At first glance, the crowds outside the train station in Izmir, Turkey, could have been picnickers. In the balmy August night, groups of young men lounged on the grassy medians. Children darted from parent to parent under the yellow glow of streetlights.
Yet the atmosphere was far from festive. The street felt like an airport terminal, abuzz with anxiety and excitement. Some people spoke urgently into phones; others rifled through their backpacks. A man bounced his daughter on his knee, staring out at the passing traffic.
Izmir was the second stop on a summer trip with my husband and father. The next day, we would take a ferry to the Greek island of Chios, famous for its fortress towns, and then another to nearby Mytilene, where we would meet my mother-in-law for our biennial beach vacation. On each trip we take a different route to Mytilene to see more of Greece and Turkey before settling in for swimming, reading, and tzatziki. But this year, the road we’d chosen to relaxation was the same path followed by hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan.
Izmir, a midsize port city on Turkey’s southwest coast, usually draws tourists interested in its multicultural history; it has a pier designed by Gustave Eiffel and a famously ornate clock tower. It also has excellent bus, train, and plane service, making it a natural staging ground for smugglers moving thousands of people each night.
When I’d boarded my plane from New York, American media had just begun to cover the situation. There’d been no mention Izmir as one of the hubs of the crisis, or of the commercialism that had developed as a result. The cash-for-gold shop was packed. A clothing store had outfitted its mannequins with life jackets. A black market of secondhand clothes and household goods had sprung up, consisting mostly of items sold off or jettisoned to speed the trip across the Aegean on an overcrowded rubber dinghy under cover of darkness.
My family crossed to Chios in daylight, in an hour and a half, on a regularly scheduled ferry. More refugees were gathered around the boat harbor when we arrived. Here, people slept on benches or sat staring at the sea. Chios was the end of one trip—out of Syria, across Turkey, and officially into Europe. But it was also a tiny rock in the sea with a freefalling economy and surging unemployment. So it was also the starting point for another, even longer journey, to the mainland and then farther north, to more prosperous countries such as Germany and Sweden.
I visited Syria three times between 1999 and 2009. I was charmed by the exotic details—the fresh mulberry juice, the sumptuous hammams—but I was more fascinated by how familiar and functional the country was. In stark contrast to the American political rhetoric about Syria, Aleppo and Damascus had a cosmopolitan middle class that commuted to work, went to movies, and drank fancy coffee. Axis of evil, really?
Everyone I met was gracious, kind, and interested in the wider world. People shared meals, posed for goofy photos, and asked about American policy, listening patiently to my not-so-great Arabic. At the end of my first trip, a teenager selling cold drinks smiled at my greeting and gave me a free can of Pepsi and his mother’s phone number, so I might have a good meal when I returned.
I thought of him now, 16 years later, as I left a bundle of leftovers from dinner with a group of men sitting outdoors before hurrying to board the next ferry out of Chios.
Mytilene, the largest island in the Aegean and at some points only six miles from Turkey, is the top destination for those traveling by sea; more than 100,000 people have landed here this year. When we arrived, the parking lot of the port was crowded not with the usual handful of taxi drivers and truckers, but hundreds of people sleeping on pieces of cardboard and sitting idle in the sticky heat.
Our destination, on the west side of the island (also known by its ancient name, Lesbos), faced away from Turkey. No refugee boats drifted ashore there. It was summer business as usual: grilled octopus, outdoor movies, lazy swims in the clear bay water. Smooth as oil, as the Greeks say.
But I couldn’t ignore what I had seen. After a few days, I returned to Mytilene’s east coast to see how I could help at Kara Tepe, the designated spot for Syrians and Iraqis to wait for permits to travel off the island. Because of the war in their countries, they are granted passage to Athens automatically. But the bureaucracy, slowed by the economic crisis, could take several days—sometimes even a week. That left people stranded in this makeshift camp, a big parking lot once used for driver training, and the dusty olive grove next door.
Locals who wanted to help joined a small and disorganized effort. The only official aid presence was a tiny trailer staffed by Médécins sans Frontières, and there was no government representative or other leader to delegate or direct volunteers. But it wasn’t long before I found myself in an ad-hoc outdoor kitchen with a handful of Greeks, cooking lunch for camp residents. As we began to prepare a large pot of spaghetti sauce, a trio of young Syrian men in tank tops and backwards baseball caps approached. “Do you need any help?” one asked politely.
I handed one a knife, and he joked to his friends, “Yalla nchayyef, ya shabbab!”—“Let’s chef it up, boys!” The men—who it turned out had all cooked in restaurants—snapped on rubber gloves, and within minutes had precision-sliced a large bag of onions and tidied the work table. Once the sauce was simmering, they planned the most efficient way to serve the finished pasta. When a crowd of hungry people surged forward, another team of men stepped forward to maintain the line.
To the Syrian palate, this Greek lunch, though cooked from scratch with fresh tomatoes and generous glugs of olive oil, was lacking. Mahmood, a tall young man with thick eyelashes, cast a sad glance toward the Greek lunch table. “Aleppo has the best food in the world,” he said, referring to his city’s famously refined sweet-savory concoctions, like tiny lamb meatballs simmered in sour-cherry sauce. “But this…” He shook his head. “If the war ended, I would go home tomorrow.”
For those with money to spare, there was the kantina, a camper-van café set up by the MSF trailer. The pretty young Greek woman at the counter had learned enough Arabic to confirm people’s orders: one sandwich, three iced coffees. Her female customers smiled and the men swooned. One stood to the side of the kantina and led an English lesson: “Say, ‘I. Love. You,’” he told his friends. “I. Love. You,” they parroted back.
All around, I saw other attempts to live normally. A man sculpted his hair just so in the side mirror of a van. A teenage boy and girl exchanged numbers. People charged their phones on a long daisy chain of power strips, spliced into the base of a streetlight. “Everyone in Syria knows how to do this,” a man told me, gesturing at the extemporized wiring. “We learned because of the war.”
After watching the migrants in Izmir, waiting with their life preservers, I was encouraged to see people looking resilient in the midst of the most grueling trip of their lives. But the positive attitude faded in late afternoon when a Greek police officer arrived to distribute the day’s travel permits. A dense crowd quickly formed in the road at the mouth of the camp.
Yelling into a feeble megaphone, the cop bungled the foreign names. “Ma-her Seed-kee?” The people closest by shouted again, with proper Arabic intonation. “Mahir Sidqi!” Those farther out in the crowd strained to hear. “Uskut!”—“Shut up!”—they snapped at one another. They repeated the names. Mohammad Sidqi? Maher Siddi? Cicadas droned incessantly in the olive grove. One frustrated girl threw a handful of rocks at a tree, in an attempt to silence them.
Eventually, a few names were matched to people. They emerged from the middle of the crowd, permits held high in triumph, and walked back up the driveway to collect their belongings for the next leg of the trip.
Roughly 2,000 migrants remained to wait for their papers at Kara Tepe, ranging from small babies with heat-rash on their cheeks to wrinkled grandfathers. But many were men in their late teens and early 20s—prime fighting age.
One was Yaman, a gangly, outgoing engineering student from Aleppo. He was midway through college, he explained, and would surely have been drafted into the army had he stayed in Syria. Now he was bound for Germany with his brother and mother, a doctor who specialized in women’s health. (The majority of refugees from Syria are professionals, members of the educated class.) Yaman hoped to complete his degree there and his mother hoped to continue supporting the family by joining a local practice. But he worried about racist attacks on Syrian refugees in Europe. “Where do radicals get this idea about the meaning of jihad?” he asked. “Jihad just means to study hard.”
In nearly flawless English, he told me that the war had made it difficult to study. His exam scores had not been as high as they could have been. Did he know the phrase “extenuating circumstances”? I asked. “Yes, of course,” he replied, with a wry smile.
In the four days I visited, I met more students, farmers, former political prisoners, and an Arabic teacher who was so excited to meet an American who spoke his language that he launched into an impromptu lesson. At some moments, I felt the same easy familiarity of a travelers meeting in a hostel. Yet I was acutely aware of our differences. A short drive across the island, I had a soft bed, a warm shower, and air-conditioning. My trip, during which I had sprawled in the sun by choice and swum in the Aegean for fun would end in another week. Their journeys would go on for months or years.
But in those days at Kara Tepe, travel felt more essential than ever. Travel to Syria when I was younger had shown me regular life there. Travel had brought me to another side of a Greek island I thought I already knew and introduced me to Syrians I had not seen written about in newspapers: the volunteer chefs; the flirting teenagers; and funny, smart Yaman, the future engineer.
Yaman’s family had passed through Izmir only days after I had. For $1150 a head, smugglers had packed him and his family into a boat with 45 others. Offshore, the engine failed, and they drifted for hours until the Turkish police took the boat back. Another night, they tried again, on an equally packed boat, and succeeded.
The story was not as harrowing as some, but it still shocked me. Yaman saw my look of worry and grinned.
“Yes, what a story it is,” he said, with a hint of pride. “One day, I can tell my kids about it. They won’t believe what their father did.”
In mid-September, the author learned that Yaman had made it safely to the mainland, where he and his family are now in a refugee camp outside Hamburg, Germany. Yaman will have to wait for his asylum application to be processed before he can attend university, but in the meantime he is teaching himself German.