His stand is filled with knockoffs of brand-name watches and perfumes. Kimbaki goes to a different bazaar every day. One day he goes to the bazaar in Sarıyer, one day he goes to the bazaar in Yeşilköy and another day he goes to the one in Kadıköy. He makes an average of 30 liras per day by selling 15 watches. He says he makes more profit from selling perfume. He lives with friends at a small residence for single people. Kimbaki, who came to İstanbul after fleeing his country because of war, shed some light on the stories of African immigrants in Turkey.
While we were not accustomed to seeing African immigrants in Turkey a few years ago, today they have become an essential part of local bazaars. They make a living by selling watches, perfumes, electric razors and cell phone accessories. Most of the African immigrants are from Rwanda, Uganda, Senegal, Sudan, Ethiopia, Mali and Eritrea. They have become accustomed to life in the cities they live in. It is no longer surprising for Turks to see an African merchant holding a banknote up to the light to determine whether it is authentic or fake after having negotiated a sale with his broken Turkish. Instead it just makes us smile. As many African immigrants prefer to live near their countrymen, they have developed their own neighborhoods in certain parts of İstanbul.
Turks are no strangers to seeing foreigners selling interesting electronic items on stands. Refugees use Turkey as a bridge to cross over into the European Union, but some find Turkey to be a safe country that offers good living conditions and end up staying. Another reason why they choose to stay in Turkey is the hospitality and generosity of Turkish people.
After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, foreigners in particular have often sold goods that had been smuggled into Turkey at bazaars set up in Aksaray, Laleli and surrounding areas. Since the early 1990s, these foreigners have sold smuggled items such as binoculars, cameras, walkie-talkies and flashlights. What made these items special was that they were high quality yet very cheap. In fact, many people in İstanbul probably still have a Zenith brand camera or a set of binoculars they purchased at one of these bazaars.
Like earlier immigrants, today's immigrants, for the most part, still make a living by selling small electronic items. Watches are the most commonly sold item. As a result of Turkish people's notion that goods sold by foreigners must be originals rather than knockoffs, immigrants are able sell a lot of watches. Many Turkish people feel confident about the quality of watches when they purchase brand names such as Nike, Adidas, Swatch, Vacheron Constantin, D&G and Rolex from African immigrants. In reality, however, those watches are for the most part Chinese made and purchased from wholesalers in Tahtakale.
An African refugee named Ahmad who sells watches at Beyazıt Square didn't want his photograph taken but was willing to share his story with us. Originally from Eritrea, Ahmad left a wife and three daughters back home. “To cross the border from Eritrea, we gave thousands of dollars in bribes, but we did not know if we would be killed from behind 20 meters after we crossed the border. First they put us on a ship. It was a long trip. We stayed in a small storage room where our needs were met with very limited resources. I do not know how many days the trip took because we were not let out from the storage room or allowed to see the light of day for very long periods of time. There were no places for us to sit. We sat on cargo packages placed in the corners of the storage room. We were about 40 to 50 people, and we barely spoke a word with each other the entire trip. I think, like me, the others were thinking about those they had to leave behind. I did not know if I would ever see them again. Actually I still don't know if I ever will. It has been three years since I came to Turkey, and I have not been able to contact my family in any way within those three years. Some of my friends are very lucky because they can talk with their families. Some can even send money back to them,” Ahmed said. His eyes were tearful as he explained how much he misses his wife and daughters. One must sell something to make a living; there is no alternative, he says.
Enam Daudi, Ahmad's roommate, said they have never encountered any problems in Turkey and expressed his gratitude toward the Turkish people. Noting that they would like to return to their countries and be with their families once the conflict back home ends, they explain that they need to be able to save up some money in order to go back but note that it seems unlikely that the conflict will end any time soon.