Abdurrahman is from Aleppo. He, his wife and the couple's two young children have been sleeping in a park in Istanbul for the past few months.
“The nights are no longer warm and winter is coming. We have to continue staying here until we find a place we can afford,” he says, gesturing toward Yenibosna Park, where the family is staying temporarily.
Although they are bracing for the coming winter, Abdurrahman and his family count themselves lucky to have escaped the Syrian civil war, which has claimed more than 100,000 lives and produced more than 2 million refugees -- most of whom have fled to Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan -- and more than 5 million displaced individuals inside Syria since its start two-and-a-half years ago.
Abdurrahman's cousins and their families are also trying to survive in the park. They sleep on the picnic tables and benches; they were unable to afford even a tent. Abdurrahman is only one of the half million refugees who have fled to Turkey because of Syria's civil strife. About 200,000 of those refugees in Turkey, according to official data, are offered shelter at refugee camps. The remaining refugees are scattered across the country's different provinces, trying to survive in a foreign country without money, jobs or, in most cases, even places to stay.
Turkey has been the most popular destination for refugees fleeing Syria, an inclination triggered by the Turkish government's open support for the Syrian opposition. The biggest ethnic minority among those who leave for Turkey are Sunni Arabs, but there are also many Kurds, Turkmens and Turkmen Alevis.
A recent poll conducted by the Association of Human Rights and Solidarity for Oppressed Peoples (MAZLUM-DER) places the number of Syrian refugees in İstanbul at around 100,000. Most of them don't have passports or any other identification, making it impossible for Turkish authorities to place them in refugee camps.
Missing out on education
Officials from the İstanbul Metropolitan Municipality and the Governor's Office tell Today's Zaman they can only help Syrian refugees who have some sort of identification, as per the regulations in place regarding refugees and legal aliens. This makes education of the younger refugees an insurmountable problem. The İstanbul Education Directorate offers education to the children of Syrian refugees -- who have papers -- but experts say these children make up a very limited part of the actual number of school-aged children in the city. Some Syrian children are being schooled by private aid organizations in the districts of Esenler and Zeytinburnu, but that doesn't change the bigger picture. According to estimates, more than half of the Syrian refugees in Turkey are under 18.
The number of Syrians who trying to make it through these difficult times by staying at parks are limited, as they are often forced out by the municipal police. Those who have been lucky enough to find a roof over their head usually live in deplorable conditions with little or no access to educational or health services.
Some families have joined forces financially to rent apartments together. But most of the places they rent are dingy, airless and humid basement apartments, usually fashioned from offices or small merchandise stores.
Haydar is 21. Like Abdurrahman, he is also reluctant to have his last name published in print. He stays with 19 others at a textile atelier. Turkish neighbors help them out with clothing and furniture. But Haydar is also thankful, saying that most Syrians, like he himself, have been able to find jobs in sectors where no qualified labor is required, such as in textile production.
Erhan Ş., the owner of the textile facility, says the arrival of the Syrians has been a blessing in terms of finding workers, but also notes that he is worried because most of his new workers do not have papers. He dreads a police inspection that would likely end up with him having to pay a hefty fine for unofficially employing workers.
There is much confusion among state agencies as to what to do with the unregistered Syrian refugees. Currently, there are no units to deal with those from Syria who are undocumented.
Rinde, 25, is living with his family in a dingy basement apartment. He is mostly worried about the approaching winter, saying that the ones in İstanbul are too harsh in comparison to what his family is used to. His biggest concern is that the younger ones in his family are missing out on school.
Rinde's cousin, 29-year-old Cunena, says the tiny shop where they have found accommodation has no bathroom. They can take showers in their Turkish neighbors' apartments, but he makes it clear that such offers for help are scarce and not as generous as one would like them to be.
There are Syrian refugees in almost all of İstanbul's districts. Parks and beaches provide temporary places to stay for some. For most, not having a roof over their head to spend the night is made bearable by the fact that they often stay up late and talk -- a cultural tradition common in all Arab nations.
Like Abdurrahman, 18-year-old Shaban of Idlib, a town in the north of Syria, also spends most of his time in Yenibosna Park. He says only a handful of Syrians who have come to İstanbul are living in acceptable conditions, adding that most of them are battling with poverty. He also said that although at first, as newcomers, they were welcomed by the majority of the Turkish nation, that tide seems to be turning. Shaban mentions that anti-Syrian sentiment is rising as the days go by, palpably and unmistakably.
Other refugees complain of similar problems. Some Syrian women have been accused of prostitution. There are many Syrians who try to earn their keep by begging, though most others do not approve of such methods, as these individuals give all Syrian refugees a bad name.
Abdurrahman says both he and his wife are willing to work and that rent prices have gone up significantly due to higher demand, a trend confirmed by realtors in Yenibosna.
Bracing for winter
Syrian families are often asked to pay a higher price for rent. For example, a Syrian family would have to pay TL 1,200 for an apartment that normally costs TL 800 a month. Those Syrians who are well off enough to rent a house have no problems with finding housing, but most refugees do not have such means.
With no work, money, home or even a country, many Syrian refugees are also highly vulnerable to exploitation. Samir Aliwi and his sons Muhammed and Abdulkerim were taking refuge in a mosque in central İstanbul when Rıdvan Gül, the owner of a textile facility, offered them the basement office of his textile shop. He has been good to his guests, and offered a job to one of the brothers, Muhammed. But the elder brother, Abdulkerim, who is 15, found work at another textile shop. “They said they would give me [TL] 300 a month, but they are giving me 150 lira because I don't speak the language,” he said. The Aliwi boys, whose mother died in the war before they left Syria, want to move to Germany. But European countries are not currently issuing visas to Syrian refugees.