Two wonderful families, living in trash

This winter, in early January 2020, I spent one day in another world. A world where one bottle cap with ice tea makes a child happy, where the toilet is the shower at the same time, and where 25 people sleep on the floor in two small rooms. I found this world in a slum in Istanbul.

Text and photos by Ronny Taferner

Istanbul is a city where poverty and richness are close neighbours. One of the best examples is the district of Bomonti. Already from a main street you see rubbish heaps and derelict cottages right next to two modern towers that are almost two hundred metres high, with priceless luxury apartments. In Istanbul, 1.7 million people live in poverty (less than 4 $ a day available), which is over 15 percent of the total population. Some of them live in cruel circumstances. The reasons for this poverty are unemployment and high rents; especially Syrian refugees are affected.

It’s Wednesday afternoon in early January and for Istanbul’s standards 5 degrees is rather cold. The slum nearly looks scary, because it’s so lonely. Except for some street cats no one is on the street. Only one old man collects trash, always with a walking stick in his hands to not fall.

As I pass an old hut, a little kid runs out through the door, that is just a passage with a curtain and he welcomes me. Inside is a small room with an oven and a couch. No water and no electricity. Communicating with them is hard, since nobody can speak any word English.

I find out that the woman lives there alone with three kids. I am surprised how affectionate the kids are. They hug me and play with my camera – it is probably the first camera they have ever seen. After a while their older brother comes with a bottle of ice tea. He pours it out in the bottle cap and gives it his little brother, who is pleased as if he would get a birthday present.

We walk to the market and I buy some sweets for the kids. I will not forget the glowing of their eyes as they open the jelly worms. I play with the children. It is incredible how happy they are. The longer I spend time in their hut, I realise that my throat starts to hurt; there is permanently fume in the room caused by the oven. How can the kids sleep and live there? Their body must have become used to it.

Later, as I continue walking through the polluted allays, a little girl is running to me. Even though I don’t understand any word she is saying, I get what she means: She wants me to join her. We meet her brother and they are guiding me to their house. As I enter the house, I see 25 people sitting on the floor in a small room and drinking tea.

My uncomfortable feeling disappears soon, as everyone welcomes me with handshakes and a friendly smile. I am offered Turkish tea and try to talk with them, but of course no one can speak any word English. We communicate with the help of Google translator. Seven years ago, the family moved from Southeast-Turkey to Istanbul to find work. Now they are collecting trash to survive. 25 people live in two small rooms, 14 of them are kids.

Even though they have nothing, they are incredibly hospitable. They put my wet shoes to the oven, show me around and offer me to eat with them. I am staying with the family for two hours. However, I wouldn’t feel comfortable going home alone when it’s dark. It is not easy for me to leave. In this short time, they have made me feel like being a part of their family. After this day I am delighted how happy people can be, even though they are struggling to stay alive.