Turkish Wedding Party Feeds Syrian Multitudes

Turkish Wedding Party Feeds Syrian Multitudes August 5, 2015

Sometimes you run across a real-life event that echoes the Gospel almost too loudly to remark on without feeling as though you’re striking the obvious note, taking the easy way out, writing that the butler did it.

Consider, for example, the case of the Turkish bride and groom who transformed their wedding reception into a feast for nearby Syrian refugees.

Yes, Fethullah Üzümcüoğlu, the groom, and Esra Polat, the bride, set out to feed the multitudes, like Jesus at Bethsaida. News reports claim they invited 4,000 – all the refugees settled near their hometown of Kilis, which sits along Turkey’s border with Syria.

If that number fell a little shy of the Master’s, Üzümcüoğlu and Polat undertook their mission with the money they’d received as wedding gifts, and appear to have distributed at least some of the rations themselves. A photograph shows them standing behind a glass counter, dressed in their wedding finery and ladling soup into bowls.

Reportedly, the idea came from the groom’s father, Ali Üzümcüoğlu. Logistical support was provided by Kimse Yok Mu, a Turkish charitable organization. (Its name is usually translated “Is Anybody There”; in fact, “Isn’t Anybody There” is more exact, and captures its sense of urgency more clearly.)

But this spectacular act of charity also evokes the parable of the Good Samaritan. Since 2011, when popular demonstrations against Syria’s Assad regime led to the revolt of the Free Syrian Army, almost 11 million Syrians have had to flee their homes. Almost 4 million have fled the country. As of March, 2015, Turkey had taken in 1.7 million, almost half that number.

The flood of refugees is placing a fearsome strain on Turkey’s bureaucracy and finances. Flavored by nationalism, its longstanding refugee policy favored asylum seekers “of Turkish descent and culture” – for example, Muslims fleeing the Balkans or the Soviet Union’s Central Asian republics. When civil war broke out in Syria, Ankara based its response on the false assumption that hostilities would wrap up shortly, classifying Syrians as “guests” and housing them in camps. The bill for these measures now tops $5 billion. The international community has contributed maybe 3% of the total; Turkish taxpayers finance the rest.

Increasingly, Syrians have been drifting out of the camps and into the cities. Often arriving without funds, they support themselves in the “informal” economy – bureaucrat-speak for working off the books or going into business on the black market. Though, in October of 2014, Turkey began issuing Temporary Protection certificates that entitled Syrians to apply for work permits in certain fields, many native Turks continue to resent these newcomers as drains on their purses and competitors for jobs.

I have seen Turkey’s informal economy and some of its resentment toward Syrian refugees up close. Both of the foreign-language academies where I taught employed Syrians. Their English was better than anyone’s, save the native speakers’. Like the rest of us, they worked grinding hours under often absurd conditions. (Anyone teaching a class in advanced-intermediate English would have counted himself lucky if his students were able to stutter along at an intermediate level.)

Only they did not find it so easy to complain, or switch jobs or – like me – to return home when the schools squeezed them too hard. All were painfully aware that their regular wages, though often in arrears and barely sufficient for their needs, placed them in a better situation than millions of their countrymen.

Many were supporting families. One man who became a good friend introduced himself by announcing proudly that he could now style himself Abu Samir – “father of Samir” – as his first child, a son, had been born the day before. Samir will belong to an entire generation of Syrians born abroad.

Through it all, they had to tread an undercurrent of hostility from the locals. One student, a young woman enrolled at the local university, called them cowards, declaring with all the arrogance of youth that she would never flee her homeland during wartime. Probably well used to this kind of thing, one Syrian teacher begged my help in keeping his nationality a secret. If anyone asked, I was to swear he had come from Lebanon, though he knew this fiction would earn him some ribbing because, as he put it, “Everyone knows there are many gays there.”

The point here is that Üzümcüoğlu family’s generosity to stricken foreigners places them well outside their country’s own mainstream — maybe any country’s mainstream. Judging by Turkey’s latest population statistics, there’s only one chance in 500 that they’re Christians. Nevertheless, their answer to the question “Who is my neighbor” is very Christlike.

"Saint Joseph of Cupertino.'Nuff said."

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