An image of a lifeless child washed up on a Turkish beach has stirred emotions and galvanized public attention to a growing refugee crisis in Europe. For John Gray High School teacher Ted Todd, the picture, published across the world last week, hit closer to home.
Mr. Todd, a mathematics teacher, spent his summer holiday in Turkey working with refugees from the Syrian conflict. Many of them were young children like the 3-year-old boy in the image, later identified as Aylan Kurdi.
The boy was one of 12 refugees to drown attempting to reach the Greek island of Kos in a small, overcrowded boat.
During his five weeks working in Istanbul and on the Turkish side of the Syrian border, Mr. Todd met many families in similar situations, fleeing conflict and prepared to make dangerous journeys in order to seek a normal life.
One family, a father, his brother and 10-year-old-son, were planning to make the same boat journey to the Greek islands where Europe’s open borders would make it possible for them to travel to Germany.
“We saw them off at the bus station in Istanbul. I gave them some U.S. dollars and wished them the best. We didn’t really know whether they would make it. They were putting themselves at the mercy of people smugglers,” said Mr. Todd, who was largely working in a community center in Istanbul during his visit.
He has since heard the family made it to Munich, where there is an organized program for handling refugees.
In Turkey, which is not part of the European Union, the situation is very different. Much of the responsibility for handling the refugees streaming across the border from Syria falls to the charitable sector.
Hundreds of thousands live in camps on the border. Many more live under the radar in large cities like Istanbul, where they are safe but have little access to work or education.
Mr. Todd worked with Small Projects Istanbul. Money raised by the teacher has helped the charity rent a building which has been transformed into a community center for Syrian families.
“The donations in Cayman have been used to pay rent on the center for the next year and to refurbish it,” he said.
The center includes classrooms and preschool facilities for young children and will also host English and Turkish lessons for adult refugees.
Of the 4 million refugees who have fled Syria, 1.4 million are currently in Turkey. For many, it is a staging post to reach other parts of Europe.
“Most of them want to go back to Syria, but they know that is not likely to be possible for several years. So they are trying to get to Germany or Sweden or the U.K. because these countries have proper programs for resettlement and amalgamation,” Mr. Todd said.
“The people I met were ordinary people. In Syria they had their lives, they were shopkeepers, factory workers and businesspeople. Then suddenly everything changes and it becomes a struggle for survival.”
Some left Syria because their homes were bombed, some because their towns were taken over by the Islamic State terror group, others wanted to avoid being called up to fight in the army of Bashar al-Assad, the nominal president of Syria who now controls just a third of the country.
The conflict is messy, with various rebel groups fighting Assad’s forces and each other, while ISIS continues to take over large swathes of territory, establishing a fundamentalist Islamic state.
In the border areas with Syria where Mr. Todd traveled to bring supplies to a primary school for refugee children, he found an illustration of how muddled the conflict has become.
“We met a group of guys who were running a café in a border town. They used to be freedom fighters against Assad. They said they stopped fighting because they didn’t know anymore who they were fighting against and they didn’t want to be killed themselves by people who didn’t know who they were fighting or why.”
Mr. Todd, also a church member at St. Ignatius, said the church had made sizable donations to help the charities he was working with.
He said the trip and the donations were possible because of the support of John Gray High School, St. Ignatius, Fidel Murphy’s, Sports Port and Advantage Graphics, which had donated time, money or services.