In Tarlabaşı, Istanbul’s oldest slum, a tiny community centre offers a crucial place of safety and support for the shunned Syrian Dom community. But as the city gentrifies, there are fears these refugees may become victims once again.
On the north-western corner of Istanbul’s famous Taksim Square, a small gang of children dart through the traffic, tapping on car windows and trying to catch the attention of passers-by to sell bottles of water. These Syrian Gypsy children from a community known as the Dom are in many ways the forgotten faces of the Middle East crisis, which has left an estimated 26,000 refugee children homeless across Europe.
The Dom speak a separate language which traces back to the Indian subcontinent; even in times of peace they have always existed on the fringes of society, and are used to facing almost universal discrimination.
Before war broke out, there were up to 300,000 Dom living in Syria. Now many live on the streets of Istanbul’s ghettos, part of the approximately 366,000 Syrian refugees seeking a new life in the Turkish city.
Many reside in Tarlabaşı, Istanbul’s oldest slum. It is just a few streets from the ornate splendour of İstiklal Caddesi, the nearby avenue of sultans that once saw Istanbul dubbed “the Paris of the East”. But life in Tarlabaşı is very different: it has become known as a haven for Istanbul’s minority communities of migrants, Gypsies, transsexuals, prostitutes, and the outcasts of society.
Even here, however, the Dom children are despised. Other Syrian refugees and local Turks refuse to associate with them. When asked why, Ilyas, a shopkeeper who asked for his full name to not be used when speaking about the Dom, simply comments: “It is a prejudice, yes. I can’t explain it though. I just don’t like their complexion.”
But one organisation is trying to help. Based in a tiny flat of no more than 70 sq metres, Tarlabaşı Toplum Merkezi (TTM) is a non-profit community centre started a decade ago by Istanbul Bilgi University’s Centre for Migration Research, and initially funded by the European Union. Run by four full-time employees and a small army of volunteer teachers, lawyers and even musicians, it provides educational support, psychological and legal counselling for nearly 5,000 children and 3,000 adults in Tarlabaşı. It exists as a place of safety and comfort; a way out from the deprivation and crime which pervades this sector of Istanbul.
For hundreds of years, Tarlabaşı’s narrow, winding streets were a peaceful home to non-Muslim diplomats and later Greek merchants who served the business district around İstiklal Caddesi. But as religious tensions rose through the mid-20th century, the Turkish government launched organised pogroms targeting non-Muslims in the city – the most notorious of which was the Turkish Kristallnacht of September 1955. In the ensuing violence, homes and shops were looted and destroyed.
Over the following decades, those abandoned buildings were gradually filled by Gypsies known locally as “Roman”, and by refugees fleeing the Turkish-Kurdish civil war in the late 1980s. The construction of a six-lane boulevard which segregated the neighbourhood from Istanbul’s wealthy tourist district sealed Tarlabaşı’s fate.
“Violence, drug issues and prostitution is definitely more visible here than anywhere else in the city,” says Ebru Ergün, a psychologist who has worked at the centre for the past five years. “The boulevard is one of the causes of that. It intensified the stigma surrounding this area and made it into a slum.”
Many of the children of Tarlabaşı fail to complete primary school before ending up as beggars or labourers, relying on state-run social services that provide little more than free lunches and sacks of coal. The Dom children, though, don’t even make it as far as school.
“They live in awful conditions,” says Ceren Suntekin, a social worker at the centre. “They mostly beg or sell things near the tourist districts, and the police are quite violent towards them as they don’t suit the image that Istanbul is trying to create. The Roman mostly collect garbage on the street, sell flowers, or play music at clubs. They struggle to break out of this life because when they go to school, teachers discriminate against them and they don’t have the environment to study in when they come back home.”
The TTM centre provides Turkish lessons to children and adults alike, so Tarlabaşı’s many Syrian and Kurdish residents can find jobs, earn a living, or even continue in education. Hasan Kizillar, 19, grew up in the local Roman community but learnt to play the violin, piano and other instruments in the centre’s orchestra. Now he works as a volunteer himself, teaching music to children, while preparing to study finance at Istanbul University.
“He came from a very poor family,” Ergün says. “But like many Roman children, he was highly talented. We’re also slowly making progress with persuading families to allow girls to be educated, and running classes on literacy and gender equality.”
Most importantly of all, the centre is a place where those in trouble can seek help. Domestic abuse cases are commonplace in Tarlabaşı, and Ergün describes the centre’s recent attempts to aid a family of migrants where the mother and her two daughters had been beaten and sexually abused by the father for many years.
Because of the gentrification process, the state wants the refugees who live in Tarlabaşı to move away
Two years ago, Istanbul’s rapidly escalating rents almost saw the TTM centre close down, but with the help of donations from the US, UK, Sweden and Holland, its work has been able to continue – for the moment.
“Because of the gentrification process taking place here to attract tourists, the state wants the refugees and migrants who live in Tarlabaşı to move away,” Ergün says. “Many of them have nowhere to go, but the state doesn’t care about that.
“They will have to move to wherever they can afford, and when they go, we will have to go too. We hope we can follow them to a new location and continue to help. Our centre is one of the few places where it’s safe for children from these communities to play, and where women can discuss their problems. There’s nowhere else providing that.”
And what about the very poorest of all, the Dom children who beg on the streets of Taksim Square, where will they go? “We don’t really know. And I don’t think they know either.”