ISTANBUL // Towards sunset on the busy north-west corner of Taksim Square, Nisreem, 7, and her raggedy gang of Dom Gypsy street kids grow excited as they prepare to spend the next six hours tapping on car windows and begging passersby to appreciate that they are Syrian war refugees.
Nisreem speaks, but has an impossible time staying still. She is filthy with glassy eyes and fluffy reddish hair, telltale signs of malnutrition, which makes children restless and fidgety.
More than three years into the Syrian war nearly half the country’s population has been displaced, according to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
Scholars from the Budapest, Hungary-based European Roma Rights Centre, say the Dom, who are known as the Middle East Gypsies and speak a language traced back to the Indian subcontinent, are seen as “mysterious, tragic and despised”.
Many who pass see their grubby fingers and slap them away.
Tonight the gang includes Zayneb, 6, and Little Ali, 5, who is as dirty and wild as Nisreem. Dunya is 11 and Amel, who tries her best to keep everyone in line, is 15.
“Not everybody is mean to us but most people are. Some people give us food, but it is always junky food,” said Nisreem.
All year Aleppo has been the target of barrel bombs dropped by the Assad regime in a war that has already killed almost 200,000 people.
Turkey is home to an estimated 1.5 million Syrian refugees and officials are scrambling to address the crisis.
To say resources are strained is an understatement. Turkey has spent US$2.5 billion (Dh9.2bn) housing 200,000 refugees in 22 camps. But it has received only $175 million (Dh643m) in international support.
The Dom have always lived on the edge of society, says Kemal Vural Tarlan, a researcher of Dom populations in Gaziantep, Turkey, about 50 kilometres from the Syrian border. “They face universal discrimination. Other Syrians refugees in the official camps have demanded the Dom actually stay in different camps.”
Researchers admit these population estimates are sketchy. Fearing discrimination, many Dom describe themselves as Arab, Kurdish or Turkmen and also very often use fake names. They also keep on the move.
After sunset, the gang went on the move as Nisreem dragged Little Ali from their Taksim corner to check on friends selling cold water nearby. Everyone else tumbled along in a tight knot of children.
Divided among the five of them, they each get 4 lira.
When Amel and Nisreen find their pal Hamza, who is 11, they learn he has done better selling bottled water than begging.
At night they return to a decrepit squatters apartment overflowing with other refugees.
The UNHCR recently said women and children make up 75 per cent of all Syrian war refugees, with 50 per cent of those under 18. The gang is mostly orphaned girls and daughters of war widows. There are few male Dom relatives around to protect them.
Ten people were seriously injured, including one street kid.