Remnants of a journey to the sea

Along the coast of Çeşme, high sea gobbles down what is left from an exodus.

Just 80-km away from Izmir, Çeşme is a coastal town in the westernmost end of Turkey, once flourished as a trading port in the whole Aegean region. To the east lies the port city of Izmir, to the west lies the Greek island of Chios, Çeşme retains a strategic position as a crossing-point between the two metropolitan areas. With regular ferry connections with Chios, tourism has become the driving force of the peninsula, as resorts and summer houses dot here and there across the coastal line, drawing tens of thousands tourists from in and out the country every year.

Çeşme today is known for other function. It serves as a resting place for the refugees in the interim of their sea journey to Chios.

From Üçkuyular terminal we took the late morning bus to Çeşme. Buses to Çeşme depart every hour, and are always occupied. The passengers were nonetheless tourists, not refugees. It’s no longer the high season for tourism, but the weather in Izmir still approximates 26-27 degree, so no wonder there are still Turkish from across the country flocking to the their summer houses in Çeşme. The refugees, on the other hand, usually leave at night, either in Basmane bus terminal or in Üçkuyular. During daytime, they would stay in Basmane, which has recently been more commonly referred to as “la petite Syrie”, due to its vast number of freshly-arrived Syrian population. Though in the midst of the metropolis, Basmane is two times cheaper, busier and more accessible to basic necessities than Çeşme. Hence, most refugees would prefer staying in the city until they receive a call saying it is finally the time for Çeşme. If the wind is good, if the boat is not caught, then by luck, they would reach Greece. In the meantime, out and about little cafés in Basmane, the refugees are all packed up, ready to leave at any point of the day. Some have time to casually lit up a cigarette and sip a coffee, some hurriedly on the go. This cycle of movements has turned the streets of Basmane into full-time restless.

But Çeşme was nowhere near what I have imagined, perhaps I have chosen the wrong time to arrive in town. Unlike Basmane, where passerby can spot banners and board signs written in Arabic everywhere in the quarter, from money exchange, cafés, hotel rooms, jewellery to life vest for sales; in Çeşme, souvenir shops and fancy restaurants are blooming at full capacity. No refugees were in sight. No Arabic, Kurdish, Pashto were heard.

We walked about 7.5 km along the coastal line in search for any signs of the refugees. All you could see were nonetheless an assortment of five-star hotels and resorts, so engrossed in the landscape that you could hardly imagine the absurdity of the situation. Exhausted and dried up after a long walk and the burning sun, we arrived at a vacant beach area in the periphery of the city centre. We paused, and respited, for what we saw was just unbearable.

A half-drunk milk bottle, a pack of cigarette, a bandage with label in Arabic, a baby shoe, a life vest, some pieces of women’s clothing, all that were left from an incomplete journey. One cannot stop wondering how long they have lingered on this beach, was it yesterday, was it today? A picture of sadness, a sense of sympathy, you can only see the desperation with your own eyes.

A four-star hotel was nearby, I could hear some kids playing basketball in the background. We continued walking, until we arrived at a sloping hill. The urban area was then almost out of sight. We nearly hit the end of the Çeşme coast, where plausibilities to reach Chios are slimmed down, when suddenly we heard some noises in the bushes. A kid’s jolly cheering, a baby’s cry, the sound of a mother’s soothing! All mingled and buried somewhere in the bush beneath us.

We were curious, carefully walking downhill. The answer that we have long waited for slowly emerged. Below, some temporary tents and makeshift garment racks neatly cloaked in the midst of the backwoods. A black floating raft was hidden around the corner. We decided to take a more official way to approach the people, but we were soon discovered by an Afghan couple with a baby, who happened to walk across us. They were taken by surprise, the husband nervously smiled and said hi. His wife cautiously pulled him away before we had time to pose questions and express a desire to carry on a talk. This has happened to me several times. The men are not afraid of straight talks, of being photographed, but the women are usually more wary of strangers who simply ask too much.

We came down to the beach adjacent to the bush where the tents were. We could see from afar three figures coming towards the direction of the tents. They were Farid, Jamshid, and Hamed. The men just came back from town, bringing along with them food for the dinner. A lot of bread and a lot of water, some chips for the kids. We talked to Farid, who told us that there were four families staying there, one Iraqi, the rest are Afghan. It was getting dark, the sun was about to descend. Somewhere in the bushes, you could still hear the noises of the kids playing. If it weren’t for them, we would probably have never found out about the families and be able to talk to the men, to know more about their stories.

Farid was the sole Arabic speaker among the three, the others could nevertheless converse in Dari (a variety of Farsi in Afghanistan). Farid told us how he had actually been living in Turkey for a few years; how he had been struggling to find a job here as a khyat, a seamster — his job back in Iraq; how his boat had one time been turned away by Turkish coast guards. “If you are caught once, they let you go, caught twice, they will put you in prison”, he told us. This is Farid’s last chance to Chios. Farid is from Baghdad, and all he wants is a good education for his twins. Their boat was to leave at 1 a.m that night, and this was their last meal on the Turkish shore. Later on, Amin and Masud joined us for the shot, all jolly and optimistic, for they would soon to leave Turkey, unknowingly what would await them ahead. We bid them goodbye, despite their invitation to stay for the dinner.

On our way returning, we hitchhiked back to town. Our driver was Ihia, a man in his 40s, of Uzbek origin, with broken English but fluent Turkish. He has been staying in Turkey for four years, and has settled down with a job as a driver. His son is studying architecture. Ihia wants to visit some of his relatives in Sweden, but he doesn’t want to leave Turkey.

While waiting for our bus, we noticed a sudden twist in town. Here and there, fragments of Arabic replaced ones in Turkish. It was only the evening but you could already spot few refugees hurried back and forth from the Çeşme bus terminal. We sat next to a young man who spoke Syrian dialect of Arabic. Just across us, three men were exchanging in Arabic, seemingly indulged in their conversation. Transactions are usually made public via phone calls or applications such as whatsapp, secured and safeguarded in the Arabic language. In Izmir, trafficking is growing to become an industry, as more and more refugees arrive in the city.

We returned late at night, having seen from the bus’ windows some refugee families heading towards the direction of the sea. For them, the day just only began.

Çeşme, Izmir. 

(Reposted from Medium)

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