Oftentimes in mass media, the subject of Syrian refugees in Turkey becomes a geopolitical discussion about aid deals, population statistics, and European migration policy. But what has been some of the human impact of these geopolitical realities on Syrians living in Turkey? And how does the Turkish population interact with these visitors?
In this podcast episode, Independent Turkey correspondent Benjamin Bilgen interviews Özlem Ödağacıoğlu, the founder of a humanitarian aid group called İnsani Yardım Grubu (Humanitarian Aid Group) which was founded to help communities of Syrian refugees in Antalya, Turkey. She tells the story of how she first found a network of Syrıan labor camps, and went on to start the activist group.
So plug in your earphones, pour yourself another cup of coffee and join us for this short 15-minute podcast episode telling the story of Antalya’s bar-scene activists and the people whose lives they’re trying to improve.
“I do everything for the kids. For the women and the kids. I don’t give a shit about men. All of this is because of men.”
I was sitting at the bar, halfway through a pint of Guinness, checking my phone regularly for a word from my contact. I was in no hurry; it was still early and I was enjoying a foamy stout which is hard to come by in Antalya, Turkey. A woman walked in. She looked to be about in her late twenties, maybe early thirties. We made eye contact briefly but she made a few rounds of the bar, greeting almost every person there as an old friend before making her way towards me. She was clearly a regular.
I was meeting with Özlem Ödağacıoğlu, one of the founders of the İnsani Yardım Grubu, which is a humanitarian aid group of volunteers who want to help meet the needs of their community. The group’s Facebook page has around 2,500 followers, featuring posts ranging from calls for clothes and money donations to blood drives, but the group’s main purpose and its original focus is to help communities of Syrian refugees in Antalya.
But as I found out, Özlem wasn’t always a human rights activist.
“I’m an animal activist. It started with a dog who – he was paralyzed and now he’s in Spain. I can’t take much news from him but I think he’s OK.”
“This is the first time I’m dealing with humans, I’m mostly like, you know nature, and animals and like that. But when you see it you can’t just turn your back and forget about it.”
And what she saw happened a few months back, mostly by coincidence when she and her friend got a curious phone call late one night.
“One night we were just sitting and they called a friend of mine, the owner of Cello Garden, her names is Ece. They said that a journalist needs help in Belek.”
Just some background, Belek is a town about 45 minutes outside of the city center of Antalya. It’s mostly in the middle of nowhere but it’s known for a long string of extremely luxurious 5-star hotels, all packed together in the same small area.
“The situation was, he was lost. The taxi driver took him from the airport, and he was going to the G20 summit. So they got lost, and they ended up in the middle of nowhere.
“And they passed through a camp, and he asked ‘What is this?’ And the taxi driver said it’s a Syrian refugee camp. And after like four minutes he was in the zone of Kadriye Belek, with the super luxury hotels, in a matter of minutes he was up and down, so he wanted to make a story about this.”
Actually the journalist that Özlem is talking about, a German named Benjamin Hammer, did write that story about his experience at the hidden camp, and if you speak German you can find it linked here.
“They called my friend, we are also a group of activists, we have a lot of you know, protesting to do around here. So they asked us if we can help him.
“We first picked him up from the hotel and we started looking around, at the rural areas of Kadriye, because nearby the hotels there are a lot of agricultural places. We guessed that they were around somewhere there, and in a few hours we found them in the middle of nowhere. And then he got there took the pictures, he had a flight that day so he couldn’t stay long.
“He asked the questions and I helped translate, and Yusra helped translate from Arabic to Turkish. And then afterwards we left the camp and then we dropped him off at the airport but we couldn’t leave it behind.”
A part of the reason this camp had made such a big impact on Özlem and her friends was, as it turned out, it wasn’t a typical Syrian refugee camp.
“They are not legal camps, this is not a legal settlement in Antalya here. It’s a sergeant system. There’s a sergeant, actually they just call him that, he isn’t a sergeant. But he finds people to work and he takes money over them. This person, the sergeant at the Taşlık camp, he found people from the Syrians, and he brought them here, and he made them live in the middle of nowhere, they cannot find a bus there, they cannot find anything. Even if they call an ambulance it will take like an hour to get there.”
“And he made people come here, he made them work at the farms around, at the greenhouses, so for example if they take 60 lira per day, he takes half of it. And he rents the tent areas to them, he’s a landlord there, where the tents are settled. They pay like 100 Turkish lira per month per tent, and also he’s selling electricity and water to them, because there’s no water source or anything around there. He made his own small capitalist system.
“It’s basically a slave system. They changed just the name, from slave to labor.”
“Like 60% of the Taşlik camp is children. They don’t have education. The small ones are just playing around there, but especially for the girls, if they come to 12, 13, they can get married. And the boys, if they become 12 they will be working. They don’t have any education chances, they don’t have insurance. And they are very close to being criminals. Because in their environment they are playing with empty bullets. That’s their toys.”
After seeing the desperate situation at the camp, Özlem and her friends decided they wanted to do something to help.
“And after that we made the Facebook group, and with some volunteers we got back to the camp. We counted the tents, we counted the people, we made some lists for each tent, we numbered the tents, took the ages, the sizes and everything.”
“The first month it was really slow, afterwards people heard about it, and they wanted to help. The winter was hitting hard so we needed to do something urgent.
“We collected some help at the art cafe gallery. There is a basement he has there, he donated the place for us for a few months, so we took the second hand used things, whatever they can use, we separated them, we made boxes for each. And then we started to hear about more camps.”
“Somehow the group got bigger, and people from Europe started hearing about us and they contacted me. They came from the UK, from Germany, from Holland, from other places, some doctors came for check-ups”
“Now most of the things that they need are provided, like clothes and beds. We bought stoves for them, We provided some burning wood for them, and now the winter is going so we are mostly ok. And then we made a charity concert, some groups volunteered to sing, some bars gave beers and things. Now we started to make bathrooms for them, because they don’t have bathrooms there.”
As Özlem was explaining everything that the group was doing and the projects they were working on, I was shocked at the scale of their work and the organization required to accomplish something like this, much less by a group of unpaid volunteers.
“We made the group, the volunteers came. We divided ourselves into four branches like field group, city group, communications group, and the secretariat. One of us handled the Facebook and people who wanted to send items, they would send them to a storage unit. And a storage unit group, we also had. They were separating and boxing them. And the field group was taking them to the field, and we had a health group with a nurse and things.”
“My friends say that we should become an association or something. I don’t know it’s like, I don’t like official things. Like marriage, like government, things like that.”
After our interview, Özlem offered to introduce me to some of the other founding members of the İnsani Yardım Grubu.
I first met Ece, one of the co-founders of the group who was there when the journalist Benjamin Hammer and Özlem’s friends first found the camp. She was the owner and manager of a bar/cafe called Cello garden, but she volunteered her free time to help out with the Insani Yardım Grubu.
Next we stopped by the Art Cafe, owned and managed by Özlem’s friend Ali. Ali had donated the basement of the bar as a storage area for collecting donations for the the camps. He also helped build and design some of the bathroom stalls for the camps himself.
As I was introduced to Özlem’s network of bar owner’s and volunteers and heard about their projects at the camp, like building bathrooms and installing stoves, I couldn’t help but wonder: why are these unpaid volunteers faced with meeting the needs of these Syrian refugees? What role should the Turkish government be playing in these kinds of projects?
“We want to make a meeting with the Antalya Municipality governship and everything, we want to make a presentation for them, and to call them for help, something solid. If the officials want, they can just block us. They can just put their hands on the camp, put them in a bus and send them somewhere in Anatolia. And that will be certain death for them because they cannot find jobs there.”
In fact, Turkey has absorbed the most Syrian refugees of any country since the conflict broke out in 2011, with over two-and-a-half million Syrians in Turkey right now. But the people are worried that Turkey is bringing in more refugees than it can take.
“Most of the Syrian groups are here in the city, they are having bad reactions from the population which is normal, because they are lowering rates for workers, they are simply begging for money, my government is giving a lot to them.”
Part of this is because Turkey has essentially become Europe’s refugee gatekeeper in the past months. EU and Turkish officials struck a deal last December where the EU will give Turkey three billion euros to curb the flow of refugees into Europe. More recently, that deal was expanded, and now the EU will deport illegal migrants in Europe back to Turkey. And then for each Syrian deported back to Turkey, one elligible Syrian in a Turkish refugee camp will be allowed to enter the EU.
The new EU-Turkey plan means that there will be a lot more refugees being deported back to Turkey in the upcoming months. With it’s refugee support system already strained, many wonder what will happen to these refugees? Where will they stay, how will they make a living? Will they end up in a labor camp like the one Özlem and her friends found?
If so, let’s hope their are more bar-owners, activist and volunteers across Turkey willing to step in.
Towards the end of our interview, I asked Özlem what inspired people like her to help vulnerable people and those in need like the Syrian refugees in Turkey.
“It’s basic love you know. But not everyone has it and that’s the problem. I always like to say, if they are normal, I am glad to be the one who is abnormal.”