That’s right folks. I now know what it’s like to be kept in custody — at least at the airport. OK, so it wasn’t really custody. We weren’t treated like criminals, and they even fed us.
Pretty attractive for a mug shot, don’t you think?
11:50 p.m. My uncle and I made it to Istanbul. We collected our luggage and my uncle asked me to walk out three out of the seven suitcases packed with medical equipment and other things that might prove useful to the people of Syria. To make things easier, an airport worker escorted me by pushing the cart. As we got closer to the exit, he began asking me something in Turkish. I told him I didn’t understand, so he went up to someone at the luggage X-ray machine and began talking to him in Turkish. I thought the escort was asking him to translate, but the next thing I knew they start putting the luggage on the ramp.
Before I continue, let me first say that none of the luggage was mine. I know that’s a typical it’s-not-mine-officer line, but really, the only thing I brought with me on this trip was my laptop bag and carry-on luggage. I was just trying to help out my uncle. He packed cameras I mentioned in my last post, some iPhones, three laptops, lots of medical supplies and other equipment.
Midnight. Moving forward — as the luggage went through the machine — the man working at the X-ray machine saw something questionable on the monitor. My uncle didn’t warn me that the cameras might cause a problem, but I know from my own traveling experience that electronic equipment can put up red flags. The X-ray worker’s tough, Turkish face made me nervous because I had no idea what was about to happen. The man asked me to come over to watch him as he opened the bags one by one. He saw the cameras and his eyes bulged. He began to say over and over again that this was a problem. He then called over a man in a suit, while he had a softer face, his demeanor with me was a lot more harsh. He looked at the cameras and then dug through the suitcases some more. Underneath a large black rain jacket were dozens of target-accuracy lasers and six riflescopes bundled up individually in packing material. He picked one up and examined it, and then looked at me like I was in big trouble. My heart sank.
“Are you here alone?”
The question made me feel like I was being attacked, so I answered it honestly, but vaguely.
“I came with my uncle, but I’m alone right now.”
“And your uncle is the only one here with you? There is no one waiting for you outside?”
“Not that I know of.”
That was a lie. My uncle’s friend had left before me, but I didn’t want to include him in any problems that may arise. About seven airport workers came to assist. The man in the suit would ask me a question, and I tried to explain that this was for a medical mission for the people in Syria, but before I could finish the man in the suit would shake his head and say, “This is not medical” while holding up one of the riflescopes. He was right, but I couldn’t answer to those. My heart sank even more and I felt my face burn bright red.
“This is big problem,” said the man in the suit. “What are the cameras for?”
“They’re for documenting what’s happening in Syria,” I told him.
“Who bought them? Are you going to sell them?”
“No. They’re donations. We want to give them to doctors to videotape what they see.” I gave him a note describing our mission from Syrian American Medical Society, the organization I am going to work with.
But none of that explained the lasers or the riflescopes.
It was at this time my uncle was spotted by the man who escorted me.
They searched his bags, more cameras, more lasers, a solar panel but, luckily, no riflescopes.
“This is a big problem,” said the man in the suit. He started talking in Turkish to the employees and they all left except the man working the X-ray machine.
Because he spoke little English, the hard-faced Turkish man gestured us to follow him with his hand.
12:45 p.m. He took us to what looked like their break room. There was a pool table and couches. Then came in two men in uniform and a man who we later found out was the boss. They put the bags on the pool table and looked through them again. Slowly, they collected the cameras, the lasers and the riflescopes. They even found iPhones, laptops, a solar panel — collecting them too.
1:30 p.m. Things were starting to get serious, and my uncle began to realize that these people might just confiscate everything. So he started to talk, hoping he could convince them to let us keep the cameras at the very least.
“Brother, habiby, let me tell you what these are for. Do you know what’s happening in Syria right now? People are dying. Children are dying. We are going to Syria, and we are going to give these to the people of Syria. We are not going to sell them. They’re not going to stay in Turkey.”
We talked, even laughed at times, while trying to persuade them.
Eventually, the boss man — tall, dark skinned, skinny with curly hair — put out his hand to gesture “enough” as the other men wrote down every single serial number of the electronic equipment they collected.
Another man in uniform came in with cups of tea. My uncle and I were also served tea.
2:20 a.m. Then they took us into another room. Here there were two men: boss man and the hard-faced man who worked the X-ray. This is where the real fun began. We were questioned individually. All a part of procedure they said. “No problem” in the boss man’s words. He left to go get a translator and came back with sandwiches and apples. The apples were a little green, but I ate it anyway because I was hungry.
“Where do you work?”
“I’m a student.”
“How often do you come to Turkey?”
“This is my second time.”
“Is this your first time bringing this much electrical equipment?”
As we answered questions, a feeling of dread was coming upon me. How long would we be here? After they finished questioning me, they questioned my uncle. A man in uniform came to serve us tea again.
My uncle called for our own translator, a friend of his who would be working with us during the trip. As the men spoke amongst themselves, our translator overheard them say they needed to take us to the police station.
“They’re going to take your picture,” he told us in Arabic.
“For real,” my uncle asked him.
“You will get a number and everything,” he told me.
4:20 a.m. The hard-faced man then took us the police station. There, we were met with even more hard-faced men who took our fingerprints and mug shots.
5 a.m. We came back to the office and they went through our stuff again. They brought in the man in the suit who questioned the propofol we brought. It’s an anesthesia, but they wouldn’t let us take it. They opened our bags and hastily took everything out. My uncle, the translator and I had to put everything back in.
5:45 a.m. With the propofol problem came a redo of all the paperwork. It didn’t take as long because we already answered their questions.
They confiscated everything — the cameras, the riflescopes, the lasers, the laptops, and the iPhones.
6 a.m. We were finally done. My uncle, the translator and I packed up everything and were happy to leave.
Moral of the story, take customs seriously.
(And all I could think about was getting any documentation I could get my hands on.)