In his research Mathias Fiedler illuminates the situation of refugees and migrants in the, so called, transit country Turkey. He did several in-depth interviews in Istanbul – some as a follow-up to his research he did for the project “Bordermonitoring Bulgaria“. Latest informations were collected afterwards via telephone and social media.


As I walked through the streets of downtown Istanbul, I saw a young man with a child sitting on the curb, begging for money. In the proximity of the big shopping street İstiklal Caddesi as well as in other parts of Beyoğlu, I noticed more people doing the same. As I could read on self-made signs positioned on front of them, many of them were refugees.

Often, children and other family members were begging for money 1. As refugees told me, some of them slept in the street, in parks or in abandoned buildings. After the outburst of the Syrian civil war, the number of Syrian refugees in Turkey reached to 1.7 Million in April 2015 2 –one year before, the NGO Mazlum Der had already registered around 300.000 Syrian refugees in Istanbul 3.

For a long time, there has been no guaranteed refugee-status in Turkey for people coming from non-European countries due to the so-called “geographical limitation“ 4. In April 2013, a new “law on foreigners and international protection” 5 was passed by Turkey’s Grand National Assembly with the geographical limitation remaining in effect. Nevertheless, there are many people in Turkey who, having fled (civil) war or searching for a better life, are awaiting resettlement. Others transit the country in search for a way into the European Union.

Migrants in Turkey who want to apply for asylum have to register at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ (UNHCR) office in Ankara or – since 2013 – at the Association of Solidarity with Asylum Seekers and Migrants (ASAM) 6. The registration constitutes the precondition to being resettled into another country. After registration, most migrants are not allowed to work. The state decides where they are permitted to live; often, it is in small satellite cities. As few migrants want to stay there, there is a constant flow towards the bigger cities. Syrians were seen as ‘guests’ until 2014 7, not as ‘refugees’ according to Turkish law. They cannot register at the UNHCR for resettlement. Until today, their status is unclear and seen as temporary 8.

From time to time, protests against refugees in Istanbul arose. A bigger protest took place in August 2014, when around 300 Turkish citizens clashed with the police and windows were broken in the suburb of İkitelli, Küçükçekmece 9. This was not the first agitation against Syrian refugees in Turkey. In July 2014, similar incidents took place in the cities of Kahramanmaraş, Adana and Gaziantep. In Antalya, the Governor’s office asked more than 1.500 Syrian refugees to leave the city. The office justified the issued notifications with accusations of “social and economic tension” as well as damaging the tourism industry 10. Hüseyin Avni Mutlu, mayor of Istanbul, came up with the idea of deporting the begging refugees back to camps in south of the country 11. There, the situation is problematic for many refugees. As I was told by people that had visited or lived in these camps themselves, one can find the inhabitants of whole villages that fled from war together in a camp.

We met François, 12 a long-term refugee activist from Ruanda, who has been living in Istanbul for many years. As he tried to explain the protests against Syrian refugees, he stated:

“Of course Syrian people are getting such kind of small jobs, then they get small money, and then maybe Turkish people, they will not, you know. Turkish people when they get salary, they need big salary. But Syrians, because they want to survive, they will take all kind of small jobs and then young Turkish people think that Syrians are stealing jobs from them, such kind of things.”


  1. 1 For more information see Sauter, Dieter: Syrische Flüchtlinge in der Türkei – Betteln, Teller waschen, Müll sammeln, in: WOZ 49 (2014). (last accessed July 2015).
  2. 2 European Commission. Humanitarian Aid for Civil and Protection: Eco Fact Sheet: Syria Crisis, April 2015, (last accessed July 2015)
  3. 3 Kirişci, Kemal: Syrian refugees and Turkey’s challenges: Going beyond hospitality, Washington/D.C.: Brookings Institution 2014, (last accessed July 2015).
  4. 4 Kaya, Ibrahim: Reform in the Turkish Asylum Law: Adopting the EU acquis? CARIM Research Reports (2009) 16, European University Institute, Robert Schuhmann Centre for Advances Studies, pp. 2-4, (last accessed July 2015).
  5. 5 The whole law is accessible via the Republic of Turkey, Ministry of Interior, Directorate General of Migration Management: Law No. 6458 on 2013 on Foreigners and International Protection, April, 4 2013, available at: (last accessed July 2015).
  6. 6 Ibid., p. 9.
  7. 7 Schläfli, Samuel (2016): Interview with Şenay Özden: (last accessed May 2016).
  8. 8 Ibid., p. 14.
  9. 9 For more information, see “Turkey protest in Istanbul over Syrian refugees”, BBC News August 25, 2014, (last accessed July 2015); N.N.: Tension rises as Turks allegedly beaten up by Syrians, Today’s Zaman, August 25, 2014, (last accessed July 2015).
  10. 10 Baş, Kenan: Antalya Governor’s Office orders Syrian refugees to leave province, Today’s Zaman, December 24, 2014, (last accessed July 2015).
  11. 11 Istanbul may place Syrian refugees in camps, Al Jazeera July 16, 2014, (last accessed July 2015).
  12. 12 I have changed the name of every interview partner in this article.

A reception center for unaccompanied minors is located in Kadıköy. We went there with a young volunteer student also active in the Don Kişot squat. At the center, he held language classes. With one of the young refugees, an Afghani named Sirus, we held a longer conversation. Having already lived in the house in Kadıköy for several years, he recently received the admission for resettlement to the United States. He seemed to be a little bit nervous while probably also glad about the chance to begin a new life. He was told that he would get an UNHCR plastic bag in order for the responsible people to recognize him at the airport.

Sirus told us that he lived in the accommodation with about 120 children and teenagers and that not everybody would find a place for resettlement. As an unaccompanied minor, you are allowed to live in the facility, but as you turn 18, you immediately have to leave the building. He told us that when this occurs, the young adults very often become homeless because they cannot afford the rent for housing. He said that life is very difficult without a working permit or other kinds of help. Many people have to ask their relatives in other countries to provide money for them. If that does not work out, people are without a home, again 1.

Resettlement is not easy to achieve in Turkey. During my stay in Turkey, a hunger strike of dozens of Afghans took place in Ankara: They were protesting in front of the UNHCR in order to attain working permits (for Turkey), resettlement and non-discrimination of Afghan refugees. Some of them decided to sew up their mouths 2.

Like François mentioned to us:

“Because I can say that UNHCR system is overcrowded. Now I am talking about refugees and asylum seekers. The system in UNHCR is crazy. I think that they don’t process the files very quickly. So you see people staying and waiting. You go to UNHCR, you apply. You have your free interview. And to hear from them, you have to wait maybe from six month to one year and then when you are like you get accepted and then you have then to wait for an embassy or a country that will host you. That will take another six [months] or one year again. So, you will see that the length of awaiting here will take from one sometimes to four to five years.”

Later, it turned out that François himself had already been in Turkey waiting for his resettlement to another country for many years:

“Ya, so we have so many cases also who, ah you know, ten years, ya. Over ten years.”


  1. 1 For more information on the situation of young refugees in Turkey, see Trimikliniotis, Nicos/Parsanoglou, Dimitris/Tsianos, Vassilis: Mobile Commons, Migrant Digitalities and the Right to the City, New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillian 2014.
  2. 2 For further information on the strike in Ankara, see Speri, Alice: Afghan Asylum Seekers in Turkey Are Sewing Their Lips Together in Protest, Vice News May 9, 2014, (last accessed July 2015).

In the district of Tarlabaşı, one may find the Mutfak 1 (kitchen), a meeting space were one can partake in cooking for the poor of the neighborhood or organize counsel, language courses or other support for migrants and asylum seekers. The project was founded by people close to the Migrant Solidarity Group (Göçmen Dayanışma Ağı) Istanbul. Due to the gentrification process in that area which has been taking place for the last few years 2, more people able to pay higher rents are entering the housing market. The area has two faces with run-down houses, drug sellers and prostitution on the one hand and, on the other hand, renovated or newly built houses, nice and clean people to be seen in the street as well as on the signs adorning the construction sites. For people with no or low income who used to live there before, the situation is getting more and more difficult. It seems that a social space – like the Mutfak – is really needed in this area to support marginalized people and people in precarious situations. The solidarity kitchen tries to bring together different people from various backgrounds. It is well known in the quarter of Tarlabaşı and visited not exclusively by refugees and asylum seekers.

Outside, I met with Hassan, a Syrian refugee I later brought in touch with people from the Mutfak. I knew him from a hotel in Edirne where he had told me that he and his friends had almost drowned while trying to cross the Evros on a boat. The group of 5 young men lost the boat in the water. Afterwards, they tried to survive in the middle of the Evros on a little island consisting of trash and wood onto which they could luckily save themselves until they were rescued by a fisherman. Many people have drowned trying to cross the Evros River. In 2010, for example, the UNHCR reported three people drowning in May and 16 people drowning in June 3.

Hassan concluded his and his comrades’ situation as follows:

“We thought that we will arrive fast, but things were turning against us.” 4

Finally, they were rescued by a man with a little boat that brought them to the Turkish Border Police. With a friend, he was taken to Edirne Detention Center. Afterwards, the police decided to take them to Istanbul in a bus convoy along with many other refugees, but Hassan and his friend Ahmed managed to escape from the bus.

“They brought us with these buses. They said, yeah that actually you will have to be back to Istanbul. And actually when we arrived here, the signal. You know my friend, he is my friend, he just pushed the the the, you know, there’s a button there in this bus. He pushed the button and the doors opened and we start to run out.”

Later, Hassan told me the reason why he and his friend wanted to escape:

“Actually we don’t want to go back to Istanbul, because you know, we don’t have anything to do even in Istanbul.”

Although their escape was successful, a few days later, Hassan and Ahmed decided to go back to Istanbul because they were not able to make it to Europe.

Refugees using the boat and trying to cross the sea or a huge and dangerous river must be seen as a consequence of operations undertaken in cooperation with the European Agency for the Management of Operational Cooperation at the External Borders of the Member States of the European Union (FRONTEX). These “joint operations” of border guards from different European countries take place at the border between Greece and Turkey 5 as well as the border between Bulgaria and Turkey. In both cases, the governments decided to install fences. In Bulgaria, a big part of the Integrated Border Surveillance System (IBSS), financed by the EU, is almost complete. Therefore it is, for the most part, not possible to cross the border on land. People escaping war try to cross over the European borders nevertheless. Several weeks after my visit in Istanbul, FRONTEX reported that the poll of detected Syrian refugees trying to cross from Turkey to Bulgaria or Greece had increased again 6. In August 2014, the Bulgarian police detained 63 refugees in a boat in the Black Sea and in the beginning of November 2014, a boat with refugees sank in the Black Sea near the Bosporus 7. At least 24 people died 8.

When I met Hassan in Istanbul at the end of May 2014, he had already been working illegally in a bar to earn some money. But again, things changed to the worse for him. He told me that he had been working the whole month of May without getting paid. Hassan recounted that, when asking the owner of the bar about his pay, the owner asked him whether he was “for or against Assad”. Hassan immediately answered the question with: “Of course I am against Assad“, whereupon the owner replied: “Then I cannot pay you.“

I went to a bar with a friend of Hassan’s who used to be a Stuart for Saudi Airlines. The friend told me he lost his work permit for Saudi Arabia with the start of the Syrian crisis. Hassan described his own life as a life of crazy ups and downs. He and his friend still thought about going to Europe. After some weeks, Hassan decided to move to Bursa and, after that, to a little town in the mountains in order to work there.


  1. 1 For video impressions, visit the Mutfak’s website (last accessed July 2015).
  2. 2 Bourque, Yessica: Poor but Proud Istanbul Neighborhood Faces Gentrification, The New York Times July 4, 2012, (last accessed July 2015).
  3. 3 Cf. the press release: Sixteen people drowned attempting to cross the Evros River border between Turkey and Greece, UNHCR, July 1, 2010, (last accessed July 2015).
  4. 4 Interview with Hassan on May 2, 2014.
  5. 5 For more information, see Booth, Katherine et al.: FRONTEX. Between Greece and Turkey: At the border of denial, FIDH/Migreurop/EMHRN May 2014, (last accessed July 2015).
  6. 6 FRONTEX: FRAN Quarterly. Quarter 3, July-September 2014, Warshaw 2015, p. 23, (last accessed July 2015).
  7. 7 Leviev-Sawyer, Clive: (2014): Bulgaria Detains 63 Refugees on Boat in Black Sea, Independent Balkan News Agency, August 18, 2014, (last accessed July 2015).
  8. 8 Cf. Migrant boat traversed entire Bosphorus without being detected before disaster, Hurriyet Daily News, November 4, 2014, (last accessed July 2015).

Queerstanbul – Aspects of love, gender and sexuality inside daily life of LGBTIQ*

The research project is part of the seminar “Global City Istanbul” and formed up to an exhibition project. Funded by the program “Kreativität im Studium”, the Integrationsrat Göttingen and the University of Göttingen the group visited Istanbul once again during the Pride Week 20014. The results of the research were shown in Göttingen during an exhibition in December 2014. 

Text by Susanne Klenke and Laura Stonies

Shortfilm by Margaux Jeanne Erdmann


LambdaIstanbul and Kaos GL (Ankara) are the biggest LGBTIQ*-Organizations in Turkey. Overall, 40 associations exist, e.g. smaller unions and college associations.

Since 2002, Lambda operates an office and a cultural center hosting regular meetings and events accessible to everyone interested. Even a small library devoted to LGBTIQ* topics is integrated into the center. After Lambda was registered as an association in the summer of 2006, the city government tried to prevent the opening in court. The local court drafted a resolution stating the lawfulness of Lambda’s closure. This verdict was rendered invalid by a subsequent Supreme Court ruling. It included a vague requirement that the club could and must be closed if Lambda was involved in activities encouraging homosexuality. This decision was communicated to the European Court of Human Rights. A decision is currently pending. 1

Kaos GL is a Turkish LGBTI* organization founded in Ankara in 1994. Since then, the organization has been campaigning for LGBTI* rights and organizing various activities in order to draw attention to the situation of lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans and intersex persons in Turkey. Kaos GL activists organized the first LGBT-March in the capital in May 2008. Under the name “Kaos Gay and Lesbian Cultural Research and Solidarity Organization” they applied to be accredited as a non-governmental organization (NGO) at the Ministry of the Interior. The same year, the deputy governor of Ankara petitioned in court that the organization be banned due to its supposed inconsistency with the country’s morality laws. This was rejected by the public prosecutor. Since October 2005, Kaos GL is a legally accredited NGO. The activists also operate the Kaos GL cultural center offering cultural activities and events. Since its foundation, the organization has been publishing the quarterly magazine. It is the leading journal on LGBTIQ*- policies. 2


  1. 1 See the website of LambdaIstanbul: (last accessed July 2015).
  2. 2 See the website of Kaos GL: (last accessed July 2015).

During the Pride Week in June 2014, we met Merve C. at a discussion panel on “Sex Laboratory” Merve participated in as representative of the Trans Solidarity Networks. She invited us to her home the Sunday morning before the Gay Pride March and told us about her daily life, professional difficulties she was facing and how she earned her living as a sex worker. Also, she spoke about the Trans Movement and the significance it holds for her. The visit is documented in the short film “Breakfast at Merve’s” by Margaux J. Erdmann:


Judicial situation in Turkey

Only in 1988, a legal procedure for name and sex changes of transsexuals was established with the introduction of an additional paragraph to Art. 29 of the Turkish Civil Code. As a consequence, a person’s entry in the civil register can be amended after a “successful sex change“. 1 The starting point of this development was brought about by a transgender woman who had sex reassignment surgery abroad and then wanted to modify her civil registration entry.

Since 2002, Art. 40 of the Turkish Civil Code also regulates the pre- and post -operational procedures of a sex change: 2 Anyone wanting to change their sex may apply in person for the court’s permission of the sex change. For the permission to be granted, the applicant must be at least eighteen years of age and unmarried, must provide the official Health Commission with a report obtained from a teaching hospital stating that their “transsexual nature” makes a sex change absolutely necessary for their mental health and that the person concerned permanently renders themselves infertile. If the official Health Commission confirms that the operation corresponding to the permission granted has been accomplished, the court decides on adjustments to be made in the birth register. According to this legislation, transsexuals wanting to adjust their sex in the civil register are forced to provide a medical certificate certifying their sexual identity. This legally pathologizes transsexuality. The fact that the sex reassignment surgery necessary for a sex change is accompanied by mandatory sterilization is also to be critically considered.


  1. 1 Atamer, Yesim M.: “Türkei“, in: Basedow, Jürgen/Scherpe, Jens (eds.): Transsexualität, Staatsangehörigkeit und internationales Privatrecht. Entwicklungen in Europa, Amerika und Australien, Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck 2004, pp. 74-79, here p. 74.
  2. 2 Atamer, Yesim M.: “Türkei“, in: Basedow, Jürgen/Scherpe, Jens (eds.): Transsexualität, Staatsangehörigkeit und internationales Privatrecht. Entwicklungen in Europa, Amerika und Australien, Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck 2004, pp. 74-79, here p. 76

Lisa Szepan‘s text evolved as a result of the seminar “Global City Istanbul” and is based on interviews with Syrian students, who had fled the war in their home country to survive and continue their education abroad. During the field trip in May 2014, the young men talked to the researcher personally and kept communicating through digital media afterwards.

According to the International Relations Office of Sehir University in July 2014, 91 Syrian students had arrived at the University between 2012 and 2013, all of them young Muslims, born in 1989 and later, with only a quarter of them being women. Around 70 of these students are supported by an Organization called Homs League Abroad (HLA), with most of them receiving non-material organizational support while a smaller number is granted a full scholarship. One of these students is Maroun, 19, who told me about a telephone call he got from HLA when he did no longer expect it:

“You got a full scholarship’ and I said like ‘Really? Really, I don’t remember’. Yeah I got it for you – you have to come to Istanbul in seven days.” (Maroun, May 29, 2014)

It was in summer 2013 when Maroun got this life-altering information and moved directly from Damascus to Istanbul to join Sehir’s preparation school on time – alone. He enrolled in a bachelor degree program in computer science and engineering and was provided with a bed in one of Sehir Universities’ dormitories in Üsküdar, where he is still living. There, he got to know Isan, a 24-year-old vivid young man, who rushed into the International Relations Office during our interview. Like Maroun, he had arrived in Turkey without any of his family members in 2013. Now, they all live together in Ümraniye, the neighboring district of Üsküdar. Before the war, Isan had already started studying architecture in Damascus, but soon realized that he was not satisfied with this subject. Eventually, he made plans to go to Germany and began learning the language at the Goethe Institute. When it became more and more insecure to stay in Damascus, he took the chance to leave the country with a Homs League scholarship. After some time of living in the Sehir dormitory with Maroun and my third interview partner Nadim, Isan had made almost enough money with his translation job at a call center to rent a place for him and his family. To finally come to Turkey, his father had to sell their car in Syria.

“Well my dad, my father sold his car. So that he can afford the flight tickets and they went to Beirut and from Beirut to here. It is not that hard, actually, to go to Beirut.” (Isan, May 29, 2014)

Since then, Isan, his parents and his two sisters have been renting a small house in Umraniye. While Isan’s older sister got a scholarship from the Turkish government’s turkiyeburslari-program to work on her dissertation in historical science, his parents had not found a job at the time of our last interview. 1

About Sehir University

Sehir University was founded based on the foundation “Bilim ve Sanat Vakfi”/ Foundation for Sciences and Arts, which has been working as an educational non-governmental institution since 1986. 2 Established in 2008, they started academic teaching for students in 2010/2011 as a private, non-profit institution and have, since then, offered several full or partial scholarships to Turkish as well as international students. 3 The area between the Altunizade metro bus station and the three main campus locations (East, West and South Campus) is shaped by car and bus traffic, road bridges for pedestrians, a few non-alcohol serving roadside restaurants, a book shop and a Nissan subsidiary. Further on, you come across a few highly protected private buildings as well as a camera-surveyed and walled park for golf and other leisure activities. Entering the West Campus thus felt like entering an oasis due of the presence of green open spaces, cafés that are halfway outdoors, half indoors and the semi-circular sitting arena looking out over campus life.

Eda Yücesoy, sociologist and urban researcher at Sehir told me about the foundation’s background:

“So the university is in that sense very young and the founding foundation has a strong motivation from the conservative part of Turkey […] and there are also many people who are actively involved in the current government.” (Eda Yücesoy, May 27, 2014)

This statement concerning the party-political involvement of central figures in the universities’ background can be verified for the foundation’s Executive Committee as well as for the Sehir University’s Board of Trustees. The foundation presents itself as aiming at international and interdisciplinary networking as well as at a revitalization of Turkish traditions and roots imagined as indispensable for overcoming “psychological and intellectual barriers” to solutions for current global challenges. 4 The foundation does so by organizing activities like workshops in which they are engaging, among various other topics, with the Ottoman history and its implications for current political and societal life as well as problem solving strategies. 5


  1. 1 For further information, see: (last accessed July 2015).
  2. 2 Cf. Bilim Sanat Vakfı Her Hakkı Saklıdır, “Institutional, About Us” (2011), (last accessed July 2015).
  3. 3 Cf. Eastchance, “2012-2013 Academic Year International Undergraduate Admissions”, İstanbul Şehir University, Turkey,cee,sch (last accessed July 2015).
  4. 4 Bilim Sanat Vakfı Her Hakkı Saklıdır, “Institutional, About Us” (2011), (last accessed July 2015).
  5. 5 Bilim Sanat Vakfı Her Hakkı Saklıdır, “Institutional, About Us” (2011), (last accessed July 2015).

For the three young men I spoke to, the ability to finance their studies and lives in Istanbul was the key issue for their decision to move there – as they had to leave Damascus and Homs, they could have also gone to another country. Personal contacts, either to family members or friends, made them find out about the work of the internationally working Syrian charity organization Homs League Abroad (HLA). Although they transport a clear regional identity through the organization’s name, paid membership is open to all Syrians, as well as those living in diasporas and all over the world. Moreover, the scholarships they provide young Syrians with also target those from other cities such as Damascus, as was the case for Isan and Maroun.


Students at Sehir West Campus

Students at Sehir West Campus © Lisa Szepan 2014


 According to their spokesperson Dr. Yaser Al Hamwe in the Head Office in Münster, Germany, HLA’s educational unit started working with two Istanbul universities in summer 2012, the Istanbul Şehir University and the Istanbul Aydın University located in Küçükçekmece. 1 In 2013, the organization counted 120 university students they supported in Turkey, 95 of these in Istanbul, while planning to support more students from autumn 2014 onwards. To introduce their work in Turkey, they built a connection to IHH Humanitarian Relief Foundation Turkey as well as the Turkish governmental scholarship program  turkiyeburslari to provide them with their expertise. IHH, founded in 1992 in Istanbul 2, has undergone severe criticism due to their contacts to a number of right leaning Islamist institutions and individuals. Yet, it has been a major humanitarian institution in Turkish society ever since as well as the most important foundation providing support for Syrian refugees outside of camps since March 2011. 3 Homs League Abroad’s work in Turkey was presented to me as a success and, at the time of our interview, HLA also awaited help from the German Academic Exchange Service and was organized within a broader network of German-Syrian charity organizations. 4


  1. 1 Email-interview answered on August 15, 2014.
  2. 2 Official Website of IHH, “Corporate“, “Brief History“, (last accessed July 2015).
  3. 3 Özden, Senay: Syrian Refugees in Turkey, Migration Policy Center Reports at the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies, European University Institute, San Domenico die Fiesole 2013, p. 9.
  4. 4 For further information, see the network’s website: (last accessed July 2015).

“So, I had to get out. And well, the obvious option is Istanbul.” (Isan, May 29, 2014) With the beginning of the Syrian refugee crisis, the Turkish government introduced the so-called Temporary Protection Regime in October 2011 allowing every Syrian refugee to enter Turkey legally and be provided with accommodation in camps as well as basic services outside of camps. 1 Talking about mobility and migration strategies, one should acknowledge the fact that many of the routes from Syria are taken out of despair and lack of alternatives, thereby representing variants of forced migration 2. However, this forced migration led my interview partners into environments described by them as relatively promising:

“I did not choose this university, I did not choose this country. I did not choose this city to study in. Or this university. It was the only and the one choice for me, to go, to run from the war and to complete my studies, so that is why. Let’s say it was the only and the one option, but it was not that bad, yeah, it is great.” (Nadim, May 30, 2014)

Istanbul’s academic landscape and Sehir University in particular was described as the only but a “great” option – they expressed a certain pragmatism and determination to work hard for a good and prestigious education, for example when Nadim told me about his and Maroun’s dream to study at MIT University (Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge) one day. In addition to being a place to learn and grow, to move further abroad, Istanbul was appreciated for its cultural richness and the degree of freedom it provided:

“You know it is an open society. And you are free to get whatever you want, you can, you can see they have lots of mosques, lots of them actually, and they have night clubs and they have all of this.” (Nadim, May 30, 2014)

However, my interviewees all preferred the Asian side of the city, to which they ascribed a generally calmer and more authentic atmosphere. For Nadim, it was the area close to the so-called Maiden’s Tower Kiz Kulesi in the southern part of the Bosporus strait that he chose for relaxation and reflection. Maroun expressed a certain fascination with the city as a whole when he said:

“Jane [Arabic expletive], I remember I read a sentence, I think, like ‘the world connects with its history in Istanbul’.” (Maroun, May 29, 2014)

However, he also experienced the European side as disturbingly crowded. Isan spoke similarly about Taksim, which he described as a place with unpleasant expats as well as a dubious nightlife characterized by drug dealing and prostitution.

A lot of the student’s everyday life is organized around the campus facilities. For example, Isan, who is employed as a translator by a call center with its office situated in Mecidiyeköy, Şişli, often works from the university to avoid the daily journey by public transport. To earn his living, he is active in a second job: Partly paid and partly volunteering, he supports the work of the NGO Watan Syria, which is part of set of seven institutions focusing on humanitarian and educational work, as well as research and business opportunities for Syria’s future. 3 At Watan, he tries to realize his ideas of charity work for Syrian people affected by the war.


  1. 1 UNHCR, “2015 UNHCR country operations profile – Turkey”, (last accessed July 2015).
  2. 2 According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the category of forced migration applies to those migratory movements “in which an element of coercion exists, including threats to life and livelihood, whether arising from natural or man-made causes”, including, for example the groups of refugees and asylum seekers, Internally Displaced Persons, environmental and disaster-induced displaced as well as development project induced displaced persons. Cf. (last accessed December 2014, no longer online).
  3. 3 Official Website of Watan Syria, “About Watan”, (last accessed July 2005).

“I am actually more active here in Istanbul than I was in Damascus, because you have like, more freedom now. There is no intelligence following us [laughs].” (Isan, May 29, 2014)

Whilst talking to Isan, he started telling me about his role in the Syrian revolution, where he was taking part in neighborhood coordination and the organization of strikes. He was also seeking to spread information about the incidents in Syria on English facebook pages to a broader international audience. In 2012, however, it was no longer safe for him to stay in his neighborhood due to the threat posed by Syrian intelligence. A few months after arriving in Turkey, he became involved in Watan, to which he referred to as a mainly charitable organization aiming to follow and provide analysis of the situation in Syria. Alongside other offices all over the world, mainly in the Middle East and the USA, there is a bigger team in Gaziantep, a Southern Turkish city close to the Syrian border and the area around Aleppo. Isan is one of the continuously active members in a team of about 20 people in Istanbul. In autumn 2014, they were working on the establishment of a sub-unit concentrating fully on scholarship provision. Their biggest problem is the allocation of funds that can guarantee students reliable long-term support in contrast to experiences made with the Homs League Abroad’s scholarship program:

“They have fallen in troubles of providing more funds for the students they already have leading actually to me being suspended from my scholarship, and trying to look for other sources of funds. And this is one of the troubles. The other troubles are actually, what you may call the ideological forcing, forcing some ideas upon students just because they have, they are supporting them. And well, at Watan we will never do such a thing.” (Isan, October 20, 2014)

Isan’s statement indicated the ambiguities of being financially supported by an organization with an ideological agenda and opacities in the selection and suspension processes of students. At this point, the transnational network established by HLA appears to be fragile for the individuals involved in it. In Isan’s case, the suspension from the scholarship program resulted in an increased mistrust in the organization’s integrity on the one hand and in a determination of building up alternative structures of – first and foremost – financial support on the other hand. When I told him about the scholarship package for 100 Syrian students recently announced by German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier in reaction to a public appeal initiated by German academics, Isan was enthusiastic and ready to carry the information into Watan. 1


  1. 1 Federal Foreign Office: “Press Release: Foreign Minister Steinmeier: Germany launches new scholarship package for Syrian students”, September 22, 2014, (last accessed July 2015).