Too Sweet For Sugar

The noise goes on all day till midnight, the car horns, the hawking, but mostly the car horns, and then it dies down until two in the morning when it starts all over again. But that’s OK because I’ve drunk eight cups of coffees with eight different Syrian families in their homes today and I’m buzzing, so I can’t sleep anyway.

It’s Turkish coffee too, strong, thick grains boiled in a pot with a side handle, over an open flame. I’ve never drunk coffee like it and I don’t drink coffee, but it’s part of the ritual so I have it with a heap of sugar not to be rude.

The city smells of coffee, and cardamom and sluggish sewers and the days are very long. It’s hot, it’s a baking heat, even the full breath of the sea breeze can’t penetrate many streets back from the seafront. I’ve never experienced a city on the sell the way Izmir is. Everywhere there are people sitting in the shadows waiting for someone to drop a Lira in exchange for something, on the pavement with tissues in their laps, all along the street with second-hand clothes, beside their bread stalls, pushing their lottery ticket carts, outside their stores. Selling. Selling.

The city is harsh, panting in the heat, and the refugee story is a shadow on the wall.

At the beginning of the week a small team of us – a translator, two women to chaperone us and play with the children, and an English speaker who enters all the information into the spreadsheet that logs all our movements for the record – find a family, explain what we’re doing, and then find out what they really need, and create a care package.

That family tells us about another family next door, or down the street, or around the corner, and we repeat the process. This is done as a one time helping hand, both so we don’t create a dependency and so that the small scale operation can cover a city, community by community. Then we go shopping. We buy nappies for babies, baby food, sanitary products for the women, food for families and maybe any medications they need,  from cough mixture for the children to diabetes treatments.

Then we go back to the family with it all, and we hand them 200TL to buy the ingredients to cook a meal for us all to share together. They can keep whatever they don’t spend, this way it’s not a hand out; it’s dignified, and we all gain.

Too Sweet For Sugar, Benjamin Gow

What a thing to do together, to break bread and share lives.

That 200TL can be the equivalent of one month’s rent, for some of the families I’ve met. Sometimes the rent is more of course, but it’s a way to understand what a difference this can be. 200TL is about £50, and makes all the difference here in this world.

A world where refugees are existing between worlds, on the cusp of that leap of faith into the dark smuggling route between here and there; on the edge of that jeopardy and hope.

Or not. Some can’t afford it. Ever. Others don’t know what to do, Some are just terrified. Of the sea, of the risk. Of NATO. Of the detention camps. Most are waiting to go home.

So many stories are just at the end of their tether, with nowhere left to go. Existing in a holding pattern over reality.

Somehow in all this, this hard, hard, work, in the relentless heat and noise, I feel the difference we are making is… oh I don’t know, it’s unsung; there’s no dramatic life and death playing out in an instant, it’s complicated and the suffering is slow, bleak, painful, sad, and played out down many dead ends, but, against the odds, we’re quietly trying.

Everything is different. The culture is of course, but the refugee story is too. The work here is small, and intimate, and very personal. It’s one family at a time in a city that is 7,340 km², that’s seven times bigger than London, it’s ten times the size of New York. You wouldn’t know any Syrians were here if you were walking down the main streets. You have to push through to the backstreets, to the forgotten streets, to find the refugees to help them. It all works on word of mouth and introduction, down littered streets and through hidden doorways.

Here the volunteer work is not a solution, it’s a human exchange. It’s a moment of relief, it’s a moment of humanity. It’s everything we can do, everything we’re allowed to do. It doesn’t change people’s stars.

At first, I thought maybe it was just too little to be effective, but slowly over the week, I’ve begun to feel it. It’s more of a whisper here.

We find people, and create relationships, and go out all over the town and find the things they need, and carry very heavy shopping bags up steep hills, in twenty-five-degree heat. We sort through what donations of clothing we have, and dust them off, and then we do that seven more times a week. Each time we do that it’s a break for the refugees, for the women, it’s a relief for a family, it’s another connection made.

The failure of kindness in this world is everywhere, but who, in our life, do we remember with most warmth, with deep affection? For me, it’s any person who has been kind to us. When we hear those stories we say to ourselves “our faith in humanity has been restored”, we smile.There’s no pity, that wouldn’t be useful, and it’s not as colourless as being nice, it’s a really normal and yet strange deliberate act to feel someone else’s pain and then do what you would need if it were you.

There’s no pity, that wouldn’t be useful, and it’s not as colourless as being nice, it’s a really normal and yet strange, deliberate act to feel someone else’s pain and then do what you would need if it were you.

Their pain doesn’t go away but somehow it gives the pain meaning, to bear witness to it makes it easier to endure.

I sat down with a family a couple of days ago and of course they offered us coffee, of course, I said “yes please” to sugar, but then the mother said she wasn’t going to give me any as I was too sweet already. Then she said there was a lovely girl living up the stairs on the next floor, would I like her to introduce us.

We all laughed, a lot. In a normal, ordinary and real way.

2 Responses to “Too Sweet For Sugar

  • Lala Woods
    3 years ago

    Beautifully written. I felt I was with you there in Izmir, in the noise, the heat and the despair

  • brigitta
    3 years ago

    whatelse can I say then ‘so sweet’!?

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