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Children darted from parent to parent under the yellow glow of streetlights. Yet the atmosphere was far from festive. The street felt like an airport terminal, abuzz with anxiety and excitement. Some people spoke urgently into phones; others rifled through their backpacks. A man bounced his daughter on his knee, staring out at the passing traffic. Izmir was the second stop on a summer trip with my husband and my father.
The next day, we would take a ferry to the Greek island of Chios, famous for its fortress towns, and then another to nearby Lesvos, where we would meet my mother-in-law for our biennial beach vacation. On each trip we take a different route to Lesvos to see more of Greece and Turkey before settling in for swimming, reading, and tzatziki. It also has excellent bus, train, and plane service, making it a natural staging ground for smugglers moving thousands of people each night.
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The cash-for-gold shop was packed. A clothing store had outfitted its mannequins with life jackets. A black market of secondhand clothes and household goods had sprung up, consisting mostly of items sold off or jettisoned to speed the trip across the Aegean on an overcrowded rubber dinghy under cover of darkness.
My family crossed to Chios in daylight, in an hour and a half, on a regularly scheduled ferry. More refugees were gathered around the boat harbor when we arrived. Here, people slept on benches or sat staring at the sea. Chios was the end of one trip—out of Syria, across Turkey, and officially into Europe. But it was also a tiny rock in the sea with a free-falling economy and surging unemployment.
So it was the starting point for another, even longer journey as well, to the mainland and then farther north, to more prosperous countries such as Germany and Sweden. I visited Syria three times between and I was charmed by the exotic details—the fresh mulberry juice, the sumptuous hammams—but I was more fascinated by how familiar and functional the country was. In stark contrast to the American political rhetoric about Syria, Aleppo and Damascus had a cosmopolitan middle class that commuted to work, went to movies, and drank fancy coffee.
Axis of evil, really? People shared meals, posed for goofy photos, and asked about American policy, listening patiently to the bookish Arabic I had learned in college.
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I felt safe, welcome, and cared for by every stranger. I thought of him now, sixteen years later, as I left a bundle of leftovers from dinner with a group of men sitting outdoors, before I hurried to board the next ferry out of Chios. Lesvos, the largest island in the Aegean and at some points only six miles from Turkey, is the top destination in Greece for those traveling by sea. At that point in the summer of , more than 50, had landed there; by the end of the year, the number would be almost ten times that. When we arrived that August evening, the parking lot of the port was crowded not with the usual brigade of taxi drivers and truckers, but with hundreds of people sleeping on pieces of cardboard and sitting idle in the sticky heat.
Our destination, on the west side of the island, faced away from Turkey. No refugee boats drifted ashore there. It was summer business as usual: grilled octopus, outdoor movies, lazy swims in the clear bay water. Smooth as oil, as the Greeks say. Because of the war in their countries, they were granted passage to Athens automatically. But the bureaucracy, slowed by the economic crisis, could take several days—sometimes even a week. That left people stranded in this makeshift camp, a big parking lot once used for driver training, and the dusty olive grove next door.
Locals who wanted to help joined a small and disorganized effort. As we hunched over the rickety folding table and started preparing vegetables to fill a knee-high pot for spaghetti, a trio of young Syrian men in tank tops and backward baseball caps approached. Once the sauce was simmering on the portable gas burner, the smell of browning onions wafting over the waiting crowd, they planned the most efficient way to serve the finished pasta. When hungry people surged forward for the aluminum trays of noodles, another team of men stepped forward to maintain the line.
To the Syrian palate, this Greek lunch, though cooked from scratch with fresh tomatoes and generous glugs of olive oil, was lacking. Mahmood, a tall young man with thick eyelashes, cast a sad glance toward the Greek lunch table. Her female customers smiled, while the men swooned. All around, I saw other attempts to live normally.
A man sculpted his hair just so in the side mirror of a van. A teenage boy and girl exchanged numbers. People charged their phones on a long daisy chain of power strips, spliced into the base of a streetlight. After having witnessed the migrants in Izmir clutching their life vests and luggage, I was encouraged to see how people had made it one step farther, resourceful and resilient even in the midst of the most grueling trip of their lives. A dense crowd quickly formed in the road at the mouth of the camp. Yelling into a feeble megaphone, the cop bungled the foreign names. They repeated the names.
Mohammad Sidqi? Maher Siddi? Cicadas droned incessantly in the olive grove. He had four million and forty-four dollars in his bank account.
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I made a mental note to be careful about what I threw away. Sayyid asked for details about the Chinese medicine, and I did my best to translate the part about waiting twenty minutes before fucking make love. He was vague about what he intended to do with the drugs.
After that, Sayyid began stopping by regularly with questions.
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If he finds himself involved in a neighborhood dispute, he calls on the man who distributes government-subsidized bread. My own field of expertise ranges from foreign things to sex products and alcohol. He hand-sorts all the garbage, and at one point he noticed that foreign women often throw away empty packs of pills whose number corresponds to the days of the month. Sayyid concluded that they were an aphrodisiac, and he asked me if they have the effect of making foreign women desire sex on a daily basis. Occasionally, I accompany him on his predawn rounds.
The first time I did this, in February of , he led me to the top landing of the fire escape of a building on my street. He gives me only five pounds a month. On a different floor, we picked our way across a landing covered with rotting food; a pile of trash bags had been ripped apart by stray cats. He told me not to remove her trash. We descended to the next floor, where he remarked that the resident was a Muslim with a drinking problem. By way of illustration, he ripped open the bag on her doorstep and showed me the empties: Auld Stag whiskey and Casper wine.
He did the same thing with a bag at a building across the street.
He takes one in the morning and one at night.