Istanbul is not a place to stay

The African community in Istanbul has a high turnover: most of the Africans only stay a few months. Then they leave for Europe, the US or Canada. Their time in Istanbul consists mainly of waiting.

Makiyo Ahmed (25) is counting the days. Twentynine since she arrived in Istanbul. She doesn’t want to talk too much about the trip, but about the destination she is open: Istanbul is just a stopover on the way to Europe or Canada. Till then, she waits. For money coming from family or friends in richer parts of the world, for money to pay for a boat, a visa, a plane ticket. Makiyo: “Istanbul is not a place to stay.”

Makiyo from Somalia waits, sitting on mattresses day in day out, together with five other Somalian women. They play a game of cards, they say their prayers. Now and then they do some cleaning in Turkish homes, but that’s rare and she hardly earns anything. The little money that comes in, they spend together. Mainly on food, and recently they bought some insecticide. Their room measures about eighteen square meters. Big, compared to the dilapidated house a few streets down the block: in that house, around eighty of ninety Somalians are packed together in three rooms that contain three double bunks each. Sleeping goes in shifts: every six hours, the beds change occupancy.

Tourist highlights

An African community in Istanbul: anyone walking around the city as a tourist doesn’t even realise this community exists. But not too far away from tourist highlights like Topkapi Palace and the Blue Mosque, the area of Katip Kasim is located, one of the areas in town where an African community arose. Mostly they come from countries ravaged by anarchy or war, like Somalia, Eritrea and Sudan. Through Istanbul they try to reach other parts of the world.
Preferably legally of course, like Abshir Mohamed (18), who pulls his whole administration from the back pocket of his trousers to prove his story: he is recognised as a refugee by the UNHCR, the UN refugee organisation, and later this year he hopes to travel to the US. Another man hopes to get to the Netherlands soon: his wife and child have refugee status in the Netherlands and the procedure to re-unite the family is ongoing..

But if it doesn’t work out legally, then illegally is also good. By boat to Greece, overland to Bulgaria: those who have enough money will get from country to country somehow. Most of them do manage to get away to somewhere else: whoever you ask questions about how long they have stayed in Istanbul already the answer is usually at the most ten or eleven months. For most men and women, staying in Istanbul is just not an option. Ali, from Mali: “Immigrants have no rights here and Turkish people speak only Turkish. Europe is better, there you can get a lawyer and there is more work.” Turkey is the perfect in between-stop: the country borders Europe but has such long borders with so many countries that it is not too hard to get in illegally. 

A small girl

The house that about eighty Somalians rent for around 200 Euros per month, is in a terribly bad state. The steps of the stairs are bending dangerously, the walls are dirty and made of thin wood, and on the sticky floor broken electrical plugs are lying around. On the kitchen floor sits a small girl in dirty clothes, her hair carefully and perfectly plaited. The little girl lives on the highest floor of the building, where a group of women and children share four double bunks. The women sit on the beds bent over: they cannot sit straight because there is not enough space for that between the beds. 

 And still, says Osman Aydemir, the Africans are doing okay. Aydemir is the muftar (head of the neighbourhood, the lowest administrative level in Turkey) of Katip Kasim, and he lists the things the Africans have. Expensive trousers and watches, a house to live in, a mobile phone, and sometimes Turks give them work. No, he never spoke to them, but he sees it in the street. “One day, they will long to come back to Istanbul”, he says.
If he had money, he says hypothetically, and if it were his job, then he would build a special building for these people, with a bed for everybody and a school for the children. But, well, the city has its rules, and one of the most important is that he can only do things for registered residents. But he is doing as much as possible for them, he says: “Some time ago, a mother and her child came to my office. She wanted to know if her daughter could go to school. I sent them to another office.”

Fake designer cloths

On the street, a few young men – dressed in fake designer clothes and wearing fake designer watches – take their SIM-cards from their pockets: they share a mobile phone amongst a large group of men. Do they work? “Sometimes Turkish people come and ask if you want to clean their car or want to help carry things”, says Maku Cuna (21). “We take every job, even though it hardly pays anything.” Someone else says: “Some time ago, I helped to carry furniture all day and at the end of the day, they refused to pay me. If you complain, they threaten to call the police.”
Not that they have too much to fear from the police. Turkey has no policy in sending people back to their own country, illegal immigrants are held for a few weeks and end up on the streets again. And why would the police give priority to that? Most of the Africans leave of their own accord: Istanbul is just a starting point to get to the rest of the world.

21 August 2007, published in the daily newspaper De Pers

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