A Clean Start

A Clean Start (pt. 5): Three's Company

Late on saturday night, I was honoured with an invitation to Amir and Adeena’s house for Chicken Churi - a pakistani classic. They have been playfully teasing me that I wouldn’t survive the chilis so they made it mild - only a fist full of chilis and some flakes.

I met Amir around 8:30 at the Sultan Market where we had bought some oil the first time we met. I was pleasantly surprised. As good brothers do, I teased him about his clean ‘baby-face’ shave and haircut. We embraced and started to walk to his apartment.

After a little bit of walking we had passed their old ‘new’ apartment. I asked if they had moved; they had. He explained that their old landlorde used to harass them late at night after some heavy drinking. One night it culminated in physical abuse, a knife was pulled and they left the next day. I was saddened to hear this, but worse, not surprised. This neighbourhood is one of the most multi-cultural parts of Istanbul where the poorest migrants cluster in the swallowed valley of broken buildings.

Yet, his spirit was high. I could tell by the energetic skip in his walk and the steady ribbings. Finally we arrived at a few steps leading up to a tenement reminding me of middle and north England. Adeena was preparing the supper in the communal kitchen. She had clearly put in a lot of care to the meal, even the carrots were sliced and stacked in spiraling towers. Amir walked me to their room where I was actually surprised. Their new apartment is nice. They have a small on-suite bathroom, clean tile floors as opposed to a thick plastic sheet covering concrete. Later I found out that they even have a security camera in front of their door. They told me that the landlorde is kind to them and is regularly asking after their health. They finally feel safe and settled.

Moments later, Adeena came in with the Churi and beckoned Amir to grab a few things from the kitchen. During the meal we had a chance to finally sit and relax. A whole host of topics and jokes were shared - particularly me joking about the spiciness of the food.

Do you want to see a grown man cry?
— Alastair

Which the response was a resounding...grown man?

We shared stories of culture and our old lives in our home countries. We talked of family, foods and summer. They showed me a few pictures and videos of pakistani weddings and feasts. Personally I was not aware of the extent of a Pakistani weddings and the various themes for each day. Of course they had a chuckle at the kilts from pictures of us at my older brother’s wedding. Adeena thought my ‘skirt’ was perfect for Amir and my wedding - a running joke which I think comes from a little jealousy for our bromance.

Sadly the time came to leave. We walked through the now silent streets towards Yenikapi metro. When it was time to separate Amir pulled me in tight and gave me a kiss on both sides of my neck. This is a wonderfully deep symbol of his love. I looked over at Adeena, she was quiet and crying. No matter what I said during the night, they believe this was the last time we would ever meet.

Yet even if it were, Amir and Adeena have grown momentously. From living in a windowless basement, in a debt spiral with no work to being independent, having savings and confidently running their own venture.

They have thanked me too much for helping them start their venture. But it wasn’t me. I had an idea and some friends. They worked tirelessly to make A Clean Start. After a couple of months of working at a couple of homes, A Clean Start has grown to service more clients than Amir and Adeena are able, so we had to hired another refugee to cope. Amir and Adeena also have been saving for their future family through the venture.

I am so proud of them. It has been one of the greatest blessings in my life to walk with such humble people; to see them grow from their shyness to confidently present themselves to new clients; to navigate this megalopolis of a city; and in all things stay positive and tenacious.

A Clean Start (pt. 4): A Step Up


It has been a little over a month and Amir and Adeena are starting to settle. They come to my house weekly to clean for a few hours to bolster their wages. Their boss has been asking them to work overtime for a 14hr shift. The two hour commute each way has also been taking a toll on them, as a packed van of migrants jostles around the steep hills in the north.

Their faces carry their tiredness into their one day off when they finally work for themselves. This week, however, promised a better future. A Clean Start now has clients. A few advertisements on ‘Foreign Women of Istanbul’ have been successful and a British lady asked for some help. It is small, but bi-monthly work to clean the stairs of an apartment building. The fee is 60TL(16.58USD) for the whole flight - comparatively 20 times more per hour than their regular work.

When we arrived, I talked with the lady about the job and made a brief introduction of Amir and Adeena. Their newness to the situation - meeting clients, freelance style work and in general ‘doing business’ - is easily seen by their sheepishness. The lady found it endearing. Even though I make the connections and ‘run’ the venture, I made it very clear that they should pay and communicate with Amir and Adeena; my position is a friendly manager not owner.

I left after a few minutes and continued my day. A few hours later I sent a message to the lady to ask about the work.

‘Hi Alastair, yep very happy, all went well! Scheduled another clean for 26th March, maybe even sooner if the neighbours prefer? Will keep you posted! Are they happy?? Best wishes’
— Sada, First Client

It was a success.

Next week we have a deep clean scheduled by Owen, the Director of Humanwire in Turkey that put us in touch in the first place. He has been very supportive of Amir and Adeena and has also been promoting the venture within his friend groups. It’s a one off completion job, but I’m trying to make it a monthly service.

So here we are, not too long after the venture started - we have a weekly cleaning service, a monthly and a one and done. It is an awkward change in their lives, but they take on this challenge calmly and boldly.

A Clean Start (pt. 3): Dust Off the Cover

Osmanbey, İstanbul

It has now been a few weeks since Amir and Adeena left their first place of a basement in Aksaray. However the same issues persist. Things have started to stabilise; both have a new job where they work six day. They are working in a clothes factory on the coast of Karadeniz(the black sea). Waking at 5:30a.m. for a 2hr. commute to work for another 12hrs.; they have little other than this life.

The factory owner knows fully well that refugees will take what they can and so pays them each 800TL per month(1.32USD per hour) - 500TL below legal minimum wage. Still, they diligently wake and shuffle off to work for some semblance of stability.

When we first talked about their situation, the trickiness of it became evident. Sadly, they do not speak Turkish, but have a clear understanding of English. Their education is limited and both are too young to have much professional experience. What they do have is bountiful: work ethic, reliability and optimism. So we have set about contacting friends to be clients to grow their cleaning business around Istanbul.

On sunday mornings they come to my apartment in the mid morning to work for their venture. We are proud to be the first clients of A Clean Start - their professional cleaning service. In my front room Amir gets to work sweeping and mopping. He moves the furniture around the broom and not the otherway round. Sometimes I see him stretching to dust a set of Taboo that my flatmate swears was a good investment. In the kitchen, Adeena has organised everything to the point that the spices are beautifully arranged - almost by colour. (Over breakfast they taught us a little of the depth of Pakistani flavours as they jokingly tease my Scottish cuisine).

I can very much vouch for this young couple. They cheerfully do the dirty work and do not need to be asked. In return, they ask for little other than an opportunity to show you their diligence.

On the walk to the metro we talked about their budget. They are so eager to rid themselves of the shackles of their fresh poverty(in Pakistan, Amir was an office clerk with a comfortable life before he was forced to flee). If you are in Istanbul and want to invest in a budding business, please message me. We are excited to grow.

A Clean Start (pt. 2): Don’t Lorde Over Us

Türkeli Caddesi, Sultanahmet, İstanbul

Walking swiftly through the streets of Aksaray, making sure not to look lost or vulnerable, I glared from behind the scarf covering my mouth. Amir, Adeena and I had agreed to meet at the market where we previously picked up some cooking oil. A few minutes passed and they appeared from around the corner. We greeted one another and they invited me to come to their new room.

We walked down the road a bit and turned up a hill. Most of the streets were completely empty, a stark contrast to the street where we just met. With all your senses you can notice this area is a thrown together mass. Everything here comes out of necessity, much like the people. Broken buildings are fixed with pieces of rubble. Stenches of old meat and composting garbage linger, unlike the rubbish floating down the gutters in the street.

After a few minutes we arrived, walked through the outside door and up a few stairs. Sadly no fewer. The second door - a basic sheet of metal painted white with a small ring as a handle - lead us under the stairs. We went in and entered their room at the end of the slender hall.

The room was bare. An empty bookshelf, a wooden box with an old mattress completed their bedroom set. This, however, was theirs. The first time since they left their home that they had their own space where they ‘would not be disturbed’. I had not seen them smile like this since we met. They quickly explained how they rose early to meet with their new land lorde and how much effort had been put into cleaning this room that was a literal dump.

Unfortunately, the happiness was short lived as we had to return to the very real issue at hand; putting an end to their debt. They were relieved to know that I had brought enough money to cover it, but they told me not to pay everything as it was unreasonable and encourages this man to continue his practice. After a few minutes a friend of theirs came who had also lived with them in the basement room. We rose and left.

On the walk they offered to sit and enjoy a glass of cay, but I desired first to end their predicament, then sit and talk about future steps. They agreed. Their friend, however, declined to walk any further. When we spoke of the old room, his eyes met no one's. Not in a darting nervousness, but in a concentrated effort to emotionally disconnect from a lived experience. This unnerved me.

Already in a very uncomfortable state, a feeling I reserve for Tarlıbaşı - the historic ghetto of Istanbul, I felt the world slow as my senses grabbed anything they could. My mind ran. I had hidden the 1000TL(270USD) in multiple pockets, not only for future bartering, but so that thieves would only lift a couple hundred at a time. If I blended well enough, they would only get the 20TL I kept in my wallet as a distraction. Pray for the best, prepare for the worst.

The friend left and we continued onwards. We entered through the outside door and down the stairs to the basement. A shabby rusted slab served as another door, from the inside, the number of locks are ominous. As the door opened the vigilant looked me over - it is quiet strange to see a westerner in these parts. I greeted him, ‘Selam bey’, he tilted his head and brought me in. In the room there were three men gathered around the land lorde, standing in the centre.

This is precisely the moment that they say you should ’remember your training’. Rather, keep a level head - now is not the time for anxiety, fear or emotion - unless it is controlled. I went round the room, looking each man in the eye; greeting them with ‘Selam’ and an honest smile. If things are to go sour, it is important that they see me as a person and not an enemy.

Finally I reached the land lorde. He had already started questioning Amir about my presence. He invited me to sit next to him. The rest of the room faced us as we discussed the account. As is customary, we were all offered a drink, my friend and his wife declined - a sign that they do not wish to stay or commune with the others. I agreed to some fruit juice, which elicited a laugh, followed by a grin.

The specific words of the conversation are lost to time, but the focus was on the numbers. Any sort of emotion is dangerous. Confidence and sternness are vital. Waver in the beginning and you have set the tone for your compromise. Aggression builds aggression, which is an unwieldy strategy when he holds all the cards.

He showed me his ledger*, a full and dated calculation of when they borrowed how much. It was hard to argue and I was honestly blindsided as my friend had claimed it was all rent - an extortionate price if true, but was proven to be for utilities, food and other essentials as well.

I offered to cover rent and utilities and asked that the food be given as a gift to them as they are struggling.  

Well of course...look around brother. We all are!
— Slum Lorde

came the response**. Difficult to contend, but again I pushed for a reduced price. He, like my friends, talked of his struggles and the support he is giving to the other men that share this 12m2(approximately 10ftx15ft) room. After a little more discussion, I saw that he was not going to reduce the debt. So I first put on this condition, ‘I will pay the full amount, if your only contact with these people is to say Selam ‘Alaikum.’ He went further and spoke it while bringing his hand down from his forehead.

This was the matter closed. Though the wife still lives in fear that the slum lorde will come back to attack them, stealing their precious few goods, that is not what I would conclude.

While on the street, prior to meeting this man, images flashed through my mind of powerful mafiosos that forced people into poverty cycles of debt and loans, wealthy men that owned blocks of impoverished people in the valleys of great cities. This was not that man. In a lot of ways he was afraid. For reasons beyond my knowing, he seemed to take my being there as some sort of incompatible force. When we spoke about the actual debt and how it had been accumulated, his stress was not on profit, but on his loss. He was not charging interest nor making money, he was recovering what he had spent. When looking around the room I didn’t see my two friends and their harsh fate, but six people in mutually misery. They are all captive to the same poverty.

*the one pictured above

** please take a moment to think about this. It is probably the most shocking thought in the whole experience.

A Clean Start (pt. 1): First Touch

Türkeli Caddesi, Sultanahmet, İstanbul

The cold winter months came with days of ceaseless snow. The biting cold is one thing in a heated apartment, but another while struggling on the street. One day while reading the news, I heard that over 30 people had already passed in the blizzard - mainly homeless and refugees. I decided to act immediately and started to call around friends at other organisations to see where I could be a help. A good friend at Humanwire thought through the long list and connected me with the urgent priorities.

Within a day I was connected to a young Pakistani couple in Aksaray - in the southern centre of old Constantinople. We met at YeniKapı station and walked to their room close by. In the winding streets, covered in a dirty slush, we talked about their situation and the problems they face. Amir’s chattering teeth were a quiet vocal for his thin cotton shirt that covered him from the wind.

Abudi - my closest Syrian friend - and I followed them into their gladly, temporary room. We walked through a large steel door and down some stairs. At the bottom of the stairs was another door leading into the ‘apartments’. As we stood waiting for Amir to unlock the door, Abudi noticed a large hole with a tree branch shoved through the middle where a window used to be.

We walked down a few more steps into a hall and took off our shoes at the front door. The room was bare, thin blankets on the bed and a small straw mat separated us from the concrete floor. Amir and Adeena happily showed us around and welcomed us with every hospitality. Even in such a situation, they brewed a special Pakistani tea and gave us some biscuits and the nicest seats.

As we talked it was clear that their problems are immense and complicated. Back in Pakistan, the young couple fell in love only to be refused by friends and family. They secretly married, but when they were discovered they were forced to flee. This however did not stop the troubles. Even in a different town the death threats from family still found them. They decided to flee even further and came to Istanbul, Turkey.

With no money, clothes or friends, they searched for anyone in Istanbul that would take them. Sadly, it took them to Aksaray, to these four walls. They explained that the landlorde, another Pakistani refugee, was charging them 800TL(220USD) to stay in this room.* They further explained of the issues the newlyweds had as the 3mx5m(approx. 10ftx15ft. room was shared with 4 other men. It was cold and windowless; a bunk bed in one corner with some blankets in another for more beds.

Amir began to explain about his work. He walks up the road everyday to stand in a queue where he hopes to get picked for a day’s labour. The job is manual and one of many poor quality jobs that are given to those who can’t choose anything else. For 12 hours Amir carries a 50kg bag of cotton from one part of a textile factory to another. With little accountability employers can get away with paying people like Amir a mere 15TL(3.75USD) for a full shift.**

Abudi made a few calls to possible donors that could pay off this debt and give Amir and Adeena a fresh start in Istanbul. One lady kindly agree, which later we found out was not actually going to happen. Not knowing that this problem was going to resurface, we all left in an upbeat spirit. We had bought some eggs, oranges, rice, oil and a few other tid bits that would keep them for a week or so. And thanks to some donations from friends we also left them with some jumpers, hoodies, hats and gloves.

As Abudi and I walked back to the station we arranged to see each other at the weekend. I was going to meet the landlorde, negotiate their debt and put an end to this chapter. Sadly, things don’t go smoothly in these places.

*Just to put this in perspective this is the same as a comfortable large apartment with all the amenities in a middle class area.

** Little bit of math. If Amir works and doesn’t accrue more debt, it will take him 53.3 days to pay everything off. With further rent, food and transport, it starts to be insurmountable - this is the beginning of the poverty trap and worse the nutrition gap - where you don’t earn enough to eat and don’t eat enough to earn.