Godspeed to the Refugees

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Migrants, air travel, smugglers, Syrian children, Samos, Turkey, dories, Kurds, topaz water & desperation.

I have a theory on air travel. I believe most people are afraid of it. Nearly everyone, I imagine, sits at an airport gate masking a tinge of fear. As they board the plane, as they ignore the flight attendants’ instructions, as the engines’ thrust pushes their head against the seat. What if this is the plane that goes down? What if I’m the unlucky one?

Yet more than any generation before, we travel. We spend ridiculous amounts of time and money preparing for a trip and all the while—subconsciously, or maybe consciously—suppress the thought of the necessary journey. Our focus is on the destination and the perceived payoff on the other end of the passage. We avoid thoughts of the inevitable discomfort that comes with transporting ourselves across the globe.

Boarding a plane is, like any travel, a privilege for me. Travel means freedom, escape, exploration, adventure. New foods, new cultures, new experiences in new places. At least those are the selling points for every travel agent and website. Those people with perfect tans on the beach always look happy.

So we forget travel’s inherent danger. At least we forget until we catch that foreboding airport smell, a staleness rivaled only by nursing homes and hospitals. We forget that for much of the world, through much of history, travel represented work, risk, a means of survival at the risk of not surviving. Even the great adventurers of our school history textbooks were as much soldiers as they were explorers.

Jump to today, on the shore of Kuşadası, Turkey. Before me are rows of yachts and cruise ships. A large sign reads: “Welcome to Kuşadası, Gateway to Ephesus.” The waters here attract history enthusiasts, Christian pilgrims and beach-going luxury travelers. These last days, they’ve also taken many a refugee. Not far away is the Greek island of Samos. The hazy silhouette of its shore easily visible from the docks. Between is a navigable swell of water, the last leg of an expedition to Europe’s shores.

In front of me, scuba divers kick through the water. Children play and splash, frolic and laugh in the choppy Aegean. In my memory, I can also see the palpable and indelible vision of Syrian children washing ashore on Turkey’s banks.

In front of me, scuba divers kick through the water. Children play and splash, frolic and laugh in the choppy Aegean. In my memory, I can also see the palpable and indelible vision of Syrian children washing ashore on Turkey’s banks. I wonder if the beachgoers realize they’re playing in a crime scene.

I can’t blame them. The water is topaz blue. It will be black when more try to cross under the stars tonight. Every evening another launch. They are running from war, danger and famine, trying to beat winter. With the help of smugglers, viewed as criminals by some and saviors by others, they head for Samos, Kos and Lesbos.

Izmir, a large city on Turkey’s western coast, is now the hub for these unadvertised excursions. A few days ago I came through the bus terminal, Izmir’s dingy otogar, to board my own bus leaving for outlying seaside towns. The terminal was flooded with people, some of them Syrians speaking Kurdish and Arabic. A huddle of children played at a foosball table as their mothers sat nearby on their possessions. Belongings were stuffed in canvas sacks, cardboard boxes and black plastic garbage bags. I didn’t know if they were arriving or setting off. I whispered a prayer: Godspeed.

Some guess the number of refugees in Izmir is now 200,000. But that figure is fluid. Izmir has earned the unenviable title as the life jacket capital of the world. Not because of production. Because of consumption. Here, outside of an average store, you find stacks of life jackets and life preservers in child and adult sizes. What should be a last-resort insurance policy has almost become a mode of transportation. The Syrians who board rafts and dories out of Kuşadası, Ceşme or who-knows-where expect to get wet.

Two weeks earlier I was in Athens. I made the reverse trip to Turkey across the Aegean in a pressurized and relatively comfortable airplane. I never even saw the water. Looking toward Samos, I wonder how many first-world travelers would head out on a journey if there was measurable risk. How many would head for palm tree-lined beaches and ancient wonders of the world if there was a chance that they would die along the way? What if the trip had odds not much better than Russian roulette?

Only the desperate would make that trip. For most of us that is a desperation we could never understand, even if we can imagine some of the fear.

Brian McKanna grew up in Ohio but found his way to Istanbul in 2009. Since then he’s been roaming Eastern Europe and Central Asia, where he currently resides. As associate editor for EthnoTraveler Magazine, he helps aspiring writers chronicle their experiences from around globe.

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