02 Nov BILIRA, BILIRA!
He is just sitting there, on the pavement alongside the Golden Horn. He looks right at me as I walk by. One big blue eye. The other dark as mud. There is something lively about him, playful, innocently cheeky.
My photographer’s instinct tells me this would make a nice portrait – a sudden rush of warmth and a slight raise in heartrate, like a child about to unpack a present – but my replete memory cards and exhausted legs from a day of exploring Istanbul’s Balat neighbourhood, tell me otherwise. I walk by, ready to sit down and reach for the simit sandwiches in my bag for which my stomach had been craving for the past couple of hours. As I take out my sandwiches, a few boys gather around me.
“Bilira. Bilira.” One Turkish lira, the boys mumble, holding out their hands. A phrase which has become very common in Istanbul these days, perhaps the first Turkish words these Syrian kids learn before anything else.
I take a bite from my sandwich. The boys change their request. They say they are hungry now and want something to eat. I stop chewing as I contemplate the whole situation: the sun is setting behind the Galata hill and reflecting in the water. My Turkish friend is sitting next to me, drawing the picturesque scene. The children around me are so small they hardly reach up to my waist. My stomach is rumbling, ready to absorb anything and everything that is edible and Mini Mouse is smiling at me.
One of the boys is dressed in pink pyjamas, with a big picture of Walt Disney’s figure imprinted on it. I take it the boy in the pink pyjamas is the eldest. He seems to be keeping an eye on the rest of them. “Here you go…, make sure you share them with your friends!” I say as I hand him my sandwiches. They make their way to a nice spot in the grass and start devouring the simit I had bought this morning in Kadıköy before taking the ferry across the Bosphorus from Asia.
With nothing left to satisfy my hunger I empty some space on my memory card, walk up to the boy with the one big blue eye and take some photos. “What happened to his eye?” I ask the boy in the pink pyjamas. “God’s work!” he replies. They are rolling playfully over the pavement. I move back to the bench where my friend is still working on her drawing. The boy follows and so do his friends. They are completely absorbed by the artist’s impression of a Golden Horn sunset.
“Where’s your father?” I ask the eldest. He mumbles something in response which I can’t quite grasp, so I ask again. He looks me in the eye, places his finger on his neck, moves it from right to left, as if cutting his throat. Mini Mouse is still smiling while my stomach churns.
A few days have past and I continue my exploration of this area in Istanbul. It becomes a recurring story: Syrians who have fled Aleppo; children who have lost their fathers; family’s packed together in small, old houses. It is very hot, thick clouds of dust blow through the streets with every gust of wind. On some corners the smell of sewers fills the air. Life disrupted, in slow motion under the scorching sun, but soon they will be burning trash to keep warm during winter months, filling up whatever space is left in the air with toxic fumes.
Balat used to be a Jewish quarter. Nowadays it is quite a mixed neighbourhood. Some people have been there for generations already. Others have come from all corners of the country or even from abroad, and now also from Syria, to settle down here. It has a cosy feel to it, with the typical low housing painted in warm colours, standing alongside the many small streets meandering over steep hills. Deserted at one moment, these streets can be bustling the next, with children flocking together, running, playing, laughing.
One little boy comes up to me, carrying a bag of chips. “Bilira, bilira.” he asks, looking at me with his big dark eyes. “I don’t carry any change” I respond. He shrugs his shoulders and hands out his bag of chips to let me share in his treat before returning to his group of friends sitting on a porch. If handed any money, it will usually be spent on candy, or on bullets for toy guns should it be on the festive days after the Ramadan.
It is an interesting tradition that children should play with toy guns to celebrate the end of the fasting, especially having fled a war zone. I suppose it’s an exciting and safe way of playing out the horrors they may have had to experience, or simply an innocent game. However, not all children are as playful. Behind the smiles at first encounter, one can see worries, troubles, grief, or even small bursts of violence as they engage in fights, hitting and hurting each other. I guess one can only play that much before surfaces what lies beneath. Victims one day, perpetrators the next. But does that make them guilty?
I come across some Turkish children, dressed up for the festivities, dancing and playing in the streets. “When did the Syrians come to this neighbourhood” I ask. One of the children explains they came about two years ago. I ask them whether they get along with the Syrian children. “They spit on us.” one child responds. “They don’t understand us, they want to play with us but we don’t want to play with them because we don’t understand them. Then they spit on us. They push us.”
It reminds me of the Balkans where I was travelling a few years ago. Bosnians, Croatians, Serbians, whoever I met I had a pleasant conversation with, perhaps sharing some drinks, but once they would talk about each other they would be expressing themselves in much less pleasant terms. I had a similar experience in Aleppo before the war where I met some students on top of the Citadel, currently used as an army base. They were very friendly, admiring Europe, its stability, its non-violent way of finding solutions to problems. At the same time they assured me that Iran would destroy Israel to finally bring peace to the Middle-East.
How can peace and violence reside in one single person so vehemently, I wonder. If I look at the children, is it fear of the unknown, fear for not being accepted by the other? Both? It is probably not easy to settle down in a country you do not speak the language of and then to try and make new friends. As adults though, shouldn’t we have the capability of seeing through our fears and approach our neighbours without being overly suspicious? If so, looking at the debate around immigration in the Netherlands, it seems many of us never grew up.
The debate sometimes becomes so distorted that it doesn’t seems to have anything to do with immigration or refugees. Instead, it seems to be about the marginalisation of those groups that have been populating the lower end of the socio-economic scale rather than about immigration itself. It seems to be about housing, about employment, rather than refugees. We project one on the other, and as a result a new group in society is a risk of becoming the scapegoat for problems that others are responsible for, but that have been hard to make accountable.
An argument often heard is that Turkey is safe enough and there is no need for refugees to travel farther West. Looking around in Balat, even though it is somewhat of an upcoming, gentrified neighbourhood, with beautifully coloured historic houses, it is far from what we Westerners would consider an appropriate living environment. I had even been warned not to venture around here at night. And what about employment opportunities, education? In a broader sense, it is an interesting thought that Turkey is not good enough of a country to join the European Union – for very valid reasons perhaps – but apparently it is good enough for refugees to continue to have a happy and prosperous future.
It is not so hard to imagine that with roughly 2 million refugees out of a population of 80 million the burden on Turkish society to integrate such a vast group of people is much heavier than it would be for the European Union with a population of over 500 million people and an economy which is 10 times larger than that of Turkey. Neither is it hard to imagine that as a refugee, you would preferably go there where the conditions to rebuild a life are most favourable.
In the midst of all the heated discussion, the numbers, the fear for the unknown, the uncertainty about the future, time is passing by and the children I see here playing in the streets will grow up with the speed of light. One year after the other passes. It might not matter that much when you are in your thirties, but as a young child a few years is significant. I find it hard not to wonder what will come of these young souls and whether Europe’s uncoordinated response will result in many of them leading lives in limbo.
Coming back to the streets of Balat, I can say that these young kids playing in the streets, with their limited means, begging for some coins, sharing their candy, have brought me a lot of joy and wisdom. Despite the spitting I was told about, the hitting that I saw and the suspicion that was expressed, I believe the children are innocent. If as a society, we fail to take care of them, we will fail in a responsibility which is far more important than anything else that can be protected with fences, quotas and endless procedures.
Today is another sunny day. I have just printed some of the photos I took over the past weeks and together with my friend I am trying to find the parents of the children in the photographs. The small streets quickly take me to quieter places where the ever-present sound of traffic fades away. One of the girls notices us. She starts running towards us and flies into the arms of my friend, happy to see her again.
Some of the photographs I must leave on a doorstep or a windowsill while others I can deliver personally. I wasn’t able to print all photographs at such short notice. When seeing the photographs some parents, proud as they are of their offspring, were very curious to find out where the remainder were! I guess I will be back in this interesting part of Istanbul soon.
For more photographs from Balat refer to the Gallery section.