Iraqi Refugees Wait for New Lives in Istanbul's 'Little Baghdad'
A neighborhood known as 'Son Durak' (Last Stop) in Istanbul's Kurtuluş area is a way station for Iraqis who have fled the Iraq war since 2003. The community, also called 'Little Baghdad,' is mostly populated by Christian refugees from central and southern Iraq whose meeting-point is a café on the neighborhood square
Sitting inside the Genç Kardeşler Café behind the bus station in Istanbul's Kurtuluş area, it is easy to see why the "Son Durak" (Last Stop) neighborhood is also called "Little Baghdad."
The men playing cards and chatting at the cafe, smoking at the door or enjoying the sun outside predominantly speak Arabic, and like many of those who have made the journey from Iraq, their lives are characterized by waiting.
Kurtuluş has been a way station for some time for thousands of Iraqi refugees who fled violence and war at home, leaving behind their families, loved ones, jobs, houses and even their pasts. Here in this cosmopolitan Istanbul neighborhood, the men bide their time in this cafe, the women at home, while children and the young play or linger in the streets or attend courses organized for refugees by immigration organizations. What they all have in common is waiting.
Some have been waiting four or five years to receive an acceptance from a host country where they applied to immigrate. Others sail away to a new life after only a year.
Iraqis choose to settle in Kurtuluş while they wait for a variety of reasons. The area is full of churches and home to the Catholic charity organization Caritas and the Chaldean Church, making it attractive to the many Christian migrants. It is close to immigrant organizations in Beyoğlu and populated by Greeks, Armenians and members of other migrant groups. The rents are also relatively low. But more than anything, the desire for "being together" leads many refugees to make this area their temporary home.
In Kurtuluş, they have peace and security -- what they yearn for most for their country -- but a sense that this feeling is temporary. Many yearn to leave behind both the violence in Iraq and their days of poverty in Istanbul and start over in a Western country.
"I tried to live in many different neighborhoods, but I like Kurtuluş the most. Greeks and Armenians have their churches here," said a man who asked to be identified only by the initials M.D., 50, who has lived in the neighborhood since 1991. Still, he said, he wants to move to the United States, where his sister lives.
"I was a merchant [in Iraq] but I am a translator here," said M.D., who is fluent in English, Turkish, Syriac and Arabic.
"I don't have the words to describe how much I miss my country. If someone said, 'Everything is back to normal in Iraq, and a plane to the U.S. is waiting for you,' I would prefer to go back to Iraq," he said. "We didn't have any trouble in Iraq. It was better than Saudi Arabia or Iran. But then Saddam Hussein was ousted and everywhere was on fire."
Another Iraqi refugee, 25-year-old C.A., was a shoe mender in Baghdad but came to Turkey with her sister in 2004 after being threatened.
"If all of Iraq was given to me, I would not go back," she said. "There is no life, no law. Before the Americans came it was very beautiful but now no one remains in our neighborhood."
C.A. lived in Kurtuluş for a year and a half, and then returned to Iraq, where she stayed for two years. "I got married and set up my business, but was threatened again. I came back to Turkey in 2009 and applied to the United Nations [for refugee status]. They told me, 'We are examining your paperwork,'" she said. "My second time around [in Turkey], I rented a house in Kurtuluş. My child is getting sick but I have no insurance. I have asked for Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's help. I don't want money. I want to go to Melbourne."
Another area resident, H.A., is a Muslim. After her husband was kidnapped in Baghdad, she came to Kurtuluş with her two sons. They are living as roommates with an Iraqi couple. She wants to go to the United States and be with her friends.
"Baghdad was no longer a safe place for us. There are police here, there is life. Here is a stop for us. But we will have to pay a fine upon leaving -- $25,000 to $30,000 for the three of us. I wish it would be abolished," she said.
One of the biggest problems for Iraqis as well as other refugees is the annual "residence fee" of about 600 Turkish Liras per person they have to pay each year they remain in Turkey. If it is not paid, interest is added to the total owed. If they do not agree to move from Istanbul to smaller "satellite cities," they have to pay a fine for that too. In total, many families owe some 30,000 to 60,000 liras by the time they leave Turkey -- an amount that must be paid before leaving. The Interior Ministry has, however, announced that those who cannot afford to pay the fees will be pardoned. A proposed bill would abolish the residence fee altogether.
"I have a few female friends here. But the rest of the time I keep crying. I went to Taksim and Eminönü, and the seaside, too… I watch Al-Arabia and Al-Jazeera at home. I know very little Turkish. I can barely handle shopping," H.A. said.
"My relatives in Basra will inform me if they hear anything. If he is alive, my husband can find me," she added. "Do you know what the most important thing is? I can sleep here, but could not in Baghdad. I want to have inner peace. I want to have a rest for my heart and my children."
Facts about refugees
* The number of Iraqi refugees in Turkey, according to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR, is 6,590.
* Nearly 1,600 Iraqi Christian refugees live in Istanbul.
* Iraqis coming from the provinces of Kirkuk, Salahaddin, Mousul, Baghdad and Diyala are considered "refugees" by the UNHCR.
* Iraqis designated as "refugees" by the UNHCR go to the Foreigners Desk for registration and then wait for their departure to the host countries where they want to live.
*Refugees in Turkey are assigned to a total of 52 satellite cities, but most prefer to live in Istanbul due to social, religious and financial issues.
* Turkey does not provide permanent residence permits for refugees coming from outside Europe. Therefore, Turkey is kind of a "way station" for Iraqi refugees.
* Countries providing residence permits to Iraqi refugees are the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Finland and Canada. Other European countries do not fill the U.N. quota.