What to do in these challenging times and why

04/24/2017 05:22 pm ET Updated Apr 25, 2017
Anka Cooperation

Times are hard, and we all feel it. Impossible crises. Baffling outcomes. Human kindness taking a backseat as ‘ridiculous’ grabs the wheel. Each person for his own, for no good deed will go unpunished.

Few steps forward. Free fall backwards.

Coal plants will thrive to churn a few more years of paychecks until automation; a less questionable concept than climate science, takes ‘the bad guy’ role. And our poor old mother earth? She has survived worse – she will be fine. If not, too bad. Survival of the fittest: her rule, not ours.

Borders need to be closed as soon as possible, and patriotism needs to be resurrected.

So I stopped writing op-eds. Every issue can be argued for and against. Sudan, Syria, climate policies, and even gender and human rights are best left aside while we toy with easier concepts. Like to eat beef or not? Who said what? And a bad commercial.

Don’t get me wrong, some of these are cringe worthy and are worth spending time protesting. But what about the ones that are life or death? The ones we really need to debate and dissect?

Well, those better be left alone. It’s time to flush the ‘good for PR’, ‘sissy’, ‘impractical’, ‘bleed heart liberal’ discussions down the drain.

You want to open the doors because you feel bad for the children? Wait till a few bad elements sneak in and bombs your neighbor to pieces. Your heart bleeds when the national army pelts students in Kashmir? Wait until the insurgents and insolents invade your city or secede your state out of the country.

I agreed. And so I stopped.

But then, I was approached by Josh and Neslihan (Anka Cooperative). They had read a piece I had written on Huff Post on Syrian refugees. It was a helpless poem really. A complacent excuse in place of action. It’s what we literary sissies do best. Something I wanted to forget. But I responded to the invite and looked into Anka.

I approached this with cynicism (aka practicality). So what I asked the founders of Anka is what I hear all the time as counter arguments and challenges on supporting Syrian refugees in crises.

Me: First thing I need to ask you, to sate my curiosity, is how and why did you take a step to get involved? What are your connections if any to Syria? What are your day jobs? How did you find time and courage to take this up? What about the challenges you faced?

Neslihan: Our rug weaving production, kind of an apprenticeship program, has been mainly in Eastern Turkey since 1986. This geographic area has always been problematic. I personally check all active looms on each trip. I travel minimum 4 times a year. My hands on management style sets an example for what I/we hold dear: integrity in materials, weaving quality, finishing and human relations at all levels. I am a bridge between the loom and room. Weavers in Eastern part of Turkey are mostly young unmarried women; they stop weaving after they marry. Thus teaching weaving is part of life and the role of a teacher (me included) goes beyond the loom. There have been government policy changes affecting village life for the last 10+ years, thus loss of weaver pool. In September 2011, when the Syrian refugees came to Adiyaman province, I told the local government we would like to teach them how to weave, they eagerly accepted. What is different? It is not a village, it is a refugee camp. There is hardship. I communicate with the help of Turkoman ethnic group who speak both Turkish and Arabic. There are always challenges and joy- this is a given when you work with many people on a daily basis. We just deal with hardship and celebrate the joy.

Me: How do you manage the logistics of working in an area that seems so unsafe from distance? What is a day experience in a camp like? How is life living as a refugee, or as a visitor to the camps?

Neslihan: Working in this area comes naturally to me. Each camp is slightly different. Tents, containers, one family to a tent/container versus 8 families to a large tent with partitions. The last two years, I made a habit of visiting a tent on each trip. It gives them a sense of normalcy and me a glimpse of their life. There are half day schools for kids and young people, there are also trade schools like barber shop, computer school. The ones in camps are either in transition or they prefer to be there since there is organized services as education, health etc. Turkish government gives each person ~$22/month for their personal needs and food in addition to shelter. I have seen the Afghan camp in Pakistan- big difference.

Me: What about fears of violence? Terrorism? Bomb blasts? Bombings?

Neslihan: When there is extreme danger- like all stores are closed and there is a curfew- my people tell me to change my plans. In all the 30+ years, this happened 3-4 times. One was when Malatya airport was used in 1990 attack to Iraq.

Me: When you face people who have faced such overwhelming grief and devastation with compassion, it is easy to win hearts. But how confident are you that all the hearts you win are healed? What I am getting at is, how do you know the women you help, or men in their family, will not harbor ill intentions and bring into the rest of the world chaos once rehabilitated?

Neslihan: We have a saying: do good and throw it at the sea… I believe when human beings are separated they lose sight of the fact that we all have basic needs. Are there bad people? Yes. You put the good seeds, if one grows and becomes a tree, you are ahead. I always tell the story of the little girl and the starfish (attached my talk notes- see red)

Me: OK so if you are not sure you can screen all bad out, how do you still justify doing what you do? Not to yourselves, but to us lesser mortals who would rather not risk even one instance of terror from one amongst the million harmless, and if that means some children will be forgotten, some can’t be helped, we will make peace with that compromise.

Neslihan: I refused to go to Afghanistan or Iraq. The ones I know, who do/did go…they were in armored cars… I cannot be a judge of what they experienced. What I do cannot be done in a war zone. It can be in close proximity, a compromised way of life… but not war zone. Hope is very important. After the first shock and relief of being out of a war zone and fairly safe, next step needs to be get on with life, at least a hope of it… When hope dies, that is where evil finds home.

Me: There is an argument out there on whether or not a displaced people can ever be rehabilitated. Being a first generation immigrant constantly questioned on allegiance, and constantly sorting our internal conflicts on the same, I can somehow relate to this argument. What are your experiences and thoughts on this? What will you say to those who are uncomfortable with the idea of Syrians residing in Germany or Turkey, not only longing for home, but also rejecting values of the society that has sheltered them?

Neslihan: Germany is a very good example. When they opened their doors wide open for refugee workers, back in 50’s 60’s, a lot of Turks went there. Some straight from village. What happened? There is wealth of information…some people wanted to forget where they were, they want to raise their kids as a part of the new country, with no baggage…some created an existence- as close as possible to the “old country”. These are choices. I think it is very important that scholars and common people like me share the experience and history – so that the new refugees get an insight of the life to be and their choices. Path to basics (education-health-safety) then some kind of normalcy (working building towards a goal). By this time there is enough data to make headway in dealing with “refugee issue. Funds need to be redirected, part of the NGO system has to change. Human beings excel when they communicate. Learning from history without implanting hatred is an art we have to master. Do I have answers? Is that my role? I just am making a difference, however small or big. It fits to my expertise and for that I am blessed.

I left this discussion with new found energy, the same hopeless optimism again and remembered something.

I had wondered often how and why with issues such as poverty, gender violence, and staggering miles to cover on socio-economic parity, my friends and family back home get so riled up about what to eat, or a movie, but not that a five year old was raped again. Or that a drought has been raging in the heartland killing farmers. And my wise father had consoled me once this way: when the problems are too big, too much to think about, we often prefer forced apathy and divulge ourselves otherwise. It’s easier and less painful that way. His argument made sense to me. And what also did is the idea that then, by simplistically breaking down the complexities from the point of view of those who have taken some action, people can be moved to from one side to another. That is why I wrote this post. To present an example to help with what to do in these times and why.

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