‘Syria in Transit’ is the story of two borders; the Turkish Syrian border and the UK France border. The first is an escape route for over a million Syrians fleeing the conflict which has engulfed their country for more than three years. The latter is the final border on a long and dangerous journey across Europe. Between these two borders are many other borders. Some are imperceptible, their only marker the changing language on the road signs, while others are far more treacherous and can only be traversed by swimming a river, sailing across open sea in a small boat with a 150 other desperate souls or covering yourself in oil and climbing under a lorry.
In Gaziantep, Vural’s home city in southern Turkey, it is not difficult to see the effects of its neighbour’s civil war. Syrians can be seen at the side of the road collecting rubbish to sell, they are working in cafes and factories and filling the cheap hotels and vacant buildings. And outside the city and are the tented cities, thousands of temporary white tents which have become permanent homes.
In the UK, however, the plight of Syrian refugees seems like a distant tragedy, a story in a newspaper rather than a humanitarian crisis played out on our doorstep. This is partly due to reluctance of the British government to welcome Syrian refugees but also due to the fact that our border has been effectively outsourced to France. Calais has become our de facto border zone. It is here, at one of the world’s most famous migrant bottle necks, where over a thousand Sudanese, Eritreans, Afghans and Syrians migrants have become stuck.
Sleeping in the streets, in parks and tarpaulin tents known as ‘jungles’, the Syrians we met told us of their long journeys which nearly always began in Turkey, ‘the door’ to Europe. The names of European cities they have visited drop off their tongues in a long litany. Their stories are all shockingly similar and familiar, where exploitation and racism is a common and kindness is hard to find.
In Calais in December 2013 we met Marios, a young man with an easy, affable manner and excellent English. He, like everyone else, was trying to get to England but when he said ‘see you in London’ as we parted you could see in his eyes that he meant it. Two months later I had a call from Marios telling he was in an immigration removal centre near London. In the following months he was moved to two further detention centres, one near Gatwick Airport, the other in Wakefield whilst the UK Home Office attempted to deport him Greece or Italy where he had previously been arrested. After several months Marios was given a room in a house in Middlesbrough where he hoped to build a new life. And yet at the beginning of August the UK Home Office sent Marios to his third detention centre, Dungavel House in South Lanarkshire, Scotland. This time he has been issued with a plane ticket to France.
The photos and stories in this exhibition aim to capture this process of transit, the frenzied border crossings and the stationary paralysis. The images of coffee and cigarettes, of bare rooms and tired faces all tell the stories of those who have suffered and who have had to ‘settle in to transit’.
Civil war in Syria has been rising intensively. The conflict, which has entered its fourth year, has made millions of Syrians into refugees and the dream of a ‘Syria Revolution’ has been completely stolen by radical Islamists. About a year ago, a Syrian friend told me that the Islamists who have travelled to his country are making their ‘Islamic State’ fantasy come true, a dream they were not able to achieve in their own countries. It is this fantasy which is devastating Syria; these forces have stolen the dream of a democratic Syria. His eyes told me of his concerns for the future of his four children now living in a refugee camp. He has already lost 15 kilograms in under a year and is wasting away. Despite being a graduate of two universities and a former employee of a big company, he is now doing seasonal agricultural work across southern Turkey, trying to hold on to his life with all its future dreams and the belief in democracy and freedom.
I’ve seen the same pain in many other refugees’ eyes. ‘Being a refugee’ inflicts deep wounds on the bodies and souls of the people who have lost the chance to live in their own home and country. They have found a way to cross the borders surrounded by barbed wire only to become refugees in a foreign country.
The moment they cross the border they fall into a limbo. The situation of being stateless has started to prey upon their bodies and souls, and to erase everything from their memories. “Despite how hard I try to keep the past there, the memories are fading day by day. My mind is erasing them. We hear news everyday – bad news. We hear about deaths, destruction, the looting of our houses and the streets we have grown up in… It really hurts me to see the photo of Aleppo’s ruined Great Bazaar which used to be the wonderland of my childhood with all the colours. I’m witnessing the collapse of our past and culture.”
The photos in ‘Syria in Transit’ portray this moment. For the last three years, Syrians have been walking in the breaches, the paths which have been opened by smugglers, midst minefields, on the land where the dead are buried. Who will be able to heal the wound of that terrified little girl who walked across the minefield to enter Turkey? What will alleviate the despair of that Syrian medical student who has been sleeping in a park in Calais?
The videos in the exhibition portray still time. Time seems to stop in the limbo of crossing borders. The stability of the borders decreases the hope for the future. The only moving elements are those that are not related to humans – the sky, clouds, trucks, ferries… those things outside of our consciousness. Time has captured these Syrians and thrown them to the other people’s cities and streets. The identities they developed in their own homes and streets, which make them who they are, have been stuck somewhere between these borders, maybe on the barbed wire. Wherever they go, they are now defined with the same identities – immigrants, refugees, asylum-seekers… Though, to others they are the strangers who get our jobs, raise our rents, but are also a true labour source to exploit.
Today, the true sufferers of the political, economic, regional interests and the brutal fighting are the Syrian refugees. They try to cross the border and take refuge in neighboring countries, walking through the minefields forcibly and involuntarily. They try to survive despite all kinds of discrimination and being forced into becoming a cheap labour force. There are children begging on the street in order not to starve. The biggest tragedy of our times might be the feeling to being forced to leave one’s home country and live somewhere else due to domestic issues, ethnic and religious conflicts, origins and beliefs, political opinions, and famine.
These people, whose hearts are in Aleppo and Damascus but physically somewhere else, live very near us. It takes just one step to reach out and touch a wounded heart, just one step away to fall into a refugee’s dream.
It shouldn’t be forgotten that “being an asylum-seeker or a refugee” is a universal human right.
Kemal Vural Tarlan