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Somalia Street, Istanbul: An Unlikely Refuge

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ISTANBUL – Among the labyrinth of winding, narrow streets in the Kumkapi neighborhood of Istanbul is a rundown road congested with shops and apartments stacked on top of each other.

Cars barrel down the street as pedestrians slowly move to the narrow sidewalk full of food carts and clothes strewn out on blankets for sale.

Welcome to “Somalia Street,” a gathering place for a community of African refugees, the majority of them Somali.

Through word of mouth and familial ties, Somali refugees seek a temporary home in this nook of Istanbul to find respite from the political and natural disasters that have devastated their homeland for decades.

While the Fargo area has grown into a destination for many Somali refugees, Istanbul acts as a short-term hub for many en route to Australia, Canada or the U.S.

The 2012 U. S. Census Bureau estimates there are 1,000 people, about 600 families, with Somali ancestry in North Dakota, most settling in Fargo.

On Somalia Street, residents estimate their community at a few hundred. Istanbul, with a metropolitan area population of more than 14 million, is considered a megacity.

Dalmar, 30, a Somali refugee, has been in Istanbul for a month with his brother Amet, 20, and lives in a small apartment with 12 other refugees. The tight quarters are common in the neighborhood; often, refugees will live in small apartments with 20 or 30 other people.

“Istanbul is very temporary,” Dalmar said. “The living conditions are poor. Istanbul is expensive, and it is very hard to find work here.”

Turkish labor laws require a valid passport and residence card for employment, neither of which refugees can easily obtain.

A refugee who has lived in Turkey for many years, Liban, 31, said he worked multiple labor jobs when he first arrived in Istanbul, adding that the language barrier between Arabic and Turkish makes it “difficult to get jobs in the first place.”

Despite the challenges, residents appear to have established a community on the littered cobblestone street. Those already established take care of new refugees as they arrive.

A place to gather

The Katip Kasim mosque stands in the center of the street. The mosque is unassuming compared with the more grandiose mosques in other parts of the city.

Muammer Aksoy has worked as the mosque’s imam, or head of Somalia Street’s Islamic community, for 19 years, and has seen significant change. This area of Istanbul always has been a refuge for minority groups in Istanbul, beginning with Kurdish migrants from Turkey’s east.

Somalis are devout Muslims, so the month of Ramadan is a special time on Somalia Street. Once the sun begins to set, the Katip Kasim mosque courtyard fills with people waiting in line to receive their dinner to break the fast, called Iftar.

Aksoy began the community Iftar dinners eight years ago after seeing a Somali refugee attempt to break his fast with a small piece of bread and soiled water from the fountains used to wash feet before entering the mosque.

“It is my responsibility as the imam to take care of my community,” Aksoy said. “I don’t discriminate between people here. Everyone is welcome.”

A partnership

According to Turkish scholar Pinar Tank, Turkey has established networks in Africa, Somalia in particular, to enable peace-building efforts and humanitarian initiatives.

“The relationship between Somalia and Turkey is very recent. Just in 2011 this relationship began,” Dalmar said. “Now there are scholarships and programs for students.”

Somalia receives more aid from Turkey than any other African nation, with $93 million in 2011 and scholarships for 1,500 Somali students to study in the state-run Istanbul University in 2013.

Abdifitah, 25, has been living in the community for one year and has received that scholarship. To take advantage of this opportunity, Abdifitah and his family moved together from Somalia.

“Istanbul gave me a chance to learn,” Abdifitah said. 

About this series

These stories were produced by student journalists as part of an international education experience in Istanbul, Turkey, and Nice, France.

Thirty-one student journalists and 10 faculty members from around the U.S. and Canada collaborated on the project.

The experience was organized by the Institute for Education in International Media and sponsored by the University of Jamestown and Forum Communications.