I know I know this is a travel website, and I know I have been writing about my opinions a lot lately, but that’s only because I find that the things I experienced as I travel changed me more as a person than the things I see. And living around Syrian refugees is one of them.
I grew up as a very compassionate kid, to animals, to other human. But then I guess with age, comes selfishness and self preservation so I lost a bit of that love for others. I thought that beggars were just lazy people, that the blind can survive with living aid, that women using they children to beg was wrong, that prostitutes should at least find a better way of getting an income. Looking back, I think these were the walls of assumption I put up to make myself feel a little better when I walk pass them without so much as a look of mercy.
In fact, I made it through the most part of my travels without even an ounce of guilt when beggars approach me. To be completely honest, I didn’t know why there were so many Syrians in the first place, or why were they stranded in Turkey as I was not at all keeping up with social media. Ignorance is definitely bliss.
Istiklal Street also know as Istiklal Cadessi.
On my last few days (I was in Istanbul), I stayed close to Istiklal Street in Taksim. This is the biggest shopping street on Istanbul and is always flocked by tourists and locals. 2 million of them, everyday. Naturally, there were a lot of beggars. And in my ignorance, I walked pass them all.
The night before I flew out, I made my way through Istiklal Street yet again, this time with 2 other friends. It was cold, and one of them insisted on getting a McDonalds ice cream even though the queue was long. As I waited it out, I do what I love to do the most during my free time, I people-watched. There was a really beautiful Arabic lady, carrying dozens of shopping bags with her and 2 white men, very obviously backpackers in the line. Then a lady came, all covered in loose black clothing and a black scarf. Unlike others, her face was not covered.
She was carrying a baby with her, a tiny little thing really, and proceeded to sit on the floor in front of me. She then laid the baby delicately on the floor, in front of her. You wouldn’t believe how fast it took for me to fill up with rage. The baby was limp, pale and floppy. I was angry that she didn’t have the decency to keep the baby out of it. I was angry that she was using the baby to beg.
As I turned to my friend, I said “How can she do that? It’s just a baby”. And so he proceeded to explain about the Syrian refugee situation. “The baby is dying” was the last thing he said.
As I peered closer, I felt embarrassed that I, a medical student, could not even recognize the signs. Lying on the ground was the body of a child that probably has a few hours left. Blue lips, and a bloated abdomen that doesn’t match the rest of his frail body. His chest did not even raise much when he breathed. This woman isn’t begging with her child, she’s begging for her child. She cannot work because she doesn’t have the papers, she’s a refugee. She has to carry the child with her because she doesn’t have a place to live.
It took 5 seconds for all that to properly dawn on me and I felt nauseated. The immense guilt made me want to throw up. Here I was thinking that beggars should do something in their lives, always comparing my lives to theirs. Hard work equals to success and food on the table. And everyone was born with the same capacity. We all have 24 hours. But then again, we weren’t born equals. I was born with a privilege, being a Malaysian citizen entitles me to a safe, peaceful life, with an education that brought me to where I am today. I am protected by law, and I feel safe. I have a home to get to and the funds for travels. However, being privileged should not give us the rights to look down on others, instead if we used it to help the under-privelaged, wouldn’t the world be more.. fair?
I walked away though, the sheer emotion taking over was so unbearable I didn’t walk away the same. Not making sure that the baby and the mother was okay is the biggest regret I have in this trip. I will never forget the face of the dying baby. The catch of my heart when I think of those moments will never go away.
But I have changed. When I walk pass beggars now, I can sympathize. I genuinely want to know their story. The elderlies are my weakness, no one should feel alone and unsupported when their old. I always wonder what happened to their children, if they ever had any. And I always slip them money or food and a smile, not just spare change.
I say ‘slip’ because there’s still a conception that giving to beggars means being stupid enough to get tricked or guilted into donating when beggars earn ‘a lot’. I even had to hide when I’m with my mom. To be honest, I don’t care. If the food I gave can fill a stomach, then so be it. I do not give money to child beggars or physically capable adults, because that can be more damaging than helpful. But then again, what’s their story? I guess I’ll never find out.
So how was it like, living in Turkey with the Syrian refugee crisis? Life changing, sobering and I now feel a sense of gratitude I don’t think will ever leave me.