An American Sailor’s Look at the Syrian Refugee Crisis In Greece and Turkey
Life for me took an incredible and dramatic change in April of last year. At 48 years old, divorced and feeling stuck in a dead end job in the north Florida city of Jacksonville, I found myself ready to take a chance on life. There was no violence, starvation or crime driving me to this life change and there certainly wasn’t war. No, for me this change came about because of romance. Meeting a beautiful, single Turkish sailor on a social networking sight, we soon fell head over heals and after she visited me in Florida, I decided to quit my job, liquidate my 401k and load my 31 foot sailboat on a freighter to see if the two of us could make a life together sailing the Turkish coast near her home in Bodrum…and eventually the world.
Landing in Istanbul on April 9th I experienced some mild culture shock, but most of this was moderated by my auburn haired girlfriend who was a professional translator and very fluent in English. We stayed for a month in her flat in Turgutreis, Turkey drinking Turkish coffee and toasting the sun setting over the stunning Aegean Sea as boats went to and from the D-Marin world class marina. Having business in Istanbul, and wanting to introduce me to her family and friends there, we flew to the ancient city for a ten day stay late in April.
There was not a meal missed, a night without a bed to sleep in or a moment that I didn’t feel safe. This was in spite the the concern of many of my friends and family in the U.S. when had I told them that I was moving to this incredible country which has remained an enigma to so many Americans. Istanbul was as contrast of cultures from the ancient, such as the centuries old Egyptian market, to the modern sparkling Trump Tower. Immigrants were everywhere and this was where I had my first look at the Syrian refugee problem. I was told that the Syrian refugees were fleeing on foot across the southern border of Turkey and coming into the country illegally, but that the Turkish government was turning a blind eye. It seemed that it was hoped that refugees would be sympathetic to the conservative, Islamic controlled majority party when they were able to vote. How familiar that sounded coming from America with a southern border that faced similar issues. On a photography tour of one of the downtown sections of the fifth largest metropolitan area in the world, I snapped a few photos of what appeared to be Syrian refugees begging on the street, but had no more contact than that and spent those ten days in April fairly oblivious to what was going on in my new country.
We made a quick trip back to Turgutreis for a few days to prepare for my sailboat’s arrival and then went back to Istanbul to offload her; my boat; my home; which contained all my worldly possessions. Intimidated by the scope of the Hydarparsa Marina in the heart of the industrial district, dismayed by the amount of money I was spending on this venture and fully dependent on my girlfriend to communicate to the half a dozen agencies we had to deal with, I honestly paid no attention to refugees on that trip. However, I did pay attention to the growing relationship challenges between myself and my petite, brown-eyed girlfriend. In fact, on the nine day motor sail through the Sea of Marmara, the historical Dardanelles and what is known as the Turkish Rivera, I realized then that we might be in trouble. Conflict is problematic no matter what the scale.
The next thirty days found us busy with the boat while trying to merge two lives that, as much as we tried to convince ourselves otherwise, were different enough that the strain was taking a toll. Three events of note happened in this time period. The first was a day trip into the resort village of Bodrum where we both noticed that there were a handful of refugees who had made their way to our sleepy end of Turkey. We discussed it briefly and pressed on with our daily lives of haircuts, visiting the Apple Store and the end of school year activities for my girlfriend’s son.
The second event was the presidential elections on the fifth of June. We were anchored on my sailboat out at a nearby island that day, but I made sure that my very patriotic lady arrived back at the marina in time to go vote. Her hopes were that the ultra conservative government would be voted out in favor of a more secular leaning party. The party in power failed to garner a majority vote for the first time in a dozen years, but no other party did either. Word was that this meant there would either be a re-vote or a coalition government formed.
This lead to the third significant event. Towards the end of June we were once again anchored out at our favorite island a kilometer or so off the coast. Just after sunrise, a Turkish battleship pulled close to the Turgutries Marina and dropped her anchor. I was the only one awake on the boat and became slightly concerned, having only been in this area for a couple of months. The battleship stayed for nearly a week and, as it turns out, was tasked with interdicting boats which were transporting refugees to the Greek Islands illegally. It seams with the conservative government out of power, the refugees no longer felt that Turkey was favorable to them staying. Again, this event had very little direct impact on me as I was focused on saving my crumbling relationship.
Late in June, in one last effort to salvage what started as a fairytale romance, I flew my girlfriend to the states to meet my family and attend my class reunion in my home state of Idaho. Completely removed from the Aegean, the crisis in Syria and the regional politics, we spent eighteen days trying to breath life into what was becoming a great heartache. The final day of our visit, my Turkish girlfriend, for whom I had moved halfway around the world, quit my job and left all friends and family for, decided that the relationship was over.
Stepping out of the cab at the Turgutreis Marina and walking down to my sailboat alone, I felt a shadow of fear begin to grip me. I didn’t speak or read Turkish. I had a ninety day visa that would expire in less than two weeks… and I felt utterly alone. No, violence had not put me there. Nor political unrest. Certainly not war like the Syrians were dealing with…well, at least not war between factions, just the war of the hearts of a man and a woman.
On the 28th of July I cast my dock lines off and left Turgutreis, Turkey sailing solo for the Greek island of Kos, with a heavy heart and everything I owned in my sailboat. Reaching the shores of Kos, I found that the marina was full and that I would need to anchor out for a few days until the charter sailboat traffic thinned out. Dropping my anchor about thirty meters off the shore of the city center, I settled in for the night. When I woke the next morning to see the sunrise, I was shocked as the shore was lined with refugees. Men, women and children bathing themselves in the sea and using the hoses on the public pier to shower and clean their clothes. I didn’t realize that Kos, due to its close proximity to Turkey was a landing spot for these desperate people fleeing their war torn country.
Needing to go ashore to officially check into Greece, I was met with hundreds of people lining the streets and scattered about in search of shade in the mid summer heat. Some had tents, others spread out blankets or tarps and huddled in little groups. While some looked poor, hungry and scared, others were using their smart phones and smoking cigarettes. I felt uncomfortable in this sea of displaced humanity who had all of their worldly possessions in a small bundle beside them, did not speak the language of the country they were in and were unsure if they would be welcomed or outcast.
Back on my sailboat, on one moonless night, as I sat in the cockpit of my boat, I witnessed an inflatable zodiac filled to overflowing with life jacket clad figures. Not knowing what it was, I grew nervous and wondered what to do if they steered toward my anchored sailboat. When they drew within a half a dozen boat lengths, I heard a voice cry out from the ferry dock causing the boat to immediately veer that direction. Later, I would be told by a Greek business man that the zodiacs were being assembled in Turkey for several thousand dollars, including small outboard engines and then the “passengers” were charged upwards of $5,000 each to make the open water trek to Kos. Once arriving on Greek shores, the zodiacs were slashed and the engines piled in a warehouse where no one could use them.
Kos really didn’t fit my idea of what I was looking for and after a week, I decided to move further south to the Island of Kalymnos. In my solo sail over to my new island home, I retrieved three abandoned life preservers from the sea and can only assume that they were cast off by refugees.
Kalymnos was a peaceful place where I was able to heal my broken heart and focus on my new career as a writer. However, the turmoil of the refugee problem was continuing to grow with thousands upon thousands seeking refuge in nearby islands hoping to catch a ferry to the mainland and make their way to countries like Germany.
Early in September, I was confronted once again with the issue when I sailed further south to the island of Tilos and witnessed a the crew of a catamaran being arrested by the Greek Coast Guard. They were offloading nearly forty refugees who had been crammed below decks in what had to be deplorable conditions. A day later, making the return sail to Kalymnos, I pulled another half a dozen life preservers out of the sea and began to wonder what was going to become of all this.
With the American Labor Day weekend approaching, my friend from the U.S. invited me to meet him in Munich for a few days. This required me to take a ferry to Athens where I was once again met with the plight of these displaced people. The ferry was overflowing with hundreds of refugees sleeping where ever they could stretch out; on a seat; in the hallway or even on the deck of the boat. For the first time I was also exposed to broadcast news and heard about the young Syrian boy who had washed ashore on a Bodrum beach only a few kilometers from where my boat had been moored. Like much of the world, I felt sick to my stomach.
During the fourteen hour ferry ride I contemplated how I felt when I found myself alone in a country with all my life plans changed and in a small way could empathize with these poor immigrants. Thinking of all the empty summer homes, partially built flats and vacant apartments throughout the Bodrum peninsula and the two Greek Islands I had explored, I began to wonder why this “crisis” was so overwhelming. Certainly there was housing available. My ferry ride was only fifty-four Euro, so why were refugees paying thousands for risky crossings in overloaded inflatables? If we could plan something as complicated as launching an unmanned spacecraft on a four year mission to a planet barely visible to the naked eye. Have the craft successfully land a rover on the surface of said planet and then send photos and scientific data back to earth from nearly a quarter of a billion miles…did we not have the brainpower to plan for the exodus of people from a war torn country?
Little did I know that my trip to Munich, Germany would land me right in the middle of the crises again as the Müchen Hauptbahnhof, the central rail station in the city, had become the hub of Germany’s answer to the refugee plight. In the three days that I was there, thousands of refugees arrived by train and were loaded on busses to be taken to several areas around Germany for housing and food. The German people responded with open arms offering food, clothes and even hugs to the bedraggled masses arriving there. A few weeks later, my friend from high school would visit the same city and spend time helping in a soup kitchen for the refugees. He was moved by the innocence of the children and the gratitude of the adults, as well as the welcoming hearts of his fellow volunteers.
Since last summer, many things have changed on the political fronts and an agreement between the European Union and Turkey seems to be a positive step towards stemming the dangerous crossings by boat. Certainly there is a long way to go, but here on the island of Samos things are very quiet. Sadly, the impact on the tourism industry for the islands near the Turkish coast will have severe repercussions this year. Unfounded fears of the refugees and inflammatory news reports with their 30 second sound bytes will keep many tourists from experiencing the beauty of these islands.
The observations in this article are just that. Observations. They are not meant to make a statement on the policies of any country. My hope was to show what one human has seen first hand without the bias of the news media clouding my thoughts.