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.