My Syrian Soul Brother, Part III: Danger at Sea

Marwan’s place of employment in Ankara turned out to be a sweatshop. He left as soon as he could and taught English in private schools. But when the schools closed for the summer, he was on the brink of starvation (and hid it from me). It was time for him to move on. This is his story:

I wanted to leave Turkey but couldn’t afford it. Then my uncle left Syria with his two daughters, ages three and five. “Get ready to leave,” he said when he arrived in Turkey. “I’ll take you out of here.” I only packed some clothes. There were no goodbyes or farewells.

We stayed at a hotel in Marmaris for a week, waiting for the smuggler’s call. We were nervous the whole time. The plan was to take a fast boat: it’s safer for children. But the smuggler was arrested. The only way out now was a rubber dinghy.

A few smugglers came over to talk to us, but they had overloaded their dinghies. This could mean death at sea. We were running out of time. It was the end of the summer. Soon the weather would get worse; roads would be closed.

Then we found a smugglers’ middleman from our hometown. He guaranteed our safety. “Thirty-six people on the dinghy,” he said. That’s a good number.

We took the bus to Bodrum with a few other boat passengers—many left Turkey illegally from there. Upon our arrival at the bus terminal, policemen took our passports and ordered us to leave Bodrum immediately.

Everybody freaked out.

I stayed calmed and told them to follow my lead. I bought a bus ticket to another city, and so did they. When we got on the bus, the police gave us our passports back. Now I had to convince the bus driver to let us off at the first station without raising his suspicion.

If we didn’t get back to Bodrum in time, we’d miss our boat and get stuck in Turkey.

I quickly befriended an English-speaking Turkish guy (my Turkish is poor). “Are you in danger?” the guy asked.

“Not at all,” I replied. “Our friends are picking us up at the next station.”

The guy then convinced the bus driver to stop for us. There were taxis nearby, and we went back to Bodrum. We contacted our middleman, and he instructed us to meet him in the mountains. But we were late; the taxi had gotten lost. When we finally arrived, he took us to a restaurant where the big smugglers hang out. It was already 9am.

Our smuggler wanted to take more money for my nieces: usually there’s no charge for kids. Then my uncle rushed to buy us life-jackets. Soon it was time to leave. Taxis arrived one by one, taking a few people at a time, not to raise suspicion. We had to wait on the rooftop of a hotel in downtown Bodrum with the rest of the passengers – mostly women and children.

After five hours’ wait, around 3am, the smugglers arrived with the taxis again and took us to a high hill. Turkish men told us to follow them, screaming Yalla (“come on” in Arabic).

The moon was full, the weather was clear, we felt safe.

We walked for 1.25 miles. I held a newborn baby in my arms. No flashlights were allowed. When we arrived at the shore, people filled the rubber dinghy with air. It was 4:30am when they were done. The smugglers called out for the dinghy driver to steer the boat. No one responded. I asked in Turkish, “Where is the driver?”

“We don’t know,” one of them replied. “He should be here already.”

They kept calling out for him, and then they tried to convince me to drive the boat, saying the police were coming.

I couldn’t take such responsibility.

They kept pushing me.

A fight was about to break out. Children had started to cry; the tension had increased. One of the smugglers took me aside and said repeatedly, “Drive the boat. Do it,” and I kept saying, “No, I can’t.”

He tried to hit me, but his partner stopped him. Then the driver showed up. We carried the dinghy to the water, and everybody went on board. The sea was calm at first, but it became stormy as we moved away from the shore.

It was pitch black. I could hear my heart beating. I was sitting on the right edge of the boat. If something happened, maybe I could jump out in time before the waves came crashing over us. Everybody seemed paralyzed. It was overwhelmingly crowded, and I couldn’t move…I felt powerless!

After arriving safely in Greece, Marwan traveled to Sweden and applied for asylum there. On the way to Sweden, he and his uncle and nieces had to sleep in dripping-wet tents for refugees and had to walk long distances in the rain with the children.

In October 2016, Marwan is going to participate in a show at the Royal Theater of Stockholm and tell his story.

My Syrian Soul Brother, Part II: Escape from Hell

(Click here for My Syrian Soul brother, Part I)

“Your brother is in danger,” Lara said. I knew she was referring to Marwan.

“What happened?” I asked. “Why didn’t he tell me himself?”

“He didn’t want you to worry about him; he is protective of you. The regime slaughtered his uncle’s whole family, and now they want to draft Marwan into the army to kill for them and to risk getting killed himself. He must leave Syria immediately.” I had been trying to convince Marwan to leave ever since he unblocked me. Now he had no choice.

“I’ll open a gofundme for him,” Lara continued. “He has to get a passport and a ship ticket to Turkey, and it’s costly there.” Then she added, “Marwan and I talk every day. When he arrives at Turkey, I’ll fly over there to marry him…we are in love.”

Lara had never seemed very stable to me, so I didn’t pay too much attention to her wedding plans. I resolved to deal with that later. I felt in my gut that Marwan had to leave Syria ASAP, and no one donated a dime to her gofundme.

Two close friends, Maria Dangelo and Assor Elkayam, had offered to help. They’d met Marwan through me, and they loved him as well. All of us were in a tight situation financially, but we were determined to help Marwan.

Only it’s impossible to send money from my country to Syria. And American friends had once told me that it wasn’t that simple for them, either: nobody wants to be on Homeland Security’s radar.

“I was once married to a Saudi man,” Lara said. “I can send money to Arab countries, no questions asked.” Still, we were relieved when Marwan received the money.

He got his passport a day before it became impossible for men his age to get one. But the regime had closed the maritime border with Turkey to potential soldiers. Marwan had to forget about the ship, find a smuggler, and escape via ISIS’ territories.

For a few weeks, he could hardly sleep, and he rarely left his parents’ apartment for fear of getting caught by Assad’s soldiers. Sometimes when I talked to him on Viber, I heard a shell exploding nearby.

“I’m used to it,” he said casually.

Meanwhile, he had no prospect of finding a job in Turkey, and he couldn’t stay at his best friend’s home — it was already crowded there.

Assor, Maria and I asked our Turkish FB friends to help Marwan. Nothing came of it.

“I’ll just go to Ankara and be homeless until I find a job,” Marwan said.

“No brother of mine is going to be homeless,” I said, “and Ankara is freezing cold in the winter. You could die.”

I befriended Elvan, a Turkish FB friend of Marwan. He looked for a job for Marwan but said a few days later in desperation, “I can’t find anything for him. They hate Syrians here.”

“If people meet Marwan in person,” I said, “they’ll change their minds.” Then I added with chutzpah I didn’t know I owned, “Maybe he can stay with you for a couple of days.”

“That’s impossible,” Elvan said. “I have a wife and kids.” (Too bad he forgot to mention that to the women he pursued on FB.)

Nevertheless, my pushy suggestion seemed to work out. “I found a job for Marwan in a bakery with a sleeping arrangement,” Elvan announced. “But Marwan has to leave Syria now, or he’ll lose the job.”

On the following day, Marwan bought an airline ticket from Lebanon to Turkey. It was his mom’s brilliant idea. That way, he could travel to Lebanon in an airline bus with the airline stuff instead of escaping with a smuggler.

It was time to talk to him about Lara’s plans. “Are you in love with Lara?” I asked.

“What?” Marwan cried out, appalled. “She could be my mom. Her son is older than I am.” (Unfortunately, it isn’t considered as appalling when men behave like Lara.)

Two days later, Marwan called me from Turkey. He told me that at the border with Lebanon, Assad’s soldiers stopped the bus. They ordered the guy who was sitting next to him to come with them and join the army.

I sent up a prayer for that guy and celebrated Marwan’s newfound freedom. Lara blocked me after I told her to treat Marwan only as a friend – he wasn’t even twenty-one yet, for crying out loud. And I blocked Elvan when he told Marwan to use women in prostitution.

I will always be deeply grateful to both of them for all the good that they did, but I won’t tolerate their harmfulness.

Marwan’s troubles finally seemed to be over. I had no idea then how soon I’d be worrying about his safety again.


(Click here for “My Syrian Soul Brother, Part III: Danger at Sea“)

My Syrian Soul Brother, Part I

Marwan blazed into my life like August sun on a winter day.

“I’m from Syria,” he wrote in a chat on FB after he thanked me for accepting his friendship request. “Where are you from?”

“We are not supposed to be friends,” I replied. Then I told him.

“I don’t care,” he said. And that was that. What he didn’t know was that for months before we’d met, Syria had been constantly in my thoughts and prayers.

We talked about meditation and 3rd eye activation — his best friend had found me first on a New Age FB page. Marwan told me that they were taught that my people are monsters. I told him that it wasn’t that different on my side of the woods.

Soon he shared personal information with me. He was nineteen then, and I loved helping him, like a big sister. Sometimes Marwan and his best friend disappeared from FB because the regime cut off the internet connection. I was always relieved when they came back online.

One evening he wrote, “They are bombing my village.” And he went offline.

Staring at my computer screen helplessly, I didn’t know what to do next. Then, for the first time in my FB life, I asked people for help. “Please pray with me.”

The next day, Marwan showed up again and wrote that the bombing had stopped.

I was greatly relieved.

I thought that it was all over.

I was wrong.

“Now they are going to massacre us,” he wrote, then he left to embrace his parents and siblings.

He showed up one more time, briefly. Assad’s thugs had already slaughtered his uncle and his uncle’s wife and kids, half a mile away from his home. “They are getting closer…I will probably never see you again, sister. I’m so happy that we met. I love you.”

It was the Holocaust all over again.

For three days after the bombings started, I hardly slept or ate. I spent hours in the park, my sanctuary, praying in great dread.

At some point, I had to accept that the worst probably had happened.

I was never as grateful as when Marwan showed up on FB again: the massacre was over, and he had survived.

Then his best friend moved to Turkey. I planned to talk to Marwan about moving there ASAP, too. But our next chat was cut short. I resolved to bring it up on the following day.

On the following day, he blocked me.

His best friend blocked me as well.

Mutual friends who’d met Marwan through me were also blocked.

Clearly he was in danger, and it wasn’t safe for him to be in touch with westerners. I turned to activists from all over the world, who hated my country but cared about the Syrians, trying to find out what had happened. I followed every piece of information in alternative Syrian news. Hardly getting any sleep, I was in the park every night, pacing back on forth. Praying.

Days turned into weeks and weeks into months.

Marwan had told me once that many Syrian friends of his were killed, yet their FB timelines had stayed intact like epitaphs, and their posts still showed up from time to time in his newsfeed… Unlike those of his lost friends, none of his posts showed up in my newsfeed anymore, but I was afraid I’d lost him forever.

Then, I remembered something. We had one more mutual friend – Lara.

“He didn’t block me,” Lara said confidently when I told her that he blocked all of us. “I can still see his timeline.”

I was sure she must be mistaken.

“I can still see it too through others’ FB accounts,” I said. “He has posted nothing new since I talked to him last.”

“He did post something new yesterday,” she insisted. He definitely didn’t share it with the public.

Later on I learned that Syrians were being taken away from their homes by the regime, not to be seen again. The assumption was that “foreigners” posing as FB friends — were actually spies of the regime. That’s why Marwan had to block us.

Lara left him a message from me. He unblocked me immediately, and we were inseparable again. Of course I didn’t know then how instrumental I was going to be in helping him to get out of there.

Sometimes when things work out in such magical ways, like they have with Marwan, I feel as if life has turned into the last episode of Lost. Or maybe it’s love that transcends everything.

(Click here for My Syrian Soul Brother, Part II: Escape from Hell)

When Men Dance

The city is full of business cards promoting escort services. Thrown on every pavement, the cards say, “Fulfill your dreams.” Sometimes I give up. Not on the notion that women and girls will stop being a commodity. But on managing to collect all the cards as I bend down with my laptop on the way from my apartment building to Movieing café.

Sometimes I feel like Don Quixote, only my giants are real.

Michael, a regular, sits outdoors at the café tonight, facing the street. I am sitting behind him. Three young women pass by, dressed in miniskirts, talking excitedly. Michael is staring at them, and then he turns to the guy at the table next to his and asks, “Do you see these beautiful T-H-I-N-G-S?”

The guy replies in a tired tone, “They are fourteen, maybe sixteen. Let’s stretch it and say that they are eighteen and only look underage.” My night vision is so poor, I didn’t realize they were teens. Surly now, the guy surely will reproach Michael. But instead he says, “Either way, they still look plain.”

“How old are you?” Michael, forty something, asks.

“I’m twenty one,” the guy replies, and then he adds, “they look like they are from –” he mentions a club, which seems to imply that they are dressed like sluts, hence unworthy of his attention. At least, that’s what I get from his disgusted tone and body language.

The teens cross the road and disappear. Before I get to reproach Michael, a woman shows up and approaches the café’s manager. “May I use your phone, please?” she asks, looking flushed. “My battery died, and I got stuck outside of my boyfriend’s apartment.”

“I don’t have a phone,” he replies, only I know that he does.

“Take my phone,” I say.

She takes my phone and makes a call. Nobody seems to answer. She tries again. Still, no answer.

“Send an sms to your boyfriend,” I say. “So he’ll know it’s you.” She texts him, but from her own phone. I thought her battery had died, yet this seems to work for her.

“Where are you from?” I ask.

“The Ukraine,” she replies. “People in your country are so kind.” Gu-Eun also used to say that.

“What was the face for?” I ask the manager when she leaves. He definitely made one.

“Last summer,” he replies, “a woman also showed up after midnight and asked for my phone with the same pretext. She also called the same number twice, and nobody answered. At 2:30 in the morning, I got the first phone call of many from her pimp, who blamed me for her absence.”

I’m thrilled for the woman and hoping she got away safely, and he continues, “The pimp cursed me and threatened me, calling me constantly at all hours of the day and night. I had to tell him again and again, ‘I just let her use my phone. She said that her battery died, bro.'”

He called a pimp “bro.”

“It took a while before the pimp believed me.”

I can tell that the experience scared him. Merely thinking about getting threatening phone calls from a pimp now terrifies me too. How tragic it is, that our fear blinds us to how much more terrified these women must be.

Isaac, a soul brother who used to work at the café, shows up with Gabe, another regular. Gabe is leering at the women who walk by. “There are many hot asses here tonight,” he concludes.

That’s what women are to him: “asses.” 

Isaac ignores him and says, “Let’s dance.”

It’s very late. The street is dark and empty now. The music is mellow. Michael, Gabe and Isaac start to dance. Their movements are slow and round, sensual and pure. As if magically stripped of their sexist roles, they let their soft, almost vulnerable side come out. And I get a glimpse into a future in which teen girls will be safe from men leering at them—the kind of future in which no woman or girl will be sacrificed because “men can’t control their urges,” or because “that’s how it has always been.”

After Sweden and France, more and more countries will make laws against Johns and will work together to bring an end to prostitution. One day, all women and girls will have equal rights and opportunities and will be respected EVERYWHERE. Watching the men dance, leisurely, as if time itself has slowed down, I can see the potential for a decent world. And I’ll hold on to that vision for as long as I live.



A Woman Called Messiah, Part II

(Click here for A Woman Called Messiah, Part I)

“What the hell is this place?” the taxi driver asked. We drove along a winding road with hardly any streetlights. Abandoned warehouses were scattered by the roadside. Taking a taxi there was a precautionary step. Her neighborhood could be swarming with pimps, or her place could turn out to be a crack house.

Driving past the abandoned warehouses, we arrived at a nice-looking neighborhood. Following her instructions, I crossed a children’s playground. A guy lurking in the dark raised my suspicions. Shortly after that, I entered a tiny studio apartment. She walked towards me to greet me with an exaggerated sensuality. She was wearing a fancy blouse, black leggings, and too much makeup. The blouse was tied above her navel, exposing her belly. A tear in the blouse partially exposed her right breast. She looked like everything that society has taught us about women in prostitution. She then asked me to sit down, announcing that dinner was ready.

I got alarmed. Having dinner was not part of the plan. The food could be drugged. But I understood her need to be a good host and to have a safe social interaction. And I believe that giving is empowering. So, I ate the tasty rice that she’d made and served on a disposable dish. She also put on the improvised tiny table two pieces of cake as well as delicious-looking berries.

Then she told me her story. She had lost her mother when she was a baby, and her father and stepmother had neglected her. “I got married when I was thirteen years old,” she said. This translates to an ongoing statutory rape: THIRTEEN… “My husband beat me and his parents made me work for them. We moved to your country, and I gave birth to a boy and a girl. I couldn’t take the beating anymore and divorced him. But I didn’t want to lose my children; they are my souls.” She sighed. “The social worker said that they should stay with their father, temporarily. Instead, he received sole custody.

“Selling clothes in casinos and escort services, I was doing very well financially. But I was afraid of being looked at as a prostitute and I quit. Only I was unable to stay at any job for more than a week. Soon I couldn’t pay the rent, and I became homeless for ten years. Sleeping mainly in restaurants, whenever someone tried to take advantage of me, I left.

“God revealed himself to me as a man and took care of me. But he couldn’t stay with me because there are so many problems in the world. One day we will reunite. Then people won’t have to grow old, get sick, and die. Aging and disease are a reflection of the hardships that we go through in our lives.” She smiled, then added, “Finally I have my own place, and I spend lots of time with my grownup children.”

“What’s your greatest dream?” I asked.

“To move to a bigger place, so I can live with my children again.”

“Will it be OK if I write about you?”

“Sure, I’d like that.”

It was time to leave. She offered to show me where the bus station was. Walking with her, I didn’t see the guy who had been lurking in the dark before. Still, I felt concerned for her safety because of her torn blouse and sensual gait. And it was almost midnight (as if women and girls don’t get sexually assaulted during daytime wearing burkas). I decided to focus instead on her being the Messiah. She had earned it after surviving what no woman or girl should endure.

Are her troubles over yet? Not as long as people continue to shun those deviating from the norm and to objectify and sexualize women’s bodies. It doesn’t matter what we wear or don’t wear, or how we walk. It is a basic human right to be safe, always. And our bodies are ours and ours alone, ALWAYS!

Before the bus arrived, she said, “I abstained from sex for ten years. As long as I was separated from my children, I didn’t want to experience pleasure.”

I believe her.