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Why I bought 100 pairs of underwear in Turkey, just before the attempted coup



Edward Mulholland - published on 07/19/16

A generous parish and a day off from Lesbos provided an interesting, exhausting day of shopping

Earlier in these dispatches, I wrote of the perspective-spinning experience of distributing clothing to refugees.

You would rather die than wear it. Your teenage daughter, who is hell to shop with in the best of conditions, hasn’t ceased being persnickety just because she is living an ongoing traumatic event. She’s worse. She sits there glaring, rolling her eyes at everything. And some of what they bring out to her is corduroy anyway since tons of donations are wintery clothes. So this is the big day you waited three weeks for.

As clothing distribution continued, our supply of men’s shorts and men’s underwear dwindled down to nothing. No one wants to hang out in jeans or something heavier on a week where temps crest at close to 100, and my only shelter is a UN-built refugee housing unit (RHU) with four small windows, so I was impatiently waiting for a donation to come in to remedy the situation. My last days sorting clothes had yielded lots of winter attire, and few items useful for the moment.

After two straight weeks of shifts, I was to get my first day off. People in town spoke of a bazaar in the Turkish city of Ayvalik, directly across from Mytilini. The ferry on a Thursday, for a day trip that left at 9 a.m. and returned from Turkey on a 6 p.m. boat, costs an astonishingly low six euros (less than seven dollars). Adding to the appeal, no visa was required for a one-day trip. So I planned to see if I could get some needed clothing in Turkey.

My wife Valerie has been handling the home front, and I asked her if we could get a message to a Yahoo group largely composed of fellow parishioners at St. Benedict back in Atchison, Kansas. I figured a few hundred dollars could get me at least 50 pairs of shorts to make a dent in the situation. I was more than happy when Valerie reported that in two days a thousand dollars had been pledged. I was gratefully overwhelmed by my community’s generosity.

Another NGO had offered us some clothing and was willing to take some of the winter stuff to free up space in our container for summer items. I went with another volunteer on Wednesday to the warehouse managed by the “Swiss Cross” and, as “Swiss” would have one think, it was beautifully and meticulously organized. But among the clothing they sent over on Wednesday, there was very little men’s underwear and shorts. Operation Turkey was a go.

operation turkey edward mulholland

But for the whole 90-minute trip I couldn’t stop thinking about those who crossed the other way under cover of night in an inflatable boat, especially the family who, the night before, didn’t make it. Onboard, I met a couple of Americans who had been volunteering at the larger camp, Moria, run by the Greek police. With 2,100 residents (detainees, since it is officially a detention center), conditions there sounded way worse than Kara Tepe. They promised to help me carry the stuff back on board if my mission proved successful.

As we neared Ayvalik, a lovely sea town whose Roman pines contrasted with the abundant olive trees on Lesbos, I could see the chalk-white minarets of its main mosque and the sturdy towers of a fortress built no doubt to protect it from less welcome visitors from Europe centuries before.

I can decipher some Greek signs, but Turkish is a total mystery to me. I just followed the crowd. After roughly a mile and a quarter we snaked down a side street and things took on the look of a bazaar, with sellers hawking their goods in the street and a rag-tag assortment of canvas tarps shielding shoppers from the aggressive sun. Dresses, sheets, shirts and more hung from the web of canvas above. Tables overflowed with items, ranging from Nike shoes to Arab scarves. And it went on for blocks, maybe ten square blocks or more.

Image by Edward Mulholland
Image by Edward Mulholland

I stopped and haggled at a few tables but wasn’t able to get sellers to budge on cargo shorts for under 35 Turkish Lira (TL), roughly 2.9 to the dollar that day. Better than Greek prices, but nowhere near a bargain. I finally came across a vendor with a very large stand selling jeans and with a large table of lighter denim fabric cargo shorts. The price was 25 TL, but when I told him I needed a hundred pairs, I became his best friend. We settled on 15 TL a pair, but I insisted it had to be via credit card. The bazaar must be a family affair, since he walked me over to a shop four stalls to the left and I swiped my card for 1500 Turkish Lira, with a free lemonade to boot. We selected a good variety of sizes and it filled the large duffel and one other large bag to the brim. I began to worry about getting the stuff back to port. It was well over 100 pounds, and I wasn’t done shopping.

A smaller vendor provided the 100 pairs of underwear, but no credit card this time. I had to pay in a mixture of dollars and euros. That filled the third and last bag I had.

I had hours before the boat left, so I did some shopping on my own, entrusting my stash to my new friend, Yunus, to store under his tables. Sometimes you just have to go with your gut and trust people.

When I got back to Yunus, after shopping and lunch, he had another vendor with him who was trying to sell me more shorts, this time basketball shorts with an NBA logo. Obviously knock-offs, but decent quality and nice because they had pockets that zipped shut. I took 50 pairs, but refused the pink ones (they insisted they had seen NBA players use them) because I was sure the refugees at Kara Tepe wouldn’t take that color.

Yunus, a 25-year-old with striking blue eyes, asked if I was a Christian. I said yes. He said he was Muslim, and whipped out his iPhone to show me pictures of his recent trip to Mecca. “You did the hajj!” I said. He was very excited about it and managed to convey that it was an amazing experience (but didn’t mention the woman who was behind him in every picture!). Despite almost 100 degree heat, we shared some hot tea. But it was time to head back and now I had quite a haul. Yunus asked two helpers to carry the other bags, I lugged the big duffel, and we wound our way out of the bazaar back to the main street where there were taxis. I tipped them 20 TL each (roughly what lunch had cost me) since I had Turkish bills and didn’t think I’d be coming back. They were very grateful.

Success! Edward Mulholland
Success! Edward Mulholland

Arriving at the port, I was relieved to find my American friends who saved my back by helping me get the stuff onto the boat, and then off the boat back in Mytilini. I was ahead in line, being forced ahead by the returning herd of elbow-throwing weary shoppers, but had to double back to rescue one of them who was stopped at customs and obviously would have had all the wrong answers to questions like “Did you pack this yourself?” “Did you receive something form someone else to carry?” Not to mention explaining a hundred pairs of underwear. The Greek customs official was very helpful and told me that, in normal circumstances, I would need to pay a duty on such merchandise, but waived it since it was for the camp at Kara Tepe.

It had cost me six euros and 90 minutes. That same crossing had cost the future wearers of these shorts two grand or more and harrowing hours. It had cost others their lives.

My American friends literally went the extra mile (well, two and a half) and drove me to Kara Tepe around 8:30 pm to drop off the stuff at the container, where those sorting clothes were very happy since they knew how badly we needed shorts and underwear.

I don’t think I will ever second guess a “shipping and handling” charge ever again. My “day off” was exhausting.

During my night shift the next day, news broke of a military coup in Turkey, and the bridges across the Bosphorus had been sealed off.  I wasn’t sure if the ferries from Mytilini had been discontinued.

I thanked God that the bazaar had been the day before.

And all this to give some men underwear and some shorts, men who wouldn’t know where they came from. But God knows they came from generous hearts in Atchison, Kansas, and from the helping hands of strangers.

More to read: Previous posts in this series

“Hard Times” and the children I never met

Daily bread? “Feed them yourselves…”

Coming apart at the seams, in Lesbos

Dispatch from Lesbos: Volunteering at a place where life is not here or there

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