As a research group, we were concerned with Istanbul’s economical, cultural and social transformation into a global city over the past 50 years as well as the various effects of this transformation. During our travel to Istanbul Nora Kühnert and Anne Patscheider conducted field research on squatting in Istanbul. The political controversies regarding common usage of urban space in everyday life as well as the political struggles stemming from immense changes of social life culminating in the Gezi Park protest in 2013 were the most obvious links between the projects that they visited.

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.

François told us about sub-Saharan asylum seekers in Istanbul as well asylum seekers in general. When I asked if skin color played a role, he referred to the following episode as a typical experience of black people in Istanbul:

“If you go to Osmanbey, or somewhere else, you will find so many Iranians, Syrians, who are working really without working permit, because they are white, Muslims sometimes, no problem. But because black people…oh police when they make, you know, control they will see black people working. What happens? They will arrest them and then they will even fine the employers. And then the employers, to pay the fine, how do you think? They will use the way that they supposed to pay you, they will give to police. And then they will tell you: You see, we give your money to the police because they don’t want you to work. So we can work two month, three month, three month and then still ain’t getting a new salary. Or they give you half-half. Half-half, the other half is kept in case if the police come to fine them. And then your wage is used to pay the police.” 1

This is not the only mention of ‘white Iranians and Syrians’ not having so many problems with the police that came to my attention. According to Koray Özdil, sub-Saharan migrants in Istanbul face racial profiling, physical violence, stigmatization and having to live in fear. 2

When asked about the employment opportunities for recent migrants in Istanbul, François told us that men work mostly at construction sites or in the textile sector while women work as cleaners, babysitters and in textile production as well. He added that as a black man, you can work for merchants and lead customers from African countries to them. Black people in Istanbul try to organize themselves in specific locations, for example churches. With François, we visited a prayer service at one of those churches, “The Winners Divine Chapel“. These evangelical churches can be seen as “subaltern (sacred) counterspaces” serving as places of prayer, as transnational meeting points, and business hubs 3


Camera: Svetlana Stojanovic; Editing: Mathias Fiedler


François described “The Winners Divine Community” as follows:

“So, like this church we are going to visit is just a community, Ghanaian community church, but created by Ghanaian and some Nigerian people. Maybe some Philippine are inside.”

„God is at work here“ or „2014 our year of breakthroughs and victory“ were two of the slogans written on the walls in the church. During the service, the pastor talked about „examinations“ members of the parish had to pass. He compared the members to products or goods that have to be tested. According to him, every commodity has to pass examinations before it is admitted to the market. I had the impression that everybody in the church was listening very carefully. However, later, when music was played, the situation got more relaxed and almost everybody in the church started to dance.


Camera: Svetlana Stojanovic; Editing: Mathias Fiedler


François tried to explain the importance of the churches for the community:

“People will not feel comfortable, because some people, they don’t know what to do. They ah, when they go to church, they meet their own people. People from the community, or they meet, have a bit spare time, they socialize. Ah, they get more information about how to be here. And there they, you know, they feel relaxed.”



  1. 1 Talk with François on the May 25, 2014.
  2. 2 For further information about sub-Saharan migrants in Istanbul see the study of Özdil, Koray: To get a paper, to get a job’–The Quite Struggles of African Foreigners in Istanbul, Turkey (2008), Master’s Th., Central European University Budapest, Dept. of Sociology and Cultural Anthropology, Online: (last accessed July 2015).
  3. 3 Heck, Gerda: Worshipping at the Golden Age Hotel: Transnational Networks, Economy, Religion, and Migration of the Congolese in Istanbul, in: Becker, Jochen/Klingan, Katrin/Lanz, Stephan /Wildner, Kathrin (eds.): Global prayers: contemporary manifestations of the religious in the city, Zürich: Lars Müller Publishers 2014, pp. 274-289.

As I was further reflecting on the situation of Syrian refugees in Istanbul, I wanted to see Ismail again, whom I had first gotten in touch with on May, 1 2014 in Edirne. We had met in one of the city’s hotels in the evening after the big 1 May demonstration that had taken place in the city center. During our first conversation, Ismail told me that he had already tried to reach both Greece and Bulgaria with his family a couple of times. In Greece, the border police pushed them back 1. The family could not enter Bulgaria because the Border Police was in position on Turkish territory, blocking the way. For many years, Ismail had been a wholesale trader in Germany. During that time, he had a visa for Germany, where he often moved from place to place. He escaped the war in Syria and got stuck in Turkey after he and his family had had to leave Egypt, where they had lived for a while. In a near-perfect German, he told me:

“What really bothers me is that I was in Germany and I know Europe very well and I cannot enter. Why, because I have a family. With a family, it is hard to enter. If I would have been alone, I would have made it a long time ago. And I don’t need help, I go alone. […] But because of my family, I cannot. I have to, somehow, watch out for my family. I have my children in a Syrian school in Istanbul and I wait until the school is finished and then I will travel on to Germany, if I can.” 2

But as Ismail failed to cross the border a third time, the family did not see any chance in Edirne and decided to go back to Istanbul. I met Ismail once more in Aksaray 3 in the end of May 2014. He told me on the phone that we would meet each other at the underground station next to a parked police car. He was accompanied by his son. We hugged and looked for a coffee bar.

After a little while, he started telling us how he had been doing since we last met. He spoke about how hard life was for the family in the Global City and that he was constantly running out of money. Ismail applied for the Humanitarian Admission Program (HAP) 4 in Germany like thousands of Syrian refugees. He did not know about the progress of his application. He told me that he planned to send his child to Germany alone because he hoped this strategy would allow the whole family to follow. “I will try it at the border again,” he told me.

Some months later, I chatted with Ismail once more. He told me that he was planning to sell one of his kidneys because the family had no money left. “I am an old man already“, Ismail wrote in a short message. He had had to spend a lot of money due to several hospital stays of his wife and one of his children. Ismail’s new ‘idea’, to be quite honest, made me sad and depressed. He sounded more and more depressed himself when I spoke to him through social media. Finally, in the beginning of February 2015, Ismail arrived in Germany with one son. After crossing several EU-countries, they applied for asylum in Germany. They are currently awaiting a decision on their status.


  1. 1 More information about Push-Backs from Greece to Turkey can be found in the report by the human rights organization Pro Asyl: Pushed Back. Systematic human rights violations against refugees in the aegean sea and at the greek-turkish land border, November 7, 2013, (last accessed July 2015).
  2. 2 Talk with Ismail in Edirne on May 1, 2014.
  3. 3 For further information about Aksaray see the multimedia project Der Zaun by Dietmar Telser, Benjamin Stoess and Thorsten Schneiders (December 2014, updated April 2015), (last accessed July 2015).
  4. 4 Bundesministerium des Inneren, Humanitäre Aufnahmeprogramme des Bundes, December 12, 2014, (last accessed July 2015).

I met up with Jawad and Jasir at the “Sea of Marmara” in a suburb called Küçükçekmece a place where „many Kurdish people live “, as I was later told by my interview partners.

In the past, Jawad had been a lawyer in Syria. I knew Jawad from earlier research  1 I conducted for Bordermonitoring Bulgaria 2. A friend gave me Jawad’s number and when I called, he told me his story. At the end of 2013, he had already tried to get into Europe via Bulgaria. He made it, but he had to stay in Lyubimets Detention Center for three months and several more months in the so called “Transitcenter“ in Pastrogor. At that point, the camp was completely overcrowded and the State Agency for Refugees (SAR) was unable to tell him whether he would be accepted as a refugee or not. After a few months, he could not endure the wait any longer and he decided to go back to Syria.

“I went to Syria and stayed in Syria about 4 month. I can’t stay in Syria, everything is bad in Syria, too. Therefore, now I am in Turkey.” 3

While having tea, Jawad told me that he was prepared to take a boat across the Aegean Sea to Greece. He said that he does not see any other way to go to Europe. During our conversation, Jawad’s mother called him on the phone and told him to take care of himself. After the call, Jasir assured me that his mother had forbidden him to take the route via boat. Instead, he hoped for a false passport enabling him to travel by plane, although this option would cost him a lot more money.

At the end of the afternoon, Jawad and Jasir accompanied me to a bus station nearby. Jawad and I hugged and I was close to tears when we separated and the bus drove away. I really cannot name the feeling I had, but if I try, it can only be described as a mixture of misery and anger. Some weeks later, Jawad contacted me from Sweden. He lives now in Växjö.


  1. 1 The following chapter includes field notes from May 29, 2014 as well as notes taken during my participation in the research project Bordermonitoring Bulgaria.
  2. 2 For further information see the project’s blog: (last accessed July 2015).
  3. 3 Recorded phone call (April 2014).

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


Every year since 2003, the group “LGBTI Istanbul” has organized Istanbul’s LGBTIQ* Pride March. After modest beginnings with 30 participants in its first year, July 2013 saw thousands of homo-, bi- hetero- and transsexuals opposing Turkish Prime Minister Erdoğan and homophobia with Gezi Park-protesters in Taskim square expressing their solidarity. The number of participants increased immensely to 50.000 in 2013 and redoubled in 2014 with approximately 100.000 participants. The LGBTIQ* Pride March is considered the biggest Pride Event in South Eastern Europe. Despite this public expression of queer sexual identities, homo- and transphobia still pose a severe problem.

Pridemarch 2014

By 2014, various groups, individuals and organizations had gotten involved in the organization. In Istanbul, Pride Week begins with the Trans Pride March on Sunday and ends with the Gay Pride March the following weekend. The separate marches originate from Trans groups having been underrepresented in LGB contexts and not feeling accepted. Therefore, they demanded a March of their own. In recent years, the audience of the Marches mixed and many people attended both demonstrations.

At the end of May 2014, we travelled to Istanbul for the first time. During our week-long stay, we made initial contacts and gained first insights into Istanbul’s queer life. We met many different activists concerned with queer life, advocacy and resistance who let us into their life for a moment, told us their stories, eased our introduction to the queer networks of the city and were of great help in getting to know the city’s queer life.

The aim of our second research trip was to deepen established contacts and gain better access to the field. Pride Week provided us with a good opportunity to document the diversity of queer life and activism. This is how, in June 2014, we were part of the 100.000 visitors of Pride Week protesting, singing, dancing and celebrating for the rights of LGBTQ*. In the spirit of that year’s Pride’s motto, “Temas” (contact), we accompanied queer people in Istanbul, took part in forums, panels and workshops, interviewed, spoke to and debated with Pride visitors, organizers, hosts, artists and activists.

Programme 2014

Hormonlu Domates


© Queerstanbul 2014

As a form of public resistance to the media’s portrayal of LGBTIQ*, the Hormonlu Domates Homofobi ve Transfobi ÖDÜLLERI (“Genetically Modified Tomato Homo / Trans / Biphobia Awards”) was founded in 2005 and is organized by LambdaIstanbul. It is awarded to public figures that made homo-, trans- or biphobic statements in the media. The event’s name was chosen in reference to athlete Erman Toroğlu’s statement that genetically manipulated tomatoes would be responsible for people becoming homosexual 1.

The public award ceremony was held in June 2014 in the old cinema of the municipality of Şişli’s cultural center. Mademoiselle Coco chaired this event complemented by performances of queer artists. As a self-empowerment strategy of LGBTIQ* organizers and visitors, the recipients were first projected on a big screen. Their statements were played again during the nomination as a parody and deconstruction of the statements. None of the nominees appeared to accept the award.

Appropriation of public space (during the march)

Crucial elements of the marches were the rainbow and Trans flags. The participants were covering İstiklal Street in its length and whole width with huge rainbow flags, waving and swinging them. Besides these giant flags carried through İstiklal Street in a collaborate effort, so-called Lollipops, protest signs in the shape of a circle, contributed to the creativeness and detail-rich composition of the Pride March. As an act of protest, these Lollipops were also utilized during the marches to label and annotate certain objects such as the police’s water cannons, shops and stores along İstiklal Street and, for example, the entrance gate of the Russian consulate.

Furthermore, viewers and visitors gathered on the balconies, windows and rooftops of the surrounding buildings. Starting at Takism Square, the ending point of the Pride March was Tünel, where the artwork of artist Ayse Erkmen, a huge tower built in 1994, is located. Again, people ascended and decorated the tower with Lollipops and rainbow flags.

Agreement Erdogan Regierung


© Mehmet Gündüz 2014

There is an informal “agreement” with the municipal authorities that the state agencies not interfere with the demonstration. Therefore, the Pride March is the only demonstration not interrupted by police. This is also related to the strong interest of Western media and press representatives documenting the March and reporting on it. A young member of the organizational team old us:

“But the only demonstration they let is the LGBTI-Pride here in Istanbul. We think that international solidarity is the major support that we have. In Europe we have a strong network here so we can make our voices heard by other people in Europe. It’s like a pressure on Turkish government.”

Nevertheless the march was attacked by the police in 2015. 2

Minorities at the March

This example of a Kurdish Trans group illustrates that the Pride March provides a platform for demands for political and social recognition and to demonstrate ethnic and political identities. Moreover, it is a chance to call attention to intersectional discrimination.

Here, the demonstrating group used imaginations of traditions to contribute to and take part in the Pride March. By wearing clothes labeled as traditional such as hair bands in the Kurdish colors green, yellow and red, playing musical instruments like drums, using dance and sounds, they express their Kurdish identity. Using visual and auditory media, their transsexuality as well as Kurdish identity becomes visible, audible and, thus, noticeable. As the only demonstration in Istanbul tolerated without interference, the March provides minorities with the opportunity to call attention to their isolation and exclusion from mainstream society, to break the silence, to demonstrate resistance and to put their situation on the agenda.

Transnational solidarity relationship in the organization of Pride Week


© Mehmet Gündüz

Within the organizational structures of the Pride March, transnational relations play an important role. The demonstration receives support from Western European countries and their state representatives in Istanbul. For example, the British consulate raised the rainbow flag on the day of the Pride March. The Dutch and the Swedish consulates opened their gates for events and support the activists financially. A commercialization of the Pride Week, such as sponsorship of individual companies, though, is rejected by the activists.

“I mean these changes are happening really rapidly in a way because the movement is going for 22 years in Istanbul and Turkey as well. But at the same time these 22 years are efficient enough to finance any economic sources. But one point is really important for Pride: We are not taking sponsorship; we are not working with any firms. Non-profit-events are happening.”

LamdaIstanbul situated the onset of international solidarity, support, cooperation and assistance in the year 2007. (Homepage Lambda)

“It’s not only happening by itself in Istanbul, it brings all people from Turkey and Kurdistan. At the same time it is also a nice place as Pride to express your own existence from Iran, Syria and Balkan as well.” (Activists from the organization team)

There is no financial funding by the Turkish government. When inquiring about this in regard to the funding of the Pride Week, a young activist of the organization team told us:

“There is no aim that the government is supporting the LGBT-activism or the LGBT-social rights in Turkey. And also they have an open homophobia politic. Recently they shouted from the parliament that we are sick, that for Turkey LGBTI-rights is not important at all. […] We organized parties in our community. We gather people and collect funds for Pride Week. Other than that it’s mostly the European Consulates here supporting the Pride Week. This is how we gather funds actually.”


  1. 1 “Hormonlu domates yemeyin homoseksüel olursunuz.”, 2005
  2. 2 and (last accessed on July 7, 2015

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.

On my first visit to Sehir University, I started having a chat with two female students in the West Campus cafeteria randomly asking them where to find the next public park. While chatting, I told them about the student research group I was part of. When we came to discuss the issue of refugees in Istanbul, they mentioned that there were a number of Syrian students that had recently arrived at their university and sent me to the International Relations Office to find out more. 1

We found ourselves in Üsküdar, a middle-class neighborhood on the Asian side of the city that had been described as religious and conservative by the Turkish students I interviewed – naturally, such categorizations of whole districts only tell a part of the story. In the 2014 mayoral elections, 40.5% gave their vote to the Republican People’s Party’s (CHP) candidate and the Justice and Development Party (AKP) won with only a slight majority of 42.2%. Regarding political choices, the district appears to be a lot more diverse than initially expected, although the successful CHP candidate in Üsküdar was described as rather conservative when compared to the secular and left-wing social-democratic CHP. 2 For many Syrian students, Üsküdar is first and foremost a new home they arrive at after fleeing a war – the war in their home country. In the International Relations Office, I met three young Syrian men who shared crucial parts of their biographies with me. We talked about paths that had led them to Sehir University, the situation in Syria, the hardships as well as the positive experiences of their daily lives in the city of Istanbul.


  1. 1 This article was developed in the year-long seminar “Global City Istanbul“ at the University Göttingen under supervision of Sabine Hess and Gerda Heck. My research was partly conducted during a one week-long excursion to Istanbul partly through follow-up Skype interviews with some of the interlocutors I met there.
  2. 2 Cf. Cagaptay, Soner: “Turkey’s Presidential Prospects – Assessing recent trends”, in: Research Notes 18 (2014), The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, pp. 1-8.

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).

In Aksaray, where many Syrians live, there are currently more than ten Syrian restaurants, Isan told me. Whenever he missed Syrian food, such as bean dishes and humus, he went there. The further broadening of Istanbul’s already global culinary infrastructure is one side effect of the Syrians’ active presence in the city. Outside Isan’s university and work life, he also occasionally had contact to Syrian people living at the outskirts of Istanbul, in areas like Sutanbeyli – there, he said, it is possible to rent a house at around 300 lira per month.

“It’s a, as if it is a village – not exactly a city, but it is still inside Istanbul. It is still considered inside of Istanbul, but it is a poor place, it is a very poor place.” (Isan, October 20,2014)

Far relatives of his stay in the area close to the city’s second airport, Sabiha Gökçen. According to Isan, they received support by the municipality, the Sultanbeyli belediyesi, for furnishings.

For describing the current relationship between Turkish and Syrian people, Isan found plain words when I asked him whether he had noticed the recent protests against Syrian migrants, for example in Ikitelli, Istanbul:

“Right now, you can obviously see that the Turkish people have lost their patience towards the Syrian issue.” (Isan, October 20, 2014)

He explained that the protests have been reactions to criminal acts of poor Syrian refugees, mostly theft, and that he understood both the Turkish people’s anger and the desperation of many of his compatriots.

“[…] as you can expect, people coming from a country that is broken, some of them are going to be broken also.” (Isan, May 29, 2014)

While showing his understanding for the Turkish people’s reaction towards social ‘misbehavior’ of refugees, he nevertheless referred to the protesters as lower educated and “not the most civilized Turkish people”, thereby implying that it is not the whole of Turkish society building up against Syrians. However, in official AKP government statements towards the Syrian issue until the end of 2012, the prevailing discourse was one of Turkey’s grandeur reflected in its selfless and conscientious support of the Syrian population in- and outside the war-shattered country. 1


  1. 1 Demirtas-Bagdonas, Özlem: “Reading Turkey’s Foreign Policy on Syria: The AKP’s Construction of a Great Power Identity and the Politics of Grandeur”, in: Turkish Studies 15 (2014) 1, pp. 139-155.

Reviewing the experiences of Isan, Maroun, Nadim and their families, their situation seems to reflect the almost desperate situation in Syria on the one hand and the fragmentation of Syrian civil society organizations abroad on the other. Chances to flee the war are mostly springing up from personal contacts leading to organizational affiliations and are, even in the most opportune cases, such as that of scholarship holders, accompanied by huge efforts and uncertainties. The fact that scholarship programs often require young people to leave their family members behind in an area of armed conflict and to migrate on their own to take the chance for academic training is just the most obvious hardship. Invoking the widespread pictures of Syrian refugees in Turkey inhabiting large camps or the streets of Istanbul or Gaziantep, the label of privileged refugees popped up in my head and I asked Isan what he thought about it. He hesitated and then replied:

“Probably you can say that. I suppose you can say that, because I mean me being at a private university –  to be honest, I had to work really really hard during the summer. Really hard meaning almost 20 hours a day to be able to gather enough money to pay for this semester and the coming one.” (Isan, October 20, 2014)

His answer made it plain to me that his and the other students’ privileges were fragile and that they were all struggling to pursue their education in Turkey. Their examples show that, once having fled from a war, people need much more than shelter, but rather long-term perspectives, and higher education is one part of it. Despite the activities of transnational organizations, universities and individuals, the Turkish government continues to play a key role in setting the benchmarks for the treatment of Syrians in the country. It remains to be seen how it is going to cope with the rising tensions against Syrian refugees and whether actors like Watan will be able to build alliances with the least fortunate Syrians inhabiting Turkey.

The idea of a research on the Erasmus programme and its manifestations in Istanbul was to ask why students from all over Europe chose Istanbul as their destination and how they are living in the global city. The project of Anna Schäfer and Laura Lamping highlights different perspectives of doing Erasmus in Istanbul: from the bureaucratic burdens of universities, to student’s romanticism of living in “the exotic East” and their ways of living between Erasmus Parties and protest movements.

The Erasmus Programme existing since 1987 constitutes one of the most popular exchange programmes supported by the European Union. Since its creation, over two million students have participated in the Erasmus Programme and went abroad. So far, around 3.000 institutions from 33 European countries have taken part in the programme 1. On the one hand, the programme provides students with better opportunities for going abroad, but on the other hand, universities are confronted with manifold administrative hurdles as they have to coordinate with universities from other countries. Nevertheless, many students enjoy the collective or unique experience including the cultural exchange with other Erasmus participants. 2

Therefore, not only universities follow the ongoing process of internationalization 3. Students have since realized the potential of and the need for international experiences for successful careers – and they value the possibility of having fun and spending a good time with other young people from places all over the world. Turkey especially has become very attractive for a short-time stay of six to twelve months. In 2012, around 6.000 students took the chance to visit Turkey through Erasmus 4. Also, Istanbul seems to become increasingly attractive to students: “Every year, we get more and more Erasmus incoming students […]” said M., an Erasmus coordinator of an Istanbul university 5.

Is The Erasmus Programme Contributing to the Global City Image? 

The Erasmus Programme can be analyzed with regard to image benefits not only for the universities but also for the city (government). The increasing number of Erasmus students in Turkey is certainly linked to the universities’ aspirations to international reputation. Different strategies and instruments of city policies such as support programmes, monument protection laws and housing legislation have already been analyzed in urban studies with regard to gentrification processes 6. Our research posed the question if the specific support programme Erasmus might be connected to the city government’s attempts at creating Western, cosmopolitan, international and democratic flair. Erasmus could then be situated within the wider context of neo-liberalism and the global city concept.


  1. 1 Cf. Wuttig, Siegbert: “Vorwort“, in: DAAD Euroletter. Informationen zur EU-Bildungs- und Hochschulzusammenarbeit, August 2012, (last accessed July 2015).
  2. 2 Cf. Tekin, Uğur: “Auswirkungen des ERASMUS-Programms auf Universitäten und Studierende in der Türkei“, in: Pusch, Barbara (ed.): Transnationale Migration am Beispiel Deutschland und Türkei, Wiesbaden: Springer 2013, pp. 279-290, here p. 279.
  3. 3 Cf. Tekin, Uğur: “Auswirkungen des ERASMUS-Programms auf Universitäten und Studierende in der Türkei“, in: Pusch, Barbara (ed.): Transnationale Migration am Beispiel Deutschland und Türkei, Wiesbaden: Springer 2013, pp. 279-290, here p. 280.
  4. 4 Cf. Acker, Samuel: “Die Brücke nach Europa wackelt“, in: Zeit Online, March 18, 2014, (last accessed July 2015).
  5. 5 Interview with M., an Erasmus coordinator of an Istanbul university (May 30, 2014).
  6. 6 Cf. Holm, Andrej: “Gentrification”, in: Eckardt, Frank (ed.): Handbuch Stadtsoziologie, Wiesbaden: Springer 2012, pp. 661-679, here p. 670. Holm names Loretta Lees as an example for this kind of approach in urban research.