Istanbul native finds her city transformed by Syrian refugees

A young refugee plays violin in front of a line of Turkish police at Edirne, where refugees amassed hoping to cross into Greece. (Photo by Levent Kulu)
A young refugee plays violin in front of a line of Turkish police at Edirne, where refugees amassed hoping to cross into Greece. (Photo by Levent Kulu)

“No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark.”

When she wrote those words poet Warsan Shire could have been describing the people pouring out of Syria.

Over two million (more than half of them under the age of 18) have fled the mouth of the shark that is their war torn home and taken shelter in Turkey.

When the Syrian refugee crisis began four years ago, Turkey proudly opened our doors to them and held their hands.

And then real life hit. Nobody is holding their hands now. They’re on their own, given only a “temporary protection” — a guest status that wouldn’t qualify many of them as official refugees, but instead as asylum seekers.

They don’t have work permits, legal status, or social rights. They’ve been trapped in this purgatory with the hopes of reaching Germany, Sweden or Austria where they can benefit from social welfare and maybe continue their education, rather than working in a hookah lounge in Turkey, sweeping ash while holding an engineer’s degree.

In September thousands of Syrian refugees were waiting on the northwestern border town of Edirne, hoping was to cross the border and reach Greece.

Among the protests, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu calls on the crowds to stop marching and “go back to their normal lives.

If only they normal lives to go back to.

Istanbul transformed

About 330,000 of the refugees are living in my hometown of Istanbul.

I came back from my last visit in Turkey this summer my head filled with visions of children begging for survival. You’ll see them at the sidewalks and center strips. Women with babies wrapped in rags, men smoking beside them with a grim gaze. Children are wondering around standstill Istanbul traffic, selling water bottles, flower bouquets, selfie sticks and fake phone chargers, or begging to clean your windows with the few Turkish words they learned just to get by another day.

Refugees have taken up residents in semi-demolished houses in Istanbul's Fikirtepe neighborhood. (Photo by Levent Kulu)
Refugees have taken up residents in semi-demolished houses in Istanbul’s Fikirtepe neighborhood. (Photo by Levent Kulu)

Many of the first refugees who began arriving in 2011 settled in Istanbul’s Fikirtepe neighborhood, which has been the site of a controversial urban renewal project for years. The municipality demolished hundreds of houses with a promise to build new ones, but for now the area looks no different than the war zone in Aleppo.

My colleague Levent Kulu worked in the area close to the Syrian families, taking striking photographs of the inhumane living conditions. As reported on the Turkish news portal T24, the refugees took shelter in abandoned apartments and ruins.

Most of the women lost their husbands in war and now their only lifeline is help from strangers or begging in the streets. There is no access to sanitation or clean water, most of the kids have terrible skin conditions and are sick with diarrhea. The rooms are divided with curtains, windows are covered with plastic and in the winter they burn wood and garbage they gather from the construction sites.

It’s not only Fikirtepe. The situation is the same in almost every city where Syrians settle. The ones with less means take shelter in abandoned buildings, set up tents or build makeshift shanty houses on the outskirts. As if the living conditions weren’t horrific enough, Turkish authorities regularly demolish their shelters, confiscate their tents and eject them from the ruins to continue on with the development projects they’ve taken over.

A warm welcome, worn out

There’s another ghetto forming in Istanbul’s conservative Fatih district. Now called the ‘Little Syria’, you can see the transformation as soon as you step in. The Arabic signs, the Damascene decor of the cafes, the smells coming from Şam Şerif restaurant’s kitchen and bustling crowd of unemployed young men, most carrying a crinkled piece of paper in their pockets with a smuggler’s phone number.

Once welcoming, Turks have started to resent the increasing number of Syrians. It’s even boiled over to violence. A Turkish Burger King manager beat a 11-year-old Syrian boy for eating leftovers. Another restaurant manager slapped a 9-year-old boy trying to sell napkins so hard that his nose bled. Incidents like these happen every day.

Thousands of refugees amassed at the border between Turkey and Greece in September. (Photo by Levent Kulu)
Thousands of refugees amassed at the border between Turkey and Greece in September. (Photo by Levent Kulu)

Refugees struggle to rent a home, since most landlords put a ‘not for Syrians’ notification below their rental ads. If they do rent, they often overcharge for a damp, dark, dingy room. Because of the bureaucratic holdups concerning work permits, most refugees work under the table, putting them at the mercy of business owners. They are often exploited, underpaid, mistreated and expandable.

Given the circumstances, it’s no surprise refugees want to run from Turkey, either risking their life climbing onto a rickety boat, or running on foot into the cold dark forests of Bulgarian border.

Reports show they have to endure unlawful and abusive force by Turkish border guards. Because they are frightened to be returned to Syria or further abused they can’t report any crime to the police. They have no protection against the howling injustice.

No permanent solution

Turkey will continue on to accept asylum seekers in the coming years (some sources say it will be another two million). But as long as they are treated as ‘temporary guests’ (which in this case, are not very welcome by the host) the lost generation of Syrians will be forced to continue living on the margins of the society.

It’s true that the 220,000 plus refugees living in 24 camps around Turkey are in much better shape than their counterparts who’ve moved on to Europe. Camp conditions make life much easier than trying to survive in the outside world. There’s proper infrastructure, schools, regular meals and warm shelter. But the refugees, who live in about 220 square foot shipping containers with entrances and exits restricted, say they feel like they’re in a prison.

Obviously locking them up in ‘container cities’ is not a permanent solution. Neither is PM Ahmet Davutoglu’s proposal to build more of these ‘container cities’ in safe zones inside Syria.

The situation is getting worse and the flow of refugees doesn’t show signs of stopping anytime soon. Turkey preferred to take matters in its own hands and refused help from NGOs, just to make sure the state has full control over the camps. And the government has no intention of making changes to the asylum seekers’ ‘temporary status,’ so container cities will remain as a cold limbo, while Syrian families wait for the unknown next step.

After an eight hour surgery this family feel blessed to be able to hold their baby again. They feed her with sugar water and formula neighbors occasionally provide. They were both accountants in the same company in Syria, but both had to flee after Assad's forces killed their boss. Now they take refuge in Batman, in far eastern Turkey (Photo by Kerem Yucel)
After an eight hour surgery this family feel blessed to be able to hold their baby again. They feed her with sugar water and formula neighbors occasionally provide. They were both accountants in the same company in Syria, but both had to flee after Assad’s forces killed their boss. Now they take refuge in Batman, in far eastern Turkey. (Photo by Kerem Yucel)

Memories dropped into the sea

A couple of weeks ago Turkish daily newspaper Hurriyet published a story about a box washed up on a beach in Assos. It has 82 photographs in it. It appears they belong to a Syrian family who was trying to reach the Greek island of Midilli on a boat. For reasons unknown, they dropped the box in the sea.

It has pictures from birthdays, a sunny day in the park, kids smiling at their dad, young girls all dolled up for a wedding, happy, ordinary days of the past.

When Prime Minister Davutoglu says “go back to your normal lives” he should mean these memories. Not little girls with their Disney’s Frozen backpacks whose biggest worry used to be too much homework, but suddenly find themselves begging for coins in the streets of Istanbul.

It should not be about starvation and fear of death. Living in a hole, hopeless and miserable is not normal.

They can’t get back to normal the way they’re living in Turkey.

Now amongst the biggest humanitarian crisis since WWII, we should all feel responsible to help. To help them get back to those images of blowing out candles on birthdays, of sitting down to a hot meal as a family, of waking up in the sunshine through a window, of giving a bath to a giggling baby in the sink, of falling in love and going out on a date.

We should give them a real home — not a stack of shipping containers.

1 Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.