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Somali Refugees Find an Unlikely Home – In Istanbul

By Tajuddin
In Local News
Jul 30th, 2014
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Somali's in Turkey

Istanbul (DIPLOMAT) — Among the labyrinth of winding narrow streets just outside a major shopping centre in the Kumkapi neighbourhood of Istanbul is a rundown road, congested with shops and apartments stacked atop one another.

Cars somehow manage to come barrelling down the street as people slowly move to the narrow pavement already full of food carts and clothes strewn out on blankets for sale. Trash lazily rolls past groups of men engaged in conversation while sitting on buckets or leaning against shop windows. The area feels oddly serene.

This street is host to a community of African refugees, with the majority comprising Somali natives, and aptly named “Somalia Street”. Through word of mouth and family ties, Somali refugees seek a temporary home in this nook of Istanbul, in order to find some respite from the political and natural disasters that have devastated Somalia for decades.

Through word of mouth and family ties, Somali refugees seek a temporary home in this nook of Istanbul [Somalia Street], in order to find some respite from the political and natural disasters that have devastated Somalia for decades.

Istanbul has become a staging post for Somalis hoping to eventually travel on to Australia, Canada or the United States, migration trend watchers say. Because of the constant population flux, it is difficult to estimate the number of refugees actually living on the street at any given moment, but street residents say that there are a few hundred Somalis living there.

Dalmar, 30, a Somali refugee, has only been in Istanbul for a month with his brother Amet, 20, and lives in a small apartment with 12 other refugees. This arrangement is very common here. Often, refugees will live in small apartments with 20 or 30 other people.

“Istanbul is very temporary,” said Dalmar. “The living conditions are poor. Istanbul is expensive, and it is very hard to find work here.”

Turkish labour laws require a passport and residence card for employment, neither of which refugees can easily obtain. This has led to much illegal work, usually consisting of manual labour and odd jobs.

A refugee who has lived in Turkey for many years, Liban, 31, said he worked in various manual labour jobs when he first arrived in Istanbul. He pointed out that that the language barrier between Arabic and Turkish makes it “difficult to get jobs in the first place.”

Yet inhabitants appear to have established a unique community along the littered, cobblestone street. Most Somalis interviewed said they enjoy life in Istanbul. The community takes care of them as they arrive in droves. Often, refugees will find work with Kurdish shop owners, who seem rather protective of them.

During one interview with a group of refugees, a Kurdish man popped his head of his shop out to make sure they were not being harassed.

The Katip Kasim mosque stands on Somali Street, its low brick wall recently painted white and orange. The mosque is rather unassuming compared to the grandiose and elegant mosques around Istanbul.

Muammer Aksoy has worked as Katip Kasim’s imam for 19 years, and has seen the community change significantly. This area of Istanbul has always been a refuge for minority groups in Istanbul, beginning with Kurdish migrants from Turkey’s east. Romanian refugees arrived in the 1980s and 1990s. There has since been an increase in African refugees to the area, the majority arriving within the last five years.

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