From the news desk

Working with refugees in Istanbul

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FEATURE by Umarah Hartley

This a part of a series focused on the work of international volunteers assisting Syrian refugees living in Turkey. 

As of February 2016, the United Nations identified 13.5 million Syrians requiring humanitarian assistance, nearly five million of which are refugees outside the country. So far, Turkey, which sits in between the Middle East and Europe has played host to most of the incoming refugees from Syria who are fleeing war and destruction in their homeland.

In Istanbul, a city with almost 15 million registered people, refugee centers have sprung up to assist those refugees fleeing the war-torn countries like Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.  In Istanbul, volunteers have arrived all over the world, looking to provide assistance to those people who left their homeland behind to flee the war that has ravaged their countries.

One such individual who moved to Istanbul is 23 year old Alicia Sornson, a Michigan native from United States of America. Alicia has spent the past year working with refugees from countries like Iraq and Syria who have come to Turkey to find a new hope.

Sornson, like many young people, was seeking an adventure and wanting to learn more about the world. Turkey, with its unique culture and people, seemed like the ideal place for that wanderlust. However, Sornson’s move was also motivated by a need to give back to society and to be part of an agent for a global humanitarian cause.

“I knew that I could volunteer in Istanbul and watching the refugee crisis on the news on television, I decided that I really wanted to do something to help so in moving to Istanbul I could complete my professional goals and also my personal goals.”

In recent years, Turkey looked like the most stable and successful state in the Middle East, but over the past year, the country has been torn apart by a series of violent attacks, an attempted military coup and the consequent purge of opponents of the Erdogan administration. Despite the political uncertainty, Sornson says she feels safe in this country. But if anything major were to happen again, she would be inclined to leave.

“I can work and volunteer at the same time so Istanbul is a perfect fit for me.”

Middle-eastern connections

Sornson says she volunteers for several reasons and this has allowed her to give back to a community which she feels needs the most help.

“Everywhere I’ve lived in my life, people have always gone out of their way to help me, I’ve moved a few times in my life and every time I’ve moved I’ve found someone willing to assist me even in the smallest way possible,” Sornson went further.

“So I’ve always been appreciative of people willing to help me so it’s important for me to do that to other people.”

Sornson uses whatever skills she has (in this case that skill is teaching) to assist refugees with language skills needed in order to assist them in other ventures such as job or university applications.

She’s always had a particular fascination with the Middle East, after a visit to Israel and Palestine with a close family friend back in high school.

“I met young people there and I realised that these people are not what we see on television. They are not a religion, they are not a stereotype, they were just teenagers like me and I fell in love with the culture and the community, how they treat strangers and how they treat friends, they are a very welcoming community,” Sornson continued.

She then went onto study international relations at university where she became interested in development projects as well as the refugee crisis.

“I interned at an Iraqi non-profit organisation (NPO) in the (States) and I really got to learn a lot about the war in Iraq and the efforts that happened after the war and the crisis that occurred as a result and my interest in that region just continued to grow so it became important to me to assist people coming out of that region,” says Sornson.

World in crisis

“Right now I can see the Syrians in crisis… I can see the Iraqis in crisis. I know there are a lot of other people in crisis as well, but I know this area well enough where I feel comfortable to live here and volunteer at the same time,” she says,

Sornson volunteers with a non-governmental organisation (NGO) called Small Projects Istanbul which is a local organisation run by foreigners.

“I got connected through a friend to this organisation and was told that they wanted to start a conversation class for young adults,” adds Sornson.

She now teaches young adults mostly Syrian men that have fled their homeland because if they had stayed they would have either had to join the Syrian army or rebel forces.

“There are some women but the men are at the age where if they stayed in Syria they would have been drafted into the Syrian defence forces or would have to join the rebel army so their families did what they could to send their sons out of the country so they could avoid war and the high possibility of death,” says Sornson.

Many of the young men that Sornson teaches are men that have been educated at university and speak English relatively well.

“They are smart and kind people and they require this conversation class to further their English.”

“A lot of the Syrians are unemployed as well as it is hard for them to find employment here in Istanbul so a lot of our classes are social and its networking as well and its becoming a community and becoming a small family.”

On top of that, the refugees at these centres also offer Arabic to those wanting to learn and so that the English volunteers can learn another language.

“So it’s not just the English volunteers that help the Syrians but the Syrians that help the volunteers as well.”
Sornson says the refugees she works with face monumental challenges living as immigrants in Istanbul.

Turkey has taken on such a large number of refugees so it’s been really hard on Turkish infrastructure and on Turkish people.

“So refugees face a lot of criticism and a lot of problems, as people do not want to rent them homes because they are afraid that the refugees cannot afford it. It’s hard for them to find a place to live, it’s hard for them to get a permit, it’s hard for them to find a job.”

The Turkish government has put policies in place to assist refugees, but as the world struggles with the refugee crisis and no end in sight to the Syrian civil war, many more refugees are most likely to fill into Turkey in order to escape to Europe.

“It’s hard being a young person in a country especially if you don’t have a home to go back too,” Sornson concluded.

Umarah Hartley is a former VOC News reporter, now working as a humanitarian journalist in Istanbul. Follow her on Twitter @umarah21 



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