Turkey and the refugee crisis - Izmir's response / by Zoe Paskett

A mother of four is fleeing Syria. They have been walking for longer than they know and the children are exhausted. The woman picks up three of them to carry: one on the front and one on either side. Her oldest son is too heavy and has to walk. He can’t keep up and she must leave him behind. They go on for another 100km before a car pulls up, carrying her son to return to her. But, just as before, he is soon lost to her.

“Many people have a lot of children and cannot cope,” says Busra, as she tells me this story of a woman she met through her work with The Society of Bridging People in Turkey. Working with refugees coming into Izmir, she hears and sees their daily struggle.

We walk through the back streets of Agora, dust rising up around my ankles. It feels like dusk, though it’s not late in the day. There is an air of depression surrounding the crumbling houses and very few people are on the streets. Arabic writing outside a grocery shop is all that indicates the presence of refugees. The cold is hostile.

“You could have seen them in the summer, but now it is too cold,” Busra tells me. “They were lining the streets.” We come to a main road and wait on the side of the road for what I believe is going to be a bus. A taxi arrives and seven of us pile in, slotting around each other and trying to take up as little space as possible. An old man attempts to find comfort on top of the handbrake.

We pass our money into the four-fingered hand of the driver and travel up through the winding streets. The peeling amber and green painted houses flash by, as we narrowly avoid colliding with three young boys play-fighting in the street. I see women in headscarves for the first time since arriving in Izmir.

“That’s how you can tell the different between locals and the refugees,” says Busra.

The Kadifekale neighbourhood of Izmir is known to be one of the poorer districts, home to Roma and Kurds. You can see the whole of the city from the park at the top of the hill. It's even colder up here than down in the centre, and the wind whips around the castle ruins.

In the middle of the park is a blue tarpaulin tent. Bottles are lined up on a table outside, on sale for a few liras. A man beckons us inside, passes us chai and sits us down on logs in front of a stifling metal stove. Bayram runs his café day in, day out, regardless of the weather. Brewing chai and smoking on a bent cigarette, he tells us that he is Kurdish and sees refugees coming through the park all the time.

“Most refugees are educated: doctors, lawyers,” he says. “Some are nomads. They build tents and live up here, make money from farming.”

He says many Turkish people don’t mix well with refugees due to their differing attitudes – they are seen as untrustworthy and most have no IDs, meaning there is no way of tracking them should violence break out.

“They take work from the Turkish and are paid a lot less,” says Bayram.

Busra and Bayram discuss numbers in Turkish for a while – Busra looks doubtful and questions Bayram, before telling me he claims they earn what transpires as 5 per cent of what the locals earn. She doesn’t quite believe difference is this much.

But with no work permits, and no possibility of getting one without the right kind of ID card, which they must have held for six months, refugees tend to work without a contract through the black market. This means they can be paid well below the minimum wage and work for longer hours with no guarantee they will be working the next day.

Bayram says he doesn’t mind them, but that many Turkish people do not feel the same way, even in a liberal city such as Izmir.

Up on the hill in Kadifekale, families have built brick ovens, selling bread to passing locals and tourists like us. Busra tells me the municipality are trying to dismantle them – it’s apparently an eyesore.  The warm bread is delicious and a young girl, around age 10 says ‘thank you’ to us in English as we leave with our purchases. 

Knocking down the bread ovens is a symbol of wider response to refugees: taking away the little they have built to survive in an unfamiliar land.