Friday, 28 December
I dedicated the day’s walk to Elif Başak Kurkcu, another guardian angel who tirelessly herded me through hallways and up and down stairs at TAC.
I celebrated my birthday by walking. I did have company. Baris Aydin had noticed me on the couch surfing website. He contacted me and asked me if he could join me for a day of walking. Baris was from Denizli but now lived in Adana with his wife and daughter. He worked for a cruiseline and had a few days off before he had to fly to Miami to get on the cruise ship. Of course, I said yes!
Baris was no stranger to traveling long distances solo. He had ridden his motorcycle across the United States twice, the first time from Florida to California, the second time returning from California to Florida.
I was still commuting to work from Melih’s place in Mersin. Baris met me there and we hopped a bus to Tarsus and began our walk east out of Tarsus to a village called Arikli which was our destination that day. I was walking the Tarsus to Adana stretch. Arikli is a village about 25 kilometers east of Tarsus on the way to Adana.
I enjoyed having Baris on the walk that day. Even though he had done his travels by motorcycle, the process of doing a long solo journey, no matter what mode, was similar, and we could share our travel experiences and feel understood.
Along the way we stopped at a gas station for supplies, and when I told the attendants what I was doing they said, “Wow! If we had the money we would be walking across the country, too!” I saw Baris stifle a knowing grin. This happened often—people’s eyes glazed over and looked dreamy as though they thought I was doing something really exotic when most of what I did, walking along the highway and stopping at gas stations day after day for food, was pure scut-work. Besides, they spent more money not doing what I was doing.
Baris also commented on that irony as we walked.
During the walk Baris and I crossed the provincial border from Mersin province to Adana province that day, my sixth provincial border crossing so far.
That evening, after Baris and I said our goodbyes and I had rested from the day’s walking, Merve, a friend I’d met from couch surfing, came to get me, a full shopping bag in hand. She had been concerned that I might be alone on the evening of my birthday. We walked to the beach, and as we sat in the sand visiting she pulled two bottles of beer and some chocolate bars out of her shopping bag. This became a routine until I left Mersin a few days later. Merve became a good friend and someone I admired because she represented what I loved most about Mersin.
Mersin as it is today reminds me of what Ellis Island in the United States used to be—a welcoming haven for refugees from war-torn countries. We’ve romanticized the Ellis Island period of history in the United States but we don’t much welcome refugees these days. Turkey, and particularly Mersin, does.
Merve was Kurdish and originally from a small town near Diyarbakir in southeastern Turkey. In the southeastern part of Turkey the Kurds are the majority population—between 65 and 70%. During the establishment of Turkish borders in the south, there was no provision made for a separate country for the indigenous Kurds who then populated southeastern Turkey, spilling over into the surrounding border countries of Syria, Iraq, Iran.
In the 90’s, the Turkish army was conducting military operations in the area due to a pretty violent civil war with the Kurds who were demanding a separate country and government. During this time, one of the tactics of the Turkish military was that if there were a small town or village suspected of harboring rebels or having rebel sympathies, the military would burn down the town.
When Merve was about 10, the village where she and her family lived was burned to the ground, and with it, the family home where Merve was born. The family witnessed not only the destruction of their home but the death of Merve’s brother at the hands of the soldiers. Having lost everything including their son, the parents picked up the rest of the family and fled to Mersin to begin again.
As in many typical immigrant stories (including those who fled to Ellis Island in the U.S.)—the first hurdle facing an immigrant family is for the father and/or mother to earn some money to put a roof over the heads of the family and some food on the table.
Merve’s father found odd jobs at construction sites. This led to his starting a construction business. Twenty years later he had a contractor business where he bought up plots of land and built apartment buildings on the land. This became a successful family business. Dad’s company still buys up plots of land and builds apartment buildings; Merve and her siblings sit at a desk in the ground floor of the new building and sell the apartments. When the apartments are sold in that building, Dad has finished another building so they move on and sell the apartments in the new building. The family had morphed over the space of 20 years from nothing to owning a pretty big construction company.
There are a lot of stories like Merve’s in Mersin. It’s a crossroads (as Ellis Island was). If you are from a small village that has just been torched or bombed and you want to move your family to a place that’s not so big you are going to get lost, but big enough to find some labor or construction work to do within a few days so you can put some food on the table, Mersin is a good city for that. If you can reach Mersin you can begin to escape the orbit in which people are just trying to survive and are in fear for their lives. Mersin has many such refugees.
The people who left their old country and ended up at Ellis Island, people we admire and who are our heroes, were like any other refugees today. We’ve lost the notion that the same process still goes on. Humans leave one place and go to another. Of course there’s a reason for them to leave their original home in the first place, and it takes some courage. It almost takes some catastrophe as huge as a home being torched in order for things to be so bad one wants to pick up and go somewhere else.