The Story of Ahmed and Alin Syrian Orphans Trapped in Turkey
Ahmed and Alin were 10 and 11 years old when their parents died in Aleppo. They fled to Turkey and now work there as child laborers -- collecting scrap and working in a sweat shop. They dream of escape, but don't know how.
One early morning this summer, 13-year-old Alin, fatigue visible in her eyes, walks alone through the dark, pre-dawn streets of the Turkish city of Mersin. The slap of her flip flops accompanies her as she makes her way through the factory district, passing dilapidated buildings, with dogs still asleep and streetlights unlit. Alin is singing as she walks, a hopeful song about two children with little to hope for -- two children who had experienced the worst, but who were to be saved nonetheless.
Once upon a time there were two children, a boy and a girl, the song's lyrics go, and they had lost everything -- their parents, their house and their country. They came from an old city and, when a war broke out in their country, they fled to a distant kingdom. They found safety, but in the service of their protectors, they were forced to work so hard that their backs bent and their hands bled. They almost died. But one day -- Allah is great -- they were rewarded richly for their suffering. God gave them their country back and bestowed them with gold and happiness. Now, according to the song, one that schoolchildren once learned from Raqqa to Damascus, the two children were to become the king and queen of Syria.
Alin sings with a thin voice. She turns into an alleyway and, from the building entrances on the right and left, the clatter of hundreds of machines can be heard growing louder and louder. Alin slows as the noise drowns out her song. Ultimately, she stops singing altogether, bows her head as she passes under a low door and sidles down 15 steps into a damp, windowless basement.
Inside, the smell of sweat hangs in the air. Neon light emanates from the ceiling, casting a bright glow on two dozen tender faces -- 19 girls and five boys, all still children. Some prop themselves up on crutches and three are missing a leg. They line up next to each other like soldiers as a man calls out their names, shouting in Arabic, "yalla, yalla!" -- "hurry up! hurry up!" -- and the children set to work. Alin sits down on a plastic stool at one of the wooden tables lined up in rows. She slides a pillow behind her back, places her left foot on a pedal and grabs a pile of clothes. She takes a black T-shirt, lays it in the machine and begins sewing -- first one seam and then two, three, four. By the time it grows dark again upstairs on the streets of this Turkish city on the Mediterranean, it will have been a thousand.
Later in the day, after a few hundred seams, she will start getting cramps, in her neck, in her buttocks and in her shoulders. But she won't complain, she won't say a word. She will do what she has to do. It is only after 11 or 12 hours that she will sneak a peek at the small clock on the wall and think about her brother, who at that moment is beginning a night shift 300 kilometers (186 miles) to the east, at a scrap yard in Gaziantep.
Stooped and Hungry
They can't see each other or talk to one another, but Alin imagines Ahmed, several centimeters shorter than she, climbing mountains of trash and rubbish, a boy 12 years of age with oil-smeared clothing, thin arms and broad hands. Alin imagines these hands carrying heavy loads -- car tires and engine parts. How her brother Ahmed collects them piece by piece, piling them on a cart behind him and pulling it, stooped and hungry, for kilometers through the city until his bones ache.
When Alin leaves the basement after 14 hours of sewing, she no longer has a song on her lips -- only prayers. She folds her hands, closes her eyes and pleads for someone to come and rescue her just like the two children in the song. She and her brother -- the son and daughter of parents killed in the war -- who fled Aleppo and are now trapped in southern Turkey.
The story of Ahmed and Alin is one of two children, a boy and a girl, who fled the bombs in Syria and are now struggling to survive in the shadow economy of Anatolia -- children who dream of a queen named Merkel and a faraway island called Europe, but who can't find a way to get there because, for the 1.5 million children who have fled the war in Syria, there is no longer a path out of Turkey.
They tell their stories apart from one another, at different times and in different places. In a subterranean clothing factory in Mersin and on the scrap heaps of Gaziantep. They use simple words, speaking loudly at times and quietly at others. Sometimes, their voices quiver -- at others, they fall silent. They tell their stories vividly and honestly -- in the way that only children can.
The day when war arrived was a summer's day two years ago. Ahmed and Alin, the children of a laundry service owner in Aleppo, were 10 and 11 years old. He, a boy with big ears who liked to eat licorice and preferred riding a bicycle and playing football to praying. She, a girl who liked doing homework, had the best grades in her class and who had been taught by her mother, a baker, how to cook.
They had just sat down to dinner. Their mother Adeeba had made couscous with dates. Mohammed, their father, had been telling them about his work. A Syrian family sitting together at a table -- when an explosion, out of nowhere, knocked all four off their chairs. The bomb, which had fallen on the neighboring building, tore through three walls, leaving their living room in rubble. The children screamed and their father called for help. The only person silent was their mother, who was buried beneath the stones. "She was just lying there," says Ahmed, no longer breathing. And when the smoke and dust finally cleared, they could see blood flowing from her forehead. In Alin's words, it looked "like red water in a river."
'Our Uncle Told Us to Leave'
An aunt washed the corpse. Ahmed and his father buried his mother at the last remaining cemetery in Aleppo, located not far away from their destroyed home.
They moved in with an uncle. Not long after losing his wife, their father Mohammed also lost his business. Even though bomb after bomb fell on their neighborhood, he didn't want to leave Aleppo. Alin and Ahmed say he cursed Assad and the dictator's soldiers, who had encircled half the city. The children were not allowed to leave the house -- at first for weeks, and then for months. During the day, they could see smoke rising above the homes of their friends. At night, they laid in bed together with their father, clinging tightly to him each time an explosion shook the walls.
It was on a hot morning one year ago, both say, that their father left the house never to return. He had wanted to pick up food for them -- pita bread, flour and a canister of water. The last remaining store in their neighborhood was located just four blocks away, but snipers lurked everywhere on the rooftops, as neighbors would later tell them. A regime solder, claimed some, had shot their father in the back of the head. Others were sure it was Islamic State fighters. Alin and Ahmed say they never saw their father again.
They have a hard time talking about it even today. When they do, their soft features become rigid and their eyes begin to wander. They don't have many memories of their last days and weeks in Aleppo -- only that, at some point, perhaps months later, they left the city. "Our uncle told us we had to leave," Ahmed says. "He stayed," says Alin, "but we were to disappear."
One of their dead father's brothers used the last money he had to pay two traffickers. The first took the children out of the city hidden in the trunk of a car. The second led them and other Syrians across the border on foot. Alin and Ahmed didn't know where along the kilometers of barbed wire fences they actually passed into Turkish territory. They only recall that the march lasted two nights and two days and that it rained almost non-stop.
The first thing they saw of the foreign country, Alin says, were men with weapons. Soldiers picked them up behind the border -- the traffickers had left them on their own. The men spoke loudly in a language that Alin and Ahmed could not understand. As if to keep them away from the rest of the country, they led the children to a forest in the Hatay province, Turkey's southern-most corner. It was here, several months later, that the siblings would be separated from each other. It was here that Ahmed and Alin, without even suspecting it, would go their own ways -- possibly forever.
At first, though, they lived in the forest together with hundreds of others who had fled, in a camp under the trees, in huts made out of cardboard and plastic tarps, without beds or food. Ahmed says the only electricity came from the battery of a broken-down tractor and the water for washing, Alin recalls, came from a dirty canal. Alin and Ahmed never saw doctors, social workers or anyone else charged with caring for them.