Money, like the Simply Red song says, “is too tight to mention”. Any tighter and I would never get any air into my oft sighing lungs. Sighing over the empty refrigerator that needs filling, or over the fast-growing feet of my daughter that require a new pair of shoes. I could go on with the list of life’s expenditures but it is exhaustive. This is to be expected and managed but when you live in a town where the economy is dependent on tourism, in the summer you feast and in the winter you famine. Unfortunately, the economy in Europe and further afield has adversely affected the livelihoods of the thousands of men and women who work here, my husband and his family included. So much so, that the summer feast is not enough to cover the winter famine’s debt and so we go sighing our way with worry through the spring hoping for the bountiful summer to wipe our debts and worries away.
Thankfully, the warmer spring weather brings the start of the tourist season and it is as if everyone in our town comes out of hibernation. Faces you greeted hurriedly in the cool winter air you now stop and chat with lazily in the warm sunshine. It is the time for ‘gezinmek’ in Turkish, literally meaning to just wander about which when you haven’t a lot of money is something fun that you can do for free. Most evenings, my toddler and I have the ritual of walking along the Marina close to our house. We see which new boats the tides have brought in, watch the tourists take in the town, wave at the familiar faces sitting enjoying their Turkish coffees and eventually stop for a rest at one of the restaurants owned by friends. Recently, during one of these evenings, my daughter and I were walking along our familiar route when our eyes met a sight not in the usual repertoire: the sight of two families sitting on worn woolen blankets beside the central mosque. They seemed to have their worldly belongings contained in a couple of suitcases and some cloth bags all piled up beside them. My daughter loving all things grassy and muddy, ran towards the families who were situated on the green. As she ran their children ran to meet her. Whereas she was small, blonde and well-dressed, they were dark, dirty and scruffy. There were seven of them ranging in ages from probably 1 to 7 years old. My daughter was wearing a sort of baseball cap and one of the older children cheekily flicked the cap of the hat up. A man sitting on the grass yelled at the child admonishing him, but I just smiled and laughed, wanting to show that I was not bothered by the behavior. Soon the children were all gathered around my daughter, touching her, flicking her cap, laughing and cajoling. They then decided to pay a game of catch me if you can and I found myself running along with them. When my daughter decided she had enough and ran away from the crowd, I turned around and waved at the families to which they waved back.
I walked away with my daughter amused but also concerned. Why were two families with small children living rough in the middle of Bodrum? I decided to find out which wasn’t too difficult in this chatty culture where the grapevine soon informed me that they were Syrian families. Sadly, the economic troubles in Europe are not the only forces affecting my adopted part of the world today, the political troubles in the Middles East are also affecting us. Understandably, people are fleeing from the fighting in Syria across the borders of surrounding countries and Turkey for many, is a close route to a safe and peaceful place. Turkey is a moderate Muslim country that has a fairly stable economy, strong military, and established culture. The people here have hospitality running through their blood and were I in the same situation as these poor folk, I would also have run towards this secure country. By the end of this year the UN estimates that close to 2 million Syrians will have done just that. When they arrive over the border there is help in the guise of one of 22 refugee camps, but more and more are moving away from the help that those camps can offer. Why? They are looking for better lives for their families. To stay in Turkey they would need to learn a very difficult language and they would have to integrate into a very welcoming but homogenous society that uses the same word for foreigner as it uses for stranger. There are cultural rules and nuances in Turkey that can be very daunting to learn. Additionally, without some money or connections it is almost impossible to move their families out of the camps and into a normal living situation. In Southern Turkey many Syrians have managed to do just that but they started with something and what if you have nothing? So to where should such forward–looking but disenfranchised persons look? Europe is the obvious answer and Bodrum is a mere 20 kilometres from the Greek Island of Kos.
The sad fact is that Bodrum has become a transit point for people risking their lives to get to Europe. The authorities of both countries are trying to stem their tide but to no avail. The City council started a publicity campaign regarding the issue after the Greek Coast Guard shot a Turkish boat captain who rather than obey their command to stop and allow a search of his boat decided instead to flee. Despite this there are still small boat owners who will, for a price, take a number of these predominantly men but increasingly women and children, across the short sound to their perceived promised land. If they can stay clear of the Greek Coast Guard for the almost hour it takes to quietly transit their route and then disembark to watch their passage sail clean away, they will have been successful. Discovery at this point would result in them pleading asylum and the EU regulations will come into effect protecting them from immediate deportation. Of course Greece is not the final destination, countries such as Germany, France, and the UK where more familiar languages are spoken, populations of Syrians are already living and social programs are extant, call to these displaced persons.
I wondered if this family would try their luck at a perilous crossing. I wondered what I could do to help them. I wondered if they and their children were cold at night sleeping under the stars. I asked my husband’s friend who is Syrian to find out so he went and spoke with them. He discovered that they were in fact people living on the Syrian/Turkish border. They were lucky as they were both Turkish and Syrian and had the papers, language and cultural know-how to live and work in Turkey. What they didn’t have was the money for a house, never mind daily food and temporary shelter. Thankfully, people were buying them food and giving them money. They told my friend that when ISIS was getting closer to their city, they picked up sticks and fled. They said: Those people are killing children. We are happy to be here even if we just have a piece of bread a day because we know that our children are safe. Think about that statement. I thought about it and it affected me to the core of my being.
Here I was fretting about my own troubles when in reality they are nothing compared to what others are going through. I am not fleeing a force of men who would kill me and my child. I am not crossing a still icy cold sea for my freedom and future. I am not sleeping outside with my husband and toddler in exposed surroundings. I have not just left everything that I hold dear in the world and ran away to another place only to be destitute and homeless but also to be happy and thankful for it. Needless to say, these words have sparked a total change in my attitude. I have stopped sighing at the sight of one expenditure. I have stopped worrying about how much money we can make this tourist season. I have stopped getting cross that I cannot afford whatever I want whenever I want. I have stopped seeing only what is missing and started seeing only what is present. I have started looking around our small but cozy flat and smiling. I have started being thankful every time I prepare a meal. I have started feeling extremely lucky to be where I am right at this moment in time. In short, maybe money is too tight to mention but it doesn’t matter now because I just realised that it is not even worth mentioning.