Gaziantep: The Making of a Home Away From Home

 

Laughter of young children, the sounds of their feet racing across the building stairs, finally arrived and concluded with a few words addressed at me: “Give us your bags, auntie.” I felt at ease; these words relieved me some of my travel fatigue and my trepidation of a place I am entirely unfamiliar with. Never in my life had I traveled farther than Aleppo, or anticipated that one day I would find myself outside Syria’s borders – along with most other Syrians.

The newly minted building was comprised of nine apartments. The residents, all of whom are Syrian, hail from different regions. Located near Şehitkamil municipality in Gaziantep, Turkey, the neighborhood is part of the relatively new part of the town, at the center of which is a tram station, and in its vicinity is Forum Mall.

The majority of the neighborhood residents are Turks, with the exception of our building and another one in the nearby. Despite the small space of the apartment, not exceeding 35 m2 each, I had a feeling that I am living in a large house with my family and acquaintances, and that spirits from Syria surround my dwelling. Perhaps it is the sense of warmth in our place of origin that strikes us whenever we leave it, driving us to choose a place of residence similar to the one we have inhabited before.

“It’s apartment No. 11, you’re right across from me,” my new neighbor Umm Muhammad welcomed me. Umm Muhammad is from Kobanî. With its grief mixed with much love, her compassionate face has always made me nostalgic for Syria. Despite the age difference between us, she became an older sister to me, and a mother or an aunt, making me soup when I got ill, and taking me with her to the market to buy groceries. Almost not a single day passed, all round the year, without her knocking on my door to offer me a portion of what she made for lunch.

I began to consecutively encounter the rest of the Syrians in the building. On the third floor, in addition to our house and Umm Muhammad’s, there lived Dr. Ahmad and his wife Dr. Waheeda. Ahmad and Waheeda brought what they had learnt during their medical careers, and never hesitated, throughout our stay there, to assist any of the neighbors whenever some came down with an illness or a common cold, providing their medical services free of charge.

Although they had been top practitioners in Aleppo, the laws here prohibit them from pursuing their careers until after long and complicated procedures, which require money and proficiency in Turkish. This prompted them to transform their home into what resembles a home clinic.

On the second floor, there lived three families from Aleppo countryside, who fled their homes after bombardment intensified and their homes were severely damaged. In an attempt to retain some of the atmosphere of their city and to keep its memory alive, they got together and took the same road here, renting apartments on the same floor.

Members of these three families told me of how they used to wake up to the sounds of barrel bombs and the roars of aircraft, and how prices have risen five-fold what they were before 2011, leading to an increase in transport fares. Everything they owned lied in ruin.

The elder brother, Abu Muhammad, used to trade in steel. His business stagnated soon after the outbreak of conflict in Aleppo city, in the summer of 2012, until it came to a halt, at which point he sought refuge in Turkey. There, he strived to find a suitable job to his prior expertise, but to no avail, which forced him to work in a Turkish factory. He complains about low and inadequate wages, highlighting that a Syrian worker does not receive a wage equivalent to that of others, uttering the common popular proverb “What coerced you into bitterness? What’s more bitter.”

As I climbed up the stairs, I would smell irresistible ingredients of authentic Aleppan cuisine. My memory would take me away, until I feel like I am in Al-Nile or Izaa’a district, or maybe Sakhour – in the heart of Aleppo.

These families are such friendly and tranquil people, with permanent smiles on their faces. I did not memorize the names of all their children, since they are so many and are all somehow related, but the face of their son Amer receives special recognition by everyone in the building.

Amer suffers from significant physical disability and slow growth, and he cannot express what he wants except by moving his little hands. On special occasions, he would ring our bell to say “Happy Holiday,” ask about us in sign language if we’re absent for too long, or complain about the boys in the alley if they harass or upset him.

On ground floor, apartment No. 1 was dwelled by the Kurdish writer and journalist Farouq Hajji Mustafa, who fled to Turkey, heartbroken over his library that was burnt to the ground by Daesh agents, in addition to a small media center he used to run before it was utterly razed with bombardment.

Farouk had a writing career since he was in his hometown Kobanî, and he took that passion with him in exile. He continues to publish what he writes in Syrian or Arab newspapers, in hopes that words help him forget the long, cold winter nights here, and that they console him after the loss of his dearest possessions.

Farouq does not hide his uneasiness with this country. Having used to walking through Old Aleppo and its covered market; to visiting Damascus on a regular basis; and to memorizing the names of the capital’s streets as if he were a Damascene native, he now feels estranged in Turkey’s streets and alleyways.

In apartment No. 2, which directly faces the writer’s, there lived a family that had arrived from Douma, Eastern Ghouta, carrying sorrows and heartaches due the siege and calamity that befell their countrymen. Abu Khalil’s family formerly dwelled in a house of an estimated area of 150 m2, with many living comforts other people in the Ghouta used to enjoy. Bombardment and deaths have nevertheless transformed the features of everything in the city, so they had to grow accustomed to a harsher life, just like other people in their area. Having co-existed with sounds of aircraft, and having relied on barley and corn bread, and even bird food, for sustenance, it was not an easy feat for Abu Khalil’s family to just reshuffle its deck and start a new life in Turkey.

Adaptation to new conditions would have never been possible were it not for the support the family had received from other neighbors. The children of the building immediately started to play with the two new arrivals from Douma, the trouble rousing Khalil and the clever Tuqa. I remember when Tuqa made me a beautiful flower vase of colored paper and asked me to keep it, which I do to this day.

Members of Abu Khalil’s family kept talking about Douma as if they had just left it. They wish that their stay in this refuge not last long, and that things return even better than they were.

Nihad, the superintendent of the building, was another Kurd from Kobanî, who has lived for many years in Aleppo, where he had innumerable friends. That was what motivated him to choose all the building’s residents to be Syrians. He would dissuade the landlord from raising rent, often pushing him to be compassionate towards Syrians, and to be lenient in matters of payment of the rent and service bills.

Nihad constantly and periodically checked up on all the neighbors, considering the residents to be his folks and relatives, and believing that they should help each other until they return to their country.

In Ramadan, I never felt the burden of estrangement. The sikbeh (food portion offered by a neighbor) every sunset was among the most significant rituals to alleviate my loneliness and homesickness, to the extent that a resident of the building would enjoy seven different varieties of small courtesy dishes on their table.

The sunset call for prayer, and the cannon announcing the breaking of fast, mixed with the noise of the building kids and the sounds of cracking dishes, in addition to the sounds of the neighbors’ footsteps down the stairs, have all made me feel that I am still within the walls of my own house in Damascus. Two years have passed there so quickly, during which we have together experienced so much joys and sorrows. I came down with an illness once, and I found my compassionate neighbor Umm Mohammed making me a lentil soup and washing my dishes, sometimes even tidying my house. Whenever I cried, I found someone to alleviate my sense of loneliness. Whenever I felt weak, I would find a shoulder to lean on, one which still has some of my strength that I used to have back in Syria.

Syrians strive to cope with the new conditions in their exile. I searched for my home when I left Syria, and I found it in a few houses none of which exceeded 35 m2. Even after moving out, my only solace remains to be that I still visit that building, perhaps in an attempt to stock some joy and reserve it for the unknown future.