A Syrian Teacher, November 2015

On November 3, 2015 I received a message from one of my contacts, a human smuggler. A group of 25 Syrians was stuck on a beach in Dikili, north of Izmir. They had failed to pay the outstanding amount for the passage to Greece. So the smugglers just rendered the dinghy unusable and left. The group had been there for a week.

‘’That’s just the story for you’’ my contact said, sarcastically.

I was in Dikili the next day. I grabbed a cab and hit the road to find that beach. After half an hour, I found the group. The beach was hard to spot from the main road. Trees were blocking the view. I had to climb down, as there was no marked path.

The group was living a hell in this actual paradise. Almost all their savings had been stolen by the smugglers. All that was left on the beach was the destroyed boat and the made-in-China life vests scattered all over. The men were searching for firewood while the women were trying to bring some kind of order to the camp site. It was a hot day, and the light breeze was carrying the stench of a makeshift toilet in my direction – a rocky portion of the beach was cordoned off with cardboard. Getting food and water was a logistical nightmare. They had to walk to Dikili. Fortunately, a few individuals from a nearby village had provided them with bread, some fruit and beverages.

The group was from the Syrian city of Kamishli. The men had decided to flee with their families in the face of imminent conscription. Their journey had started almost a year ago, but they had come to a dead end on this beach. Their worst fear was to be taken back to Izmir by the Turkish security forces. They were adamant that they would find the money and complete their voyage to Greece. Lesbos could be seen in the distance, despite a light wall of fog. So close, you could almost touch the island.

I had been on the beach for more than two hours. Everybody was telling me their story. The children were staring at me with curiosity, sometimes touching me. As I photographed them, they posed and laughed uncontrollably.

Then, something interesting happened. One of the women called out for the children. Without hesitation, all twelve children hurried in the direction from which that authoritative voice was coming. They sat in a circle and the woman started handing out notebooks, textbooks and pencils. I could not believe my eyes. She was reading out loud, the children repeating. Then the children began reading by themselves, one by one. The woman listened intensely; praising those who read correctly and making the others work harder. An hour later, class was over.

I had just had experienced an amazing moment. This teacher had refused to give up. Long ago, she had concluded that Syria was facing a lost generation and had decided to fight against that outcome, on her own. She was not going to leave these children alone.

Throughout the research, I never forgot about that teacher. She should be an inspiration to us all.

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