East to Dyarbakir
Our flight arrived on a hazy and hot day in Dyarbakir, set in the dry plains of the southeast of Turkey. There we met a driver who took us by van to the Caravanserai Hotel, a historic landmark in the old city of this ancient easternmost outpost of the Roman Empire. We took a break to find our rooms, and then some of the group followed Fr. Dale to the nearby shopping district to purchase a supply of seeds. Back at the hotel, we packaged several varieties of seed into a few hundred sample packets to be given out in our efforts to find situations where refugees with access to land could plant them and grow a garden.
The next morning we breakfasted early and then walked briskly through a warren of back alleys and narrow streets in the old city to the Syriac Orthodox Church of St. Mary, whose building dates back to the third century. The priest, Fr. Joseph, is one of only two remaining Christian priests in Dyarbakir. The priest is at the St Giragos Armenian Church. Most of Fr. Joseph's flock have fled Turkey; his family and two other families remain as the church's only parishioners.
On our tour of the building, we viewed the gravestones of teachers and saints of the Syriac Church, and while viewing the baptismal font were told that this was the church in which Ephrem the Syrian, the most prolific poet-hymnwriter-theologian of the Syriac Church was baptized. Fr. Dale told us that Ephrem was himself a refugee in his day, having had to flee his home city of Nisibis to Edessa in 363 when the Roman army lost to Persian forces and had to retreat toward Constantinople.
We left Dyarbakir that morning in a van headed for Mardin with one more person in our company; Adem. Adem, a former student of Fr. Dale's at Mor Gabriel Monastery and a native of the village of Beth Kustan in the Turabdin region we would be entering, is now a journalist, and he would act as our facilitator and “fixer” for the rest of our travels in Turkey. His presence with us and his fluency in Turoyan, Turkish, and Arabic made all the difference for us.
We took off headed southeast in our van, and in about an hour reached Mardin, another major city in this region of Turkey. There, in the courtyard of the 4th century Church of the Forty Martyrs, we we met in person our first refugee, a dignified, silver-haired 88 year-old Syrian with a ready smile and what seemed to me a spirit of serenity. Over cups of chai tea, as Fr. Dale and Adam conversed with him and as Fr. Dale translated, we discovered that this man comes from a family that includes Christian bishops and priests, and that he is the last of his family to leave Syria. I've learned since our visit from Fr. Dale that this man's family has suffered persecution over a century, coming to live in the Mardin region at the beginning of the 20th century, where they were swept up, as so many Christians were, in the Armenian genocide. They fled to Syria, and now with the rise of ISIS, they are having to flee again, this time for Europe and North America.
Fr. Dale explained that 120 refugee families from Syria were living in the church facilities and in other lodgings in the area.
After the visit, we went to lunch at a nearby restaurant, where during lunch we were approached by a woman speaking German-accented English. Perhaps because we seemed cautious about being approached by strangers, she left after exchanging pleasantries. However, later she returned, and as it turns out we found she represented a German NGO seeking to provide relief to refugees, focused on food and nutrition issues. When she found out from Fr. Dale the aims of our project, she showed great interest. Fr. Dale left with her business card and the possibility that we'd just made a potentially helpful contact.
The next stop before leaving on this hot afternoon was a Turk Cell mobile phone outlet, where Fr. Dale got outfitted with a device that allows him to access the internet through a satellite link. I was glad for a cool place to sit while I waited, because I felt the cold that I thought I left behind in Bellingham coming on strongly. I was feeling disheartened by this, and hoping that this evening would provide an opportunity to get to bed early.