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Turkey’s Refugee Rose Pickers

As the annual rose harvest in Turkey draws to a close, Lush Times writer Katie Dancey-Downs meets some of the Syrian refugees working as rose pickers, to hear their stories of life in Turkey, and what they left behind in Syria

It’s a hot May morning in Isparta, Turkey - the land of the roses. I’m crouched behind a rosebush on a dusty path with a rosepicker; a Syrian refugee who has taken a break from her work to talk to me. The woman wants to be anonymous, as does everyone in this story, so we’ll call her Maya.

Maya has been in Turkey for a little over two years, moving between different agricultural jobs to earn a living. But it’s clear this is no easy job. It’s currently Ramadan, and as the sun beats down on the workers, many of them cannot drink any water as they observe the month of fasting.

“We have a good living in Turkey, we love it,” Maya tells me. “But what breaks my heart is that my mother and father are still in Syria. Wouldn’t you miss your mother and father?”

Her mind always goes back to Syria, whatever we talk about. It’s connected with everything else in her life.

When I ask if she’s happy here, she tells me that the people are kind, but after a pause she goes on to say, “It’s obligatory happiness.”

As I talk to the Syrian rose pickers throughout the week, this is a common theme. Turkey is a good place to be, but they would always choose to be at home in Syria - but only if it could be a Syria without war and violence. Going back now is not an option.

“How could we live there? There’s no work and only war. Of course our country is dear to our hearts,” Maya says.

She left Syria with her husband, brother-in-law, and daughter, who is now 13, and tells me what it was like the day she left her home country: “The bullets were like rain on top of our heads,” she says. “My daughter brushed very closely with death.”

Maya wants to continue working, so we get up from the ground, and we keep talking through an interpreter as she plucks soft pink roses - butterflies and bees zipping around her hands. She adds each flower to her bag, which will be weighed and provide her with an income based on that weight, so she can feed her family.

The roses she picks are rosa damascena, believed to have originated from the Syrian city of Damascus. These sweetly scented roses once made the same trip as Maya, from their original source in Syria to now grow here in Turkey. Now Maya finds herself picking flowers that originated in her homeland. This field isn’t so different from the one where she kept her goats, back in Syria.

She found out about the rose picking work through her cousins, who had spent the previous season in Isparta. As Maya and her family pick roses, they joke and talk together. The atmosphere may appear to be peaceful and friendly, but ultimately, they pick roses to earn a living.

Now, when she sees a rose, Maya says it will mean something very special to her. Smiling warmly, she says to me: “Nobody understands the meaning of one rose.”

The Father

“Is this your home?” I ask, as another rose picker leads me into a shelter in the camp behind the field.

“No. My home is in Syria,” he replies.

This camp, along with firewood and water, has been provided by the Turkish owner of the rose company, for the duration of the pickers’ working time here. A mixture of tents and concrete structures make up the accommodation; children play outside, chatting together in Arabic.

Sayid (not his real name) offers me a seat on a patterned carpet, and his wife soon brings out tea. Before I can draw breath to ask him a question, Sayid starts telling me his story.

“We left Syria to run away from ISIS,” he begins, the interpreter translating his words. What he describes next is terrifying.

One afternoon, in their home city of Raqqa, Sayid’s wife and son were on their way to buy medicine, when they were grabbed off the street. The men dragging them away claimed to be from ISIS.

“We want you to witness this,” the men shouted, as the mother and her child shook with terror.

They were pushed into a small group. A soldier - a young man of no more than 18 - was brought in front of them. They were forced to watch, as the men from ISIS decapitated the soldier.

And then they ran.

“We don’t want to stay in this house one more instant. We want to get out,” his wife insisted, once they’d arrived home.

As Sayid tells me the horrific story, his family sits and listens. It feels like something too awful to talk about in front of children, but of course they were there - they lived this story. Sayid wants to tell me everything, and for me to pass it on. He wants people to understand what it is like in Syria, and what it is like to have to leave your home.

“When you see someone slaughtered in front of you, what is left to stay for? We were so afraid, we didn’t even sleep. We went straight to the border,” he tells me.

Once nighttime fell, the family was smuggled across the border into Turkey. They left everything behind.

This is Sayid’s second season picking roses. Before, he’d been working in sweltering greenhouses in Antalya, a few hours away.

“When I saw the beautiful nature and roses, my heart opened up, I was so happy. When I came home and saw my beautiful wife, my heart opened even more. We were married for love,” he says, and his children blush.

And he does love her, it’s clear. He tells me she’s had an operation in Turkey to remove a tumour, and he believes the shock of what happened in Syria made her fall ill. All he wishes now, is that his wife will be well again.

But on this second year of rose picking, it’s clear Sayid is frustrated. More refugees have arrived in Isparta, looking for work. They are all paid the same rate as Turkish nationals would be, but while there are more refugees looking for work, there are still the same number of roses. It is common practice to pay people based on the weight of the roses they collect, and so ultimately this means the money has to stretch further.

The owner of the company, Hasan, has a tough choice - does he give more refugees the opportunity to earn a living, knowing they will each earn a little less, or employ fewer people and turn others away? He’s chosen to welcome more people to the fields.

Sayid likes Turkey, and he feels welcome. But more than anything he wants to return to Syria, his home.

Waiting for lollipops

I visit another makeshift home - a building made up of a few small connecting rooms adorned with rugs and curtains. Dalia (not her real name) takes me into what is her living room during the day, and a bedroom at night. Her husband and his other wife are out working in the rose fields, and Dalia stays at home to take care of the combined family’s four young children, look after their home, and prepare meals. This is the family’s first time picking roses, but they’ve spent plenty of time picking cotton, tomatoes, and peppers. In a few days’ time, they’ll be moving onto cherries.

This is the first time during their five years in Turkey that they haven’t had to sleep in a tent, and this comes as a great relief to Dalia. The family has been given this home by the rose company for the duration of the rose-picking season.

Everyday, the children play outside, waiting for their father to come home. They always secretly hope for a gift from him - a bag of crisps perhaps. But their favourite gift, one which makes their faces light up, is when he brings them a lollipop each - even better if it’s strawberry flavoured.

Back in Syria, the family owned land and grew cotton and wheat. “It was a beautiful, beautiful life,” Dalia tells me, smiling at the memory.

But she knew her life was in danger the day she saw corpses lying on the road, one after the other. The family decided to leave, and joined a bigger group, walking through the mountains at night time so they couldn’t be spotted. Dalia was also pregnant. That child now sits beside us, listening to the story.

“We no longer have to see people being killed,” she tells me. She feels safe in Turkey, and she’d be happy to stay. It feels like home.

But life here is not straightforward. No-one has explained the Turkish systems to her, and she cannot speak the language. Always on the move, finding schools for children is difficult.

The rose harvest is nearly over, but many of these workers will be offered more employment - some will weed the ground, others will move onto picking fruit in another area.

Hasan, the owner of the rose company, has no obligation to employ refugees, and it might well be easier for him to employ only Turkish pickers (he employs locals too). But he tells me: “We’re not trying to do anything special. We treat them like they are from Turkey. They are our brothers and sisters too.”

In Turkey, Syrian refugees are allowed to work. They do not have this same right everywhere, far from it. Of the people I speak to, it’s clear they are working to live, and to take care of their families. They are making the best of a tough situation, but Syria - not surprisingly - is always on their minds.

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