As many of you know, I returned to Istanbul, Turkey in December to search out opportunities to work with Syrian refugees. I had planned to stay in Asia over the Christmas holidays, but was feeling a pull to return to Turkey and to help out with the refugee crisis in some way. What way? That, I was unsure about, but I began looking into volunteering to teach English. I have been here for six weeks, made connections with a couple of great organizations and finally found one that would be happy to have me teach English. The problem is, I am leaving Turkey in less than a week. My heart hurts because I want to stay, but I have plans in Amsterdam with friends and have to leave Turkey for a certain amount of time before I can return for longer due to visa regulations.
To make my heart hurt a little more (in the best way), today I met a remarkable young man by chance, sitting in a little cafe in Istanbul. He was sitting behind me at the cafe, working on his laptop and he ended up chatting with a Syrian man who was also at the cafe. I tried not to eavesdrop (impossible) but when he started talking about working with refugees, I tuned in rather than out. A few minutes later I barged right in to the conversation and starting firing questions at him as I found his story so interesting.
I will write a longer blog about this young man, David Boulton, sometime soon, but in the interest of getting this information out quickly, I want to get right to the point.
David arrived in Turkey in July 2015 to volunteer teaching English in the Sirnak Ezidi refugee camp near the Iraq border. As you have all heard, camp conditions are pretty much deplorable, but David was lucky enough to be working at one of the ‘best’ (that’s the best of the bad). He was the only educator for the entire camp and lived by the same rules, in the same lodging and with the same food as the refugees. They were lucky to have buildings instead of tents, they had water most of the time and electricity (albeit, intermittent) and the local city council did what they could to provide food for the camp.
The Nitty Gritty:
Around November 2015, David’s students began to leave the camp. Their families were tired, without hope and were wasting away just waiting for ‘something’ to happen. The weather had turned cold, the seas had gotten more dangerous and the prices from the traffickers helping refugees get out of Turkey, had dropped because it was ‘low season’. Many of the families were now taking advantage of the price drop to get their families out of the camps. Doesn’t this alone horrify you?
NOTE: Traffickers (from my minimal knowledge) recruit families, charge them large sums of money and then put them on packed buses or other transportation to get them to ports where they are then put on rubber dinghy’s or otherwise deplorable boats to cross the Aegean sea to Greece. As I’m sure you have seen in the news, many of these boats never reach shore and thousands of people have drowned in 2015 alone.
Refugees are herded like cattle; no human rights, no medical attention, no guarantees of their safety. However, they have no reasonable choice, as staying in a camp with no work, no education, minimal food, lack of safety and complete lack of hope, is not a life at all. Taking a chance on a trafficker and getting to a country where they can start a new life, at least gives them hope. The hope of a brighter future for themselves and their children.
This is an incredibly simplified description, but I hope you will understand my point.
These refugees have left their countries because of war. They have already fled their homes, left their entire life behind and often walked literally over mountains and run through gunfire to cross the border into Turkey where it is safer, although the camps aren’t safe by any means.
These refugees have literally fled situations where entire communities have been captured, families have been segregated into men / women and then often by age groups. Elders and adults are often shot and killed and then teens and young children are sold into slavery, or into the sex trade.
These people are the community members … Doctors, lawyers, teachers, mechanics, librarians, farmers, entrepreneurs … just like you and I. Fearing for their lives and that of their families, they fled their cities and communities in droves, often, with only the clothes on their backs. They are running for their lives, literally.
My heart aches as I write this.
How can this be happening?
Back to David’s students:
As David began to learn that his students and their families were leaving the camp with traffickers to catch boats to Greece, he knew he had to do something. He couldn’t stop them from going, but he could make an effort to help them arrive safely.
How you ask?
He started buying life jackets for these kids (and their families). These families were about to risk their lives to cross the Aegean sea on rickey old boats, filled over-capacity with other refugees. They were willing to risk their lives at a chance for a better life rather than living in fear, desperation and slowly dying in the camps.
David came to learn that traffickers were providing poor quality / fake lifejackets to these scared families and convincing them that this would increase their chances of survival across the sea. Appallingly, it turned out that many of these poor quality lifejackets were actually mass made in factories and stuffed with packing supplies that don’t even float. If it isn’t bad enough that they were poor quality, they were actually not floatation devices at all. (BBC News story and video – Jan 6 / 2016)
David started spending his own money to source quality lifejackets to ensure that these people he knew personally, would have a better chance at survival.
If that’s not amazing enough … he has continued to spend his own money as well as raising funds from friends and family in England to buy over 565 life jackets since November that have helped families reach safety. His own money has long since run-out, but his very supportive parents help keep him going so that all monies raised can go directly to purchasing life jackets.
His connections in the refugee community are mostly with Ezidi refugees from Iraq, but when possible he provides life jackets to any refugees that are in touch and can prove they are indeed refugees. He goes to great lengths to ensure that the life jackets are only reaching refugees and not falling into the hands of traffickers or other people pretending to be refugees.
He is here in Istanbul at the moment, as the camp that he was working at is nearly empty. Almost everyone has left or is in the process of leaving. Many of the refugees are routed by traffickers through Istanbul before heading to the ports to start their horrifying journey by boat across the sea. He often finds out that the families are coming to Istanbul only 24 hours in advance, the amount of time it takes them to travel by bus (arranged by traffickers) to Istanbul. The families then stay in Istanbul for only one to two days before being moved along to the coast to continue their journey. In this 24 – 48 hours he needs to go to the life jacket manufacturer personally (approximately five to six hours round trip) to get the proper size life jackets for the family. He then hand delivers the life jackets to the family where they are, or at a central meeting point. He makes sure that the life jackets fit properly and then the family are on their way. He also provides instructional videos on his website which show families how to properly use each size of lifejacket. Thankfully, although migrants don’t have much, they often have a cell phone to make calls and access internet.
What got me tonight as I picked his brain for more and more information about everything he has seen and done over the past seven months was this …
He has been working tirelessly trying to provide these families with quality lifejackets but his limited resources have run out. His friends and family / connections etc have supported him with amazing efforts, but at this time, he only has 12 lifejackets left in stock, all of them for infants.
Yesterday, he delivered an infant life jacket to a family who left on their journey today. The family had four children and he had to tell them that he could only provide one life jacket, the one for the youngest. This family, like hundreds of others will be crossing the sea on an unsafe boat, without lifejackets.
This tears my heart into pieces.
The big ask (which isn’t so big at all really):
I am only in Istanbul until Monday (sadly) and I want to do something to help while I am here and I’m hoping you’ll be compelled to help as well.
Life jackets (depending on size) cost $21 – $41 USD per person. Families range in size, but I’m aiming to cover a family of seven members. That comes to just under $200 CAD approximately.
“All our lifejackets are made by reputable suppliers, are SOLAS certified and are suitable for non-swimmers in rough seas. They will turn an unconscious wearer face-up and keep their nose and mouth above the water.”
I want to be upfront in saying that Life Line Ezidi is not currently a registered charity. David hasn’t had time to go through the bureaucracy of getting that set up yet (if you’ve ever tried to start a charity or organization you will sympathize with this!). What he is doing, is keeping track of all monies received and publicly showing receipts for all purchases. All money donated is going directly to the life jackets. It isn’t even going to his transportation / living / cell phone costs. He’s living very minimally and his amazing parents are helping to keep him going.
Have I mentioned that this amazing David fellow is the ripe old age of 20? Yes. You read that right. He is just a damn amazing 20 year old (as ‘Green as a meadow’ in his own words! ha ha). He doesn’t have savings from working all of his life, he just believes in doing what he can.
If I raise the $200 quickly enough (before I leave on Monday), I will go with David to the manufacturer to pick up life jackets and deliver them to the family. He is checking with the family now to see if they are willing to be photographed and have their story shared. Understandably so, they may decline due to safety / security reasons. But, if they agree, I will share photos when I can.
How can you donate?
Go to David’s website and donate through pay pal. Then send me a quick email (firstname.lastname@example.org) to advise me of the donation amount so that David and I can track the donations to ensure life jackets, in the right sizes, are purchased for an entire family. Of course, if I raise additional money, more life jackets will be purchased for other families. If I don’t reach my goal of $200, that’s ok too, any money donated will still go toward life jackets, it would just mean that the entire family would not be covered. I’m sure that with your help I can reach $200 though!
It’s a small ask, that will make a big difference. Can you spare $25 CAD to make sure someone has a life jacket to continue an already traumatic journey? If you can’t spare $25, donate $5 or $10 … every little bit helps and is greatly appreciated!
1 … 2 … 3 … Donate!
PS – before I even got a chance to post this, I’ve decided to go with David today to pick up some life jackets that he received donations for just last night. Watch my Facebook and Instagram feeds for updates on this journey (provided I have cell service)