Musa and Angela

Musa and Angela

“What is your name?” I asked in Turkish through my half-opened car window while I was passing over a 5 Turkish Lira note, which he grabbed quickly while giving me a big wide smile.

“Musa, Mu-sa,” he replied, offering me again the small pack of tissues he was originally waving at me from a distance as I was approaching the traffic lights at the corner of a road leading to my place of work at the end of the Golden Horn. 

It was not the first time I had seen that boy. It must have been at least three years ago when I spotted him, for the first time, among a group of newcomers at this corner, which has been a favorite spot for some of Istanbul’s myriad of poor children trying to earn a few liras from millions of drivers flooding the streets of the city. My eyes had stopped on him because he was the youngest - then probably not even three - and he looked so unwilling to walk faster as he was being pulled along by an older boy. From the way they were unsurely struggling to cross the road, the whole group, of three boys and one girl, relatively clean and somehow properly dressed, it was obvious that they were new to the job.

I do not know how they managed to be allowed to use this spot. This has been an area largely monopolized by Roma children from the nearby slums, whom you can easily spot from their extreme skill to run from car to car in heavy traffic in order to catch a customer for the same merchandise.

“Where do you live?” I asked Musa.

“Musa, Mu-sa,” he repeated rhythmically, as he had already gotten bored with me and was looking for a new customer.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who flew to Gaziantep in southern Turkey on April 23 accompanied by European Council President Donald Tusk and European Commission First Vice-President Frans Timmermans, would never have come across Musa, one of the over 150,000 Syrian children of the 1 million Syrians living currently in Turkey’s mega-city. 

Her quick visit, though, to Turkey was all about helping Turkey manage the almost 3 million Syrian refugees who have by now settled in this country - especially the children. Part of her much publicized - and criticized - visit consisted of the inauguration of a Family and Child Center in Gaziantep, built with the support of EU funds and UNICEF in coordination with Turkey’s Family and Social Policies Ministry. But the children Merkel encountered in Gaziantep were very different from Musa. They were young Syrian girls dressed in beautiful white ceremonial Syrian costumes and a few smaller children accompanied by their fathers. This sanitized picture had nothing to do with the real picture of Syrian refugees, only 10 percent of whom are housed in organized camps, while only a tiny number are able to benefit of the recently approved legislation by getting working permits in Turkey. 

The EU and especially Germany by now have accepted the number they were willing to accommodate since last summer, i.e. about 1 million people, preferably educated and with skills which would help the economy of a demographically ailing Western Europe. In spite of the recent EU-Turkey agreement, it does not seem that Europe wants any more people “from the East.” 

And while Merkel and the EU are willing to help Turkey financially with the problem and while Turkey promotes itself as “the best country that cares for refugees,” the hard reality of living permanently with refugees is just beginning. Even if the EU aid reaches Turkey, the need for an organized domestic policy of absorbing, processing and integrating such a huge number of people scattered all over the country will be a huge task; a policy that will have to deal with the extra burden caused by the presence of a new ethnically different social group which has already added to urban poverty, illiteracy and the black labor market. 

“Today Turkey is the best example for the whole world for how we should treat refugees,” Tusk claimed while in Gaziantep. “Nobody should lecture Turkey on what to do.”

Yet, after the Europeans fly off and the TV cameras are switched off, issues like the case of Musa become a real domestic social issue that Turkey will have to face alone.