Refugees in Istanbul hold regular meetings to find solutions to problems
Zeynep Bilgehan – ISTANBUL
Refugees in the Şişli district of Istanbul have been holding regular meetings to find solutions to their problems in support of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
The “Refugee Assembly” that was formed five months ago jointly by the UNHCR, Migrants Solidarity Association and Human Resource Development Foundation works under the city council of the Şişli Municipality.
Refugees from different nations living in the district have been holding meetings once a month for the past five months to find common solutions to their problems.
According to the Directorate General of Migration Management, nearly 16,000 refugees are living in Şişli, of whom 90 percent are Syrians and the remaining 10 percent consist of Africans, Iranians, Afghans and Iraqis.
While the majority of Africans live in the Kurtuluş and Bomonti neighborhoods in the district, Iraqis choose Kurtuluş and Syrians prefer Okmeydanı and İzzetpaşa.
Members gather on the first Saturday of each month for the “Refugee Assembly,” which has 16 members and of which the only criteria to be elected for is volunteering.
The latest meeting, which started after reaching a quorum, handled the issue of children. Refugees discussed the steps that need to be taken in order for refugee children to be enrolled in schools.
The participants also determined which neighborhoods refugee children do not have access to education.
During the meeting, Syrian, Iraqi and Moroccan participants also tried to find which type of education the children should be involved in, taking their different legal statuses into account.
While Iraqi children will continue their education in a third country, a Syrian mother asked for help to adapt pupils from her country to Turkish schools.
“Our children will stay here, so they need to be included in the schools here,” she said.
Another topic discussed during the meeting was child beggars, with the refugees complaining about the discrimination they face.
They also voiced their discomfort about child beggars being dubbed as Syrian or Iraqi, although they are not all the time.
Moroccan Hatice Khadmer, who attended the meeting with her two children, said many people think refugees are unemployed people who do nothing and live off aid.
“There is a misunderstanding against us. People think we only live off of aid without doing anything. When people hear me speaking in a different language other than Turkish, they mumble saying, ‘These Syrians are a problem,’” Khadmer told the participants.
The refugees seem thrilled to be a part of the “Refugee Assembly,” with an Iraqi man saying he feels “local” thanks to the meetings.
“It is very beneficial for us. We are learning about our basic rights and discussing our problems. We also convey what we learn in these meetings to our communities,” Süleyman Şaban told daily Hürriyet, as he added that the most significant contribution of the assembly is “spiritual.”
“We are foreigners, but this place embraces us. We feel local. Even though a solution can’t be found to all of our problems, we are able to at least talk about them freely. It makes us happy to share our problems and have people listen to us. We live together and share our troubles,” said Şaban.
Another Iraqi who attended the meeting for the first time said their biggest problem is discrimination.
“We present our ideas as people living here. Our biggest problem is discrimination. People are asking us, ‘Where did you come from? Do you have internet in your country?’ We share what we go through here and make contributions,” Muhammed Hussein said.
Speaking about the reason for the formation of the assembly, Şişli City Council General Secretary Elif Avcı said they want refugees to make decisions on issues that concern them.
“We are telling participants to imagine themselves as if they are lawmakers in parliament. We also tell them that we gather not to discuss personal issues, but to find solutions to common problems for all refugees,” Avcı told Hürriyet, while UNHCR spokesperson Selin Ünal underlined the significance of the refugees’ participation in local governance.
“Refugees come with their own accumulation of knowledge, skills and experience. It is important they are able to make their voices heard,” Ünal said.