One of the reasons to travel is because it’s fun and relaxing and all around a great time. But another very important reason for seeing the world is because it brings travelers face to face with often-harsh realities. Case in point: the refugee crisis in Europe.

During my recent trip to Istanbul, I came across this nativity scene (still set up in late January), which was adorned with clothing, life vests, and toys of refugees who, according to several signs, “died in our seas while trying to reach new homes.”

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There was no other information available and no one around to take questions, but of course Europe is in the midst of a refugee crisis as people stream in from war-torn Syria and other places. (The crisis is making fewer U.S. headlines these days, but it is still going on.)

I’ve read a lot about the crisis, and even contributed a small part to a few news reports, but for better or worse seeing this display made it quite a bit more real to me. These are real shoes and shirts and toys that once belonged to real people, and now those people are dead.

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Interestingly enough, just moments before seeing this display a group of students approached me and my companions and asked us a series of questions for an assignment. Their questions had to do with our perceptions of Istanbul, and a number of them (indeed, the whole point of the survey, I think) were about safety and terrorism. Among other things, they wanted to know if we were afraid of traveling to Istanbul.

As they were asking the questions, I thought about my own city, Los Angeles. I can walk to the most visited parts of Hollywood from my apartment, and I suspect many people have been approached there for “man on the street” interviews of one sort or another. How many of them, I wonder, were asked if they feared terrorism?

In any case, these experiences in Istanbul weren’t especially fun or vacation-y, and I’m still not even sure what to think about them now. Still, I think these kinds of experiences are worth seeking out, and are an important part of travel. For me, they offer context for my own life and privileges, and I hope make me a better and more empathetic citizen of the world.

— Jim Dalrymple II

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Written by Jim Dalrymple II

Editor in Chief of Tripping Over the World. Also, reporter at BuzzFeed News.

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