When we were deciding where to go abroad, a large factor in our choosing Izmir is that as a port city on the west of Turkey it has become a hub for Syrian refugees. In Izmir, not only could we get trained as English teachers and explore another country and culture, but we would have the opportunity to volunteer and help people.
I think for most people something like this would not factor into where they would choose to live. But for us, it made sense. My boyfriend was a political science major whose specialty is the Middle East, and we have been following the war in Syria in its entirety, so for him this is incredibly important. As for me, I am deeply interested in other people and cultures, and this conflict and the resulting refugee crisis is ripping apart people’s lives. I wasn’t sure what I personally could do, but if there is some small way that I could help and positively affect someone, then I’m for it.
Not long after we finished our CELTA course, I was catching up with on Facebook and found REVI, the Refugee Volunteers of Izmir. They seemed like a good group with a focus on aid work and education, so we signed up for their planning meeting to check them out.
REVI is a pretty new group. I believe they’ve been around only a few months, and are not an official NGO or anything like that. I think both of these are huge plus points. It’s exciting to be part of something since almost the beginning, where all ideas are welcome, and there are a lot of different projects happening constantly that one can be part of.
They have a few different focuses, one of which is aid work. They meet with refugee families to find out about them and see how they can help, and give an initial food donation to build trust. If members of the family need medical attention, there is a medical team that checks up on them. If family members are looking for work, volunteers try to find out what skills they have to see how to develop those skills into a possible source of income. If there are school-age children out of school, REVI tries to help them get them into school.
Zac and I have gone a few times with other volunteers to visit with Syrian families to check in and play with the kids or to teach English. All of the families in REVI’s network live in Basmane, an older part of Izmir. Over the years, Basmane has been occupied by Armenians, Greeks, Jews, north Africans, and now has become “little Syria”. It is situated on a hill, piled with ramshackle old buildings with peeling paint and twisted, dirty streets. The conditions of the families we’ve visited varies, but none are good. However, whenever we knock on the door, we are always welcomed in graciously, and usually offered coffee or tea. Syrian coffee is delightful, flavored with cardamom that gives it an unusual savory-sweetness, and the tea is always sweet and strong. Pride is so important to humans, and I think that it means a terrible amount to these people to be able to offer something to their guests, so I always make sure to remark on how delicious it is and savor every sip.
Those who know me well know that I’m not really a kid person, so it means a lot that I am going to people’s houses to teach and play with their children! I do it for the kids, but more than that I do it for the women. These women have been through so much, if I can give them an hour’s rest while I entertain their children and help them laugh and smile, it is well worth it.
The first day we went to visit families it was the two of us along with a tall Irish man named Ciarran, and Hassan, a Syrian who has been in Turkey for 4 years and volunteers full-time with REVI. We went to two houses, and Ciarran, Zac and I played with the kids while Hassan talked with the adults in Arabic to check up on them. The first was a basement house, and quite damp, so many of the children had gone to stay with different relatives because they had been getting sick. We threw balls around with three small boys and played with puzzles, and Ciarran’s guitar was a huge hit.
This household was quite conservative, and all of the women wore the long black robes and head coverings that are typical for conservative Syrians. There was one young woman who never left the kitchen, and I kept catching her looking at me with shyness and curiosity. I told Hassan about it afterward. I wasn’t sure if I was perhaps offensive in some way, but he explained that it was probably just curiosity. He has two younger sisters who are also heavily involved in REVI, and they receive the same reaction when they visit. He told me that some of these young women don’t want to be covered all the time and kept in the kitchen and so are very interested and perhaps a bit jealous.
Later that week we joined Karina, a Polish child psychologist, and an Italian woman to teach English. We were teaching pretty young children, probably aged 4 -7, so we threw balloons to learn the colors and practiced the alphabet. One family we visited was particularly lovely. There were five of them, both parents and three children. What stuck out to me was how supportive they were of each other and how the father encouraged the whole family to learn, himself included! So although we came to teach the children we really taught the parents too.
Although none of us volunteers spoke Arabic, and between the family and us we had a very limited amount of Turkish, we managed to communicate fairly well. I learned that the wife was 28, the same age that I am, and was illiterate in her native language of Arabic. After watching her children learn how to write the letters A-G and with some encouragement from her husband, she picked up a piece of paper and wrote the first letters of her life. She proudly showed us and we all applauded. Just like that, illiteracy was broken for this woman.
The thought of changing the world is daunting. Yavaş yavaş. Slowly, slowly. One letter at a time.
We’ve been with REVI for several weeks now, and this account just begins to scratch the surface of all that we’ve seen, done, and been fortunate to be a part of. I must say, it feels incredible to be part of something like this, and to be part of a group of people that is so caring with such a dynamic energy to them.
Much, much more to come!