A couple of evenings ago I was invited to a wedding. The brother of S., one of my staff from Saray, was marrying and there was going to be a mid-week party at the local city park. A colorful, dance-filled evening under the stars proved to be yet another reason why I love living here. We danced folk dances from several of the ethnic groups which make up this country, hugged and kissed long-time no-see friends and generally enjoyed the event. Only one aspect of the evening triggered some negative emotions. Sitting at three tables set aside for v.i.p’s were a number of the administrators from Saray, the residential facility found on the outskirts of Ankara.
Some refused to acknowledge my greetings. Others nodded civilly and turned their heads away. But a few came up to me to ask if Kardelen was still active in the city. They seemed genuinely happy to hear that we were now serving families who in the past would have abandoned their children because of their disabilities to live or die out at Saray.
“Much has changed,” I said to Dr. B. after she asked about the work. “But we are seeing the expansion of the good work in ways we had not been able to foresee so many years ago.” After I sat down I began to reflect on that statement. Much, much, much has changed.
In 1997 my friends, Harriet, and Jane, visited a state-run orphanage for children with disabilities—Saray (Palace) Rehabilitation and Orphanage Center. What they’d seen had brought them to their knees in prayer.
I knew nothing about their visit, but I was being prepared to hear a new word of direction from the LORD.
As a volunteer of a local charity, my contribution was to visit needy institutions and make suggestions about possible donations.
Looking for good projects to support is a challenge, and so we were often getting tips from Turkish friends about places to visit. One day in 1995 Audrey asked me to try to get in touch with a state-run orphanage.
“This place, Saray, is supposedly a very big campus on the road near the airport. My friend, Mrs. Melis from the Turkish Children’s Benefit Association, thinks we might be able to help them.”
It would be two years, however, before I could ever get onto the campus.
“Hello, this is Norita Erickson. I’m calling on behalf of the Bluebird Charity. We’d like to come and visit your orphanage with an eye to bringing donations if possible. When and how can we do this?” I phoned the public relations office of the orphanage.
“ Why, that is very nice. Don’t bother coming out on your own. We’ll send a minibus to pick you up and bring your group out. Would Wednesday at 10am be ok? What’s a good meeting point?” The woman on the other end was friendly.
“Well, pick us up—we should be about seven women—at the base of the Atakule (the newly-built “space needle”-type tower and super-modern shopping mall in south Ankara).”
Wednesday, we gathered to wait for our transportation. We waited for nearly an hour. I phoned the office to be told that there was a mix up and that they meant to meet us a month later at the appointed time.
A month later we stood on the sidewalk waiting once more. Again, no minibus showed up. I phoned again from home (this was before mobile phones in Ankara), I was unable to speak to the person who had made the initial appointment nor could I connect over the next several days to anyone who knew what I was talking about.
At the next Bluebird meeting Audry told us that she’d heard from Mrs. Melis that we should forget trying to get into that place. We were foreigner ,and Turks did not want help from us for this particular “palace”. The director, a political appointee, was a member of the far-right nationalist party, and, on principle, they did not need non-Turkish money or goods. It became apparent that they had deliberately stood us up.
Later I learned that the orphanage was a political football. In the beginning it was used by the prime minister to bolster his appeal at the ballot box as well as to make political mileage for Turkey in the eyes of the foreign dignitaries he’d bring to visit there on their way in or out of the city. Saray was built very close to the airport expressly as a “showcase” for Turkey’s modern social services. But dignitary visits were few and far between and could be setup with a unit or two to look good for the visitor.
When the winds of politics changed, the directorship of the institution changed as well as the directorship of the Department of Social Services the government agency under which all care institutions are managed. There was constant turn-over in the administration. Tragically the various directors have little understanding of humane treatment or rehabilitation for the disabled—never mind the name of the orphanage (Saray REHABILITATION and Care Center. )
We shrugged out collective shoulders and moved on to other places. I put Saray out of my mind.
Two years passed until it came to mind again for no other reason than that I was planning on going to a committee meeting and was considering potential new projects.
“I’ll just take the bus out to Saray tomorrow and walk in. What can they do to me? I need to know what’s there.” I told myself.
Arriving unannounced I asked a young man sitting on the front steps where the Director’s office was. He brought me into an office where I asked the secretary if I could see the director. Flustered, she phoned him and then after a few moments ushered me into the typical “mudur” (director’s) large ostentatiously decorated room. I introduced myself and asked for a tour. To my relief, the ruling political party had recently changed; the new director now appeared quite happy to have foreigners visit and was all too pleased to take me around.
The facility was spread out and comprised of staff housing, an administrative and classroom structure, several dorm buildings, a small clinic, and a large three-story building. That structure housed children and young adults with all sorts of disabilities, both physical as well as developmental. My tour guide informed me that there were approximately 400 children between the ages of 6 months to 16 years of age living under the care of the state in Saray.
“No,” he replied. “95% of the wards actually have families, but their mothers and fathers have abandoned them to our care. Some of the families have several children and can’t afford a disabled child, since both have to work; other parents believe we can do a better job at caring than they can. Still other parents leave their children in the garden of the mosque or at the door of the local police station with no note or contact address.”
He showed me a newly produced video which showed Saray to be a wonderful place to send a child with a disability. Featured was the ceramics and carpet-weaving rooms. Footage showed two boys with Downs Syndrome and several developmentally disabled young ladies working away in the rooms and learning skills which would be useful in the marketplace. Another teenager who had no legs was interviewed. This young man talked about how happy he was to be able to make paintings. The camera zoomed in on his skilled artwork.
Another shot took the viewer out to a grassy field where boys were playing soccer. These boys appeared to be normal children and when I asked about that, the director conceded that 50 of the residents were, in fact, healthy children who had come in from the outlying villages and were sent to the local schools. Some of them were bonafide orphans, as well.
“There is presently a waiting list of 3,000 families with children who suffer from disabilities to get in here,” he announced proudly.
“This must be a pretty wonderful place,” I thought. “That video is impressive.”
Then we went outside to tour the grounds.
Although only 10 years old as a facility, it was already in a state of disintegration. Peeling paint and broken walkways, weeds and glass from broken windows littered the ground and on a hill between two of the buildings several lamp posts and rounded cement igloo-like structures with no apparent purpose were scattered. When I asked what those structures were, the director told me that the original plan for the orphanage called for a children’s petting zoo. Nothing had come of those plans and was not likely to in the near future.
“Never mind,” he said. “You must see our rehabilitation and exercise room.” We walked through wooden double doors, down a dank and smelly corridor, up a flight of cement stairs and into a brightly painted and well-heated and decorated gym. Stocked with every type of physical therapy equipment in attractive primary colors, everything looked new and shiny and ready to serve dozens of children.
There were no children there, however.
The year before I’d visited a private mother/child rehab center in the center of town which was a third of the size and filled with the activity of mothers, children and therapists. At that place there had been lots of happy noise when we brought in the play “plastic ball pool”.
In contrast this gym was silent and empty. When we walked in unannounced, the staff– twelve of them all in white medical jackets denoting their professional status as therapists–rushed out of the office where they’d been sitting drinking tea and reading the newspaper.
“Where are the children?’ I asked politely, “You have a very beautiful place here.”
“Oh, it’s lunch break. They’ll be here after lunch.” The head therapist explained. It was 10:30 am– a long time before mealtime.
They showed me the rooms with all the various special therapy work-out equipment, the room filled with normal workout equipment, and the office. One of the therapists was dressed plainly under her white jacket and had her head covered with a scarf. She immediately took it off when she saw the director. In those days as a government employee she was forbidden from wearing the headscarf. She walked with a pronounced congenital hip limp. In contrast, another therapist was dressed in very striking modern sport clothes and was obviously wearing a lot of makeup.
When I asked them if they enjoyed their work, they started complaining– first, it was the number of children they were supposed to see daily; then it was about the poor policies of the government, then they began to speak about the other personnel—too many uneducated, gossips around and too little intellectual stimulation. Although I was shocked by the absence of children, I nodded and then apologized that I’d come at a time when they couldn’t show me their work. I promised to return.
In the years ensuing I have never seen more than two children being helped in that gym at a time. I’ve returned at all hours of the working day to discover the same therapists sitting and drinking tea and rushing out of their office to greet me with all sorts of explanations as to why there are no children there. They are still the living example of the anomaly that is “Saray Rehabilitation and Care Center” –over thirty “qualified” social workers, doctors, physical therapists and psychologists in charge of over a hundred unskilled workers. The educated ones spend the overwhelming majority of their time behind desks, pushing papers, drinking tea and complaining about their lot in life.
I was escorted from that posh and colorful unit into the rest of the C Block which I now call “The Labyrinth.” Down corridors and up stairs and around corners it seemed as if there were unit after unit of children and young adults shuffled away behind double doors, either lying on the broken concrete floor, scooting around on their backsides, pressing their unwashed faces against broken glass door windows, or just sitting in worn upholstered armchairs staring out into space and hardly paying attention to anything. One or two units had a TV set attached to the ceiling and blaring away in the corner.
I was escorted into the “Spastic” unit—so named because one or two of the children in that unit had cerebral palsy. Thirty or so kids between the ages of five and ten huddled together on a mattress sitting against the wall. The large day room was unfurnished, cold, and drafty. The windows had been thrown open to air out the room. When I approached the children I could see why the “care-givers’’ had needed to do that. The smell of urine and body odor emanated nearly overpowered me.
Three of the children could walk, and they ran to me, threw their arms around me and pulled me to the ground. These children could not speak but expressed their desperate need for hugs and kisses and attention in ways which overwhelmed. I looked around for my escort. He’d slipped out the door.
I pulled myself up and, since they would not let go, managed to drag us all over to where the other children remained on the ground. Some of these kids could speak but were unable to walk. I met Yunus and Cuneyt and Cansu, all of whom in spite of their spasticity showed remarkable intelligence and enthusiasm. I met eight-year old Murat who smiled broadly and asked if I’d brought them any candy. I told him that I hadn’t this time but would surely bring something the next time. All the while the other little ones held on for dear life. As I reached for them, trying to keep my balance, my hands grew wet from their soaked pj bottoms. My stomach lurched, but I was not going to let on that I was feeling nauseous from the sights and sounds; those kids did not need me to reject them. They needed love.
Out of nowhere it seemed, a little boy came charging at us and pinched whomever he could get his hands on. When the main social worker in charge of this unit, Mr. Halil, emerged from his back corridor office, saw this, he came running over to rescue me.
“We’ve got to be really careful with that one—he’s small for sure but can draw blood in no time. “
“What’s the ‘pincher’s’ name? ” I asked after being escorted out of the big room and into his office down the corridor.
“Uh, uh, let me see,” he rummaged through some papers on his desk. “That’s Cem.”
“What about the names of the kids who were clinging to me?”
After another glance at a list, “Their names were Kader, Jamal, and Ninety-eight.”
“Yes,” he answered matter-of-factly as he put away his papers neatly and called an aid to bring us tea. The aid was one of the older children who was also an orphanage resident but able to make tea and bring it around to the personnel in charge.
After ten minutes he showed me the other rooms attached to this unit. All I can remember of that visit were wet corridor floors, the smell of sewage and the chilled air. When I asked Mr. Halil what we could buy for the children that would be helpful, he replied that blankets were always needed as were educational toys. When asked if any kids had wheelchairs, he replied that several of them needed chairs as well as special chairs. The concrete floor of the day room was neither comfortable, warm nor hygienic.
So much was needed it was hard to know what to recommend to my charity committee.
The Director had disappeared. In his place, Y. and N., the assistant directors of the orphanage had come to direct me to another block, the D section for the most severely handicapped children. Out the front door of the C Block we passed several lampposts set in the oddest configuration on a broad field. When I looked more closely at the field I could just make out between high-growing weeds and bushes what looked like little rectangles built onto the field.
“Oh that field was going to be a miniature golf course for our older mentally disabled children” Yuksel answered my question and then continued “The money ran out to finish the course and too many other pressing needs came up to bother with that now. You see those little white bunker-like structures at the top of the hill?” I nodded that the director had explained the petting zoo concept. Understanding began to dawn.
Although there are many wonderful ideas and plans in the minds of idealistic social workers , in actual fact little long-term research or planning existed to give crucial basic care for the weakest and neediest of Turkey. This lack of planning and follow-through unfortunately is a pattern all too evident in modernizing Turkey. The current regime has curried favor with a good percentage of the population just because they have completed projects conceived and begun but left half-finished years earlier.
I walked into D Block.
The stench of vomit, filth, and sweat nearly made me gag. Loud cries , moans of those little ones caused me to turn to Y. in alarm. His look of sheepish shame, “Yes, this is too bad, but we don’t have enough care-givers to look after them. It’s a good thing they are handicapped because they don’t feel anything anyway.”
I was speechless. This man had just told me he was a psychologist.
I stared at the children bound in their metal beds, hands tied so tightly with cotton tights or rags to the crib sides that they’d ballooned out into purplish, gray throbbing masses. So many of the children had also been tied around their middle. When I looked closer I could see stomachs bloated above the rag “belts”.
“What is wrong with them?” I asked myself and then realized with horror that these children had all been bottle-fed while lying flat on their backs. No one had burped them, and they were all bloated with gas following the hurried feedings. As I went from crib to crib, I saw and heard the same thing: vomit-encrusted children crying or moaning.
I ran out the door to discover the “caregivers”, nonchalantly drinking their tea and smoking. They looked at me and shrugged when I asked them to look after the hurting ones– tightly bound into the small beds because there was no one to care for or play with them. No one to make sure that they received adequate food or water.
They were growing children who wanted “OUT” but who because of their special needs required careful monitoring. The institution hadn’t hired enough basic care-givers to properly feed and bathe the bed-ridden children, let alone play with them. The ones who were hired were out in the hallway drinking tea–the less educated version of the therapists sitting in the gym two hundred yards away.
Afraid I was going to throw up, I mumbled a hurried excuse and ran out of Saray.
At home, I fell on the floor and cried out in shock and anger, “ Father God, how could You show me this? Isn’t my life here difficult enough without you showing this to me? What do you expect of me? This is an impossible hell-hole.” My heavenly Father let me rant but was silent.
Maybe the cold winter visit to Saray, maybe the emotional upheaval of seeing and experiencing so much suffering brought it on, I can not say, but two weeks later, I came down with a bad case of the flu. Feverish and aching I took to bed and tried to get some sleep and comfort, but those precious things eluded me.
At that time our apartment was insufficiently heated. Every evening we’d heat up the living room with a kerosene heater. We’d eat, play games, pray and watch TV in that room. Just before bed we’d turn off the heater, rush out of the room to our bedrooms where we’d try to get dressed for bed as quickly as possible and snuggle down in our feather comforters. Sometimes I’d put a hot water bottle in a few minutes before bed-time, and before too many minutes we were warm, cozy and asleep.
That night I was anything but sleepy, but exhausted none the less. About 3 am, I got out of bed, shuffled in my slippers and robe to the now ice-cold living room. Curled up in a quilt in my “prayer chair” (an arm chair which sometimes afforded me a view of west Ankara,) I felt as if every bone and joint were aching. I couldn’t get comfortable. All of a sudden I was overcome with a feeling of abject loneliness and desolation. I began to sob. I hurt so much. Then in my mind’s eye, I saw the children in the wards, and it was as if I were feeling and experiencing what they felt. I became one of them. But soon I understood that God was speaking to me: these sobs, these cries, were birthed out of the broken heart of my Heavenly Father. The Holy Spirit was weeping.
After several minutes of deep crying, the desolate sensation passed, and I was transported. I saw a large grassy area with trees and animals and smiling children sitting up; there were adults there too who I identified as parents and care-givers. All were sitting together in little groups enjoying the sunshine and the fresh breeze.
“You are to do this. Rescue and restore.”
As is often the case when God speaks to me, I argued in protest.
“I can’t do this. It is too great and too impossible “
“Nothing is impossible. Just trust me.”
At that point I knew it was too late a night and I was in no state to fully understand what had just happened so got back into bed and promptly fell asleep.
The next morning I woke up feeling fresh and excited. What had happened the night before was real and compelling so I woke my husband to tell him of this new commission. Still half-asleep, he yawned, “Oh Norita, you and your visions” and turned over to try to get a few more winks. I knew he was thinking of my involvement with Turkish children’s camps, and the bookstore I’d started a year before.
I pinched him in the arm, “Come on, no, It’s real. Something amazing and scary happened last night. God wants to help poor disabled children and their families here. I know it. He’s going to use us.”
And “Kardelen” was conceived.