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İngilizceSaha DışıOne Suitcase Two Countries

Ekrem Dag was a refugee. His experiences prepared him for life. And then came football...

*Published in November 2015 issue.

Ekrem Dag was born in one of the most multi-cultural cities in Turkey: Mardin. In 1989, at the age of 9, he and his family ran away from the territory near the Syrian border, due to uprising conflicts between PKK (Kurdish Workers’ Party) and the state; forcing them to live as refugees. The rest is a prideful career in football, including a Turkish championship title and a Turkish Cup for Beşiktaş in addition to 10 caps for the Austrian National Team…

The refugee problem is widely spoken nowadays. A similar story has also formed your life. At the age of 9, you and your family have taken off to Germany from the Southeast Turkey. What comes to your mind when you think of that journey?

It was 1989, when we had sold everything we owned and gone there illegally. My uncle was living in Germany, and we were trying to get to him. We reached Austria passing through many other countries, headed to Germany. It was not just us, there were 30 to 40 more people divided into 2-3 busses. I was a kid and I can’t remember exactly but we were thinking of going through the German border on foot, illegally. Since she was pregnant, my mother was walking slowly. My two other siblings went ahead with the group up front and we lost track of each other, until a week later when we reunited in the refugee camp in Austria. Our main purpose was to get to Germany, we were only there temporarily. We were going to give it a second try but my mother gave birth just then. They gave the baby a kid’s passport, which is kind of a birth certificate that doesn’t take the place of a passport. A month later, we tried again to get to Germany but we couldn’t. It was winter time; cops and dogs caught us. They put my father in jail for a week. Later, feeling pity because of the baby, they sent us back to Austria. Incidentally we stayed.

You had relatives in Germany, but did you know anyone in Austria back then?

No, we didn’t. Like Syrians here, they placed us at a refugee camp. After my father realized that it’s a no go, he found a job and worked, so we rented an apartment.

Did you begin playing football there?

I faced many difficulties when I began school. I didn’t speak the language. Still, they placed us into a classroom, may god bless them. Now that I think of it, we were quite lucky; most of the Syrian children in camps can’t go to school these days. As kids, we surpassed the social troubles with ease, picked everything up quickly, and learned the language. It is easier when you are playing, so we played football. You develop self-confidence if you are talented. There aren’t many fields around to build up confidence, except sports. When I discovered myself in it, classes also got on track. Later on, teams watched and started to call me up, thus I charted my way out. I was the only kid in class from Turkey, and the best football player in school. I was scoring all the goals in tournaments. Soon after, everybody started talking about me. When I become the top scorer, the school paper would write about me; it goes to prove that sports have no nationality. So I grew up this way. As a matter of fact, I had some difficulties at first when I signed with a club in Turkey, I couldn’t forecast what was expected of me. Once again, I couldn’t speak the language; my mother tongue is Arabic, since I am from Mardin. We never had to use Turkish since Arabic was spoken in the house. It was as if I came to Turkey as a foreign player, but caught up with Turkish quickly since I was familiar with it.

Ekrem Dağ
Illustration: Huthyfa Zahra

As someone currently playing in Şanlıurfaspor, what do you think of the current state in the city and the region?

Well, people are naturally opposing. Death of so many people makes everyone sad. It is the first subject that comes up when you chat with a stranger; “How are things going to resolve?” It increased significantly over the past few months. I hope it resettles after the election, and everything gets back on track. It is too bad. So many people dying… Not just here though, a lot of people are dying all around the world. For what? If money is the matter, it is our money in the end, all of us. You see, it is a matter of power. It would be much easier if only everyone would come to their sense and say: “Luckily we are all breathing in this world.”

In the movie The Fisher King, Jeff Bridges reaches up to Tom Waits, who performs as a homeless beggar, and says “The ones that give you money don’t even look at you.” Waits replies; “Well, they are paying so they don’t have to…” Starting from this point of view, what can be done to break the insincere attitude towards the refugees and help them out?

I think the ones in Turkey today suffer less than we did back in Austria. Turkish people are more gracious. But also it is a fact that we are lazy as culture. To be honest, we are not very hardworking people. That is why we are able to live wherever is comfortable. We will make do as long as we don’t die… If only they could step up and look for jobs… It would be beneficial for both Turkish economy and their future. Like I said, some of them will turn out to be great individuals. These people will become an asset for us like we did back when we played in the Austrian National Team so proudly.

Refugees are prejudiced against in larger cities. Is that the case over there?

Some of the ones that came here have already found jobs, one even opened a restaurant in Urfa. I see them no different than my brothers. What if they are Arabs, escaped from war, came here and so on… Just let them come! We were runaways once also. They helped us there. One must return the favor and be thankful. The people here will also acknowledge in time and say, “you embraced us.” Whether in economics or sports, it will surely pay off.

So what you are saying is that we should set up a better system where we can learn to live together so that they can also contribute…

Everybody needs someone. Maybe not now but in 40 to 50 years we are going to see the results of this situation. A person’s life can only be so long. That is why we shouldn’t complicate things for anyone. Nobody that is living today will be alive 100 years from now. So what are we really after? Let’s just save each other…

*Translated by Baran Yağmurlu.

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