By Aaron Masengale
I had already almost become used to the sight of all the refugees peppering the streets of Ankara, Turkey. It was the summer of 2014, maybe a month before most American news stations caught on to the story of the self-proclaimed Islamic State. I was among a group of students doing a study abroad program to learn the Turkish language, but it was difficult not to ask my native friends about all the homeless I saw on the streets. They explained the situation to me, and after roughly translating a few news articles, I began to see that this wasn’t going to be a thing that would end soon. This wasn’t just a large homeless population that you might see in America, or in Western Europe. This wasn’t just a couple of panhandlers on street corners; it was entire families at a time that were homeless—most of whom probably still are. It wasn’t at all uncommon to see a mother, father, four or so kids, and grandma and grandpa living on a straw mat under a bridge. I only spent a small amount of time there, but apparently this sight was particularly unusual to the Turkish citizens, because being homeless in Turkey is a crime worthy of being arrested and sent to jail.
As a college student, there wasn’t a ton for me to do outside of toss a couple of Liras their way, since we were told by some federal agents beforehand to not draw attention to ourselves; that cut out volunteering. Even so, it didn’t look like there were a ton of places around that cared enough to make an effort to help them. Being a paranoid American student, as well as a paranoid veteran, I was content with walking past them like the rest of the Turkish population, until I met two of them.
“May I use your lighter?” I said in Turkish to one of two guys smoking and sitting on a balcony at a rock bar in Kızılay, the downtown district of Ankara. I picked up smoking (again) to blend in with the populace, but felt comfortable enough in the bar to meet some strangers and make a couple of new friends. I was hanging out with my buddy and fellow student, Sam, as we had a couple of beers, but he wasn’t much of a smoker and therefore also wasn’t much use to me at the time. The two guys looked at each other and were consulting with one another in a different language (Arabic, I think) before saying that it wasn’t a problem in broken Turkish and one of them handed me their lighter.
“We should just speak English here so people think we are tourists,” one of the men said to another in English with a thick, Middle Eastern accent. As I lit my cigarette, my ears perked up for a couple of reasons. For starters, they were speaking English. Clearly they weren’t from around here, nor were they tourists. Ankara isn’t a very tourist friendly place anyway, due to the fact that there are many buildings in the downtown area that are government owned and it’s illegal to take pictures of said buildings, so the two were probably new here.
“Hey man, you speak English?” I said, cigarette in mouth, while handing the closer gentlemen his lighter.
“Yeah, bro. We’re not from Turkey.” He said with an almost proud chin thrust in the direction of the city center. The man I was talking to was probably 5’8” and very skinny. He looked to be in his mid-twenties and had a ragged but short haircut, like he had buzzed it himself two weeks earlier without a mirror. He had acne scars on his face and a large nose to match his large ears; it’s almost a hallmark of the Middle East. His companion was about two inches shorter with a medium build and wavy hair draping just past his ears around his wide nose and rounded chin. They were both dressed in western clothes, which was unusual in a predominantly Muslim country. Both their shirts and shorts were pretty baggy, and they had several necklaces or chains each, like you might see a punk rocker or rapper wear. Well screw this, I thought. Lets get to the chase.
“Where are you guys from?” I asked, reflexively in Turkish. They stared at me quizzically. Wow, these guys really don’t speak the language that well. I repeated myself in English and took a sip of my beer.
“Ramadi, bro. In Iraq.” I nearly spat out my drink, but quickly regained my composure and continued the conversation casually. That city had been hit pretty fucking hard by the IS over the past couple of months. I had seen a few news reports on it already.
“So uh, what brings you to Ankara then?” I could see in their faces they were hiding the pain in their story as they looked down into the mugs of soda they were drinking. I was ready for them to lie to me. Tell me they were on vacation, and that everything was fine wherever they were from. I was willing to act as though it were all the gospel truth, and let them be someone else for a change. Pretend it wasn’t real, whatever it was that was ailing them. In hindsight, I probably wanted it more for me than for them. I was a soldier, and no, I’ve never been to Iraq, but I’ve been other places and still felt responsible. I didn’t make the choices that put them there, or any of the ones leading up to it. It wasn’t my torch that burned villages, or my sabre that silenced the voices of anyone. But in that moment you couldn’t have convinced me of it if my life depended on it.
“We are refugees. We had to leave so Islamic state could not kill us.” The man with longer hair answered.
“Are you brothers?” It was uncommon to see refugees traveling alone, much less in a bar, but I almost immediately regretted asking. The thinner man with acne answered this time.
“No, we are just friends. Our families…” He stopped for a second and swallowed hard. “What is left of our families are still in Iraq. They are trying to get here. They told us to go without them because it would be easier to travel in small groups.” My heart shattered for them. I glanced at my buddy Sam and I could tell he was feeling the same thing I was.
“I’m sorry… for all of it. Seriously. It’s not right, what’s happening out there.” I started to choke out.
“Yeah…” Sam croaked out behind me trying to find his voice.
“Don’t worry about it bro. Insha’Allah we will see them again.” Insha’Allah—Arabic, meaning God willing, he’ll see them again. He had no idea, and said it almost dismissively.
“Insha’Allah.” I echoed. I was extremely interested, but I didn’t want to pry and figured it would be a good idea to turn the conversation to something a little bit more cheery. “So why do you come to a bar and only drink soda? If you want, I can buy you guys a beer. They’re cheap here.” It’s the fucking least I can do, I thought.
“No thanks bro, I am a Muslim.” Said the guy with long hair with a small smile and nod.
“I am Christian, but I just do not drink. Thank you though, bro,” said the other one with a smile. “You are both Christian too?” he asked. Damn it. I knew that one was coming. That’s a conversation I’d rather not have with myself, much less other people.
“I am.” Sammy beat me to the punch. I was kind of hoping he would take it from there, but an awkward silence was quickly falling and the Iraqis were looking at me so I said yes to simplify things. We talked more about simple things; how the two of us were students learning Turkish, what we wanted to be when we graduated, what life was like in America. We talked about where they eventually wanted to end up.
“I have a friend who lives in Germany. She is a dental hygienist. I want to go there to be a dental hygienist too.” Said the man with the longer hair.
“I am going to be a rapper,” said the taller guy. I couldn’t help but chuckle at this statement. It seemed almost random, and his thick Arabic accent didn’t make it less amusing.
“Shit man, that’s a better plan than I have. At least you have goals and stuff,” I said before taking a long drink of my beer, slowly realizing how true the statement I just said actually was.
“No, really. My father doesn’t want me to. But I already have so much material. Do you want to hear it?” he said excitedly. At this point in America I would tell the poor guy no, and that I wouldn’t buy his mix tape or share it with my friends on social media. But because I was feeling impotent at the inability to even buy him a drink out of guilt, I said fuck it.
“Sure dude. I’ll hear some of your material.” I was expecting him to pull out a phone or media player of some kind, but instead he just starts rapping. It wasn’t good, and I’m pretty sure it wasn’t original, because he mentioned once or twice about being a redneck in it, but damn it was entertaining.
“That… was awesome.” Sammy said with a huge grin, clearly also compelled by the lyrics. The four of us continued to hang out, shit talking one another for a few solid hours. It was all jokes and smiles across the four of us. This could have been any group of four guys in any college bar in America. With rock music playing in the background, smoke on the balcony… it was great. It was like nothing was wrong with the world, and all that mattered was hanging out with the guys. The bar owner was a friend of mine, so he kept the drinks rolling and music playing till the bar closed down. When we left, we had moved past the idea of handshakes and on to the more intimate two-cheek kiss, as is standard in that part of the world.
“Where are you guys staying?” I asked, now realizing that although they’ve been periodically buying sodas and cigarettes, they might be, and probably were, homeless.
“Do not worry about it, bro. We have a place to stay.” The taller guy said with a smile as he put his hand on my shoulder. I asked a few more times to make absolutely sure, insisting that if not, I could—and would—do everything in my power to make sure they had a place to sleep, at least for a while.
“We are fine. We will be in Germany soon anyway. Do not worry about us brother. Insha’Allah, we will be okay.”
“Insha’Allah” I repeated with a sad smile. Once again, he had no idea.
God willing, I suppose.