Sewing machines rattle in a bright room in Istanbul’s Bagcilar Community Center. With the windows open, women with colorful headscarves and white masks sit above work – sewing cloth masks to protect against the coronavirus.
Heven Hasan has enough routine at the sewing machine to talk to her neighbor on the side. She feels better if she can just be here and make herself useful, says the 39-year-old, who has been unable to do her job as a teacher since her flight from Syria.
In the early years in Istanbul, she said that she hardly dared to go out because of her fear, until she found the community center two years ago. Here she has now learned Turkish, completed sewing courses and made her way back in life to the point where she is now volunteering for other refugees. “For us Syrians, the red crescent moon is a real bright spot here,” she says.
The Red Crescent is the operator of the community center, there are 15 other such institutions across the country in Turkey – they serve as a point of contact for the country’s nearly four million Syrian refugees. These sites are funded from the European Union’s aid funds pledged in the 2016 refugee agreement – a total of six billion euros, which is not paid to Turkey itself, but project-related to institutions such as this one.
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The EU summit in Brussels next Thursday and Friday will focus on the future of the refugee agreement. Both sides want to stick to the agreement that saw Turkey become the gatekeeper to Europe after the refugee wave in 2015 and receive billions from the EU in return.
Heven Hasan (l) sews masks with other Syrian women at the Bagcilar community center Photo: Susanne Güsten
However, Turkey is calling for a reform of the treaty. She demands that the EU pay more than the promised six billion: according to government information, Turkey has already spent about 35 billion euros in its own tax money on the Syrians. The government also complains that most of the announced EU money is not coming in. By contrast, the EU recently stated that almost EUR 4 billion had already been disbursed; the rest will flow by 2025 at the latest.
Red Crescent wants to help Syrian refugees back on their feet
According to the EU, 1.7 million Syrians in Turkey receive direct financial aid for everyday life, often in the form of debit cards to buy food or clothing. In addition, thanks to EU funds, nearly 700,000 Syrian children were able to go to school in Turkey. EU aid also pays for around 3,000 newly hired health workers.
Areas like Bagcilar – 80,000 Syrians live in the Istanbul district, more than in many European countries – can use the support of Europe. The Red Crescent does not distribute relief supplies in the community centers, explains Esin Demircioglu, the director of the center in Bagcilar; the facilities are intended to help the Syrian refugees back on their feet.
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This assistance covers four areas: legal advice, psychosocial support, integration and employment. Syrian refugees can get advice and assistance in dealing with authorities or consult a lawyer here. In the event of social problems, the community center psychologists intervene independently, for example if children are not sent to school or girls are married off as minors. The center promotes the integration of Syrians into Turkish society with Turkish language courses for Syrians and awareness campaigns in local mosques to reduce prejudice against refugees.
But the main role now is played by the employment program, Demircioglu says. Your team will exchange ideas with local employers and the employment office to determine the current demand for labor and then set up appropriate training courses for Syrians – for example as a welder or for the textile sector.
The community center then arranges jobs for the refugees and also helps obtain work permits – a hurdle that employers often shy away from.
Syrian refugee Halit Temmo shows his Turkish work permit Photo: Susanne Güsten
This is how Halit Temmo from Aleppo experienced it. At first he tried to make ends meet with odd jobs, says the 25-year-old, but without language skills and work permits it is hopeless. At the community center in Bagcilar, which he found almost three years ago on the advice of a friend, he took an intensive Turkish course and got a job at a bakery company through the intervention of the Red Crescent Moon; the community center got him the work permit.
Today he is the sales manager of the company and the Turkish taxpayer, has his own apartment and a circle of friends, including Turks. “I am very happy with my job and I get along well with my colleagues,” says Temmo. “I feel fine here and I intend to stay in Turkey.”
The community center in Bagcilar has been able to help around 70,000 Syrian refugees so far, says director Demircioglu – some may only get good advice and others with help starting a new life, such as Halit Temmo. In the sewing room, Heven Hasan sets aside a stack of finished masks. She will also stay in Turkey: her eldest son has just got a place here to study medicine.