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Syrian refugees find homes on the street corners of Istanbul

Thousands of Syrians find homes on the chic streets of Istanbul - living the life of urban homeless after escaping the horrors of war
Many have struggled to survive adapting to an austere life in Turkey (MEE/Abed al Qaisi)

ISTANBUL – Umm Fahid sits on a small worn out patch of grass in a chic city district of Istanbul. The city is lively, every building is plastered with flashing neon lights, cars blare their horns loudly and people weave in and out of each other on the busy streets and sidewalks. Fahid however, hasn’t moved from her spot all day. The little money she receives is from the few people who stop to place some coins in her held-out hand. It is her only source of income.

Fahid escaped from war-torn Syria four months ago. When she first arrived in Turkey, her and her children were placed in one of the country’s many refugee camps. Fahid said she quickly decided she would be better off looking for work in the city than living for an indefinite period in one of the tents of the camp.

“I didn’t want to live in the camp and wait in line for some small portion of food, and wait and wait. Life in the camp is just waiting, I was hoping to do something, to make something here,” Fahid told Middle East Eye.

When she arrived in Istanbul however, the task she faced was more difficult than she imagined.

“There are so many of us Syrians in Istanbul living on the streets,” Fahid explained while periodically scanning the area looking for sympathetic stares from potential donors. “We are everywhere here. You can see so many Syrians on the ground, begging for money, looking for work, but no one wants to hire a Syrian for a job, it seems impossible to find work here.”

On every street in bustling and cosmopolitan central Istanbul, Syrian refugees have made their home in front of towering skyscrapers, near tourist sites and on small patches of grass throughout the city. Istanbul offered hope of opportunity, as well as refuge, yet the reality has become one tainted with misery, rather than the needed step up and new start after the horrors of war.

With more than a million Syrians currently taking refuge in Turkey, and almost half-a-million more expected to flee due to the current crisis in the Kurdish region of Syria, according to the UN, the refugee situation in Turkey is reaching a critical point.

Rezan Ibo, along with Fahid is one of the many Syrian mothers that now line Istanbul’s streets, sitting on ragged cardboard and hard concrete. Ibo has seven daughters and one son, while her husband is now blind after he was hit by bomb-shrapnel in Syria. After failing to find a job in Istanbul, she has found herself supporting her eight children and blind husband through earning what little she can by begging on the street.

“I am here holding my hand out so we can eat. It’s all I can do. I am sitting out here every day, we move so the police don’t bother us,” Ibo explained while leaning against the entrance of a metro line in Istanbul’s famous Taksim Square, holding a small baby while two of her other children mingled around the square holding out small collection boxes. “But sometimes the police kick us out, they are always telling us bad words because we are doing this, but I am always telling them, we can’t eat, we have no work, how can we live?”

For the most part Ibo and many other Syrian refugees MEE spoke to said they came by little problems from the local population, however they are wary of the Turkish police, who have harassed, intimidated, and thrown them out from the areas where they sleep and beg. A common practice among some of the refugees was to move around from street to street, hoping to avoid the police finding them in the same spot in a short space of time.

Fahid and her four children move around frequently, and live out of two bags of belongings held together with bungee cords, which she uses to rest her back on as she sits on the ground throughout the day. Fahid says she collects around 50 to 100 Turkish Lira (£14 to £28) every day. She’s saving small amounts from what she collects in the hope to rent an apartment for a month in the future, which she says will help her to find work.

“I went to apply for jobs as a house cleaner, but I have to bring my children with me, my husband is not here, so I must take the children,” Fahid said, tightening the thin shawl draped around her shoulders. “I think this is why no one will hire me, they see I am bringing my children and they think that will be a problem to hire me. If I bring them to apply for work, what am I supposed to do with them while I am working? If I had an apartment I could leave them at home to go find work, but right now I cannot leave them alone on the streets.”

Fahid’s husband still lives in Syria, and Fahid has never held a job before. Even her children help to collect money, standing on corners within eye-site holding out small packs of tissues to sell to passing tourists and locals, a now common site in the tourist city.

Mohammed al-Halib however, refuses to take handouts. At 25, Halib came to Istanbul in the hope to reach Europe, but has had little luck in doing so. For now, he is always on the move, never sleeping in the same place twice, as he and a few friends try to figure out how to make a life out of nothing.

“There was no way I was going to live in the [refugee] camps. To do what? To stand in a line so long it begins to twist and fold in on itself so that there is room for all the people to stand in their line, just to get some small bit of rice,” Halib said. “No, I do not hold my hand out here, I am not looking for charity. I have two college degrees, I can work, I have skills.”

However, like Halib, having a degree or vocational skills, has not guaranteed work for many Syrian refugees in Istanbul. Although the refugees come to Istanbul hoping to rebuild a life that has been all but virtually destroyed over the past three years, what they have found is that their struggle has only continued, that work is non-existent, and that begging for money on the streets has become one of the only viable sources of income.

As new refugees continue to hit the streets of the city, and with the end of the war in Syria nowhere in sight, the little money made from begging may soon dissipate further. The near future holds little comfort for Fahid, and the many like her on the streets of Istanbul, and with autumn in full swing, and winter closing in, work and a place of shelter is needed more than ever.

“We don’t want anything from anyone,” Fahid told MEE, looking around at her children gathered a few meters away, as though making sure they were just out of earshot. “We just want work so we can sleep because I don’t want to go and sell myself here so I can eat. We left Syria because we didn’t want to be killed, that’s why we came here, but now I wish we had died in Syria so we didn’t come here. It’s better for us, so we could have had our dignity.”