Syrian Refugees in Istanbul
By Leonie Kupferschmidt
The civil war in Syria plunged the country into suffering and misery in 2011 and triggered a large movement of refugees. It may not be immediately obvious to the Western eye, but officially more than half a million Syrians live in the Turkish metropolis of Istanbul alongside the locals. Initially known as a welcoming and solidary society, the tone towards refugees in Istanbul has become very heated in recent years.
The day is slowly drawing to a close, the street cats and dogs are coming out of their shady hiding places, car and motorcycle horns can be heard from all sides in Istanbul’s Balat. It is a simple old-town-like neighbourhood of narrow cobbled streets and colourful houses, hip cafés, avant-garde galleries and traditional grocery shops. In this area of Istanbul on the Asian side, there are a lot of refugees trying to make a living.
Enter the Yolo Art Center and Café, opened by Syrian woman Bayan and her boyfriend Jihad in 2022. “In a city with more than 20 million people, there was almost no place for Syrians or other Arabic refugees, so we created one.” A large colourful room, blue and orange walls and all kinds of artwork hanging from the ceiling and on the wall or painted on. Traditional songs are playing from the speakers, in between a song by Adele. On the benches are cushions with Arabic-like patterns, under the glass tops of the large tables are old newspaper and comic clippings from all over the world. The centre offers English classes, almost daily community events and a place for artists to connect and create. Whenever guests enter the café, Bayan approaches them with a loving smile to greet them. She radiates a warmth and openness that makes people feel safe.
Since the crisis began, Turkey has taken in the largest number of Syrian refugees worldwide, with estimates surpassing nearly four million individuals by 2023. The number of unreported cases is much higher. The impact of the Syrian refugee crisis on Turkey has been multifaceted. Economically, the sudden increase in population has strained resources and public services. Socio-culturally, the presence of Syrian refugees has had an impact on Turkish society. The integration of such a large number of individuals from a different cultural background has required adjustments and understanding from both host communities and refugees. Alev Yucel, migration researcher and professor at Bilgi university in Istanbul explains: “Challenges such as language barriers, cultural differences, and competition for jobs have created a lot of tensions against refugees. And the government uses them as a political weapon.” According to the “Syrer-Barometer” more than 88.5 per cent of Turks would like to see Syrian refugees return to their home country. “Our community was really afraid before the recent election because everyone talked about throwing the refugees out of the country. It was even written on walls and buildings,” Bayan tells.
In the beginning of Yolo Art Centre, the neighbourhood showed them, that they are not welcomed there. “We thought in this area, where also a lot of tourists are, we could do this without being harassed,” Bayan retells. They didn’t like that Bayan and her community could afford such a place and that they were talking Arabic. Other Syrian-owned companies or restaurants also got attacked. “It is really hard; we can never feel fully safe here.”
According to Yucel, there is no improvement of the situation in sight. “The atmosphere is getting more and more heated, and the Turkish media is deliberately spreading misinformation. They and the government blame the refugees for the bad economic situation in the country, but that is only a small factor.” A proper integration system and more education would help. “But with the current government, I don’t see any chance of improvement, it’s just carrying on as before.”
At the Yolo Art Centre, however, there is a spark of hope. Refugees have found a place of togetherness and welcomeness. “A lot of people come to me and say that they finally found a place where they can feel safe and be part of a family.”
One wall in the community centre is covered with countless polaroid pictures, handwritten notes and postcards. On the table below are various board and card games. In this place lays some undeniable warmth and friendships and memories are formed that none of them will soon forget. A glimpse of hope.