What will you see on the streets when you come to Istanbul? Well, there will be the usual guy on every other corner selling simit (a kind of Turkish bagel), sometimes a guy selling rice, and you’ll also see vendors wherever there is a spare patch of space selling all sorts of knick-knacks such as toys, pens, socks, scarves, black market DVDs. But what else will you see? You’ll see things that may startle you at first, but eventually, just like the rest of the people in this city, you’ll ignore them. You will see the beggars, the cripples, the Romani (gypsies), and, most recently, the Syrians.
When I first came here, I noticed the Romani and I really didn’t think much of them. I had gotten used to them when I was in Italy and, to me, the ones here didn’t seem to be badgering me as much. Yes, they would go and sit on the street constantly saying something about money, food, and God; the usual. In Italy, they’d follow you around and wouldn’t leave you alone. One woman even almost stole my camera out of my buttoned up pocket as I was walking into a church. One thing that was the same though was the fact that in both countries and probably elsewhere, they always use their children to try and the get the most out of you. But, this is their way of life. This is what they know and the only thing that they have known for generations upon generations. Not to say that it’s the life that they’ve always wanted; these are people who have been persecuted for centuries. The Romani don’t bother me much, though I wish I could take all the children and send them to get proper education and live the lives that children should be living.
Aside from them, the Syrians are becoming more and more unable to be ignored. It started out that you’d see a few here and there, but now? Every time you leave the apartment you can’t go a block or two without seeing at least one whole family of Syrians. Most Turks I know, get angry at the sight of them, curse them out, and want them to go back to their own country. At this point I have to bite my tongue, and sometimes I don’t. They say that it’s the Turkish government’s fault that they are here. Well, these people are not here by choice. These people, these families are here because of war. Because the only home that they have ever known is being destroyed. Their families and their neighbors are being killed. Their houses, markets, and streets, are being blown up. They’ve had no choice. Leave or be killed. But then people like to say, “They have refugee camps. They should stay there. They don’t belong here. They don’t belong on our city, on our streets.” Sure, some of them do stay at these camps. Take a minute here and think. There are probably a little under a million Syrian refugees in Turkey (maybe more now), and there is only room for a about a little over 200,000 of those refugees in the camps that are provided in Turkey. Think about the homelessness problem in America. People often say, why don’t they just go to a shelter? Well, many of those shelters are so bad (theft, deplorable conditions, insane rules, abuse, rape, etc.) that people would rather stay on the streets at night. Now think of it here. These refugees camps are probably even worse. Not enough food or water, not enough space, not enough anything. And it is highly unlikely that they’re safe. Some people say that when they see the Syrians on the streets they give them looks of hatred and disgust to let them know that they are not welcome here. They are probably more than aware of that fact and would much rather be back in their pre-war homes with their pre-war families, friends, and lives. Yes, I am sure that there are plenty of refugees who are taking advantage of the system (there are always those who reinforce the stereotypes), but there are also plenty who are just trying to live. This is not the kind of life that they want for themselves or for their families. It’s not something you wake up one day and think, “Oh, hey. Yeah, you know what will be great? I’m going to go beg on the streets, in a foreign city with a language I barely know, where the people hate me, and I’ll take my baby too. Let’s sit in this 90 (32C) degree weather all day, rain, shine, dirt, spit… It’ll great! People will glare at us, spit at us, humiliate us, treat us like we’re dirt.. yes, that’s what I want to do.” No, people do not wake up like this. This is something that these people are doing out of desperation. A last resort. Maybe they saw Turkey as a get away from everything. Maybe they saw Istanbul as the the city of dreams (many Turks do as well which is why so many people move here). Maybe they thought how could it get any worse than the hell they’re living in their war torn country? Well, they came, they’re here, and they’re living a whole new kind of hell.
I always say to try and put yourself in someone else’s shoes and don’t judge. Just imagine being at the very end of you rope. You have nothing except maybe your family if you’re lucky. Other than that? Nothing. But you need to eat. You need to sleep. You are a human being and you have basic needs and you should have basic human rights. And your family too, your babies. Maybe your family is your driving force. But others around you don’t seem to think you should have those rights. Imagine how desperate and finished you would have to be to give in and beg. Some say it’s a matter of pride, but when you’re left with absolutely no other choices and your child is starving in your arms, I don’t think you’d really care about your pride. It could be worse. They could be violent. But they’re not. They sit there, and they ask for money or food, anything that you could spare. They say words in their broken Turkish that can make you feel bad such as, “How can you just walk by? Look at my children!” It makes you feel uncomfortable? It should! And that angers you? Why does that anger you? Because deep down you actually feel bad, but you don’t want to feel bad. You’re mad at them for being in your city, for wanting your money that you earned; you’re mad at them for making you feel bad. But yet this country talks so highly about its religion and its loving god. Would your god be happy with you for walking by dirty, starving children? You don’t think so? Aren’t they mostly of the same religion as you all are as well? All of these contradictions in this city frustrate me to no end. They are people just trying to live, the same as you and me. Except they seem to have it harder than we do at the moment. Why can’t people see that? It’s not their fault. They didn’t ask to be put in these positions. Stop blaming them and maybe aim your anger at the actual source of the problem. The government. Their government. This country’s government. The surrounding countries’ governments. None of them truly want to deal with the problem, so what do they do? They set up a few camps here and there to make it look like they’re doing something when they’re really doing next to nothing. Some of them may even use them as a ploy to win elections or to start a war. I’m not saying I know what to do or how to handle this, I wasn’t a PoliSci major or anything of the sort, but, please, just treat these people as if they’re actual people and do what you can to help. Don’t be part of the problem.