Birds, bridges and language - by Brian Woolland

Adana, Turkey
Reflections on The Promised Land training week in Adana, Southern Turkey (15th – 19th January 2018) by Brian Woolland - part of the Border Crossings group visiting Adana

What a week!

We started with a language game.
We came back with a wealth of rich, challenging experiences and deep provocations that continue to reverberate long after our return.

The week began with a welcoming session of light-hearted exercises to get to know each other. Say your own first name, but add an alliterative adjective. By an accident of where I was standing in the room, Necmi (who was leading the session) asked me to go first. ‘Bold Brian,’ I ventured, somewhat tentatively, though in truth I felt bewildered and a little bashful! And round the whole group we went to increasing laughter as we began to relax with people we had never met before and knew very little about. Ironic Ida, Naughty Nicola, Luscious Lesley, Pretty Paulo… Several people in the group have first names beginning with M. Between them they were Marvellous, Mysterious, Mischievous and Magical. It gave an intriguing glimpse of the extraordinary diversity within the group.

No-one chose Migrating.

Later that first morning we went out into Adana to tackle a series of tasks set for us by Necmi. Essentially, we had to find out about the city and Turkish people. Simple things such as: identify 3 common Turkish names and find out what they mean; identify 5 different common Turkish hand gestures (those which differ from your own); find out about specific locations within the town and take group selfies at each location. In tackling the tasks, we achieved something else as well: we got a far better sense of the other people we were working with, we began to get a sense of who we were as a group, and of what others were bringing to the project. There was such cultural diversity within our own group that we needed to find ways of interacting between ourselves (and to gain strength from that very diversity) before we could be truly open to the experiences and challenges that would be presented to us later in the week, and reach out and respond with integrity to those individual human beings who have been cast in the role of refugees.

After a series of preparatory seminars, workshops and discussions (in which we explored the concept of Cultural Intelligence) we ventured forth on the Wednesday, visiting centres in Adana run by Support to Life and ASAM.These field visits were extremely informative, and very well organised – with all transport provided and the organisations well briefed in advance. We were warmly welcomed at each of the centres we visited. The staff were exceptionally well prepared and clearly very committed to their work. Everyone who spoke to us had each given a great deal of thought to their presentations. They welcomed questions, and responded honestly and openly to everything we asked – even to a question about their own motives in doing the work, which some people in that situation might have found very difficult. ‘When we first started we were so overwhelmed and depressed by what we saw.’ The young woman who said this went on to say that she now finds the work empowering for herself. And then she added: ‘We need more education to help the refugees. Education and empathy.’ It was a simple statement, but beautifully eloquent, and in a very few words said what most of us felt The Promised Land project has the potential to deliver.

On a personal level, I found myself overwhelmed and distressed by the sheer numbers involved: more than 3 million refugees in Turkey (and probably more than 4 million if all the ‘illegal entrants’ are taken into account), but only approximately 9% of these in camps. The city of Adana has a population of 3 million. It is presently a host to 300,000 refugees, i.e. 10% of the population. 100,000 of these are not registered and therefore not eligible for any kind of education or support.

But numbers are numbers, whether you hear them in Turkey or read them in England. What makes them real is when you witness at first hand the lives of the human beings they refer to; and when you hear some of their stories. That is when you start to understand at an emotional level, when the shocking statistics begin to become meaningful. In our case we were to an extent shielded from the appalling situation in Turkey. Our direct contact with refugees was not in the camps or with people who were living on the streets or squatting in unfinished tower blocks, but in warm, well-lit classrooms in one of the NGO centres and in the language centre in the university, where we spent the day on Thursday. The young Syrian people who we met all seemed highly motivated to learn, and they were keen to seek and accept help. But there must be many people fleeing from the horrific war in Syria who are locked by trauma into anger and resentment. Maybe the high security at all the places where we met with refugees is indicative of this… That was something I don’t recall anyone asking a direct question about. But it was something that struck a nerve. There were uniformed security guards on duty at the entrances and on every floor of each the centres we visited, and at the university.

We felt fortunate and privileged to be able to visit these classes – and to hear at first hand the extraordinary speeches given by the young Syrians, Fatma and Muhammed, in the Turkish language classroom at the university. They spoke with such eloquence in expressing their feelings of hope. It feels important to include short extracts from their speeches here. ‘In my city, in my country,’ said Fatma, ‘Everything is collapsed because of the war. But here there are bridges. And language is a bridge. We are hoping to build new bridges…’

Muhammed told us that his father had been a teacher, and that his mother was a ‘housewife’. When people ask her why she chooses not to work she says that it is because she ‘wants her birds to learn to fly first’. He went on to develop this metaphor of migrating birds. ‘Life is never easy for migrating birds,’ he said. But he clings on to hope. ‘We are learning a new language. And we have new hope. We will be teachers, engineers, doctors…’

Migrating. His M word adjective was carefully chosen. A precise metaphor. Most migrating animals make journeys driven by environmental necessity, and then they return. All the students in the room (about 20 of them) said that when the war is over they want to go back to Syria.

But despite this exhilarating optimism, which has stayed with me and is in many ways truly inspirational, there was much that we were told on these field visits which was very disturbing.

On each of the field visits there was plenty of time given over to questions and discussion, but it can take a while to process so much information. Whilst reflecting on that extraordinary week, other questions have raised themselves that I would have liked to have pursued at the time. One of these was the issue of the highly visible security presence already noted. The implication is surely that there are people who want to force their way into these places (perhaps Syrians who have been excluded for whatever reason, or Turkish people who feel resentful of the perceived special treatment being given to Syrians), and that without the security there would be danger for the students and/or for those people who work in them. We also heard several mentions of ‘detention centres’ or ‘holding centres’ for people who had been interviewed to be recognised for formal status, but had been found to be a ‘security risk’. What happens to those people who are sent to detention centres? Are they held there indefinitely? And if not, where are they sent? Do they have any right to appeal?

And then there were the refugee camps themselves. These are not called ‘camps’ but ‘accommodation settlements’ or ‘guest centres’. As the young Syrian woman in the university language centre so insightfully observed, language can build bridges. It can also obfuscate. And euphemisms such as ‘guest centres’ can be very dangerous; a very different kind of language game being played here than the one which started the week.


Language as bridge building, however, is as potent and precise a metaphor as that of migrating birds. For a bridge to work it has to be built from both sides of the divide that it spans. This echoes Paulo Freire’s argument that a pedagogy which treats learners as co-creators of knowledge is far more enriching for all than one in which learners are treated as empty vessels to have knowledge poured into them. Although Freire did not use the term Cultural Intelligence, the desire to develop and enhance it can be seen to underpin much of his work. The young people we met were very clearly reaching out to us, building their side of the bridge. The Promised Land project gives us an ideal opportunity to start building from our side too. And the wonderful hospitality, warmth and friendship provided by our Turkish hosts (from the university and in the city) in that first week in Adana has set a fine example to us all.

And to conclude… at one of the sessions in the university language centre we were told about PAGES bookshop in Istanbul, which functions as much as a cultural / arts centre as well as a bookshop, and is run by a Syrian who arrived in Turkey in the very early stages of the Syrian civil war. He was able to gain Turkish citizenship, and is therefore permitted to run a business in the city. There is a companion shop in Amsterdam, also called PAGES, and also run by a Syrian, Samer al-Kadri. Al-Kadri wrote this, which resonates very strongly with The Promised Land project:

'We need builders to build houses, we need farmers, we need medicine, we need food. We need many things, but we also need art and culture. Without culture, we don’t have anything'

Without culture we don’t have anything.


  1. Great to have this record of our trip, Brian. There was a great deal of creativity and spark between the international participants and it was also a deeply emotional journey.
    To really see it, see the different sides involved, to feel empathy for the people, is to have your eyes opened wide. Here is the real human impact of remote polticial decisons and quick fixes and we are all involved. And yes, the scale is massive. I am re-sensitised.


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