Syrian refugees stuck in Istanbul face relentless test of urban survival
For Syrians whose path to Europe has been blocked, survival in Turkey's largest city means a constant search for food, shelter, and people to help them.
Vulnerable, cold, and alone, but very determined, the Syrian refugee felt her dreams begin to deflate during her first night in Istanbul last January, when she had to sleep in an alley off Taksim Square.
The young woman had hoped to serve as a vanguard for a desperate, hungry, and traumatized family of seven still in Syria but seeking a path to Europe. Yet since that first night she has seen her way closed by an agreement to control the influx of refugees from Turkey into Europe.
Instead of building a new life of hope and promise, Mary – a pseudonym for a former university student with long black hair and a single suitcase – is now trapped in Istanbul, with little in the way of a support network and few prospects.
Her story is a case study of war zone refugees whose journey has stalled in Turkey’s largest metropolis. They are torn between their strategic aim of finding safety in Europe and the tactical requirement of surviving each new day in Istanbul. Often penniless and without legal papers, they can be taken advantage of by employers or preyed upon by smugglers or the mafia. Women are subject to pressure for sex.
Mary’s case is emblematic of how refugees in Istanbul can fall through the cracks despite the existence of both formal and informal support networks and the efforts of authorities and charities to make sure they do not.
“I don’t have a plan, I am without hope.… I don’t know anybody,” says Mary, her demeanor clouding as she speaks grimly of the violence she left behind and of her new, unexpected challenges.
“I will try all I can to go out of Turkey – there is no future for me here,” she says. “I have talent, an open mind. I can learn very fast and was seventh in my college. But I know I can do better than as a cleaner…. I just want a job to use my mind.”
Some Syrian refugees came to Turkey with money, education, and connections and have settled into new lives with jobs while they wait out the war. But they are exceptions among the estimated 2.7 million Syrians who have flooded this country.
Unwanted advances from men
Istanbul alone has registered nearly 395,000 Syrians, according to Turkish statistics. United Nations officials say a further 20,000 could be waiting to be registered, which would make them eligible for health and vulnerability assessments and even cash from Turkey and United Nations-funded agencies for the most vulnerable.
Three community centers serve Istanbul and have helped an estimated 100,000 refugees, according to Selin Unal, spokeswoman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Turkey. But assisting those like Mary is not easy.
“It’s such a dilemma. We’re trying to find those people … but it’s never enough,” says Ms. Unal. “We started an information campaign nationwide to inform people about their rights … that there is a system where you can get assistance in Turkey.”
Despite a campaign that includes billboards, posters, and Facebook posts, that support so far has been unknown to Mary. She has slept on the street and on the top floors of unoccupied buildings, which are safer for a lone woman, she says, because they are largely hidden. She had no warm jacket, so the winter was freezing for her.
The former agricultural engineering student has briefly held 10 menial jobs in Istanbul, from a shoe factory worker to hotel cleaner. But they often ended because of unwanted advances from men.
“I feel the pressure, I think I am very strong to deal with all these things,” says Mary, who says she’d rather go without food than give in to that kind of pressure. “If I am a bad girl, I can see a lot of chances. Many [women] do things with boys for money, but I won’t do that.… It’s very, very dangerous for girls.
'Only spaghetti and rice'
Since January, Mary has sent one payment of about $140 to her family. But her life has shriveled to a tiny, “very dirty,” and unfurnished room she shares with a Moroccan woman. The $100 she paid for rent expires on Saturday, so she hopes to find a new job that includes accommodation.
By now she was supposed to be in Europe; she doesn’t care which country. But just after she gathered 10 other refugees for the trip, so that her own passage would be free, Turkey effectively shut down the route.
So Mary has a split in the sole of her shoes, and rising expectations from home that she cannot meet.
Her phone is full of photos of family left behind.
“I speak to them every day, or I would go crazy,” she says. “They are so sad about me, but what should I do? There is no money at all in Syria, we spent days without eating. Spaghetti, spaghetti, only spaghetti and rice.”
Another Syrian refugee now living near Istanbul, Abdulkadir, also knows impoverishment and fear – and the value of support networks. The former second-year fine arts student from near Aleppo was detained and beaten for weeks by the Syrian regime, and later the Islamic State.
Abdulkadir was interviewed by The Monitor last October in Gaziantep, southern Turkey. He had sold his computer for cash, and within the hour stepped onto a bus for the 17-hour ride to Istanbul, using $30 of his last $50 for the trip.
Before going, he offered to sell this reporter his designer glasses.
Agencies helping large families
When Abdulkadir arrived in Istanbul he stayed with friends, but the job search failed. Now he is working as a bartender at a resort for the equivalent of $450 month. He sent the first month salary to his family – wiring the money to a trusted friend in Gaziantep, who carried it across the border to his family.
Despite a constant lack of cash, Abdulkadir uses no charity support.
“Most relief agencies are helping large families,” he says. “Some people are much needier. What will they give me anyway, a box of food? Or pay my electricity bill?”
Instead, now that he is relatively settled, Abdulkadir helps many other Syrians by himself – creating the kind of informal network that has proven invaluable to legions of his countrymen trying get to Europe. He helped a man who lost his leg in a barrel bomb in Aleppo get antibiotics and a Syrian doctor.
“Most calls I get are to stay with me, and for advice,” says Abdulkadir. Would-be refugees tell him how much cash they have, and ask about the best way to be smuggled out of Syria.
His beard now shorter and trimmed, his ponytail from last year gone, Abdulkadir has become a de facto travel agent. But while he once dismissed going to Europe as a “last choice,” he now admits to “thinking about it every day. I’m never progressing [here], not making any move forward.”