Daily Life For Refugees:
An Untold Story
For two months this summer, I had the opportunity to volunteer in Izmir, Turkey with the refugee crisis. Following an invite from Dr. Cem Terzi, I had the chance to shadow a grassroots organization in Izmir called Bridging Peoples (Halklarin Koprusu). While we in the West have not heard much in the news lately about the refugee crisis, people – men, women, and children – are still facing severe hardships and obstacles. While the situation has remained stagnant for many, others are struggling to survive.
The majority of my time was spent in the coastal city of Izmir, which at one point in time was a major hub for refugees seeking to cross the Aegean Sea to Greece. Since then, large numbers of migrants have settled in the Basmane and Kadifikale neighborhoods. These neighborhoods have become home to thousands and thousands of migrants. As I walked through the streets, I could tell most of the residents were speaking Arabic and Kurdish. The neighborhoods had developed their own cultures. People had developed different ways to make money – establishing small restaurants, workshops, etc. In all forms of the word, they had become modern day ghettos.
Children from these neighborhoods would leave to other parts of the city to beg and sell random goods on the streets, such as sunflower seeds and flowers. Children – perhaps no older than six years old – had learned how to navigate the city late at night to make spare change to assist their families. Because many families need the income that these children are bringing in, most of these children aren’t able to attend school. And of the children that I met, many of them were bright beyond their years. Some had a real grasp of their situation and had already learned how to speak Turkish. You could really get a sense that most of them had become hardened and cold because of the reality of their situation. I’d like to be more hopeful and optimistic for each of the children, but the reality of their situation is rather bleak.
The list of problems for refugees is rather long. For refugees in urban areas around Turkey, it is incredibly difficult to find work. When work is found, laborers are regularly exploited. Employers will take advantage of their vulnerable situation and find ways to avoid providing benefits. Companies will pay individuals under the table to avoid paying taxes. Migrants are commonly in sub-standard working conditions. Beyond that, they frequently face discrimination from their employers and other workers. Nevertheless, it is seen as a blessing to find work because there are so few jobs available.
For refugees working in farms, the picture is much like the one portrayed in John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath”. Refugees are in near slave-like conditions. Laborers are stuck in a cycle of debt to farm owners. Entire families – sometimes of ten or more people – will live in one-bedroom shanty homes. These houses often have paper ceilings. The floors are concrete or dirt, and they’re typically covered with old carpets. Many only have limited electricity access. None of the homes I came across had basic bathroom facilities. These families will most likely lose their sources of income – as little as that may be – when the season ends in the next few months. For now, it is a way to survive.
The beginning of summer brought along another set of challenges for many refugees. The Muslim holy month of Ramadan, where Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset each day, further intensified the problems of many refugees. Fasting as a refugee is a lot different than fasting at home. It made life for agriculture laborers next to impossible, where refugees were working in scorching hot temperatures. It also meant less volunteers working in the refugee communities. This meant less access to services that have helped alleviate their struggles. For people that are accustomed to Ramadan as a festival and time of celebration, this Ramadan was a very different experience.
In addition to all of the physical problems facing refugees – like housing, health conditions, etc. – refugees are facing high levels of discrimination from all directions. In my conversations with migrants, it was always made clear to me that they were not home. It was a place to make money and support their families. It was a place to avoid war and airstrikes. It simply did not feel like home. The local communities – even the most accepting – have treated refugees as an “other”, and this has been more or less the world’s response to the migrant crisis. Politicians and public figures around the world have labeled them, criminalized them, demonized them, and helped to create a hostile environment for an already vulnerable people. The refugees have noticed this too. They feel a certain level of “unwelcomeness”. Contrary to common misconceptions, migrants are traveling with technology. They are still very connected to the world, and they hear our rhetoric. That is something we must all keep in mind.
Student of International Relations at Hendrix College