Pain Doesn’t Differ: Turkish Refugees Help Greek Fire Victims

Gasparetto (not his real name)[1] was a young Turkish medical student when he was arrested and imprisoned for eight months by Turkey’s government, merely for his connection to the Hizmet, a social movement inspired by Fethullah Gülen and Sufi thought, which Turkey’s President Erdoğan blamed for the July 15, 2016 coup attempt. While incarcerated, Gasparetto experienced a range of feelings—heightened spirituality and camaraderie with others, but also devastating emotional torture at the hands of prison guards. In prison, they had crammed 57 people into a room meant for 12, and so the inmates took turns sleeping and sharing beds. He was only given permission to leave his cell on four occasions over an eight-month period. He asked his family to bring National Geographic magazines to him so that he could see color photographs of the outside world. The worst part was that his mother, who suffers from bipolar disorder, was unable to manage her own medications at home because of the stress, and rapidly deteriorated during his absence. Sadly, as soon as Gasparetto was released, he knew he would soon likely be rearrested, and so he planned his escape from Turkey via the dangerous Evros River, known as the “refugee cemetery.”[2] Crossing the river on a flimsy inflatable boat, he was terrified he would drown in the rushing currents, as far too many had before him, or be thrown back into prison again by Turkish soldiers, before his boat reached Greece.

I met him in Greece during the summer of 2018, where I had travelled to interview other refugees of Erdoğan’s ongoing purge. According to Mehmet, a Hizmet representative there, approximately 800 Turkish refugee families are temporarily residing in Greece (the number fluctuates), hoping to gain asylum somewhere, anywhere, in Europe. At least 41,500 Turks have already reached Europe to seek refuge after the attempted coup, and many more are still desperately trying to reach safety and gain asylum there.[3]

Firdevs, a former teacher who crossed the river with her three children, told me that after arriving in Greece, she kissed the first tree she saw. She felt her burdens lifting, and that at that moment she could breathe for the first time in two years. “All Turkish refugees are thankful to the people of Greece,” Mehmet explained to me.

Due to its strategic location and (relative) hospitality as of June 2018, Greece houses approximately 60,000 refugees.[4] From January to September 2018 alone, over 23,000 refugees, most of them (72%) from Syria, Iraq (including Syrian and Iraqi Yazidis and Kurds), and Afghanistan, came to Greece by sea.[5] Others risked the treacherous Evros River—from January to May, 2018, 7,200 refugees survived the crossing to Greece.[6] When asylum seekers arrive, often exhausted, hungry, and thirsty, unfortunately many find conditions in the refugee camps less than ideal. Crowded, squalid, and dirty, the camps nonetheless offer refuge for those awaiting their asylum decisions. Residents have complained that living in the camps can be dangerous: there have been reports of physical and sexual assault, threats of violence, and a rise in mental health problems.[7]

One of the worst examples is the Moria Camp, on the island of Lesbos. It is supposed to house 2,000 refugees, but as of August, 2018, it houses four times that many, and sexual harassment and assault are commonplace.[8] It also reeks—there is one toilet for every seventy people. Some have lived there for over two years. Many, including children, are suicidal.[9] The same camp recently witnessed violence against Kurdish refugees by Arabs, in which over seventy Kurds were injured, at least ten left in critical condition, mirroring sectarian violence against Kurds in Syria and Iraq, at the hands of religious extremists.[10]

My 9-day trip was marred by several tragedies. The day before I arrived, fires in the region of East Attica, near Rafina, horrifyingly killed 99 people,[11] with 200 more being injured.[12] In two separate incidents around the duration of my stay seven Turkish refugees, including children, lost their lives drowning in the Evros trying to reach safety in Greece. For days one Turkish father, Murat Akcabay,[13] who had survived the trip while the rest of his family fell into the water after the boat hit a rock, prayed that one of his three sons, five year-old Mesut, who had been wearing a life vest when he fell off the boat, would still be alive. The bodies of his wife and two sons had already been recovered.[14] Sadly, during my trip, Mesut’s body was also found.

Despite the problems faced by the Turkish refugee community in Greece, which include trauma, financial difficulties, displacement, grief, depression, and an uncertain future, those I spoke with were deeply concerned with how to best help the Greek fire survivors and their families, in their new host country. 

On a more positive note, six other Turkish refugees, one a 5-months pregnant woman, were rescued and brought to Greece after being stranded for four days without food or water on a tiny island between Turkey and Greece. Their boat sank and they made it to the island, where they slept on the muddy ground and survived by drinking river water. Another success story involved a young Turkish refugee who arrived on a boat, but his boat was pushed back towards Turkey by Greek officials (which happens on occasion). In an act of sheer desperation, he leapt off that boat into Greek waters, and to the cheers of spectators he too was rescued and brought into Greece by representatives of the UN High Committee for Refugees.

Despite the problems faced by the Turkish refugee community in Greece, which include trauma, financial difficulties, displacement, grief, depression, and an uncertain future, those I spoke with were deeply concerned with how to best help the Greek fire survivors and their families, in their new host country. They, along with the world, mourned with Greece. Another refugee, and former government official from Ankara, Çetin, explained: “The pain doesn’t differ. Language, ethnicity, religion, none of these are different. We suffered the same. When we see the pictures of the Greek babies [fire victims], we suffer just as we do when we see Turkish babies who sank in the Evros River.”

Humanitarian groups quickly began to raise funds for the survivors of the devastating fire. Help also came from an unlikely source: the Turkish refugee community. Historically, Greece and Turkey have been at odds. This has been fueled, in part, by Greek independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1832, a series of military conflicts including the Greco-Turkish war of 1912-1922, the Cyprus issue, and the current tensions between Turkey and Greece. Turkish jets have invaded Greek airspace on dozens of occasions this year alone, and the Turkish government has implied it might seek jurisdiction over islands in the Aegean occupied by Greeks.[15]

Despite that history, those refugees I interviewed were deeply grateful for the friendly welcome they received in Greece which, combined with Erdoğan’s brutal two-year purge, completely quashed any previously held feelings of Turkish superiority and/or xenophobia. Firdevs, a former teacher who crossed the river with her three children, told me that after arriving in Greece, she kissed the first tree she saw. She felt her burdens lifting, and that at that moment she could breathe for the first time in two years. “All Turkish refugees are thankful to the people of Greece,” Mehmet explained to me.

Zeynep, a divorced mother and former cook, confirmed that her refugee experience created greater empathy for others outside of those groups of people with whom she used to most identify. She said, “Before this [purge in Turkey], when we heard a refugee ship had sunk in the Aegean Sea, of course we were sorry. But we never thought that each person died had a family, children; we never humanized them, one by one. We used to just think about Turkey, what we could do for Turkey, but after this experience, we see what we can do for humanity.”

My 9-day trip was marred by several tragedies. The day before I arrived, fires in the region of East Attica, near Rafina, horrifyingly killed 99 people, with 200 more being injured. Seven Turkish refugees, including children, lost their lives drowning in the Evros trying to reach safety in Greece.

Similarly, Yesma, a former teacher, argued that being a refugee also made her more empathetic towards other refugees. She stated, “In our country we had Syrian refugees and we should have done more for them. We didn’t help them enough.” She also crossed the Evros with her family, and told me that eerily, she was able to feel the spirits of those who had drowned in it, but were never found.

Accompanying Mehmet, Gasparetto, and several other refugees with medical backgrounds, I toured the neighborhoods affected by the fire. They wanted to offer aid through their Hizmet-affiliated organization, Time to Help. In one of over at least 1,000 homes gutted by the fire, a burnt television sat askance on the living room floor, surrounded by charred furniture and debris. A brass teapot sat unscathed on a charred, round antique table. I was told that thankfully, the elderly resident of that home survived, carried out by her son.

Mehmet, who had organized the small group composed of two refugee doctors and one nurse, purchased water and paper goods to donate to Rafina’s city hall. We met with Ms. Vasiliki Beka, the Mayor’s Advisor, and Mehmet began by telling her that they were there simply to help, and that on behalf of Time to Help they could bring more doctors or whatever else was needed. He offered to organize a blood drive, paint homes, bring medicines, or provide victims’ families with financial aid. Ms. Beka graciously responded that they did not need more basic items such as clothes, food, or medicine, but rather volunteers to help clear the area of burnt wood, and of course, funds. Seemingly touched by the offers of assistance, she said that receiving global offers of support restored her faith in humanity. Exhausted, but smiling, she added: “There is more that brings us together than that which separates us.” Afterwards, the group visited a young woman in the hospital, who was badly burned on her arms and legs, and gave her mother funds to help her daughter with her medical bills.

Refugees commonly suffer from feelings of humiliation and societal uselessness because of their dependence on aid organizations, especially when they are unemployed.[16] I noticed that being able to provide help to fire victims raised the spirits of the Turkish refugees I met in Greece; indeed, Mehmet much preferred to think about ways to help the Greek victims rather than about his own refugee status, or the fact that the rest of his family still remained in Turkey. Thankfully, Gasparetto was able to reach Germany, where he hopes to continue his medical studies after learning German. While he still struggles with depression and his traumatic memories, he is one of the more fortunate. While those that fled the brutal purge in Turkey have a long road in front of them, their horrible experiences have not yet caused them to lose their humanity. In fact, being able to perform even small acts of kindness helps them move forward.

The pain doesn’t differ. Language, ethnicity, religion, none of these are different. We suffered the same. When we see the pictures of the Greek babies [fire victims], we suffer just as we do when we see Turkish babies who sank in the Evros River.

Let’s conclude this story with the words of a refugee. Ahsen, a 33-year-old psychological consultant and mother of two, listened to the stories of purge victims in Turkey before becoming a refugee herself. Her hair turned white from the stress of listening to the painful stories of others. Her Kurdish husband, a psychiatrist, cried when I interviewed him, telling me he heard stories that were so terrible he couldn’t tell them to anyone. Before fleeing Turkey via the Evros, Ahsen told her seven-year-old daughter that they were playing a game of “Survivor.” Surprised with her daughter’s adult-like demeanor during the voyage, Ahsen recalled that after reaching Greece the girl calmly asked her who had won the game. Ahsen conveyed what she had learned from the harrowing ordeal: “Passing through the Evros taught us about other people. We had heard about the refugee experiences from Afghans and Syrians, but we hadn’t experienced it [ourselves]. Also, when we came here we found that Greek people are very kind, polite, believe in humanity, and offer us respect and understanding. They also help us, which is very important. [If granted asylum], we will go and carry out more service (Hizmet) in the countries we visit. I’m sorry I left my friends in Turkey, but I learned there is a great need here as well. A new life is beginning for all of us.”


[1] All names of Turkish refugees have been changed, for their safety.

[2] Deniz Zengin, “Turkish Refugees Crossing Evros River,” Politurco, August 2, 2018.

[3] Ibid.  

[4] “Greece,” UNHCR, June, 2018.

[5] “Sea Arrivals Dashboard: Greece,” UNHCR, September, 2018.

[6] Leo Dobbs, “Fewer refugees arriving in Greece’s Evros region, but problems remain,” UNHCR, June 12, 2018.

[7] “UNHCR urges action to ease conditions on Greek islands,” UNHCR, September 8, 2017.

[8] Catrin Nye and Leo Sands, “UN urges Greece to act as Moria refugee camp reaches 'boiling point,'” BBC Victoria Derbyshire Program, August 31, 2018.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Helbast Shekhani, “Ten Syrian Kurds in critical condition after attack at refugee camp in Greece,” Kurdistan 24, May 26, 2018.

[11] “Attica’s Devastating Wildfire Death Toll Rises to 99,” Greek News, September 12, 2018.

[12] Bill Hutchinson, “Death toll from fires in Greece climbs to 91 as investigation points toward arson,” ABC News, July 29, 2018.

[13] His real name.

[14] Tasos Kokkinidis, “Turkish Father Makes Emotional Plea for Family Missing in Greek River,” Greek Reporter, July 20, 2018.

[15] Yannis Babaoulias, “Greece and Turkey Are Inching Toward War,” Foreign Policy, April 18, 2018.

[16] Constanze Quosh, Liyam Eloul, and Rawan Ajlani, “Mental health of refugees and displaced persons in Syria and surrounding countries: a systematic review,” Intervention Volume 11 (3) (November 2013). 

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