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 slides 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 amount to 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 does 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 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 – 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 separately from one another, at different times and in different places like 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 other times, they fall silent. They tell their stories vividly and honestly – in the way that only children can.
The day the 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 was 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 had been taught how to cook by her mother, a baker.
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. She was 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 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. To earn money and obtain food, they soon joined forces with other refugees. They followed them to the surrounding fields where they picked cotton for Turkish farmers and harvested watermelon, 10 hours a day, seven days a week. They saw Syrian girls older than them collapse under the sun. They themselves kept picking until the season ended.
Then winter arrived. The adults began looking for new work and a roof over their heads to protect them from the cold. At this point, the men and the women split up, as did the boys and the girls. It wouldn’t be for long, they were told, and the children didn’t ask any questions. Alin, who had been taught to sew by her mother, climbed onto the bed of a melon truck and rode with the women along the Mediterranean coast, 300 kilometers to the northwest – to the textile factories in Mersin. Ahmed traveled with the men to the northeast for two hours in a windowless livestock truck until they reached Gaziantep, a city of well over a million people.
On one evening in May of this year, with warm air announcing the arrival of summer, Ahmed, not even 1.5 meters (4’11”) tall, is pulling a cart behind him in his worn out tennis shoes. He passes industrial ruins, car repair shops and abandoned factories. Stray cats are following him. Dusk is the best time for his kind of work and he is on the lookout for anything that might still be of use – a discarded car cylinder here, a metal tub there. Every few hundred meters, he bends down and throws his new find onto his cart, which eventually becomes so heavy by the end of the night that he can barely pull it. His boss, a Turkish scrap dealer, has promised him five Kurus per kilogram, or 1.5 cents. On a good night, Ahmed says he can collect 300 kilograms, for which he earns about € 4.50. He goes to bed in dirty clothing each morning at sunrise, the same time his sister Alin descends into the basement in Mersin to start work.
Months have passed since Ahmed fled Syria, and this is now his fifth job. He says the bruises on his shoulders are from carrying heavy loads and that the scars on his stomach are from the sharp edges of the metal items he has scavenged. The marks on his throat are from sparks that burned his skin. In the beginning, when he first arrived here, he slept together with six men and 10 boys in a tent, sleeping bags and blankets packed close to each another. They worked together, welding steel in a shop, firing clinker at a cement factory or hauling stones around construction sites where five-story buildings stand today. The grown-ups saved every single lira, saying they wanted to use it for a spot on boats that would take them to Europe. In Germany, they told the children, life would be better for everyone. But then, this spring, police discovered their tent on the edge of the city, stomped it to the ground and beat them all, pushing the men into trucks like cattle. Only the boys were allowed to stay. They weren’t taken anywhere – they just stayed on the streets.
A Small Toy Robot
Now that it is daylight in Gaziantep, Ahmed leaves the scrap yard and heads for the place where he now sleeps, alone with the other children. It is a corrugated metal and wood shed furnished with blankets – a hovel nailed together on one of the brown hills that rise in the city’s south – in the direction of Mecca and Aleppo. The view from the heights extends far out over the dark homes and crescent flags, just a one hour drive from the Syrian border. Almost 2 million people now live here, with close to one in six having fled from the war to Gaziantep.
Ahmed sits on the ground cross-legged and says they built their hovel themselves using tools that they either found or stole. They are nine boys from Homs and Aleppo, from bombed-out cities and villages, all on their own in a country that none of them had known about before. They throw some trash bags and a few wooden slats and twigs on a pile to build a fire and place a pot of sweet tea on top, just like adults.
Each has his own task and his own story. Mahmud, the oldest, is 15 and had already been orphaned long before the war. Mohammed, the youngest, is 11 and he lost his parents as they fled. They hadn’t known one another before, first finding each other at the construction sites, without guardians to look after them. They built their own family – one comprised solely of children. They now get up together and gather scrap together. They pray together and they share their bread.
All that Ahmed still has from home is a backpack. Inside is a T-short emblazoned with the words ‘I Love Syria’, a pair of pants, socks, a bag of chocolates, a small toy robot and a scratched up mobile phone. Sometimes when he’s unable to fall asleep after work because the morning heat has already become unbearable, he takes out his mobile phone and looks at the old photos, pictures of his parents, pictures of Aleppo and pictures of Alin.
On this night, Ahmed runs a thumb across the device as he looks at photos from his old school. They show boys with gelled hair and girls with colorful headscarves, arm in arm. Ahmed doesn’t know where any of his friends are today or how they are doing. He sends them messages, but they no longer answer. Sometimes, he thinks they might still be in Aleppo. And sometimes he imagines that they’re already dead, ‘perhaps in Paradise’.
The Good from the Bad
Ahmed says he is no longer afraid of death. In fact, he says, he’s already seen a lot of people die. He was just starting second grade – he had only just learned to read, he says – when he watched as a man was beheaded not far from his school. He scrolls through his mobile phone until he finds a wobbly video. The clip, recorded over two years ago, shows a blindfolded man kneeling in a puddle of dark blood. Next to him is another man in black robes and they are surrounded by onlookers. The robed man is holding a large sword in his hand, pressing it to the neck of the kneeling man. He yells ‘Allahu akbar’ – God is great. And then he hacks off the man’s head.
Ahmed says he filmed the video himself on Aleppo’s market square. His father was furious, yelling at him to delete the video and never to look at it again, but Ahmed ignored him. Now, he shows it to the others and the boys watch with big eyes. Mahmud, the oldest, furrows his brow and looks up at the night sky. ‘There are wars’, he says, ‘because there are bad people.’ Mohammed, the youngest, asks how you can identify them, how you can tell the bad ones from the good ones.
Ahmed often spends time with his mobile phone after work, writing to his uncle who fled Aleppo a few months ago but who hasn’t managed to cross the border out of Syria. His uncle upbraids him frequently and writes that Ahmed should go looking for his sister. But Ahmed says he doesn’t want to leave. ‘I never want to go away again.’
There was a time when Alin and Ahmed grew up like most siblings do. They didn’t have much room to themselves and shared a bedroom until Ahmed was nine, with stuffed animals in the beds and pictures on the walls that they had drawn themselves. They pestered one another and pulled each other’s hair. Sometimes, when they would tell jokes late into the night, they would pull their beds close together so their parents couldn’t hear them. But now, now that the war has driven them away, they are separated by hundreds of kilometers in a foreign country. They must feel like they are in different worlds.
Their only connection is the text messages they send each other from their mobile phones almost every evening. Alin often writes how many dresses she sewed that day and she’ll occasionally send a picture of the room she is allowed to sleep in, a tight space full of torn mattresses where a dozen other children sleep as well. She writes that she is often hungry after work, but that she has no money because her entire recompense is being able to sleep in this small room. When Ahmed asks his sister what she misses most, she answers: school. When Alin asks her brother what he misses most, he is unable to answer.
A few weeks ago, when Angela Merkel traveled to Gaziantep and was led through a nicely tidied up refugee hostel for the cameras, Alin wrote to her brother: ‘The girls here are saying the queen of Europe is at your place. That she’s coming to get you.’ Ahmed didn’t understand. He didn’t have a clue who Angela Merkel was and had never heard her name before. Even today, he doesn’t know where Germany is located, just that it’s part of Europe and that Europe is safe and children don’t have to work there. Ahmed says he hates working and hates it when his arms ache. He’d much rather play football – but then, as he well knows, he’d starve.
The only German Ahmed thinks he knows is Arjen Robben. The bald football star is, of course, Dutch, but for Ahmed, light skin is the equivalent of being German. In Aleppo, he says, he used to watch FC Bayern Munich games on television sometimes in a tea house on his street. The team in the red jerseys always won and the man with no hair, says Ahmed, always scored a goal. Since then, Ahmed has believed that Germany is ‘a good country’. Every one of his friends thinks the same, every one of the eight other boys on the hill. But none of them knows how to get to Germany. And weeks ago, when Merkel – a queen, in the eyes of the children, who wanted to help them – visited the camp not far away, she was gone almost before she had arrived.
Ahmed and Alin know nothing about refugee quotas. They don’t know anything about Turkey, about a president named Erdogan or about a deal with the European Union. All they know is that they can’t return to Syria because it’s too dangerous and they can’t continue on to another country because the other countries don’t want them.
In Alin’s imagination, Europe is a small island surrounded by the sea ‘somewhere up north.’ And in her dreams, Merkel isn’t a matron in pant-suits, but a young woman in white robes with silky soft skin and long, golden hair. She has never seen a photo of the German chancellor, but some of the girls she sews with have told her that all Germans are ‘rich and beautiful’. Alin doesn’t wonder how all Germans can be rich and beautiful when she, a child, is forced to sit in a windowless basement. She simply figures that there are enough children in Germany already.
Alin is sitting in the Mersin factory sewing little crocodiles onto white polo shirts. Lacoste, Adidas, Puma, Nike: she rapidly sews the logos onto sweat pants and T-shirts – counterfeit products that are brought from Mersin to Istanbul and from there to Bulgaria and on to Germany. At least that’s what Nasser says, a man with bad teeth and a shirt wet with sweat. He is 34 years old and comes from Syria, just like the children who work for him. He came here four years ago from Aleppo, where he worked as a tailor. After he left, he sold his car, bought around 20 Juki sewing machines and started his factory in a quarter of the city where police haven’t patrolled for quite some time.
Initially, mostly locals worked at his machines, almost all of them adults. But then, more and more Syrians began arriving, including children ‘who were half as expensive.’ Nasser walks up the stairs, opens the door to the street and looks down the road past dozens of factories. They are all cellars like his, full of thousands of boys and girls. The only difference is that he is a refugee himself, the only Syrian factory owner around. Nasser takes a drag from his cigarette and says he has four children himself and doesn’t have a choice.
Down below, by the sewing tables, he has set up a CD player that plays Arab music 14 hours a day. A high-pitched woman’s voice sings of hope and happiness. The music spurs the children onward, Nasser says – it ‘keeps them in rhythm’. He paces through the rows, his hands clasped behind him like a teacher walking through a classroom. The children are not allowed to talk to each other. Talking, Nasser calls out to them, delays production and costs money. They only have a single 40-minute break each day, during which they drink warm soft drinks, eat lentil soup and relieve themselves through a hole in the cement just behind an old curtain right next to the factory floor.
Now, because it is the fasting period of Ramadan, Alin says during one of these breaks, she can’t eat or drink anything at all during the day. She has squatted down on the floor between piles of red and black fabric. It’s only midday, but she is already so exhausted that she can hardly remain upright. She tries to think of something nice and says that her favorite thing to sew is the little crocodiles. She likes crocodiles because they are strong animals. If she could, Alin says, she would just swim away to Europe just as other women and girls did after they were unable to find shelter and work here in Mersin. They arranged a bus ticket and drove down the coast to Bodrum, where they climbed into a rubber dinghy. After that, Alin says, she never heard from them again.
She knows that people drown in the Mediterranean. But she also knows that many manage to make it across. Alin says she is jealous of the children that have made it because they don’t have to work and can go to school. She always dreamed of becoming a doctor, Alin says, but now she is afraid that she’ll have to spend her entire life in a basement. She hasn’t been to school for two years and her brother Ahmed, she says, ‘doesn’t even have any idea how much 12 times 12 is’.
The streets of Gaziantep and Mersin are now full of children like the two of them. And every day they walk past signs in Arabic that are posted on the sides of the buildings, next to ads for Coca-Cola and images of Erdogan. The signs are from Islamic State, promising pocket money, food and a ‘huge family’ that will take care of the children.
Alin doesn’t know exactly what Islamic State is. She is only familiar with the pictures of masked fighters that cut off people’s heads or burn them alive. Sometimes, on her way back from the factory to where she sleeps, she sees other children who have dressed up to re-enact executions.
Feeling Like a Child
Not that long ago, Alin says, she heard Nasser and other men talking about a bomb that had exploded in Gaziantep, where Ahmed lives. A car loaded with explosives had driven up to a police station. Two people were killed and 22 injured. The driver, it was said, was a young Syrian, still a child.
When Alin heard about it, it was as though she had once again been reeled in by the horrors of Aleppo. Ahmed wrote to tell her that he was okay, but that wasn’t enough for his older sister. She resolved to go get her brother and take care of him herself. The next morning, she took all the money she had, 50 lira, and climbed into a bus heading for Gaziantep.
The drive took five hours. Out the window, Alin watched the cotton fields of Adana roll by where she had once worked. She also saw the stone quarry near Gaziantep, where children are now working as well. When the bus arrived, Alin called her brother, but Ahmed didn’t pick up. She sat at the bus station and dialed his number around 20 times, but got no response. Alin kept trying for hours, until it got dark. Then she boarded the last bus heading back to Mersin.
During the ride, Alin says, she prayed hard for her brother and for a chance to see him again sometime. She also thought of the song about the two children – a song she once learned at school, in another life. The children in the song had been saved, and when the war was over, they could return home again. Alin started thinking and decided that Allah could perhaps save two children, but probably not hundreds and certainly not hundreds of thousands. And then, Alin says, she started thinking about what would happen to her and Ahmed if luck never found them – if their fate was not that of the two children in the song, but a different one, without a happy ending.
Then, a message from Ahmed arrived. He wrote: ‘Hello sister. We were collecting scrap all day and all night. Soon, I’ll have enough money. I’ll have enough for you and me together.’
On the morning after her return from Gaziantep, Alin went to work in the pre-dawn darkness, just like every day. She climbed the 15 steps down into the damp basement that smelled of sweat. Nasser, her boss, received her with vicious cursing because she had been missing for an entire day, leaving thousands of seams unsewn. She walked silently to her machine, shoved the pillow behind her back, put her left foot on the pedal and laid her right hand on the machine. Then tears began pouring down her cheeks. She was ashamed and covered her face with her hands, but she couldn’t stop crying. She wasn’t crying for her dead parents. She wasn’t crying because of her body’s aches and pains. It was, she says, because Nasser, an adult, had scolded her. She felt, just for a moment, like a child.
This article was first published in Der Spiegel, Germany