It is not quite 4PM. It is also not quite 40 degrees. For you Americans reading this, the temperature is sitting at a little over 100 degrees. I have just got on a bus (a van, really) that will take me back to Gaziantep. I have spent less than two days here and now I watch as the driver weaves his way down streets that are more dust and mud and potholes than they are brick and pavement. The buildings we pass, there is no adequate way to describe it to someone who was born and raised in the sheltered West like I was. many of these buildings are in some stage of construction or destruction, but they rarely have any workers doing anything to them to complete the process. Probably one in three of the rest of the buildings are windowless and unfurnished and without utilities. That does not necessarily mean they are uninhabited.
We pass by a boy, maybe 12… maybe 14, riding on a flat wooden cart being drawn by a single brown horse. Behind him on that cart is a hodgepodge collection of used clothing and shoes. I wonder where he is going with his goods. I wonder where I am going. I know I am heading back to Gaziantep and in a week from there I will be heading to Istanbul. But where am I going really?
This past week I spoke with a German teacher who has spent most of the past five years in Gaziantep. She started working there before Arab spring and before that movement plunged Syria into chaos. She was there long before ISIS was a factor on the world stage. In other words, she was there before millions of Syrians fled their homes that had become the backdrop for a multi-front civil war clusterf**k. Now, five years later not only has Gaziantep and this entire region been flooded with refugees, it has also seen a huge influx of foreigners. Some are with the UN but most are war tourists. Whatever their stated reason for being there, what they really want is to be where the action is. Just not too close. There are few, if any, war tourists in Suruç. Except us, that is.
I was visiting the city along with three others. One was an Asian man from Singapore. Another was a black man, a student, from South Africa. Then there was me, the white guy from Upstate NY. We all came together from Gaziantep. The three of us met another Asian from NY who was busy about the Father’s work in another part of Turkey until the police shut that down. He is now visiting Suruç to see about doing it there, but I don’t think he will stay.
The first day we were there I taught English for about two and a half hours. The other two who came with me watched. Virtually all of my students that day were junior high or high school aged Syrian kids from Kobani. The second day both of the other two taught for about thirty minutes and then I did a wrap up/review. At the end of that review we were talking about emotions and I asked the students to give me examples of what makes them happy, sad, angry, etc. I then used some of those examples to explain why it is important to be a friend to others and also to rely on your friends when we are hurt, scared or sad. However, there might be times when those friends are unavailable. We can have a friend who will always be there and who will never let us down. That friend is Jesus.
I couldn’t hit it hard because all but three of those twenty-five or so students there that second day were Muslim. There is a fine line to walk between presenting the gospel and causing trouble for those Christians who will continue caring and loving on those others long after us war tourists have gone back home. They have to stay there and live there and risk the retaliation that might come from careless things we have said. They do not have the option of getting on a bus and taking off when their “tour” is up. As the Bruno Mars song “Count On Me” played at the end of that class, I could only pray that the little I said would spark God sized conversations between those Christians and their Muslim friends. Was it enough?
I am now passing by the small city of Nizip. In Suruç there are a couple dozen Christians and my host could tell you who each of them is. Suruç is a city of a little over 100,000 people. Wikipedia tells me that Nizip has about 130,000. I wonder if that number includes the Syrian refugees in a camp right outside this town. I also wonder if there is a church in Nizip and if it also has as many as 20-30 people attending. I doubt it.
Next June I will be leaving Istanbul and moving in this direction. God willing it will be a move I make for the rest of my life. When I come not as a guest but as a resident, as an immigrant, will I be viewed as a war tourist? For how long? How long must I be living here before they stop viewing me as a yabanci… a foreigner? Will it ever happen? I know that this is my purpose. It is what I was created for and I cannot wait to spend a lifetime, rather than just a month here. Until then I can only hope that we war tourists can do a little more good than the harm we are causing. I just passed a sign that says we are thirty kilometers from Gaziantep. I am thirty kilometers from home.