The first thing you notice when you get off the bus in Izmir is the number of people that are gathered in large groups, with tattered plastic shopping bags filled with dirty clothes, bottled water, and food, either in piles on the floor or tucked safely under their arms. The second thing you notice is the exhaustion in people’s faces as they eke out smiles in between anxious phone calls with the local smugglers that may be their last hope.
As Ali Jamal hangs up the phone with the man who is supposed to be meeting him and his extended family of more than 20 people at the bus station., relays the message to his family in Arabic. When he is done he explains that he and is relatives, left his home in Kunduz province in Afghanistan after ISIS began to gain control in the region a year ago.
“We leave because they kill people,” says Jamal, who had personally seen ISIS perform six beheadings. “There’s no reason, they are just dead.”
After escaping the sectarian violence of Northern Afghanistan, Jamal and his family made their way to Iran, where they were hardly welcomed with open arms. Now, like so many others he has come to Turkey with only one thing in mind – Unan – the Arabic word for Greece which every refugee seems to utter with a special reverence.
“We just want peace,” Jamal says. “We really want peace.”
Over the last few years, Izmir has become the de facto destination for refugees trying to make it to Europe. There are no available statistics for the how many refugees have come to the city in the hopes of making it to Greece. However, the Greek island of Lesbos, where the majority of people showing up to Izmir intend to travel to, has seen more than 266,000 refugees reach its shores so far this year, according to the United Nations. Another 55,000 have ended up on the nearby island of Chios.
A trip to the main drag outside the city’s main train station makes it easy to see why Izmir is the port of choice. Dozens of shops in the area are selling anything you might need to make the crossing, from inflatable inner tubes and to the all – important lifejackets. Meanwhile locals can be seen openly hawking lifejackets and arguing on street corners as they jostle for the most visible territory. Down the side-streets it’s impossible not to turn a corner without seeing a hardware store, a restaurant, or a women’s clothing store which isn’t trying to capitalize on the lifejacket racket.
The lifejackets range in price from 20 Turkish Lira ($11) for an inflatable children’s one up to 75 Lira ($35). One woman’s whose store was otherwise filled with an inventory of winter coats and leather jackets, was selling a mixture of low quality and higher end life jackets. Her most expensive item however was a children’s lifejacket, which didn’t even have any foam sewn into the back of it. While she was happy to show of her wares to a group of Syrians who came into the shop, she was reluctant to talk about how business had been.
Most of the refugees making the pilgrimage to Izmir have enough money to pay for hotels and on most days it is common to see Syrians, Iraqis and Afghanis chain-smoking in between frantic conversations on their cell phones. But those that don’t are relegated to sleeping in the streets and the courtyards of mosques. Some arrive in the city having already spent most of their money getting there and end up looking for ways to earn enough for the boat ride to Lesbos which can range between $1,000 and $2,200 per person.
According to several refugees who spoke with The Borders In Between, finding a smuggler is as easy going on Facebook, where have been sharing information and contact information about the illegal trade. Others simply wander the streets until they find someone who will offer to take them to Greece.
“We find [a smuggler] on the internet,” explains Mario Esteif, a 23-year-old refugee from Aleppo, who paid $2,000 to a smuggler to transport him and his wife to Greece. “It is not easy be we don’t have any other options.”
Esteif, said in addition to the horrors or war in Aleppo, there was no running water or electricity when he fled his home. Despite the risks of traveling to Greece by boat, Esteif says he would rather die with dignity in the ocean than in the impoverished conditions which the war has left him.
“I don’t care. I die here in Turkey - no job, no life here,” he says. “I am not scared.”
As night descends hundreds of refugees flock to the central square in downtown Izmir where they wait to take a busses to the launch point for smugglers, some three hours north of town. Many of the busses carrying the refugees to their final destination in Turkey are run by large national companies. Although their role in transporting the refugees is no secret, they are not keen to have their names advertised, something which The Borders In Between discovered after being surrounded and asked to delete photos of people boarding their busses. Despite the cold reception of smuggles one thing is abundantly clear by watching the scene unfold under the humid cover darkness: a lot of people are making a lot of money off the desperation of those who have been forced to leave behind their livelihoods because of war.
In the park next to the roundabout families lay on the grass surrounded my piles lifejackets concealed in black garbage bags. One Syrian man who was waiting to take a bus at 1 a.m. with his wife and three-year-old son, and his sister and her two children talked with wide-eyed excitement about the possibilities that lay ahead in Europe. Reflecting on his time as a truck driver in Homs, he was upbeat and looking forward to getting the journey over with. When asked whether he is afraid of the journey he looks down at his son before answering in Arabic.
“Of course I am scared. I can’t swim.”
Mario Esteif, from Aleppo, talks to The Borders In Between in front of an impromptu refugee settlement in Izmir ahead of taking a boat to Greece with his wife.