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 left still in Syria, tell a sad 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, on February 2013. They crossed the border near Aksakale with the help of smugglers who cut a hole to the border fence with wire cutters. 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 to 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.
With limited language skills and missing official refugee documents, it’s hard, almost impossible, to apply for work. Men spend days hanging around, drinking tea, watching TV and smoking. Kindhearted 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.
Today in Istanbul, there are at least 560,000 registered Syrian refugees. Municipalities have been particularly innovate in their efforts to accommodate refugees by running free language courses, instituting social support programs, permitting a degree of legal flexibility for Syrians opening a business, and in the case of at least one district, Bagvilar, encouraging Syrians to participate in advisory citizens’ councils.
Esa spent four years documenting the life of a Syrian refugee community in Süleymaniye neighborhood in Istanbul, Turkey in 2013-2017. One story of refugees had become to the end and the new journey ahead in Spring 2017 when the government of Turkey cleared Syrian refugees out of the Süleymaniye neighborhood. Syrians exiles out of the city to find a new home to settle.
All images © Esa Ylijaasko
By Esa Ylijaasko