Syrian refugees surviving in abandoned homes

Charity group warns that Syrian refugees are at risk of exploitation as thousands are paying rent to stay in abandoned buildings

Photo by: TRT WORLD
Photo by: TRT WORLD

Ali Ameen Al Turkmani sits crossed-legged on the floor and stares ahead into darkness.

He's old now, around 70 he says and at his age he never expected to be living in a cramped makeshift room with no electricity more than 1,000km away from his home in Syria.

The grandfather fled the battle torn city of Kobane a year ago with his wife, five sons, their wives and nine grandchildren.

Each month the family pays 500TL ($170US) in rent to stay in a crumbling, abandoned building in the Fatih district of Istanbul, even though it has no heating or running water.

"What else can we do?" he says while twirling prayer beads in his left hand. "It's better than the bombardments and killings. We have no other choice but to stay."

They are just one of thousands of Syrian families living in old, derelict and often unsafe houses and apartments across the city.

"Honestly it's going be difficult for us in the winter but what is there for us to do? Where will we go, where will we migrate?" he says.

Mr Al Turkmani tells me a Turkish man claims to own the land and visits them to collect the rent.

"We know it's not his house but we have to pay him," he says.

"He says you either pay the rent or leave the house. What will we do? Gather a crowd and fight him? We are obliged to pay," he adds.

I peer through a window and into another room next door. There is no glass, just a few wooden planks nailed into what used to be a window frame.

Inside there are children, curled up under rugs on the floor, shielding themselves from the wind and cold.

On the other side of the building, I gain access to the second floor and see that much of the roof has fallen away.

There are huge cracks in the walls and an old door is being used as a floor, balanced precariously over some wooden beams with a steep drop to one side.

"We are forced to live here. Sometimes we can't sleep at night, we are afraid the ceiling will fall in on us," 35 year old Zamzam Jumah tells me while adjusting her headscarf.

"Last night I didn't sleep at all because of the rain and the bugs," she says.

Mrs Jumah and her husband are farmers, also from Kobane, who used to own land; gathering and grinding wheat from the fields before the Syrian war broke out.

She has seven children. Most of them are running around a nearby rubbish tip as if it were a playground.

Almost all members of the family, including the children, try to earn money by begging, selling water bottles and collecting recycled rubbish and selling it.

"There are 40 of us here," she says explaining how they also pay a Turkish man 500TL ($170US) in rent.

"He comes to collect the money and then leaves," she says. "We can't work. We barely afford rent for this place. We don't even have enough for bread."

No one we spoke to at the house can tell us who the man is or when he will next return.

"Unfortunately the crisis situation creates this kind of problems in the local community," says Durmus Aydin, a board member from IHH, the Humanitarian Relief Foundation.

The organisation runs a number of refugee camps close to the Syrian border, housing and feeding tens of thousands of refugees.

"Some local people are using the disadvantaged as an opportunity for them," he says. "The refugees would be better off in the camps, but they want to live in the cities."

In a local council office nearby, Turkish residents drop off clothes and food donations for Syrians ahead of the winter.

"I am very upset especially for children. They are defenceless. They are dying," says Zeynep Tokcan, a local counselor from the Haci Kadin area, who coordinates aid for refugees.

"I advise them to go to the camps but they are refusing because they are crowded," she says.

Back at the derelict house, I return to see Mr Al Turkmani.

In a corner of the room his four year old grandson, Mahmoud, rolls around on the floor.

Next to him is a baby, Younis. He is tiny, just 25 days old. A Syrian, but born in Turkey.

I say goodbye and leave them in the darkness, under a makeshift roof of wood and corrugated iron, as the repetitive drip of rain water slowly builds a puddle outside the entrance to their tiny, cold home.


Author: Duncan Crawford