When I met Zayn Muhammed he was selling packets of tissues outside of a mosque, in the Şirinevler neighborhood in Istanbul. He took me to see the single room that he, his wife and five children currently live in. The family came to Istanbul from Syria in October, after their village northwest of Aleppo was bombed. There the family lived a middle class lifestyle, with Zayn owning a grocery store and selling olives from his orchard. When the family arrived in Istanbul, they moved into tents in Şirinevler park with other refugees from Syria who had nowhere else to go. When the weather turned cold and living conditions in the park became unsanitary, the Turkish government closed down the tent camp, sending many of the refugees to official government run camps, while others decided to take their chances living in urban centers in Turkey. Zayn and his family were offered an unused spare room by a Turkish family he had befriended in the neighborhood. He told me the Turkish people in the neighborhood have been kind to his family, in part because of his five young children, offering them some food, clothes and other supplies. The government is trying to find Zayn a job, but in the meantime he tries to sell his packets of tissues. His wife Nahida spoke of the difficult transition to life in Turkey, with basic amenities like water and electricity costing far more than the family was used to in Syria. Zayn is unsure of what will become of the family, and knows they can’t live in the small room together in the long term. Like other Syrians crossing the border into Turkey every day, Zayn and his family are in limbo unable to get citizenship in Turkey, and unable to return to the village that was once their home, where they lost everything.
Yesterday saw more protests throughout Albania, against the US’ request to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons there. The issue greatly mobilized and united the people of Albania, who came out en masse to voice their objection to the offer. Thousands took to the streets in Tirana yesterday as the government was set to make an announcement of their decision at 5:00PM local time. Here in Shkoder the demonstration was smaller, but the people no less determined to make their voices heard. Starting at 3:00PM, people gathered in front of the local municipality building, making speeches, singing, playing music by John Lennon and Michael Jackson. While people were firm in their convictions, the overall atmosphere of both the protests here and in Tirana, was peaceful. They were not anti US protests, or even anti Albanian government protests, it was simply the people of Albania uniting in their opinion that they did not want dangerous weapons brought to their backyard. In the end the government listened to them.
In my opinion, this was a huge, mature step forward for Albania as a country. Rather than sitting back and allowing the government to make an unpopular decision out of apathy, the people united and the prime minister listened to them. I think this is the first step in restoring some level of trust between the people and their elected leaders. It’s a mark of a functioning democracy to have the common people tell their leaders how they feel about an issue and have them respond appropriately. It’s also a sign of self respect to have stood up to the US’ demands and not accept their country becoming a dumping ground for harmful chemical agents, regardless of what incentives might have been on the table. I hope Albania can use the energy I saw in the last few days, and take pride in this victory, and use it to keep moving forward. They have the potential to be every bit as successful as their EU brethren to the West, if only the people will it.