Change, Cats, and Earthquakes

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Day 1:

Waking up on the day of my flight felt like a dream. I remember feeling as though I hadn’t really slept, only shut my eyes and let my thoughts swirl around my head for hours. It had been about 4 days since the devasting earthquake that hit southern Turkey and northern Syria and my life felt like a jumbled mass of uncertainty. Once I had gotten the ‘okay’ from my home university to continue my travels, I knew I couldn’t continue to spiral into a sea of anxiety. I simply had to keep moving.

I spent most of the day in motion. I made sure I didn’t wait last minute to pack and was mainly focused on making sure I had absolutely everything. I specifically remember not speaking to my mom much on the day that I left. It wasn’t like we had no relationship, my mom is one of my best friends. It was almost as if neither of us could believe I was leaving. A lingering silence told us what we both had been feeling, disbelief, and sadness, yet acceptance of the journey ahead. Before I knew it, it was 8 pm and my step-father announced that it was time for us to head to the airport. My room was a mess. Clothes that I decided would stay were scattered all over my unmade bed. My 5 suitcases took up most of my floor. My 3 younger sisters were playing with whatever “toys” they could find in the room while my mother went over if I had packed everything I needed. I was mostly sure I had everything. There was always the lingering feeling that I was forgetting something important, but couldn’t quite put my finger on it. One by one, my suitcases were packed into our newly cleaned, black Honda Pilot. All 7 of us pile into our 8-seater and take off towards Dulles Airport. I’m 30 minutes away from one of the biggest changes of my life.

I had my headphones on in the car, giving me a sense of comfort and familiarity. I had been playing an instrumental “To Guide You Home” by composure, Sami Yusuf, on repeat for the past few weeks. The song genuinely touched my mind, body, and soul. I had the song playing in the background, to ground me and my emotions. My mom encouraged me to call my grandparents, aunts, and uncles on the drive. I had unexplainable anxiety about doing so but pushed past the feeling. Family is so complicated and unique. I distinctly remember the conversation I had with my grandfather. He had a large hand in raising me. He was more of a father to me than a grandfather. He was shocked to hear that I was on my way to the airport. I assumed it was because he had heard about the earthquakes that had hit. My grandfather couldn’t help but rant about his opinions about Turkey. He believed that the Ottomans had allowed themselves to be conquered; he called them foolish. I laughed off his biases but gave him the room to speak. He asked about my baby brother and how he was doing. My grandfather couldn’t remember my brother’s name, “Aydin” I told him. A pang of worry racked my chest but I didn’t skip a beat. I told him he was talking way more, which was a treasure since he had been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. My grandfather commended me for being so in tune with him, despite 18 year age difference between my brother and me. He wished me luck on my journey and hung up the phone.

The airport was fairly empty as we all rushed out of the car towards the check-in desk. My younger brother was hell-bent on walking around as I spoke to the woman at the Turkish Airlines desk. I remember her very well. She was young, with light features, and an understanding nature. Before I knew it, it was time for me to leave and head toward security. My family huddled around me, not knowing what to do for a moment. The day we had been waiting for was here, it was almost unbelievable. My mother wept. “My baby!” she cried. I hugged her tight, my body far too tense to produce tears. I told her it would be okay, that she taught me everything that I could need to make this journey on my own. My brother cried after seeing our mother. My two younger sisters stop by our side, hugging our legs with tiny arms and long faces. My step-sister watched almost awkwardly. I pulled her in for a quick hug, despite our lack of a genuine relationship. I hugged my stepdad last and waved goodbye to my support system.

My mom and I had taken a flight to Chicago last summer that made going thru security very simple. This was my first time leaving the country and I needed to rely on everything skill that I had acquired in my 20 years of life. After standing in the business class line for a little by mistake, I was officially waiting to board my flight. I called my partner to let them know I had made it. They were a source of comfort for me during this time of unfamiliarity. Before I knew it, I was seated on the plane awaiting takeoff. My stepfather had gotten me a window seat that was taken by an adult man that knew he wasn’t where he was supposed to be. His reasoning was that his father was disabled, which had nothing to do with why he was in my seat. I let him have it, praying that the kindness I showed him would soon find me as I made my way to Istanbul.

9 hours and several restless attempts to sleep later, we had safely landed in Istanbul. With laser-sharp focus, I made my way to the baggage claim. I had asked a Turkish airport worker to help me with my 5 suitcases. He spoke little to no English yet we still managed to communicate. He accompanied me to the exit and found a taxi big enough to fit all of my bags. I was in survival mode and wanted to get to my campus in one piece. I told my taxi driver I was headed to Sabanci University, a good 55-minute drive from the airport. I knew it would be pricey but there is nothing wrong with paying for your safety. The drive was surreal. The sky was a never-ending, pale shade of grey. The ground was wet from the rain that had fallen the night before. We passed mountainous terrains, abandoned buildings, and more than 10 mosques. Everything felt so different yet familiar. Sabanci University is located in the Tuzla province. It is a ways away from any major cities or landmarks. My stomach felt like it did every year on the first day of school. My taxi pulls into the security gate; the first step before making it to my dorm. Immediately I notice two big dogs lounging inside the office entrance. My initial reaction was fear. Big dogs without a leash in the States was a red flag. The dogs look up at me, almost bored. They paid me no mind. I approach a man at the front desk and greet him, “Merhaba!”. Nobody at the security desk spoke much English so getting my room key took a little longer. Google Translate aided us through the process. As I waited for my room key, I noticed a tiny kitten perched on top of a file cabinet. I wanted to explode with affection. This was when I soon realized stray animals were very common in Turkey. I was amazed at how calm all of the animals were. I wondered who they belonged to, if anyone, but made no effort to ask. I was given my dorm room key and headed back to my taxi. We drove for a minute or two to another security officer who helped me navigate to my room. He spoke no English but we both managed to communicate. The campus was eerily empty and the sun was setting fast. It was still spring break and a longer break was expected due to the earthquakes. My 5 suitcases and I made our way to building A1. I was greeted by a particularly vocal, sad-eyed, grey cat. It demandingly meowed at me as I brought my suitcases into the building. I spoke to it like I would my cat, Hamza. “What’s up?” The cat followed me to my room meowing at my side. She follows me into my dorm like she had lived there long before me. “I don’t have anything to eat kitty”, I said. I hadn’t eaten a thing since my plane and I had no idea how I was going to get dinner. I look around the empty four-person room I had been assigned to. It wasn’t the 2 person room that I expected to be placed in. There were two empty beds left, and I was going to be occupying the 3rd. I look around the room, feeling as though I do not belong. And at that moment I wanted nothing more than to be back home.

Yasmin Jalloh