Volunteering with refugees in Turkey
After hitchhiking for three days straight from Romania all the way to the Anatolia region in Turkey we were exhausted but excited to finally arrive in Çeşme. The city is most frequented by Turkish tourists for its amiable bay area with marina and shops, but we had a better reason to be here. We were here for a month of volunteer work with Imece Inisiyatifi, a local humanitarian organization which main activity has been supporting refugees for the last two years.
Since the start of the refugee crisis in 2013 as a direct effect of the Syrian war, we have been deeply invested in the faith of these people on the run. When we started making plans for our trip last year, it was without a question that we wanted to find a way to help somewhere along the way, even if that meant adjusting our route. It was only after Europe closed its borders in March 2016, effectively closing the Balkan route, that it became clear that a huge amount of refugees would become stranded in Turkey. So we shifted our attention from the Greek islands to Turkey. With over 3 million refugees stuck in Turkey there was no doubt that help was needed. It was then that we first found out about Imece Inisiyatifi.
Imece Inisiyatifi is an organization founded in 2014 to help out locals in need. While this work is still continued through distribution and community events, their main focus has shifted since 2015 to supporting the many refugees. At the time of our inquiry their work consisted mainly of distributing goods to the more than 300 000 refugees spread across the larger Izmir area.
After following their work for a while on facebook and having extensive communication with Claudia (one of Imece’s founders), the decision was made. We were going to volunteer with Imece.
Arrival in Çeşme and the Imece café
Hitching a last ride from Izmir to Çeşme with the very enthusiastic lead singer of a metal band, we arrived at the top of Çeşme’s main shopping street. A short walk through the crowded street and along the 16th century Ottoman Castle brought us to the Imece café. Imece café has been the headquarters of Imece since June 2016. Next to it’s purpose as headquarters, distribution center and housing for up to twelve volunteers, it is also a way to generate a steady income through the sales of food and drinks. We had agreed to meet here with Berke, a long time volunteer. But we weren’t staying here, he was going to bring us to The Village three kilometers outside of town were we would be staying and working.
The Village: a sustainable project
The village is Imece’s latest project and a more sustainable way to answer the needs of the many refugees wanting to integrate. It will be a self-sufficient village for single mother refugee families. The women and children will stay for two weeks each and here they will get the change to get proper education and learn skills that are useful in life to advance their integration into Turkish society.
The first families are expected at the end of September, so the top priority was finishing the construction of all the buildings. So after Berit, responsible for the coordination at the village, showed us around, we got straight to work. I joined with the volunteers working on the new kitchen and Annelies started working on the field weeding and harvesting. We worked till it got to dark to continue. Not a big feat for us since we had just arrived, but admirable for some of the volunteers that have been doing this for months.
After a refreshing shower we all ate together under the fig tree, a daily ritual that would carry on during the stay and a great change to get to know the people we would be working and living with for a month. The amount of different nationalities was astonishing. During our stay we met really interesting volunteers from all over the world: Turkey, Italy, the UK, Tunisia, Egypt, Germany, Argentina, Japan, Jordan, Spain, Norway… A lot of unique personalities. Some of them were there the whole period (and even longer) we were there and became really good friends.
During the next days we would continue with roughly the same schedule. We would get up and have breakfast together while discussing the days plan and then work until lunch was ready and continue again until late in the evening. Some days felt like we were able to do a lot, and on some days we felt like such a small drop in the ocean. After all, we were all just volunteers and none of us had a lot of experience in construction. Furthermore the materials we could afford were basic, so the construction work was far from what we know in Belgium. But when we thought of what the village had evolved to since May, we knew a lot could be done with the right motivation. And our motivation was about to get higher. For the next week we were off for a close encounter with the gravity of the refugee situation in Turkey.
Distribution and education in Torbale
With Imece’s van we went to another base of operations in Torbale: a house serving as a distribution center and our sleeping place for the next week. Many of the refugee camps are centered around Torbale. Since Torbale is a rural area with lots of agriculture, many refugees try to survive here by working on the fields. These camps don’t have an official status and are not supported by the government in any way.
Our visits to the camps had two main goals: distribution and education. We were mainly distributing hygiene kits, washing detergent, milk powder and baby diapers. Each evening we would load up the car for the following day. When we arrived at the camps Mazhar and Jasmin took care of the logistics. Jasmin was our Arabic translator and she kept track of what has been distributed to who. Everything went surprisingly well and orderly. People would line up and receive goods according to the number of kids they have. There was never any random grabbing of goods.
The only chaos was the kids. That’s why it was our main job to help educator Afife in keeping them entertained. Sometimes with bubble blowers or balloons, but most of the times just with simple interactions. At two occasions Annelies instructed gymnastics. Despite the lack of a common language it worked out well. All the kids would just repeat what she did, with a smiling face and a lot of enthusiasm.
After distribution there was education. Education was focused on learning the Latin alphabet and the Turkish language. For the smaller ones there was art & crafts. The kids did really well and they picked up the Turkish language a lot faster than we did. One image that struck us was the little girl (no more than 10 years old) writing her exercises with one hand and holding a baby in the other. Sometimes we were able to take the baby away from her without crying for a few minutes, but most of the time she was fully responsible. Like many of these kids, she had no time to be a child.
You may wonder where the parents are. As we mentioned before there is a lot of agriculture. The men and woman work on the fields the whole day, with no other choice than to leave their children alone. On one occasion we saw them coming back from the field exhausted and covered with dirt. In return for their hard labor they would sometimes get a place to stay and some running water. Wages are very low or sometimes non-existent. Some refugees haven’t been payed for months, but still they continue to work because they have no other place to go.
The conditions in the camps varied. Some of them had brick shacks, but at least half of the camps we’ve seen were tents. People have been living in these tents for over a year and the temperatures in winter do sometimes drop to zero. Last winter there was even snow.
After having witnessed the situation these people were in, we where more motivated than ever to return to our work in the village. The huge amount of kids stuck there without proper education were our main drive. Since they are evolving so fast, every day is important.
Our main project: The earth-bag house
Back in the village we were excited to see that the rough construction of the kitchen was nearly finished. There were also a lot of new volunteers coming in, so it was time to start a big new project.
Ali came up with the idea of an earthbag structure for the new volunteer house, and after doing some research on the Internet we were convinced this would work. We wanted to do this one right and started planning everything from foundation to roof. The plan was ambitious: A 45m² circular yurth type of building with a 3,10 m high point. We divided the structure in to four rooms, able to host up to four volunteers each. The nice fully furnished containers we were now staying in will then be used for the refugee families.
The work was exhausting. First there were two days of leveling the ground with nothing but hand tools, but then the actual building still had to begin. Each bag weighted 28 kilo and the higher the structure got the harder it would get. The bags had to be placed and then stomped quite hard to even them out and to prevent sagging further on. Between each layer barbed wire was used to connect the bags, which worked amazingly well. Sometimes we would face problems, like fitting the door and window frames; for example one day one of the door frames just snapped. But in the end we always found a solution as a team. The rough structure of the building took us over 3 weeks, sometimes working with a big team of ten people and sometimes with as little as three volunteers. In the end over 60 tons (!) of soil were used in more than 2000 bags connected with 1500 m of barbed wire. The last few days of our stay we got the roof structure on, consisting of twenty long 4,5 meter beams.
We were proud to have build and coordinated such a big project. After all when we arrived we were barely comfortable using power tools. A lot of responsibility had been handed to the both of us by Imece and we’re grateful for the opportunity.
But the greatest experience of all was working and living with so many nice people. There were so many unique personalities that contributed so much to the village and many of them have left a lasting impression on us.
Off-days: a great time with great people
On Sundays we would work till late lunch (around 3 pm) and then we had a short weekend including Monday. Too short to go climbing anywhere, but a good time to explore Çeşme and the immediate vicinity.
Apart from working on this blog and having some beers, we quickly got tired of the rather posh city center. On a couple of occasions we went to the less “beachy” beaches to swim, watch the stars and we even had a great barbecue.
And on another Monday we rented scooters which turned out to be an adventure in itself. On our way to another more secluded beach one of our group ran out of gas, I lost my brake (the handle just fell off) and someone crashed. Luckily without any severe consequences. But we had a lot of fun and ended up watching the sun set from a panorama site overseeing the city of Çeşme.
The next off-day Annelies and I decided to check out one of the departure beaches. These are the beaches where thousands of refugees risked their lives to cross the eight kilometers of rough sea to the Greek island of Chios. It was an experience we will not soon forget. The beach was very remote, but after walking for a while we started seeing the first signs of the human drama this beach had witnessed. We found shoes belonging to little children, big and small life vests and the remains of two of the flimsy boats they use. Our stomachs twisted and our hearths broke when we thought about how desperate one must be to cross this ever treacherous sea.
Unfortunately this is an ongoing situation. Despite the big continuous stream of boats having ceased, boats were still being intercepted on a regular basis during our stay at Imece.
We were happy to see with our own eyes that Imece is indeed doing great work and that the funds we collected with the crowd funding wont go to waste. While distribution still continues to play a vital part, the focus is now also on more durable projects like the village. Eventually Imece is aiming to make the refugees fend for themselves by providing them with education and skill training. But also as an organization Imece is working hard to not be solely dependent on donations.
There are plans to make a second village with a farm that is profitable, where a community of refugees could then work without being extorted. And an other great project is the collaboration with Barefoot College; an Indian organisation which empowers the poor all over the world by training the woman in useful skills. Two local Turkish women have already been trained in solar technology and their newly acquired skills will for example be applied on the earth-bag house. They will also spread their knowledge to the Syrian woman, so they can one day use them in their home village.
In our talks with founder Ali we noticed he is full of great ideas and hopes for the future, we are confident that he will keep striving for a solutions for this ever evolving situation. We will keep supporting Imece and we wish to return here after our travel, hopefully finding all the wonderful people we have met in a better situation.
Donate or volunteer
Imece Inisiyatifi is trying to make the hard circumstances in the camps more bearable and is supporting sustainable integration into Turkish society by education programs. So many off you already supported this project by donating to us, but if you haven’t already please consider. You can find more information on on our projects page.
If you want to join as a volunteer, contact Imece through the Imece facebook page.