By Athena Stanley ’10 BS, ’13 MAE and Rebecca Tavernini ’11 MA
We have watched…Great rivers of families traveling hundreds of miles by foot to cross borders to safety, only to be turned away. Throngs of people as far as the eye can see, wedged among bombed skeletons of buildings, waiting in line for food. Sweeping views of parched or frozen tent camps as large as cities. Ramshackle boats brimming with bodies on perilous passages across the eastern reaches of the Mediterranean Sea. A little boy in a red shirt washed ashore.
Of more than four million Syrians who have fled the country ravaged by war, and millions more internally displaced, half are children. Yet somehow, or because of this fact, we have also seen—on our distant screens—exhausted smiles, acts of kindness, Big Wheels and makeshift classrooms in refugee camps and faces of hope.
It is too big to process, with the number killed in the war quickly ticking toward one-quarter million. It is so much to take in, and from afar, there’s a feeling of helplessness.
Northern Magazine reached out to Athena Stanley ’10 BS, ’13 MAE, who has been teaching in Tarsus, Mersin, Turkey, for five years, to bring the picture down to a personal level and share her perspective from her vantage point, which is about 150 miles from the Syrian border.
COMPASSION NOW: Athena Stanley overlooking Turkey's Prince Islands
Q: Can you tell us a bit about your life in Turkey—where you work and what the city is like?
A: I moved to Turkey from Ecuador in 2011. I had been working as a fourth-grade core instructor at a private, bilingual school in Quito.
I attended an international job fair in San Francisco, California, while working in Ecuador where I was hired by Tarsus American College/Tarsus SEV Primary School in Turkey. I began working at the private, affluent school the following fall, and am now beginning my fifth academic year as an English instructor there. I live in Tarsus (pop. 350,000), which is sandwiched between two larger cities: Adana (pop. 2.2 million) and Mersin (pop. 1 million). Of course, these figures do not include refugees. Though more than ten times the size of Marquette, Tarsus has a small-town feel. The pace of life is slow, people are friendly and everyone seems to know each other.
Q: What have you been seeing over the past few years and are now seeing day to day as far as Syrians fleeing their homeland? I understand that nearly 2 million Syrians have sought refuge in Turkey.
A: The influx of Syrian refugees can be felt in all regions of Turkey. Many refugees have fled to Mersin, a coastal town about 40 minutes from my hometown of Tarsus. The town is located on the Mediterranean Sea, and many Syrians come to work in the shipyards on boats doing seasonal labor as available to make some sort of living. As you might imagine, there simply isn’t enough opportunity for employment; not for native Turkish citizens, and certainly not for refugees.
Q: In a letter to the editor of The Mining Journal you wrote, “The refugees are doctors and nurses, teachers and lawyers, grandparents and fathers, mothers and children; normal people whose lives have been completely uprooted.” Are you seeing that they are finding jobs in their fields, and safe places to live in your area of Turkey, or are they largely confined to refugee camps?
A: Syrians are not finding jobs in their fields in Turkey. Syrians have no choice but to work jobs for unskilled laborers, if they can even find work at all. Turkey is a developing country. The unemployment rate is high and minimum wage is poor. Imagine waking up one day to discover your master’s or doctorate degree is nothing short of worthless.
Q: How are Turkish people reacting?
A: Turkish citizens are generally concerned about the influx of Syrian refugees to their country. The minimum wage is only about $550 USD per month. The unemployment rate is between 10 and 15 percent for Turkish citizens. Turks are hard working, family-oriented people who are rightfully concerned about taking care of their own.
Q: As a teacher, how is your school assimilating such an influx of students, and how are they coping?
A: I work at arguably the most reputable, affluent school in the region. Tarsus American College is also the most expensive to attend, no argument there. Due to the high cost of attendance, few Syrian refugees have enrolled at our institution. Public schools across Turkey, however, have been impacted by the influx of refugees.
Q: Are you scared being so close to the Syrian border?
A: I have never been scared living two hours from the Syrian border until the onset of the 2015-2016 academic year. Until now, the Syrian conflict has been relatively contained within Syrian borders. Although I was greatly affected by the stories I heard told by Syrian refugees and on the news, the violence did not spill over into Turkey. With the U.S. Air Force signing agreements and moving missiles into bases in Turkey, I feel on high alert. I am especially troubled by the U.S. decision to use the Incirlik Air Force Base in the neighboring city of Adana to prepare for launching missiles towards Syria.
[Note: Since this interview, and at press time, a train station and synagogues in Turkey have been bombed, killing more than 100 people and wounding 700.]
Q: Have you spent time in that country yourself?
A: I have never visited Syria. U.S. citizens have not been welcome to visit the country for the entire duration of my five-year stay in Turkey.
Q: Is there a scene or situation regarding the refugees that has particularly struck you?
A: A particular encounter with a Syrian refugee that resonated with me occurred two years ago. A colleague of mine was very involved in the Christian church in my region of Turkey. Many Syrians seeking refuge in our region are Christian as opposed to Muslim, and reach out to the local church community for support. I was visiting my colleague at her home one evening, and was surprised when I arrived to meet a young Syrian woman. The Syrian woman was at my coworker’s home to pick up donations for her newborn baby. The woman and her child were seeking refuge in Turkey while en route to the Netherlands. They were just a few days away from the date upon which they would literally be smuggled across borders. Once in the Netherlands, the woman’s husband would flee Syria to reconnect with his family. Looking into the face of this young woman as she told her story was heartbreaking. Yet, the tone of gratitude and optimism with which she spoke moved me to recognize how fragile life is and that we should be grateful for every day.