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Middle East Jasmine Dispatch

Masalevi: Where Fairytales Come True!
March 11, 2000

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Tent village of Holidere, home of the very first Fairytale House
"...And they lived happily ever after." You recognize this famous phrase as the closing words to every great fairytale. It usually means that the guy got the girl, and together, their love defeated the evil scheme or the forces of darkness that tried to keep them apart. They then moved into a beautiful castle and stared dreamily into each others' eyes for the rest of their lives.

"It's a far cry from any fairytale life for these families in Holidere. After buildings crumbled in the earthquakes, people made their homes in tents. Unfortunately tents don't take too kind to the rainy, windy weather, leaving many to rebuild again."

I only wish that the story I'm referring to was fiction. Unfortunately, it's not. The earthquake that ripped through the Golcuk region of Turkey on August 16th last year left a murderous path of destruction. When I imagine the stories of the survivors of these earthquake-torn areas, I feel the despair and the tragic fear of a people who still face seemingly impossible obstacles.

So I asked myself, as I hummed my favorite Little Mermaid tune: "How do fairytale lessons transfer to real life? What happens when destruction is not an evil sorcerer whose spells can be reversed once we capture and destroy him? What do you do when lives are taken, families lost, children orphaned, and communities utterly destroyed?" My only response was that fairytales are nice, but they just are not real. This earthquake tragedy is more like a drama, an ill-fated saga, or a Romeo and Juliet-like tragedy than any fairytale. Then, I met Ercument Tekdal, better known as Ercu, my Turkish fairy godfather. As if he had been waiting for my arrival, he welcomed me with open arms and whisked me away to a real life Masalevi or 'Fairytale House'. Here, every day, kids' dreams come true and fairytales become a reality.

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Jazz and Ercu at an INSEV planning meeting
"My Turkish fairy godfather, Ercu, didn't change me into a carriage (despite the fact that I was dressed like a pumpkin). Instead, his dedication and the magical sparkle in his eye reminded me never to lose hope, and to do what I can to help those in need. We can all play a significant role!"

Like most fairytales, some crazy twist of fate put me in the right place at the right time, bringing me to a group called INSEV. Ercu, an Istanbul business man and dedicated volunteer, was waiting there to greet me. The planning meeting I had crashed was for a non-profit group called INSEV. They are the organization that sponsors the Masalevi project. While the meeting took place in Turkish, Ercu translated, and explained Masalevi's background as discretely as he could. He described a group of volunteers who spend their time nurturing children, and families who desperately need their help. I decided the best thing to do was to visit the Fairytale Houses and see for myself.


prestigious - esteem in the eyes of people; weight or credit in general opinion
catastrophe - a violent, usually destructive, natural event

Most of the volunteers, like Ercu, come in from Istanbul. The hour-and-a-half drive they must make is nothing to take lightly, but they gladly make this sacrifice on a weekly basis. Their help is an important part of making this community effort possible. Masalevi now has 138 tents. Through INSEV and other partnerships they hope to continue to provide assistance for as long as they are needed. Of the 138 tents, two are Fairytale House tents set up just for the children. The other, smaller tents are family tents with heating, electricity and small gas stoves inside. Bathrooms are portable communal toilets donated by Unicef.

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Necdet, Father of Masalevi, with two Holidere village children
"Necdet Kutlucan, the Father of Masalevi, looks proudly on at two Holidere village boys who are smiling, happy and healthy again." We started the drive at about nine in the morning, and arrived around eleven. It was a gloomy day, which seemed appropriate when I saw the damaged areas for the first time. On our way up to the hilltop villages of Holidere and Sarayle my stomach sank at the sight of rows of collapsed, abandoned apartment buildings. What had been floors of high-rise buildings were now laid like pancakes on top of each other. I couldn't imagine surviving such a horrific event and still being a functional individual. So you can understand my amazement as the bright smiling faces of dozens of cheerful, beautiful children poured into the Masalevi tent.

The Fairytale House in Holidere, where I spent the day, was the first one built. Originally thought of and organized by Necdet Kutlucan, Masalevi sought to provide a safe haven and positive activities for young earthquake victims. Four days after the earthquake, it was apparent that the children would suffer even greater trauma if they continued to float around through the debris. Some children found family members dead. One little girl found a friend decapitated. Most had no home to go to. But the children I saw were not victims -- they were conquerors and brave survivors. They were bright, intelligent and full of life.
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Jazz with a sign the kids drew that says
"There's a lot of love in this room tonight!" I was so touched, in fact, that during art time, I drew a huge poster for my new friends that said "Jasmine Loves MASALEVI!" It only took a few minutes to get past our language barrier, and the day full of fun and games whizzed by. Then, a favorite party pleaser: I took pictures of the kids and instantly showed them their portraits on the camera screen. (Magic, or Kodak digital cameras? I'll never tell.) By noon the Fairytale House tent was bursting with energy and activity. I never put together so many puzzles in my life. We colored, danced, had storytime, and even put on a theatrical performance. By the end of the day I was impressed, and completely worn out. I forgot how much energy it takes to play.

Before the Masalevi closed for the day the volunteers were served a delicious bulgar dish. The recipe is a common Turkish meal prepared by some of the women of the village. They are so grateful for the outlet and assistance that Masalevi provides that they treat the Fairytale House tent like home, caring for all who come to help. I tried to put myself in their shoes. The Golcuk area was not a poor area prior to the earthquake, so these women were not poverty stricken beforehand. They had nice homes. Their husbands had good jobs and their children were receiving a good education. Now, they live in tents, some afraid to return to their homes (if they were not destroyed). Their only economic resource is the small government aid for earthquake relief they receive each month.

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Two students put together puzzles at the speed of light! They were good!
"At Masalevi kids realize that they are a success. Volunteers help them make it through another day and remain hopeful for the next...and with such beautiful smiles"

Masalevi hopes to help these villages reestablish their communities. Today, families are recovering and attempting to start all over again. INSEV is planning to continue to support the Masalevis for another two years. At that point they hope to give control over to the individual villages. That will mean the villages have recovered to the point where they are capable of supporting themselves. By then, the tents will have become prefabricated buildings with computers, televisions and DVD's. They will have been specially designed for Masalevi, with teacher lounges and lesson rooms. Ercu and the volunteers celebrated as the cement foundation for the first pre-fab was poured earlier in the week.

Hello everybody. My name is Ekrem Tekdal. I'm from Turkey. I live in Istanbul. I'm 12 years old. As you know, on August 17th, a very big earthquake happened in Turkey. The center of the earthquake was about 100 km far from Istanbul, but we really felt very bad when the whole house shaked for 45 seconds.

We had left our houses with pajamas immediately and went to the open areas to be safe. The electricity had gone for many hours. We had been frightened and everywhere was dark.

After some hours had passed, we had learned that the cities near to Istanbul has been totally damaged by the earthquake. There were ten thousands lost in 45 seconds.

After a few days, the first shock was past and we thought that we had to go to the earthquake area to help those people.

And we went to there with my parents.

Six mounts passed, but my parents have been working still in the earthquake area. They have build three prefabric units for the children living there. They have now 450 children in these prefabric playing schools. Children which are between 4-15 years old, come to these schools after their normal schools for their spare time, and they play games together.

My parents didn't want me to be in the earthquake area in the first weeks. They didn't let me to see the damaged buildings and crying people to their losts.

When I stayed in Istanbul because of these reasons, I worked on a project for the earthquake children. I named this project as: "MY BROTHERS AND SISTERS OVER THERE." I prepared some question forms and gave them to my school friends. The questions were about their hobbies and interests and if they want to have a brother or sister from the earthquake area as a penfriend or giving them a hand for their education, or if they want to live together for one or more years in Istanbul.

I give more than 350 forms to my school friends and 36 of them came back in the first week with a positive replay. Week by week the forms get more and more. After that my school started to help me in my project. I mailed my project to some of the radios but most of them didn't give any answer. Some of them made an interview with me and the project is going very good now. At the end, now we have 96 friends in Istanbul, who has a "brother or sister over there" and of course 96 friends in the earthquake area. At the end now, we have a very big family nearly 200 children. My friends Bariž, Batuk, and Sinan Sabuncu helped my project very much. I'm very happy that I have friends like that.

And all our new brothers and sisters write us letters from there. We sometimes make a phone call to each other, some of us has already visit each other. Some of the families came together and became friends. And our family is getting bigger and bigger day by day.

We invite you all to be a member of our family. You can have penfriends in the earthquake area who are living at the tent cities and who are being educated in tent schools. We can show to the world that we are a big family who are living all over the world.

Please send me an e-mail to have a pen-friend living in the earthquake area in Turkey. They are sleeping in their tents with frozen, red noses. And they await their new brothers or sisters living in USA.


Best Regards,
Ekrem Tekdal

Successful projects like Masalevi and INSEV, that have joined together to help their brothers and sisters in need, especially after such tragedy, are truly admirable and much-needed organizations. I only hope that more will join in the battle. Many major cities, Istanbul included, are overrun with slums and ghettos that grow daily. The success of the numerous earthquake relief projects goes to show that the resources are there. The question is, why are some people overlooked or counted out? Poverty was apparent prior to the earthquake, but there was, and still is, little help for the poor. Does being born poor mean you should stay poor? There are children barefoot, cold, sick and begging on the streets of Istanbul. Why do we just pass them by? What makes these poor people different from the poor in Golcuk?

These are just a few questions we should ask ourselves as we learn about the world we live in. I encourage you to figure out what you believe and why. Don't be afraid to ask questions. Everyone wants to be wealthy, though some will always be poor. Money defines class. But what does that really mean? I was born and raised in a Los Angeles "ghetto" but I never knew I was poor. My family taught me that we were rich because we had love and we had each other. I soon realized that the world didn't quite have the same views. In college I was often looked down upon when I said I was from Compton. Many of my upper-class, wealthy classmates wondered how I could afford to attend such a prestigious university. It seemed as if I should not have been entitled to do so... I didn't fit the requirements.

But does wealth really mean that you are entitled to certain things that poor people are not? Does it mean that someone's money makes them a better person? Does it mean that those who are wealthy have a responsibility to help those who are not? In my opinion there is something that each of us can do help someone who is less fortunate then we are. It is always great to know that we can mobilize in a time of suffering or in the wake of a catastrophe. But we must also remember those who live in poverty. What can you do to help?

If you're thinking you're too young to really make a difference, think again! Ekrem Tekdal, a twelve year-old Istanbul student, established an incredible way to help others. Check out the sidebar to read his amazing story, and find out how you can get involved! Don't miss out!

Click here to find out more about Masalvei and the children of Holidere.


p.s. - Please e-mail me at

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