Broken Borders: Overcoming Personal and Cultural Barriers along the Refugee Route

In this piece, Ufuk Ozturk offers some personal reflections on his experiences working with refugees as a volunteer n Turkey. The following account touches on the roles that language and translation play in enabling not only conversations between cultures, but also insights into one’s own personal identity, assumptions and beliefs. Examining such themes, and how they inform everyday interactions between and actions of different groups affected by conflict-induced displacement, is a key aim of the Refugee Hosts project. 

Broken Borders: Overcoming Personal and Cultural Barriers along the Refugee Route 

By Ufuk Ozturk, University of Oxford

I first met Ahmad in the back of a bus travelling from Izmir to Çeşme, a small coastal town in South Turkey. Originally from Afghanistan, Ahmad fled to Pakistan and eventually settled in Iran. After working as a mechanic in Iran for a few years, trying to build a future for his family, he convinced his elderly parents and two brothers and their families – who had also settled in Iran – to combine their life-savings and try to find a way to Europe. Of course, giving in to my detached naivety I asked the obvious question: “Why did you leave Iran? Why did you come here?” He didn’t answer, instead, he sighed and just looked over to his two-year-old daughter. She was playing with her older cousin and wearing what looked like three coats on top of each other – protection against the cold, prepared for the tough odyssey awaiting them. For me, however, the bus ride felt at times more like a holiday trip. Driving through the beautiful Mediterranean scenery, occasionally catching a glimpse of the blue sea, sharing cookies with friendly strangers and grateful to be able to practice a foreign language. When we reached Çeşme, Ahmad met the smugglers who would give him instructions on how to reach the next stage of his arduous journey, and I met Khalil, an Iranian doctor from Germany, one of the doctors I would be working with over the next couple of days.

The second time I met Ahmad was in the abandoned construction site of a 5-star-hotel-resort by the sea. This place served as a base from where the dinghies would set off, aiming to reach the Greek Island of Chios only about 4 miles off the Turkish coast. This place was an apocalyptic no-man’s-land, where more than 900 people were waiting for the call of the smugglers, waiting to pick up their belongings and cast themselves and their loved ones to the mercy of rubber dinghies and the cold and dark Mediterranean Sea. The doctors worked tirelessly trying to attend to as many people as possible in the hope of at least giving some relief. My mouth also worked tirelessly – translating from Persian to German, German to English, English to French, French to Arabic, Arabic to Turkish and back to Persian. My head was filled not only with words and grammatical rules but also with images of people suffering in inhumane conditions, filled with sad stories and descriptions of deserted places and fading memories. In short, things which, until then, I had only read about. Now these sad images and horrifying stories had broken through the confines of yellowed paper and old book bindings and were threatening my belief in reality.

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Waiting in /Izmir (c) Ufuk Ozturk

Overwhelmed and exhausted, I declined to have a drink after dinner and took refuge in the solitude of my hotel room. I felt dizzy, and instead of turning on my computer or the TV as usual, I sat down and started cleaning mud off my dirty shoes. Regaining control over my environment helped me obtain a sense of security that I needed to regain my composure. I charged my mobile, talked to my loved ones, checked my emails and was even delighted to see one of the frequent Phishing Alert emails from my College’s Computing Department. A warm and comfortable bed and my favourite Netflix show. The world and everything in it seemed to have come back to its designated place.

So, why did I decide to step out of that comfortable hotel room and expose myself to the pain and suffering of people in a situation I would have never imagined possible after two World Wars and the unprecedented wealth and standard of living in the global North? I left that room, perhaps because I was motivated and inspired by the people along the so-called Balkan route or at the train and bus stations across Germany and Austria; by people opening their arms and their hearts and welcoming refugees as new members of their society. I left that room maybe because I believe we have finally learned our lesson after the atrocities ignited and fuelled by greed and racial arrogance, or maybe because I grew up in Europe at a time when borders were becoming increasingly obsolete and reduced to nothing more than just a respectful formality. Perhaps because I grew up in a multi-cultural environment where having a different cultural background was regarded as interesting or even enriching. Maybe I left that room because I am multi-lingual, which constantly urges me to question things we usually take for granted and forces me to navigate through linguistic systems and worlds where every single word I learn serves as a brick to build a bridge connecting these worlds, or maybe because I read literature which has taught me to abandon my habitual perspective and immerse myself in the feelings and experiences of someone else.

Eventually I left that room and spend the next days in that camp translating for the doctors, listening and talking with the refugees and volunteers, playing volleyball and cards and making a fool of myself by singing children’s songs in Arabic and Persian. Frankly speaking, I am not able to tell you why I left that room, but I want to believe that I did so because I don’t want my personal, linguistic and cultural limits and boundaries to lock me up and isolate me in a hotel room, no matter how comfortable it is, because I simply don’t want to wake up one morning, only to realize that somebody has built a 10-meter-high wall around it.

Featured Image: Seeing Chios (c) Ufuk Ozturk

 

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