'Blondie': how the refugee crisis is affecting Turkey

Today, for the first time, I gave money to a Syrian girl who was begging on the street.

She was maybe 5 or 6 years old and had pretty, big green eyes and golden hair. I was waiting at the traffic light in my car when I noticed there was another girl standing near my car. Same age, but just a regular girl.

This girl knocked on my window, but didn’t show a lot of interest. She didn’t wait for a response, she just ran towards another car in the line. I’m not very engaging with kids; they don’t usually call for my attention.

Then the blond girl came by. I put down the window and left a couple of coins in her hand, telling her to share them with the other girl. She smiled at me, said ¨God bless you¨, and left. 

I’ve been struggling with a depression and anxiety disorder for a while now. I was in the middle of a horrible fight with my soon-to-be ex-boyfriend, and had just left my daily therapy session. Long story short, I was terribly upset and furious. Until I saw her smile. 

I don’t even know if she has roof over her head. I don’t know if she has a loving family. I don’t know how her life was back in Syria. All I know is that she had the warmest and most sincere smile I have seen in a while. 

I was born and raised in Ankara. When I was 20, I went to Los Angeles to get an MFA, and lived there for almost 3 years. I’ve been living in Istanbul for 2 years now. Istanbul and Ankara are very different in terms of, well, everything. However, coming back to in Istanbul was a whole different story. 

I realized the change right away from when I had been a regular tourist in Istanbul a while ago. The most popular street in Istanbul, Istiklal Street, was full of people who I wasn’t used to seeing there. There were men with headbands — I thought they all underwent brain surgeries. There must have been an epidemic of some kind! Turns out, Istanbul had become the center for cheap but successful hair transplant operations. There were couples where men had long beards and women wore burkas. There were women on the ground, begging with their babies in their laps.   

Soon after, I learned that most of these people are Syrian. Some have enough money to buy an apartment and settle, and some have started their own businesses. But many are not as fortunate. They are on the streets, in the subway, in the buses begging. What they all have in common: babies!

Whether they are rich or poor, most refugees have young children, mostly between the ages of 0 and 5. What I don’t understand is, why? The situation in Syria has been going on for years now. People have been trying to flee. Why would someone have a baby knowing they’ll have to run away? Is it by choice? Is it because they don’t have enough information about birth control, or don’t have access to whatever is needed? Is it about their belief system? Why?

We all remember Aylan, the little kid found dead on the shore. As unfortunate as it is, there are many more who will share that same destiny. There are babies on the street without warm enough clothes in harsh winter conditions. They can’t eat properly, they can’t a shower. Kids can’t be kids because they’re too busy surviving. 

Not all of them are as lucky as Blondie to be greeted with smiles and cuddles. As children, they don’t know about personal space. They grab you by the leg, they jump in front of you, hold your hand, and they keep insisting. If they don’t have that heartwarming smile, emerald eyes and shiny hair, people will be quick to ignore them. At least, I do. In all honesty, I’m feeling awfully ashamed for doing so. 

People don’t feel guilty expressing how ¨fed up they are with these Syrians¨ in Turkey, just like how Germans are fed up with Turks, French with Algerians, and so forth. Yet, we still talk about how great it would be to live in Europe or the US because we’re afraid we won’t be able to live freely or peacefully in Turkey soon. For the first time, we are feeling so close to become refugees ourselves. 

Sometimes we get angry when we can’t read the signs in Arabic, when we get pushed aside by some rich Syrian ladies while they are furiously shopping, or when they behave in a different way that we do. We don’t want to accept these changes, we want Istanbul for ourselves and ourselves only. We shouldn’t forget though, one day when we become refugees ourselves, they will be the ones to help us out somewhere out there.