Thanksgiving in Istanbul: A Story of Refugees and Gratitude

23 Nov Thanksgiving in Istanbul: A Story of Refugees and Gratitude

©Lindblad Expeditions.

Hagia Sofia, Istanbul. ©Lindblad Expeditions.

At a long candlelit table at Kahvedan restaurant in Istanbul, I’m surrounded by friends from New York and Nebraska and Berkeley; I see smiles from France and Holland and Canada. And then there are those who have magnanimously opened their arms to us in this magical city — our Turkish friends Hakan, Ali, Seref, Elif, Ilnur, and more.

It is Thanksgiving 2008. Tonight’s menu features arugula and pear salad, honeyed carrots, cauliflower gratin, cranberry relish, and roasted turkey — not an easy bird to find in Turkey. But Shellie, the American owner of Kahvedan, had been determined to echo traditions from home.

©Henner Zeller.

©Henner Zeller.

Yesterday at Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport, I helped process Iraqi refugees — refugees headed to, of all places, the country I had left behind. After months of anticipation and hours of checkpoints, their moment had arrived. We waved them on as one by one they squeezed through passport control to the glitter of duty free shops and planes that would take them safely far away. They were the luckiest of the unlucky: Chaldean Christians whose lives had been turned upside down in Iraq and who had been offered a new start in America.

One of the refugees, a thin, tall woman, her gray hair cropped short, her face deeply lined, lingered behind at the last checkpoint. She had melded herself to a young man, their tear-wracked faces glued together as if to imprint a memory. This aging mother was saying goodbye to a son she would probably never see again.

Choked sobs rose up in my throat and tears ran down my cheeks. I thought of my own son, who would celebrate Thanksgiving in America while I stayed in Turkey.

The woman pulled away from her son and turned to go with the others. Once past the final barrier, she waved goodbye to him one final time. Her eyes met mine, and suddenly she reached over the barrier and wrapped her arms around me. And for a moment we stood, holding each other. She was a woman whose name I did not know, whose language I did not speak, but in that moment, I knew her and she knew me.

And then she was gone.

Tonight I am eating turkey in Turkey and I am celebrating as never before —grateful that I am free to be in Turkey because I happen to have been born in America.



Moved to travel to Turkey? You can explore Istanbul and the Aegean Coast with Adventure Collection member GeoEx.


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Robin Sparks
Robin Sparks writes stories that connect hearts across borders, ethnicities, and different belief systems. Her stories have been published in numerous magazines and newspapers including The San Francisco Examiner, Yankee Magazine, The Reno Gazette Journal and Women’s World. She is a former travel columnist for the Reno Gazette Journal and former assistant editor for the online magazine, Escape Artist. She is writing a book about her 9-year global search for a new home in a new country - an odyssey which took her to France,Thailand, Nepal, Brazil, Turkey, Argentina, and Bali. Today Robin is based in Marin, California with homes in Istanbul, Turkey and Bali, Indonesia. Robin facilitates and teaches writing workshops around the world.
Robin Sparks

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