind I pictured the photos I had seen of the ancient Syrian city and former Ottoman capital, which had been devastated by the war. “It was beautiful. Aleppo had everything that Istanbul has,” he said, scanning the horizon. “Everything.”

The sliding door opened. It was his wife. He introduced us, explaining that I am a freelance journalist. She looked at me with dagger eyes. Ammar put out his cigarette, and they left.

The next night I went to one of Istanbul’s famous old hamams, or baths. I paid the top price for the full treatment, which included being massaged by a zaftig Turkish woman in a black bikini as I lay naked on a marble slab under an Ottoman dome, enveloped in a frothy pillow of lemon-scented bubbles.    

Afterward in the soaking pool I noticed a woman with a very round face smiling at me through the steam. She was a nurse from Iraq but arrived in Sweden as a refugee in five years ago. She and her husband were vacationing in Istanbul. 

“Do you ever want to go back?” I asked. 

“No,” she said, still smiling. “My brother-in-law was killed. It was a suicide bombing, you know? Before, we had a quiet life, but that’s gone.”

“There are a lot of Iraqis in Sweden. And also Somalis,” she explained. “Now Syrians are coming too.”

Back at the hotel, I ran into Colleen in the bar.

“It’s booked,” she told me excitedly. “Tomorrow I leave for Geneva. Then Philadelphia for the holidays.”

We were all on the move, I thought, but some of us with more freedom than others.

Jeanne Carstensen is a cultural journalist based in San Francisco and Paris currently at work on a book about the oracle of Orpheus. Her work has appeared in Salon, The New York Times, Nautilus, Religion Dispatches and other publications.  

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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