November Is a Beginning
I’m sitting in a 32-square-meter apartment in Istanbul that has no toilet or shower. The curtains reach from the ceiling to the floor and the hue-less walls are full of spots where the paint has chipped. The air is moist.
The Kasim family has gathered together for dinner. Brothers and sisters. Wives and kids.
Scrambled eggs, white bread, tomatoes, and tea are served. Men eat first while children and women wait for their turn. Cigarette smoke floats in the air. A TV in the corner of a small room, along with phone calls from relatives still in Syria, tell a hopeless story of the war. The kids are playing: simple things make them laugh easily.
They are Syrian Kurds from the countryside around the Syrian cities of Aleppo and Homs. Their journey began when the civil war in the country escalated. As the War came too close, the Kasim Family left their home, a small olive farm near Aleppo, and headed on foot to the Turkish border, in February 2013.
They crossed the border near Aksakale with the help of smugglers who cut a hole in the border fence with wire cutters. The crossing itself was about 400 liras (about $150 USD) for the family. Accompanied by a smuggler, they crossed the border in the darkness. All they carried with them were their children and some cash. On the Turkish side of the border, Keles called his siblings at 9:00 a.m. to come pick them up by car. The last thing that Keles remembers from the journey is the sight of a garden glistening in the sunrise.
Süleymaniye is one of the historical districts in Istanbul, Turkey. It’s patrolled by packs of street dogs that bark at each other to protect their territories. Once, this neighborhood was a perfect place to live. Today, it’s abandoned and in ruins. New inhabitants have settled—new inhabitants like the Kasim family. The air fills with prayer calls from minarets five times a day. Somewhere in the distance, you can hear the sounds of someone cooking and kids playing. According to the U.N., the conflict in Syria has killed over 250,000, and the U.N. estimates that 12 million people are internally displaced. Turkey opened its border to Syrian refugees, and 2.7 million have taken asylum there. While only a tenth of Syrians in Turkey live in camps, the rest have settled in cities. Istanbul now houses about 800,000 Syrian exiles, according to city officials.
Knowing little Turkish and lacking official documents, they have a hard time finding work. According to the Washington Institute, Syrians who are living illegally in Turkey and are not registered as refugees pose unique challenges for the job market. They typically use their existing savings to rent small apartments, and they seek informal work opportunities in clothing factories, clothing stores, restaurants, and construction and agriculture sites. If these Syrians are caught by the police, they are sent to refugee camps.
As illegal workers, they earn below the minimum wage, reportedly around $250 to $300 USD monthly, which is just enough to cover their living expenses. Some salvage a bit extra to send back to their families in Syria. Reports have surfaced of Turkish bosses refusing to pay their Syrian employees and of the Syrians not reporting these abuses for fear of being sent to the camps. All Syrians are entitled to The Disaster and Emergency Management Presidency of Turkey card by the government, which all but guarantees them free healthcare and education for their children.
Kind-hearted locals bring food and clothes to refugees, helping Syrian refugees to survive. But life stands still.
Regardless of all the despair, guests with good intentions are welcomed and will be offered tea, food and cigarettes. From time to time, the air is filled with jokes and laughter.
Esa Ylijaasko spent two years documenting the life of a Syrian refugee community in Süleymaniye neighbourhood in Istanbul, Turkey from 2013 to 2015.