ISTANBUL — It’s been almost a year since 9-year-old Ibrahim Khader, and his 7-year-old brother, Ahmad, have gone to school. Both boys grew up in Aleppo, Syria, and survived the intense fighting there by fleeing with their families from one place to another before finally arriving in Istanbul. Khader says that when he arrived in Istanbul and saw the city’s skyscrapers, bridges and busy ferries, he was certain some normalcy would return to his life, and in particular, he hoped that he and his brother could finally return to school.
“But we don’t go to school,” Khader told MintPress News loudly, yelling over the noise of fast-paced passing traffic as he stood on a grassy median between two busy streets with a small squeegee in one hand and window cleaner in another. “They don’t have Syrian schools here, and we don’t understand them [Turkish], so –,” he said with a shrug.
It’s not long before more boys join Khader and his brother on the median. Within 20 minutes around 15 boys have gathered. They all hold water bottles filled with blue liquid and squeegees – a complete team of window cleaners, all under 10 years old. Their pockets are heavy with change, weighing down their worn, dirty jeans.
“We can make 100 liras [$44] a day,” Khader said proudly, holding out two handfuls of gold and silver lira coins.
Khader and his brother are not alone in their attempts to earn an income on the streets of Istanbul. Over one million Syrians are estimated to have entered Turkey since the conflict in Syria began over three years ago. Istanbul, Turkey’s famed city seen as a chic cross-over between Europe and Asia, is dotted not just with neon lights, boutique clothing stores, and stylish bars, but also with war-ravaged Syrian refugees, who hoped the city’s bright lights would bring a new start.
A crisis point
In every district and street, refugees occupy small patches of grass, sidewalks and street corners, where entire families now live like the urban homeless. In many cases, mothers sit by several children with their combined small bundle of possessions – all they have left – trying to keep one eye on their children in the busy city, and another on potential donors passing by who may glance over sympathetically and leave a few coins on the pavement or in an outstretched hand.
The refugee crisis in Turkey and Istanbul is approaching a crisis point. Due to the increased intensity of fighting in northern Syria, another half-million Syrians are expected to enter Turkey in the coming weeks and months, according to United Nations estimates.
Awath Darwish and his family arrived in Istanbul only a day before speaking with MintPress. The fled the advancing Islamic State of Iraq and Syria militants who have been making steady gains toward their home in Kobane, a Kurdish-majority city in northern Syria.
“When we got here a friend from our family let us stay in her house the first night,” Darwish said, sitting crosslegged on a worn patch of grass in Istanbul’s lively Aksaray district. “There are 12 of us, though. Staying with her isn’t sustainable.”
Darwish wears a pair of blue pajamas. These pajamas are the clothes he wore when he fled Syria, and now they’re the only clothes he has. He and his family fled amid chaos, carrying very little, as ISIS advanced further toward Kobane. Fears that the militants would get to Kobane before the family could be smuggled over the border prompted Darwish and his family to get out as soon as the opportunity presented itself.
“We don’t really have anything with us but a few quickly packed bags and the clothes we are wearing. I’m not sure what we are doing in Istanbul. We thought there would be opportunities here, but I don’t know now,” Darwish said, motioning toward three different groups of homeless women and children in his view. “There seems to be a lot of people who maybe had this idea and aren’t having any luck here.”
“The reality here is a difficult one”
Unlike Darwish, some of the refugees that MintPress spoke to were initially placed in a refugee camp after managing to escape over the border from Syria to Turkey. They later made the journey to Istanbul, where they hoped to find work and start a new life for themselves and their families. The reality, however, has been harsh. Work has been almost impossible to come across, and asking for money on the street, with open hands outstretched to passersby, has become the only viable means of making money for many.
“The camps were horrible,” Suzan Karasu said, sitting on the ground near a busy metro station, with small packs of tissues lined in front of her. “I thought I could come here to find some sort of work, but I am just here selling these tissues, it isn’t much.”
For the most part, the refugees who MintPress spoke to on the bustling streets of Istanbul said they had not been hassled much by passersby. Most said they have largely been ignored, except for the few individuals who would drop some coins their way.
However, they’ve had a quite different experience with Turkish police. Stories of intimidation, harassment and being physically moved to different neighborhoods are common. Because of this, refugees frequently move around in order to avoid, as much as possible, issues with the local police force.
With winter on the horizon, and an upsurge in refugees from Syria expected in the coming weeks, the meager amounts of money made from street begging will dwindle, just as shelter and food will be most critically needed. After surviving the destruction of war in the world’s deadliest country, respite appears slow to come for Istanbul’s Syrian refugees, who continue to face challenge after challenge just to survive.
“The reality here is a difficult one,” Darwish said. “All the people here have run from Kobane to Istanbul, now the street floors are full of people and more people are coming. We have nowhere to stay, we have no food or house. We just want to be safe, but I don’t know how long we will be living like this, probably in winter and then I don’t know what we will do.”