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This piece follows an earlier post about the struggle of getting proper clothing in Kara Tepe refugee camp.

After an alleged coup d’etat that failed to overthrow the government on July 15, a three month state of emergency was declared in Turkey, giving President Recep Tayyip Erdogan significantly more power in every day affairs.  Several measures were enacted including closing the border to academics trying to leave and detaining people at will; over 13,000 have already been arrested and many more dismissed from their jobs.  I use the term “alleged coup” because many think the coup was staged specifically so Erdogan could seize more power.

That night, as my mother and sister texted me telling me to cancel my plans for Turkey, President Erdogan sent a text message out to all citizens which Aysegul, a volunteer from the long-time Greek rival nation showed me and offered a rough translation of:

All Turkish people, in Istanbul and Ankara, the government is fighting against military vehicles.  A few people tried to behave like in the 70’s and they have taken our soldier’s vehicles and guns and they tried to kill you, the Turkish people.  This is not an attack on me, this is an attack on you.  Now you have to go out and defend yourselves.  If you don’t do this, they will think you are scared now.  So I am calling on you now to go out to the streets to defend yourselves and your country.

Imagine if everyone in the United States got a text message like that from Obama, requesting us to mobilize, insinuating we use violence to “defend” ourselves against an alleged threat that had already been quelled at that point.   Again, many believe this was a thinly veiled attempt to incite fear and panic to justify declaring a state of emergency.  The government officially vows this “will not affect civilians,” but media can now be censored and banned, curfews enforced, protests prohibited. People can be searched on a whim and while the world watches in anticipation of human rights abuses and the stripping of basic liberties as the leader tries to reinstate the death penalty, I decided it would be a good idea to go to Turkey to get inexpensive clothes for Kara Tepe residents.

No one I know who has spent any time in Turkey trusts their official leader whose crazed tactics conjure up images of Soviet era propaganda, but as the coup made Turkey’s currency devalue ever so slightly, my purchasing power had increased.  Inspired by the example of Eddie Mulholland who had made a supply run the night before the coup and joked about how he caused it, I set forth with two others to help stimulate the Turkish economy.  Janos from Switzerland handled the logistics of acquiring ferry tickets, researching departure times and location, bringing enough bags to carry our end of the day haul, and inventorying our purchasing needs.  Aurelie from France was our hired muscle, who in addition to carrying heavy bags, made sure we were safe and took amazing pictures along the way as she hunted down needed clothing with the skill of a bloodhound.

I said ‘Listen, 15 lira for each pair of shorts, but only if you get rid of Erdogan tomorrow.’ They said yes.  We shook hands and I left. -Eddie

On July 28, when our team got off the ferry at Ayvalik and passed through customs, the first sight we saw was a giant teleprompter with Erdogan giving a speech on repeat telling the citizens to restore order.  Next to the screen was a Turkish flag flapping in the wind.  The white crescent moon and star with a red backdrop could be seen in multiplicity on every government building and piece of public property throughout the city.  We were told this was a new drastic and noticeable change which even to an American seemed like an excessive display of flags.

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President Erdogan attempting to win the hearts and minds of his people.

Aysegul who had traveled a few hours north from her home in Izmir to help translate and negotiate the best price on clothing met us at the port.  Her ability to gleefully connect with everyone in the bazaar including the restaurant where we kept our bags was the keystone to a successful day of shopping.  She explained that everything we were seeing was post-coup patriotic facade and the once cheery and palpable energy felt across the city had been flattened.

After shaking off the eerie feeling of Jumbo-tron fascism, we followed the flow of Greek tourists from the ferry to the Turkish bazaar that apparently only runs on Thursdays.  People flock here from across the border to save mountains of money on their purchases of clothing, spices, electronics, and a whole host of other random items.  It was immediately clear, however that clothes are the main fixture of the market.

The first steps into the bazaar were full-on.  The narrow walkway with shouting vendors, pushy deal seekers, and manmade bird noises from colorful toys signaled my internal shock alarms.  We took two steps in, and then stepped right back out, deciding that if we were going to roll up our sleeves and own the marketplace, we had better get some food in our bellies first.  After a quick lunch of famous Ayvalik toast (thick bread grilled cheese), we slammed our bodies through the clusters of people all crashing into each other like molecules trying to bond.

It wasn’t five minutes before we were grasping handfuls of socks and then fist deep in men’s underwear.  Bags filled with cheap, yet quality materials quickly piled up as we shuttled back and forth to drop them off at our base restaurant that clearly didn’t want us occupying their small space once they realized we came to buy in bulk.  Aysegul made friends with a family selling us underwear whose cotton-peddling daughter had the same name and struck a fair deal when we told them we were buying for a charitable cause.  They asked if we needed men’s tank top undershirts, which we certainly did so we once again bought them out of all the sizes they had that would suit our needs.

They asked to take a picture with us and be friends on Facebook, marveling at the faraway places we had come from.  It’s a common response and one that was duplicated with an Iranian family we chatted with in the street just minutes later.  “Oh, I love America, very beautiful country” the father enthusiastically told me as he wished us well in our endeavor.

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Posing for a photo with our two underwear and tank top vendors in blue.  They wanted to post this to Facebook immediately. [Photo credit: Aurelie B.]

As time was running short and our shopping list still long, we split up and divided the Turkish lira we had left, knowing it would be impossible to spend it all on this trip.  I had set a budget of $2,000 to spend, which was difficult as we went to many stands and wiped out their entire inventory of things we needed.  There’s something magical about asking how much a pair of leggings is and then pulling out a bag to say you want them all.

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When I approached a huge table of shorts and asked for Yunus, a man Eddie told me had given him a good deal on his trip there, I said I wanted to buy all of his jean shorts.  Yunus was a 27 year old with a lightly colored, extended chin strap beard who relaxed in a cafe chair wearing a sleeveless shirt.  If there’s ever been a man I’m sure was in the mafia, it was Yunus.  I told him I was friends with Eddie to which he responded with “EDDEE!” as he motioned me over to his table.  The man he was sitting with at one of three tables outside a derelict cafe behind the massive clothing displays got up and ran away the second I was waved over.  Another man instantly passed through the doorway ready to take Yunus’s order.  Al Capone asked me what I wanted, to which I said I wanted to buy all his shorts before my ferry left in an hour.  He said “No, you must drink” which didn’t sound like a bad idea on this scorching hot day, but I was now in a time crunch.  “Chai?” he asked.  “Ok,” I said.

We exchanged the basics of where I was from and how beautiful his home in Istanbul is in the one minute before tiny hourglass shaped sipping vessels of piping hot red chai came out on a string dangled tray with two sugar cubes in the mini saucer and dainty little spoon.  I pinched the play-sized glass between my thumb and index finger as I nervously checked my watch.  Yunus and I talked about sports and Kara Tepe while he slyly motioned one of his employees to take down the sign above the shorts that listed the price as 10L.  The whole time this was happening, men from several tables kept coming up to him and handing him cash that he banked in a large wad in his pocket.

Finally, when he was ready, he got up, called out to men from four different tables who converged to the table with jean shorts. We worked together to pull out sizes 29-34 with a few occasional 36’s while leaving the already stocked larger sizes behind.  As mountains of denim piled up, glasses of lemonade arrived for us.  Yunus chugged his and pitched the plastic cup under the table in a single fluid motion that didn’t detract from his flow of counting and sorting.  I clumsily followed suit.  He called to the table next to him, and a man brought over a blue polo shirt for me.  “You,” Yunus said as he held it up to my body.  The same happened with a high quality pair of denim capris five minutes later.  I guess big purchasers get big perks, but I just wanted to load a big bag full of jean shorts.  I politely packed both away in my bag and donated them along with the rest of the clothing we got.

Yunus and I spent some time arguing over price, with me noting that I saw the advertised price, him noting that Eddie paid more last time.  I told him if I was paying more, he needed to include belts.  He said he didn’t have any.  I repeated myself.  He repeated himself.  I stood there and waited silently.  He said two words and snapped his fingers in the air and a bag of belts appeared.  He wanted me to buy more shorts from him even though I had no more bag space to transport them in.  I told him I would be back soon and although upset, we exchanged contact information on WhatsApp and he had two of his young male workers carry the heavy bags out of the bazaar for me and close to the taxi stand.  I now have a denim dealer.

I also have a shoe dealer as Janos and I had bought one shop out of all of their knockoff TOMS and other similar shoes.  I went to the only other shoe store I could find that had sturdy canvas construction that was light and durable enough for walking on rocks in the summer as well as playing football.  I bought all of their shoes in the size range needed as I sat on a stool outside, being handed waters and carbonated lemonade while father, son, and mother shuttled back and forth to a storehouse looking repeatedly for more.  Mustafa added me on Facebook and I told him I’d be back for more.

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Actual footwear worn by Kara Tepe residents who desperately ask for new shoes daily.

At the end of the day, our haul was big enough where two taxi drivers in a row refused to drive us to the ferry port.  Aysegul was furious and as she was complaining to officers in a passing police car, the first abrasive cab driver begrudgingly agreed to load our booty in his trunk.

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Standing by our haul for the day outside of the restaurant who kind of agreed to let us hang out there all day long. [Photo credit: Aurelie B.]

On the ferry passage back, the cruel irony of the journey did not escape us.  The ninety minute ferry ride to Lesvos cost us 4 Euros, the same price it costs to take a ten minute taxi ride from the center of Mytilene, the capital of Lesvos where we live, to Kara Tepe.  This same aquatic joyride that we pooled together loose change for and took the time frame of a Pixar movie, was a long expensive journey of life or death for the people we were bringing clothes to.

Everyone I speak with has paid between $500-$5,000 just for the boat crossing with the price depending on the smuggler and the situation.  While the most common range is $1,000-$2,000, many have been charged multiple times for each crossing they attempt to make after police or intense waves force their turn around.  Some are robbed of all extra money, cell phones, and clothes before they attempt to cross these waters that close to 4,000 died in last year.  In a 3 ½ hour dinghy ride piercing through the choppy, violent waves off the Turkish coast, many prayed for lives in the same place we rolled up our sleeves on the top deck of a sturdy ship and soaked in the sun.

We looked at the white cap rip swelling in the sea, knowing it was rough enough that day to toss even a seasoned sailor from the bow.  I still struggle to wrap my mind around how anyone has the fortitude or desperation to make such a harrowing journey.  Even if they are dry and have new clothes by the time they get to Kara Tepe, the hell they’ve conquered is surely worthy of at least decent clothing as a symbol that they matter and are not just a stain like that which might appear on the clothes that we give them or that parts of society might consider them.

I felt bad popping bottles and toasting to a successful day as the ferry was ready to disembark on a journey that was so smooth for us because we were born in countries that provided us with “proper” paperwork.  But as our drinks clanked together, I tried to reframe what we were really celebrating. We toast to celebrate that we have a lot of brand new quality clothing that people will actually be happy to receive.  We toast to all of the donors who believe in humanity and basic human needs who selflessly offered up their hard earned cash so that another might have clean underwear.  We toast to one less person we have to say “mafi shoes” to who is crying because their feet can’t bear the pain of rocks prodding their soles anymore.  We toast to the small glimmer of hope that is symbolically woven into the threads of the clothing we are bringing back; that this might be the catalyst for positive thoughts that compound and inertia mentally carries forward.

Our stream of positivity was abruptly ended at the portside Greek customs house.  An official asked where I am from, and after I said “United States” he signaled us to grab all of our bags, walk around the x-ray scanner and back out the side we entered, filing into a waiting room.  Another man came in shortly after, closed all of the doors, told us to set our bags in a straight line on the ground and then have a seat.  He returned a minute later with a large pawed German Shepard, who while no doubt did his job effectively, lacked the discipline one expects to see in a professional canine as he stepped all over our bags, and got distracted by us, tugging at his leash to get closer.  As I was running through in my head if we had done anything illegal, Janos started talking to which the handler quickly and firmly said “Do not talk!”  The duo left and a moment later we were allowed to do the same.  I asked the officer who had brought us in the room in the first place what that was all about.  Was the dog looking for drugs? Explosives?

With a heavy Greek accent, he said “Drugs.” I asked, “Why was I targeted as an American? Once I told you where I was from, that was the second you told us to go to that room.” In a confusing response, he muttered “Your country…Guatemala, Venezuela, […unintelligible Greek…]” He then listed a few more countries followed by more unintelligible Greek and ending with, “I think USA.”  My best guess is that he was personally not a fan of the US based on a long history of drug trafficking and destroying other countries’ governments and economies in sometimes covert actions that often include the transport of illicit substances.  Normally that kind of thing would get me down, but I was happy to not have been detained on the Greek side which proved to be more fear inducing than Turkey.   No customs duties had to be paid since we were bringing hundreds of pounds of clothing to Kara Tepe, a situation to which all of the coast guard officers seemed sympathetic.  A cab brought us straight to the camp where we stocked the clothes and got ready for the next day.

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Since I saw just how far money could go in Turkey and because I didn’t have enough time to spend all the money I went with, I am going to make one final push in soliciting donations and return on August 11.  I have already requested Thursday as my Turkish Bazaar Day-off and will contact my dealers this week to let them know what I need.  Below is the amazing list your donations were able to fund this time around which is about 4-5 times further than this money would go if I was spending it in Greece.  If you know anyone who would be interested in throwing down a few dollars to contribute to the next round, please direct them to the fundraising page.

Even just $5 was able to purchase multiple articles of clothing.  $7 got a pair of TOMS. $15 totally clothed a single person, head to toe.

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That my friends is the power of people coming together to do good things.  If you have ever had doubt in your life that you could make a difference, look at what can you happen when compassion pools together.

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I got home and stripped all of my clothes off and watched the water, grey from the dust caked on my legs swirl down the drain.  All day long, I feel sweat dripping down my body, except in the rare moments when I rest in the shade and my attention is drawn instead to the industrial strength stickiness coating my arms.  The most liberating thing is to rip off my shirt, tear off my socks, lather up with soap and then change into a clean pair of shorts.  This I now realize, is a luxury I have taken for granted.  For the residents of Kara Tepe, there often are no clean clothes to change into.

Once a month, families can go “shopping,” although this isn’t the shopping you may be accustomed to.  Getting clothing here consists of making an appointment two weeks in advance and hoping you don’t lose the little ticket that it’s written on.  When your day finally comes, you and your family show up to sit on a newly constructed bench opposite a small white shipping container filled with shelves of clothing bins, the whole area surrounded by a cage.  There is no Kohl’s to take a Saturday morning drive to, no advertisements showcasing latest fashions or variety of styles, there is simply the often barren contents of the white container.

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Two HSA volunteers walk toward the clothing distribution center, better known as “the white container” [Photo Credit: Aurelie B.]

A family of eight and a family of five entered the cage and the adults squeezed onto the bench that barely fits them while children ran around in unpredictable patterns seemingly targeting the knees of volunteers in the claustrophobic 10’x10’ area.  There were only three volunteers working in the white container this day and both families competed for our attention with waves and pointing to their feet preceded by “my friend, my friend”, a clear signal that they wanted shoes I knew we didn’t have.

I took the family of five while the two other volunteers started with the family of eight.  I grabbed a clipboard with checklist to track the one item from each clothing category people are allowed to get: Short sleeve shirt, long sleeve shirt, bottoms, socks, shoes, hat, underwear, bra, jacket, flip-flops, other.  Residents are not allowed in the white container so the process, through an awkward series of pantomiming and touching our own clothing, is to figure out what they need and bring out a small selection from the white container to show them.

I decided to start with the father, because I find men far easier to channel my inner fashionista for.  The policies say we are only supposed to bring out four of each item for people to choose from, but that’s a horrible policy, so I don’t follow it.  Here is how that actually works when put into action: A man wants a T-shirt and I bring out one that is too big, one that is too small, one that has a subtle stain down the front, and another that I didn’t realize was bedazzled.  However, back in the container ten feet away from me are thirty other shirts.  I will not force a man into choosing the least awful of a pile of crap when I know there might be better options; this isn’t American politics.  I can prevent this. My own personal policy is that these are human beings and I will keep bringing out items for them to see until they find something that makes them happy.

That father today was quick and easy. Thanks to the unpredictably good stock of donations, he got brand new jean shorts with pockets, brand new boxer shorts, and a black baseball cap bearing the logo of some foreign company.  He now sports a new grey “Football People” shirt that scores of other men around camp wear because we got a bulk donation.  Their numbers are growing to compete with the flock wearing leftover Tough Mudder shirts and those rocking threads with an inspirational quote and face of either Nelson Mandela or Bob Marley.  This man wanted a long sleeve shirt too, which I couldn’t give him because due to the potential of increasing arrivals, we have cut back on what we can give.  So begins the age of the one shirt policy, a sacrifice one must make for the good of the state so as not to draw selfishly on limited resources.

The same goes for footwear.  His were not technically broken, so he’s stuck with them.  The uneven jaggedness of the ground eats through flip-flops in about a week.  When I hiked the Appalachian Trail, Pennsylvania had hundreds of miles of infamous rock clusters sharper than a knife (I still have a scar down the length of my forearm to prove it), but Kara Tepe may be ripping up my soles faster.  People need footwear, but we often have nothing for them.

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Four-season shoes of child refugee from Syria that will be considered acceptable for many months to come. They are in much better shape than what most Kara Tepe residents rely on. [executive-magazine.com]

The mother wanted black leggings, the most in-demand item, but all we had were heavy sweatpants and jeans five sizes too big.  She asked for a black scarf, we only had bright colors.  She asked for underwear, but only males were working at clothing distribution, so to avoid awkward and potential cultural conflicts, the family waited for ten minutes while I went to go find a female volunteer to handle the selection.  The mother then quickly tried to make a choice as handfuls of strangers leaning on the cage behind her looked on.

I moved onto the teenage daughter who surprisingly didn’t appear to shoot laser beams out of her eyes at me like most girls do in this clothes acquisition process that is so drastically different from what they grew up with.  I didn’t have anything good for her, but each item I brought out, I held up to my body as I danced and sang, selling it like a cheap infomercial so I didn’t have to tell her there was nothing else for her.

While this was happening, two children from the large family the other two volunteers were working with had a crying competition in which none of us were the winners.  Their sixteen year old brother tried to calm them down as he helped them try on socks and a pair of shoes two sizes two small.  No one wants to ask where the father of the family was because by the way the older brother was handling things, it’s clear the worst may have happened to their absent father.

He was presented with the only pair of jean shorts in his size, which he at first accepted graciously and then asked us politely for another pair because he didn’t like the stitching pattern on the back pockets.  We knew there was nothing else, but pretended to look anyway.  Just to offer a point of comparison, he was shown a pair of large shorts down to his ankles with no pockets so the originals might look better in comparison.  These are the awful mind games we wish we didn’t have to play.  The whole while children were still crying and people peering into the clothing area were asking for various items even though they knew they needed to make an appointment.

The next hour, a woman of about eighty told me through a translator who was luckily standing by the cage and from Afghanistan as well, that she wanted a long sleeve white shirt that went below the knees.  I knew we had nothing like that in stock, but I always try to look anyway.  She didn’t make eye contact with me the whole time, and when I walked out with the five white shirts we had, she refused to look at them.  With palm down, she waved her hand in the universal sign of “get those out of my face,” then stood up and walked out with the help of her cane.

No one walks away with an entirely good feeling.  Residents may have gotten something that they can tolerate while volunteers have snuck into the white container to throw things, jump around in general boughts of frustration, or cry.  There is a lot of crying on both sides.

Think about if you were displaced in a different country you knew nothing about.  A visibly stressed girl in her mid-twenties approaches you and says something really fast in a language that you don’t understand.  She repeats herself several times, pausing to enunciate more and turns up her volume which you find condescending.  Finally, she gets frustrated enough to just give up and say something different several times.  You know this is a clothing appointment so you ask for a red T-shirt with no writing on it, and a dark colored baseball cap.  Not being able to understand you, she walks away thinking she has it all figured out and brings out four black abayas for you to look at, but not try on, along with the one hijab she has left.  Don’t know what an abaya or hijab are? My point exactly.

Most of our clothes are donations from western countries and some are downright inappropriate for the more conservative dress style of people we work with.  When a woman wrapped from head to ankle with a light cotton, flower-print fabric comes in for an appointment, there is no way I am going to bring her a shirt that says “Bitch Please” on it or a bright pink halter-top.  When a kid wants shorts so he can run around and play soccer with his friends and all I can offer him is corduroy pants and a suggestion to cut them into shorts, we have a problem.  There are some people who would rather be naked than wear the stuff we show them on a poorly stocked day.  If you are more than two standard deviations away from the mean size for your gender, that may very well look like your only option.  We can do better, we need to do better.  I will do better.

Just because international aid standards, as our NGO Head of Mission reminds us, says refugees only need one change of clothes in addition to what they are wearing, doesn’t make that right.  Try sweating in temperatures of 95 degrees for a full month with no escape from the heat because the interior of your housing unit is at least 10 degrees hotter.  Imagine your wardrobe consists of only two pairs of jeans, a pair of flip flops the thickness of three pennies, one pair of underwear, two black T-shirts, and a bucket hat.  With six screaming children, do you think you’ll be able to find the time and energy to hand wash your clothes each day with a bucket and soap you need to hunt down on your own?  Do you think you’ll be able to hold yourself together when a volunteer tells you getting a new shirt is not an emergency and you’ll have to make an appointment next month after you spilled coffee on your only other shirt late last night when you got a text message from your friend back home saying their four children died from an airstrike while at school?

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A woman hangs her family’s “summer” clothing up to dry on a fence at Kara Tepe Refugee Camp [Photo Credit: Basil]

Not just as an organization, but as humanity, we can do better and we need to do better.  I will do better.  We can never let our tank run out of empathy, for it is when we are tired and frustrated that we need it the most.  Perspective is important for understanding that no one is coming to us hoping for the awkward, heavy clothing we frequently show them in sizes too big or small that most of you reading this would be appalled to even look at.  Residents here shouldn’t have to accept awful options because as some volunteers have snarkily stated “they are refugees, they should take what I give them and be happy.” They are people.  They have sacrificed everything to get to this point where they are sitting in front of us.  They deserve better clothes and they deserve to be treated with kindness and dignity.  I would say we all need to walk a mile in their shoes, but most of them don’t have shoes, only flimsy flip-flops you wouldn’t last ten steps in.

My next post will be about my mission to do better by organizing a trip to Turkey with co-workers on my day off to restock clothing with generous donations from my GoFundMe page.  I will return again in a couple weeks so if you want to fund some clothing, $10 can buy a pair of brand new shoes, socks, underwear, tank top, and a hat!

In the meantime, if your closet needs a purge and you can afford the international shipping costs, I know many people who would love to have more clothing options.  Please send to:
David Triboulot
Kara Tepe Camp
81100 Mytilini, Lesvos, Greece

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