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Ordinary Turks Quietly Volunteer To Help Syrian Refugees

Sacks of food and clothes collected by Zeynap Kurmus Hurbas (left) and her volunteer group at a neighborhood refugee center in a poor Istanbul neighborhood.
Gokce Saracoglu for NPR
Sacks of food and clothes collected by Zeynap Kurmus Hurbas (left) and her volunteer group at a neighborhood refugee center in a poor Istanbul neighborhood.

Of the 2.5 million Syrians to whom Turkey has opened its borders, some are in camps and receive help from the government and major charity operations. But most are in cities and towns across the country, and a small army of ordinary Turks keeps some of them going, week by week, family by family.

One such group of humanitarian volunteers met on a recent Sunday afternoon at a commercial warehouse that does weekend duty as an aid-staging area. It's an eclectic mix of Turks and a few expats. Many met online in response to an appeal by a cheerful woman helping to load sacks of food into her car.

Zeynap Kurmus Hurbas still can't believe this improvised operation is actually working. "We never thought we could do it. We still don't believe we could do it!" she says with a laugh.

Last fall, after seeing one too many heartbreaking pictures of dead Syrian children on social media, Hurbas suddenly decided not to be just one more voice of online sympathy. She sent out an appeal on her Facebook page offering to coordinate aid deliveries in Istanbul if others would help. The next thing she knew, virtually all her time away from her job at a private school was being spent bringing food, clothes, even coal for winter heat to hundreds of families depending on her and her friends. Now that they're attracting more attention, there's a new email contact for English speakers wanting to help:

She makes it sound simple.

"We put a post on Facebook saying, 'This weekend, we're going to give food and baby clothes and stuff to X amount of families,' " she says. "So people just buy things online and just send them to our depot here."

She's not fond of her online nickname, the "angel without wings." She'd rather talk about all the other people who are doing similar work around the country, groups like the Cesme Initiative, which feeds hundreds of Syrians on the Aegean coast, or the People's Bridge, which helps refugees with legal issues.

Hurbas is perplexed by people who are happy to post distressing photos and stories on social media without doing anything to help. But she also appreciates how quickly social media helped her find others in Istanbul who were just waiting for a chance to contribute.

She waves as another woman approaches and calls her over. Valerie Tasiran, from Fresno, Calif., is married to a Turk and has lived in Istanbul for more than a decade. She says it was the noticeable increase in panhandlers in her neighborhood that got her thinking there must be a better way to help than handing out coins at random on the street.

"Is it doing ultimate good? Is it going to children?" she asks. "And so I wanted something more organized. My mom, who lives in the U.S., also wanted to direct some aid to refugees."

Tasiran says when she saw a post on Twitter about this aid effort springing up, she immediately joined in.

The group finds the neediest families by working through neighborhood community centers. This week the sacks of food find their way to a center started by Syrian Kurds who fled the Islamic State's advance. These days it serves families from Syria, as well as Turkish Kurds displaced by fighting in the country's southeast.

A Syrian mother and her daughter, who has just received a stuffed toy along with this week's sack of food staples gathered by Turkish volunteers.
/ Gokce Saracoglu for NPR
Gokce Saracoglu for NPR
A Syrian mother and her daughter, who has just received a stuffed toy along with this week's sack of food staples gathered by Turkish volunteers.

'I Get Upset'

The next stop is a neighborhood of textile factories, where many Syrians have under-the-table jobs. A disturbing story waits in one of the drafty cement apartment blocks. At the door, Hurbas hangs back, saying she'll wait outside.

Inside, Syrian Derar al-Jasem, tall and barefoot, offers visitors a seat on the mismatched furniture donated by neighbors. He tries his basic English to explain the situation, which sounds dire.

"My son, every day bleeding, every day bleeding," he says. "You need bone marrow transplantation."

Seven-year-old Abdulatif al-Jasem is busy playing a video game on the couch and doesn't look up. He has a rare disorder called acquired aplastic anemia, basically a failure of the bone marrow that can produce harrowing symptoms. Jasem's phone is full of pictures of his son bleeding from the nose and mouth, and under his skin.

And here's the excruciating twist: Abdulatif needs a bone marrow transplant, and the most likely donor match is his older brother, Abdullah. Abdullah was right there with them several months ago, when the family boarded a smuggler's boat bound for Greece. Their plan was to reach relatives in Germany.

But when other passengers saw Abdulatif bleeding heavily, his parents had to take him off the boat, leaving the 9-year-old Abdullah to go on alone. Somehow he made it to his uncles in Germany, and the al-Jasems have been waiting for permission to join them.

By this time Hurbas has slipped into the room, unable to stay away. She's quietly comforting Abdulatif's distraught mother, who seems delighted to see her. But as she gets back to her car, Hurbas is visibly shaken. It's a sharp reminder that these are not professional aid workers trained to deal with the anguishing stories they encounter on the job.

"Yeah, I try not to go in because I get upset," Hurbas says. "I used to go in and know everybody's names, and get in touch with them, but then they start dying and ..." There's a pause while she collects herself.

"You just have to find a way to distance yourself from the whole thing," she finally says with a little shake of her head. She starts the car and heads off to the next family, on a mission of mercy that seems to have no end.

When asked how long she can keep this up, Hurbas says she tries not to think about that, because these families and those who follow are likely to need help for years to come.

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Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.