This summer I had the pleasure of being apart of an 18-member group of students and professors that traveled to Turkey for a study abroad trip that has really impacted my life. Our goal was to study Turkish politics and the Syrian refugee conflict. The three weeks we were there, we engulfed ourselves with learning from NGO’s, think tanks, institutions and meeting directly with Syrians that had been displaced due to the war in their country. There are many stories that I can share, but for this sake of time in this blog, I will just share 2.
One of the biggest surprises to me was my apparent celebrity status in Turkey. I identify as African American, and much to my surprise, that automatically made me a rarity for the Turkish people. Myself and a another women on the trip that originally is from the Caribbean, found ourselves being followed and asked to take pictures with random strangers throughout the cities we visited. The areas that it happened the most were around the historical sites. We would be walking with our group, if we stopped and stepped to the outer edges of the pack, people would start snapping pictures with their cel phones or coming up to us asking if we would take a picture. For the first few times we thought they were asking us to take a picture for them, but once we agreed they would hand the phone off to a friend and jump in the picture with us. When one of our group members asked them why, they responded that they don’t see black people. At times it was a little uncomfortable but for me, I thought it was an opportunity to share and bring a smile to someone day. Every time we agreed to take pictures, the people were so happy you couldn’t help but to smile for them. They weren’t doing it out of racism but rather out of rarity. One of our group members that was white said that she had the same experience while visiting Ethiopia. The lesson I took from it all was that, when you are put in an elevated position for doing absolutely nothing, the least you can do is have fun with it 🙂
When we were in the city of Gazientep, which is only 40 miles from the Syrian border, we met a doctor that treats Syrian cancer patients. I found his story so remarkable and truly unconventional. This doctor began a practice in Damascus, Syria, and had offices in the major cities in Syria. When the war had taken its toll on the country, he opened and office in Gazientep. The really interesting thing is that he treats Syrian patients that still live in Syria. How he is able to do this is through the relationships he had built prior to the war. He remained non-political and non-discriminatory. As a result, people in Syria have a relationship with him from all sides of the war. So he travels back into Syria to get his patients, brings them to Turkey, treats them an average of two weeks, then takes them back to Syria. And this had been going on throughout the war. He said his only bad experience was when he traveled through an area controlled by ISIS. He was captured and put in a jail. The ISIS people found out who he was, and after five days of being detained, they freed him. Needless to say, he has never gone back in that area. I am still trying to wrap my mind around someone being able to freely travel through opposing sides of a war to treat patients.
Lastly, I filmed a documentary on the entire experience and I am sending that film off to Sundance Film Festival in less than a week. Wish me luck!!!