Syrians On Standby In Istanbul

January 12, 2016


Out past the main tourist sights, the beautiful waterways and the business districts, is a city that pushes into a collection of divergent worlds. The sheer magnitude and dynamism of this place are tough to get your head around. Istanbul is one of my favorite places on the planet for this reason. The beauty, food, people, and architecture… and for a city with such a history and size, the lack of arrogance is a refreshing reward.

But this isn’t a story about Istanbul. Instead, Istanbul is the theater for this story… a theater for one of the world’s current tragedies.


This tragedy is held captive at the Aksaray metro stop, not far from Istanbul’s famous Hagia Sofia Mosque, and the legendary spice bazaar. Contrasting from Istanbul’s charm, Aksaray represents the devastating story of a mass exodus of people migrating from one part of the world to another.

And since I had some of the most rewarding times of my life in Syria in 2007/08, I felt a pull to get closer to the Syrian story.


Aksaray Metro station

A long and clean escalator moved me from the subterranean up to the square. The surroundings at Aksaray appeared normal. It wasn’t the most charming place in a city laced with charm, but the ‘edge’ I heard about, didn’t feel edgy.

Upon closer observation, differences manifested: Arabic signs, Syrian restaurants, and the sounds of Arabic pop music escaped from small shops.


The words ‘refuge’ and ‘humanitarian crisis’ usually conjures imagery of poor people in tents, but Aksaray didn’t feel poor. The Turkish metro and the large square around it are attractive; there is even a new and clean public restroom that one might imagine out of a place like Switzerland or Singapore.



But rubbing up near the surface is a complex undercurrent hidden beneath the facade.

I walked away from the square, turned a corner on a narrow street, and entered a small and attractive coffee shop. My intention was a caffeine buzz, but instead, a buzz of geopolitical reality and human tragedy hit my system … people turned their heads, eyes opened up, curiosity ensued.

“Welcome, how are you?” a tall and well-dressed man said to me with an inquisitive look.

He pulled out a chair and motioned for me to join him and his friends. I opened my mouth; a few words fell out of it before he interrupted me.

“Oh my god, you speak English,” the man said. “Listen to your English, it is native… wooowwwww,” he continued in a deep and slow voice like I was some sort of rare species.

Curiosity peeked around me.

“What would you like?” the man to my right chimed in.

My senses had a limited grasp on the situation. An uncontrollable awareness shot through my nerve endings, like an adrenaline hit, but without the fear component.

Hospitality ensued; I looked down at my hands… a cup of tea placed in one hand, and a hookah pipe in the other.

Syrian refugees and American in Istanbul, Turkey

Instead of watching the Syrian refugee crisis unfold on T.V., I sat in the front row… awakened by the reality that one of these stories could be my story, or a friend of mine’s story, or any person’s story….

The only thing that’s keeping all non-Syrians from this truth is the simple fact of geography. And right now the Syrian geography is cursed.

Many of the refugees are businessmen, doctors, lawyers, teachers, and scholars.

The guys opened up and told their stories…  (faux names used below)

First was Muhammad, he’s been away from Syria for two years, alone. His parents both shot in front of him, his blue eyes fixed wide open to the harsh deck of cards the world dealt him. He’s young and stuck. He can’t go back to Syria, and he can’t get a visa beyond Turkey. He’s 21, and at the end of a youth that’s disappearing in front of him.

Istanbul is some of the only geography he can stand on, a geography he dislikes. He said the Turks look down on Syrians, he hates it, and wants to get out.

“But where do I go?” he asked me with an immeasurable look of hopelessness.

His suffering wasn’t desperate or panicked, but instead a beat-down realization of his fate… approaching another day laced in insufferable pain.

Muhammad smiled at me… moments of happiness touched our conversation, but pulsating at a quick cadence behind that smile was a palpable feeling of pain that was too great to conceal. A feeling so strong, it shot through me with the intensity of a small eclectic shock.

For a moment I felt as powerless as him… wrapped up in the world he radiated, but there was nothing I could do. Nationality and cultural differences dissolved, a force much deeper than those programmed constructions took over… a feeling that strips away all external identity… a feeling of humanity.

And next to my father dying in my arms years earlier, my experience with Muhammad was as human and visceral as it gets.

Then there was Ahmad. A stout guy owning the calm assurance written across his face. Perhaps his demeanor was a wall to his suffering, but he didn’t radiate it like Muhammad. Ahmad, a man with business and opportunity on his mind, and a love for beautiful women and Dubai. He ran a successful travel agency in Syria and is well traveled.

Ahmad took to Turkey, and was already setting up a new business.  He thinks Turkey is a great country, and he said with pride, “I’m happy to be here.”

He sipped his steaming coffee slowly, and took a long drag from his cigarette… Ahmad peered through the window with focused eyes, looking out for more opportunity. Turkey has money, and he’s going to tap into it.

And lastly Abbas… Abbas, a well-dressed and educated man; he’s received his Ph.D. in western philosophy. Ironically his focus was German philosophy. He managed to move his wife and daughter to Germany, and he’s hopeful that he will meet them there in the next year.

Abbas is looking strongly forward to his new life. A guy that anyone would want in their country: because he’s both an asset with his personality and mind. And if he can pull it off, Germany will be a better system for his way of thinking than a stable Syria was.

American and Syrian in Istanbul, Turkey

I came back days later for more conversation.

There are millions of stories to be told from Syria, and like snowflakes, no two are the same.

This experience consumed my mind for days…. These three different stories were more than stories, but reflections of different personality types—personality types that have nothing to do with the country, but instead have everything to do with the internal wiring of an individual.

There is…

-The person who’s seen so much horror and suffering, their scars will control their lives, and their mind will always be held prisoner to their past. They only function well in their country and culture… the rest of the world seems foreign, rough, and inhospitable.

-The person who can spot an opportunity from miles away, and will find ways to navigate it. The country comes secondary; this person adapts to changes and thrives wherever. They will move beyond their past and start anew looking only in one direction: forward.

-The last type of person is the one who will reinvent themselves, and navigate to a system that will allow them to reach their optimum self. A system that is more in-line with their ethos and ideology.

I attempted at paying for my tea…

Abbas’s deep voice deepened more like a news anchorman, his face tightened with concern, “No, Peter you are our guest. Noooooooooooo, there is no way you will pay for a thing.”

I looked at him and moved my hand slowly towards my wallet.

Abbas’s eyes caught my hand.

“You are our guest,” Abbas repeated slowly with his head lowering and his eyes raising like I was guilty.

And like a dream, I flashed back to my time in Syria; the time when the country was stable, when Santa Claus walked freely around the streets of Damascus at Christmastime… when nobody would let me pay for a thing.

But how was it possible that a group of guys freshly out of civil war were paying for me now?

I wished my new friends well; they had reached out to me, but I felt limited. I had nothing to offer them in return: no solutions, and no words of encouragement.

A hunger pinged my stomach, it was the first time I had thought about food all day, a sign that my day was ensconced in an intense flow. I walked around the corner to a Syrian restaurant for dinner.

The well-lit restaurant fed a Syrian clientele, a people waiting on standby for politicians in the Middle East and Europe to decide their fate. Grounded like a plane on the runway waiting for the weather to clear…

But for many Syrian refugees, the weather hasn’t cleared for years.

A boy with ripped clothes and a dirty face ran from table to table selling candy. A man with a clown mask blew on a party noisemaker that he wanted pennies for; the high-pitched screech cut through the fragility of the situation.

At the end of the meal, the Syrian waiter came over with a smile, a free dessert, and a heartfelt thank you… like a thank you for noticing him, his restaurant, and his people.

I walked to the metro, the escalator pulled me back into the earth… away from one divergent world and into the next. The modern metro sped rapidly beneath the surface of the city with a smooth and sophisticated hum, stations and people blurred by.

Moments later, I sat perched on my hotel rooftop overlooking the Bosporus Strait: the large oil tankers on their way to the Black Sea, the massive lit-up mosques sparkling around the city, the colorful bridges, the dark outlines of birds overhead… the charming Istanbul that’s baked into so much of its DNA.

Poking through the darkness of the sky, four lights made a long line. Roaring engines flew overhead; immediately a light far off in the distance emerged from the blackness to replace it. The conveyor belt of air traffic flowed into the city at two-minute intervals.

Night in Istanbul, Turkey

Lights of the planes (left)

Citizens of the world came and left Istanbul by the thousands during my short time on that rooftop. They came and went freely with ease… jet fuel and the thrust of large engines at their disposal.

The “weather” clear, always clear for these people… clear for me.

But as a plane flew over my head, I thought of that same plane flying over Aksaray only seconds later, and how it represented something different for the Syrians below.

Every two minutes… a jet, the constant reminder of a world free to move about. The world moving by as they are on standby, standby on the only runway that will allow them to exist at this time.

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