The Roses

Ortaköy, Istanbul

new pics 1999

I turned away from the glittering water and gazed up at the coral colored mosque, beneath the glowing sunset. I wanted to stay here forever; but no matter the view, reality always wins. I had to make a phone call and check out the vendors to find some postcards before dark set in, so I tore my eyes away and headed towards the various shops on the port.

Walking through the narrow cobbled streets, I spotted a Starbucks sign and veered towards there to grab a chair at their outdoor seating and charge my phone. I plugged my phone in and dialed, listening to the foreign beeps and waiting for a familiar voice. Across from me was an art display, with old film posters and orientalist depictions of Turkey. I mentally made note to check it out and ask if they had post cards.

new pics 1987

As I looked around though, I spotted something else in the corner of my eye. Far off, there were red roses waving in the air. My eyes followed them down only to see a small child running around, trying to sell roses to women walking around the port.

I love roses! I thought, inwardly jumping up and down. And – being the kind of person who will always indulge her random whims – I knew what I had to do.

I quickly unplugged my phone and stuffed the charger in my bag. “Hold on a second, I gotta catch this kid,” I told my friend on the phone and quickly made my way through the streets back out onto the square in front of the water.

My eyes anxiously scanned the square. Could I have lost him? But then I spotted him, being shooed by a man eating with his wife. Still on the phone, I ran up behind him and tapped him on the shoulder. Two, I mouthed, holding up two fingers. His smile was wide as he handed them to me. How much? I gestured. 5 each? It was definitely pricey, but again, I like to indulge myself.

I gave him 10, he hopped off, and I sighed with satisfaction. It’s the little moments like these that matter.

A while later, after I had dinner on the port with some friends, I decided I wanted two more roses. I had seen the two kids selling them still running around and figured it wouldn’t be too difficult to track them down again. Sure enough, within 10 minutes I had spotted them again, hanging around near a man selling oysters.

This time I could talk to them and quickly found out they spoke Arabic – the two little boys were Syrian!

“I want two more roses, please,” I asked, excitedly waiting.

“Oh, no…we can’t give you any right now.” The older boy told me. He looked to be about 10, 11 at most.

I didn’t understand what he was saying though. “Why can’t you give me any?” I received an apologetic shrug in response. Of course though, I wasn’t going to give up that easily. Confused, I looked around and spotted the bunch of roses beneath the oyster stand. I connected the dots and made the assumption that the oyster seller employed the two boys.

“Look,” I pointed. “You have plenty of roses, can’t I just have two?” The boy apologized. “He won’t let us sell them right now. He’s already mad at us because he wants us to sell them for 10 each.”

“10 each?!” I exclaimed. 5 was already too much for a single rose, but 10?! The boy said some words to the oyster seller in Turkish, but the man waved him off, barely even looking his way.

“Do you want me to talk to him?” I asked the boy. My American mind wasn’t used to this. I was a consumer, the product was right in front of me, and I was willing to pay. “I’ll pay 10, it’s fine.” I reassured him, but the boy shook his head again. This time, the younger boy spoke up: “Should I ask him again?”

But the older boy immediately refused, “No – don’t! He’s just going to you hit you!”

I was stunned. I wanted my roses so badly, but I also now understood what consequences might come their way if I pushed it. The Turkish man already looked annoyed and even if what he was doing was absolutely despicable, there was nothing I could do to stop it.

So I changed my tune. “Alright, I guess I won’t get my roses tonight. But promise me next time you’ll give me some?” I said with a smile.

“Tikram ‘albik!” the boy replied, using an Arabic expression I can’t even begin to translate, since it would lose all of its beauty in the process.

“Sounds good!” I try to smile back, my heart melting at his golden smile. I get ready to head off, but before I leave, the younger boy gives me his remaining rose; he’s been playing with it in his hands this whole time, it’s stem a bit broken and droopy. It’s still so beautiful.

I take it with gratitude – and deep admiration for such young boys with such a struggle in life already.

***

Child labor is a growing problem in Turkey, especially with such a large influx of Syrian refugees, many of whom depend on their children’s wages to survive. It is estimated that 900,000 children are working in Turkey, while the actual numbers may be much higher. Additionally, urban Syrian refugees are rarely counted by authorities at all, so they are extremely vulnerable to abuse.

All of these children should be in school, but their circumstances necessitate they work to survive. And sadly, although the boys may have been selling the roses for an extravagantly high price, how much of that were they actually taking themselves? It’s more than likely they took home substantially less than the minimum wage – and they were hit and beat as well.

Although Turkey can enact more progressive policies on policing and punishing child labor, they must also consider getting better aid packages to urban refugees, and expanding schools and resources for children so that their only option isn’t just to work. Boys selling roses are capable of so much more and deserve a better future than that.

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