POP QUIZ for those of you who know me: What are my 3 favorite kinds of people in the world, ever?
(Brent’s first guess of simit vendors, döner vendors, and people who sell Magnum ice cream bars is incorrect, but an excellent runner-up.)
ANSWER: 1) Refugees 2) Uzbeks 3) People with Down Syndrome
So now that I’ve refreshed your memory, let me tell you all about my afternoon with Servinaz, a beautiful 2-year-old Uzbek refugee girl with Down Syndrome. As far as I’m concerned, the trifecta! Never before have I fallen in love with someone so instantaneously.
First off, a little background. One sunny day in February when Steph was visiting, she and I were sitting together in the shade of a statue of Atatürk waiting for our ferry to dock, scooping off-brand Nutella out of its container with simit chunks, when an American girl approached us and introduced herself. (She didn’t need to ask whether we were Turkish, our snack choice was a giveaway.) Our shared interests (Nutella and Jesus, primarily) became readily apparent, and these days I’m pleased to number Lauren among my ex-pat friends. We grab lunch once a month or so, and recently, while working through a particularly excellent meal at a sidewalk cafe in the Kadıköy fish market, she recognized a passerby as a friend who works full-time at a refugee organization and pointed her out to me. I leapt at the chance to network, and the rest is history.
Now Leanne, this friend of Lauren’s, is unbelievable. When once we’d chatted over tea about my interests and experiences and been duly impressed with one another, she swept me into the fray and I am once again busily and blissfully at work amongst the refugee community I love so much. Leanne spends a lot of her time paying house calls, and chatting in her enviable Turkish over fantastic homecooked ethnic food with beautiful ladies from all over the world (ahem, my dream job). Today, since she knows about my refugees-Uzbeks-Down Syndrome thing, she asked me to tag along!
EVERYBODY, OH MY GOODNESS, I’M SO HAPPY. If I came to Turkey for no other reason than to meet this family, I’m happy. I’d met Sevara, the gorgeous young mama, earlier this week at a moms-and-kids get-together the program hosts, and through Leanne, we chatted about her daughter. Refugees in Turkey are given no government assistance whatsoever while they wait (sometimes for years) for the UN to grant them asylum and send them elsewhere, which means they can’t see doctors much, and Sevara hasn’t really been able to consult anybody about what to expect. I was able to assure her that all the little quirks and developmental delays she was worried about were perfectly normal, and to share stories about my own brother, who’s happy, healthy, and headed to high school! She cried a little bit and I cried a little bit, and I couldn’t wait to visit her.
So this afternoon, Leanne and I sat on a sweltering, rickety public transport train that left from Sirkeci Station (the terminus of the Orient Express!) and chatted about what we were in for. We didn’t know we’d be meeting Sevara’s rosy, twinkling, apple-cheeked grandmother, come to visit all the way from Kyrgyzstan. She had crinkly laughing eyes and a full mouth of gold-plated teeth, and kissed me firmly on both cheeks. Conversation took four people and had to be translated Uzbek to Turkish, Turkish to English and back again, often with loud, garbled input from Servinaz, as she emerged and reemerged from hiding under the table to clamber onto chairs and into laps. But we lingered over lunch, expanding our circle as more Uzbek friends came to spend the afternoon, and it couldn’t have felt more natural.
Leanne says Sevara’s 4-year-old son speaks Turkish like a cartoon character, having learned it mostly from watching TV. I can’t wait to see him at his rambunctious best, since today he was understandably petulant—he was circumcised earlier this week. He lay languidly on a fold-out couch, a laptop playing Turkish-dubbed Caillou cartoons, wearing (hilariously) not much but a taqiyah prayer cap to modestly cover his sore parts. Once he’s healed up, they’ll hold an after-party, to which I’ve been invited—such are the bounteous rewards of cross-cultural friendships.
I wish I could explain how blissful it is to sit with a family on their living room rug, a hot dusty breeze blowing smells from the street through gauzy lace curtains, communicating mostly with broad smiles and gestures. There’s a deep joy that comes bubbling up when, while playing and laughing with a little girl, I look up and learn that there’s no better way to show love to her mother. For me there’s no delight quite like engaging with Servinaz, and seeing that she’s vocal, social and energetic, and encouraging her family because of it. When I can share life in all its difficulty with people like this, I feel like I’m in full bloom. I really don’t know what more I could ask for.