A thin cloud of smoke hovers above late-night shisha patrons socializing on the sidewalks of a narrow alley in Istanbul’s bustling commercial heart. It’s just past 2 am and Nasser darts through the smoke, racing from one table to the next as he takes orders and replaces ashy, withering hookah coals with freshly lit ones that give off a vigorous, orange glow.
Nasser, like most of the service workers employed at the many hookah cafes that line this alley, is a Syrian refugee. “My 12-hour shift ended two hours ago, but my boss asked me to stay on until we close, which could be as late as 5 in the morning,” he whispers to me during a brief lull in the demands of his customers. “They pay me the same monthly salary regardless, but the job market here is flush with desperate Syrians, so he wasn’t really asking. We’re all expendable.”
In 2011, Nasser had just graduated from college with a bachelor’s degree in business management in his hometown of Aleppo, Syria. He was immediately hired by a telecommunications firm after graduating and was eagerly building an independent life. Nasser was making enough money to cover his expenses. In fact, he had enough left over to start saving up for his own apartment and car, two purchases he deemed prerequisites for marriage. “Life was good before the war,” he says.
After a Syrian government helicopter dropped a barrel bomb on a building across the street from his family’s home in east Aleppo two years ago, they decided to flee. “We escaped just in time,” Nasser says, shaking his head solemnly. They received word their building had also been destroyed a couple of months after they crossed the border, though they were never able to confirm this due to the extent of the violence that has engulfed their neighborhood.
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The Syrian crisis reached another grim milestone this summer, as the number of refugees registered with the UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees surpassed 4 million. The number of Syrians who have fled but have not registered with the UN is believed to be substantially higher. Initially, like Nasser they turned to neighboring countries—Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon—in search of a temporary home to wait out the conflict. However, as more and more Syrians are reaching the conclusion that they don’t have a future in their homeland, many are choosing the perilous path to Europe, where they hope to start over in a safe, stable environment. Steadily, the horrors of what President Obama once labeled “someone else’s war” are making their way across the globe amid the worst refugee crisis since World War II.
The 71 decomposing Syrian bodies found in a smuggler’s abandoned truck in Austria and the drowning of young Alan Kurdi shocked the conscience of a world that had become increasingly numb to the atrocities unfolding throughout the Middle East.