Overseas, not overlooked

Claire Lu

TUMULT IN TURKEY

In Turkey, what once started out as a peaceful environmental protest rapidly deteriorated into a global conflagration.

Junior Valene Tjong and her sister, freshman Caitlyn Tjong, were looking forward to a pleasant summer vacation in the heart of Istanbul, Turkey. The last thing either of them expected was a mad dash for their lives and the opportunity to witness history unravel before their eyes.

“When we first arrived, I felt so blessed to be able to visit a place with such historical significance,” Valene said. “It felt as if I stepped into a photograph, experiencing the smells and tastes firsthand.”

On a tour group, they were able to explore Turkey’s most prominent and beautiful tourist sites, but were shielded from the more violent details of Turkey’s internal turmoil.

On their fourth day in Istanbul, the two sisters finally learned about the protests and political strife plaguing Turkey, a formally secular state. Initially, Turkish citizens were protesting against the removal of one of the last green spaces left in the sprawling metropolis ­— a tiny oasis called Gezi Park, located in the larger Taksim square. Once a “poster child” for democracy in the Middle East, Turkey was lauded by many Western nations as a paradigm for many newly emerging democracies.

However, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan recently advocated for legislation that placed new limitations on alcohol consumption. Many secular Turks see the limitation as an example of the ruling Islamist AKP party’s policy of imposing Islamic law on the lives of ordinary citizens. From their tour guide, the Tjongs learned that everyday Turks were worried about more severe impositions to come and the potential transition into a “pseudo” democracy and non-secular state. Ultimately, Erdogan’s unwillingness to listen to his people sparked further and more intense protests amongst his people.

That afternoon, the Tjong family stopped at a restaurant to eat lunch. Before they were about to take a bite of lamb kebab in a restaurant in Istanbul, Turkey, their tour guide burst into the room.

“Get up and leave now!” he screamed.

Valene and Caitlyn began to panic, sprinting toward the safety and familiarity of their tour bus. As the bus swerved out of the parking space, the tour guide stood up in the bus, tears sliding down his face. Both Valene and Caitlyn vividly remember the speech that followed:

“Today a momentous event occurred. There was an outbreak of violence from the police in Taksim Square. They shot tear gas at us, from such a short distance away that it knocked out people’s eyes and other body parts. There were children, families with children! Let me ask you, is this fair? Is this humane? For justice, for democracy, I am willing to sacrifice anything. For such great a cause, I am willing to withstand any amount of tear gas. I will die, if that is what it takes to bring about the much-needed change. For Turkey.”

“We fell silent as he finished his emotional speech, shocked and moved because of his sheer passion,” Valene said.

“We became aware that these instances, worthy of the news, just occurred a mere 10 minutes walking distance from the restaurant that we were eating lunch in,” Caitlyn said. “It felt so surreal.”

INSTABILITY IN ISRAEL

Originally from Israel, junior Dana Shevachman moved to the United States a few years ago. From the outside, she looks like any other MVHS student. With her auburn red hair tied up in a high ponytail and one backpack strap off her shoulder, she laughs and chats with her close friends.
Her transition to the United States has been facilitated even further by her recent graduation from literature teacher Chelsa Anderson’s English Language Development program. Although her parents live with her in the United States, Shevachman’s grandparents still reside in Israel.
Shevachman’s grandparents used to call once a month; however, new tensions between Syria and Israel have resulted in more frequent communication between them and her family in the U.S.

“My family always gets so nervous when we hear the phone ring, but my grandparents assure us that nothing has happened yet,” Shevachman said.
Even though her grandparents are safe this week, fear of a Syrian military strike continuously permeates the Shevachman household.
“The Syrian government would never attack a country as powerful as the United States, but we fear [Syria] will attack Israel, one of the United States’ biggest allies [in terms of political importance],” Shevachman said. “We don’t know when or even if they will attack, but my grandparents and other relatives are prepared, with gas masks and places to hide.”

The Israeli government is also drafting all available 20 to 40-year-old men for border fortification purposes. Luckily, Shevachman’s male friends from Israel are not of age yet, so none of them have been involved in the drafting. Shevachman, however, remains cautious because if the Syrian civil war drags on for several more years, there is a high possibility of drafting.

“We are all afraid it will evolve into another world war,” She said.

In the meantime, Shevachman and her family read and watch the news daily to stay informed on the rapidly evolving situation.

STRIFE IN SYRIA

Junior Sarah Chekfa’s family in Syria fears another domestic chemical attack. They live in Damascus, Syria — just miles away from the site of a recent poison gas attack that killed more than 1,400 civilians. Although not located in the midst of the fighting, Chekfa and her close family in both Damascus and the U.S. know of friends and distant relatives caught directly in the turmoil.

“Luckily we haven’t been in the middle of [anything],” Chekfa said. “But we still hear from family members stories about everything that’s going on, and what’s happening to friends of friends, and how many people are dying every day.”

Even though she lives thousands of miles away from the actual conflict, it is hard for Chekfa not to be affected. Stories of kidnappings and sudden gas attacks from their close family keep Chekfa and her family in the United States praying for their relatives in Syria.
“We continue to live a normal life here, but it’s really scary and frustrating because no one’s doing anything to stop it, especially when people are still unconvinced [the Syrian government is] using chemical weapons,” Chekfa said.

In some places, according to Chekfa, there are rebels patrolling the littered, desolate alleyways — armed with rifles and machine guns. Buildings are reduced to rubble, and streets are littered with remnants and vestiges of life before the unrelenting conflict.

President Bashar al-Assad’s forces have already killed tens of thousands of civilians with conventional weaponry; utilizing chemical weaponry has taken the conflict to another level. After more than two years and 100,000 deaths, the civil war in Syria between the dissenters, rebels, and the corrupt government has descended into a medley of kidnappings, executions and unpredictable chemical attacks.

“I just hope the whole thing ends soon,” Chekfa said. “Then we wouldn’t have to worry as much.”