The sun is crazy bright today, reflecting off the wooden floors in our house. It is beautiful – a reminder to me of hope and warmth and spring coming. I think about this – the contrast between the safety and warmth I feel and the ongoing crisis of the three earthquakes that Turkey and Syria have endured.
I have been quiet in this space about this tragedy, not due to lack of care, but because what can I possibly do or say that could help? I am far removed from the area and get my news the way most of you do. But I do have a deep love for that part of the world, family who live in Istanbul, and friends who are well acquainted with the area. So today, I’m posting a piece I wrote 10 years ago but never published. A piece that will remind all of us that before the crisis, there was already a crisis. A reminder that these stories that we know and those we don’t know matter to God. A reminder that earthquakes and stories matter. When they are far away, they interrupt our lives for a short time through crisis news reports. But long after the front-page news ends, the crisis, the stories, and the people within those stories matter. At the end of the piece, I have included two places where you can donate. They were recommended to me by my brother and sister-in-law and you can trust that the money will go to those most in need.
And now, back to 2013….
I am sitting in a sun-filled room in Uskudar – an area of Istanbul on the Asian side of the city, occasionally staring out at the tops of buildings. I am tired in the best way possible. I heard the Call to Prayer a half hour ago telling me that it is late afternoon, and we will soon be getting ready for the evening activities.
The day began in chaos. It was the first night since arriving that I did not sleep well. Carol (my sister-in-law) and I were heading to a refugee clinic on the European side of the city, and we knew we would be late. We ran to catch a ferry from Uskudar to Kabatas, breathlessly sliding into seats by the window.
The morning was beautiful, partly cloudy but sun spilling through at odd moments, reflecting off a blue-gray Marmara Sea.
“This is a beautiful city” – the same words came to mind that I had been saying both internally and aloud all week. Beautiful. Breathtaking really, with Topkapi Palace and Hagia Sophia on a hill, the Blue Mosque back a bit creating the picture-perfect skyline that is Istanbul. And the ferry rides were ideal places to slow down and experience the view and the city.
Arriving at the dock, we headed to an underground cable car, taking it the rest of the way to Taksim. As we set off in search of the clinic, Carol remembered that Google maps doesn’t do construction. This is fact.
But no matter – we were determined. And determined won, as it usually does.
We found the building and after walking down a dark hallway, trekked 4 flights up a set of stairs. Istanbul is not a city for the short of breath. The room we entered was full of language. Turkish, Farsi, English, Arabic – it all melded into indefinable verbs and nouns, participles and dangling. It was a gift to my ears. One of the side rooms was designated as a nurse’s room and we did a quick survey of medicines and equipment. It was quick because there was none (apart from Sarah Goodwin’s 2-year expired antibiotics from Michigan). No blood pressure cuff, no stethoscope, one thermometer, and medicine that fit into one 8 by 11 plastic container.
Our first patient was an Iraqi refugee. With rusty and wanting Arabic I asked her what was wrong. I barely made out the words ‘headache’ and ‘chest pain’ when the interpreter came to my rescue. And the story came out. Bit by bit by bit. The headache – but really the heartache; the chest pain – but really the stress and a heart broken. The words gave a picture of a family exiled. Refugees. Forging a new home in a new place.
What is the remedy for a broken heart?
We had so little to offer. A small packet of Brufen (Ibuprophen), and encouragement to drink a lot of water, an offer to come back if the headaches worsened, if the headaches were accompanied by blurred vision or dizziness. She was followed by more people, children and moms, more symptoms and more stories. And these were only the tip of a Titanic size iceberg of stories.
For years I have said that stories matter; stories give us a bigger picture, a narrative into which we offer our hearts. And these stories – they matter. They matter to the clinician who attempts to distinguish, with no equipment, symptoms that need physical medicine, those that need emotional, those that need both. They matter to the interpreter who skillfully takes the words and decodes them for the listener. Most of all they matter to God; a God who needs no interpreter and no storyteller, a God who was present in the room with us, caring for all who were there. A God who gives eyes to see and ears to hear the cry of the heart.
The sun has almost set and the Call to Prayer was now over two hours ago. As I close my computer and type the last words, I whisper a prayer for the people I met, and those I never will; for stories I heard, and for the millions I will never hear.
Here is a message from my brother who has lived in Istanbul for 10 years with info on two organizations that he would recommend donating to for earthquake relief efforts:
Two organizations you might want to consider supporting are Medicins Sans Frontieres / Doctors without Borders which works on both sides of the Turkey – Syria border, and İLK UMUT DERNEĞİ / First Hope Association a small Turkish NGO that has a good record of working in close cooperation with government and non-governmental organizations.
Please keep in mind that support for survivors of this tragedy will remain urgent for many months and years to come, long after the attention of world media has passed on to other things.