A snapshot of Syrian culture can be found on a ferry cruising down the Bosporus every Friday from Istanbul’s Eminonu port. The boat cruise draws a mostly Arab audience and hosts entertainment complete with magic shows, music performances and dancing.
Ahmed fled from Syria to live in Istanbul with his wife and two small daughters and now lives in Bursa, Turkey with his family but hopes to travel to Germany. The family’s experience coming together to Turkey is not common as many still remain separated.
“What reminds us of our country is two things—food and music,” says the owner of Salloura Sweets, a company from Aleppo famous for its Syrian desserts. The workers, including 14-year-old Hanan, say they couldn’t find jobs when they came to Turkey, so the company successfully opened a new branch in Istanbul.
Fatima lives with her seven member family in a small apartment. They fled any hope in Aleppo when it was bombed. She spends her time in Istanbul sewing dresses inside her home to help earn money for her family. She works on each dress for a month and says for two days work she earns only $3.50.
Abdullazeez, center left, shares Iftar with Syrian housemates while he rests for a night in Istanbul. Leaving Syria nine months ago, he spent $500 and over nine hours at sea to make it to Sweden. He was granted refugee status in Sweden and now travels back through Turkey to retrieve his family and bring them legally to Europe
Ali, 22, fled on foot from Aleppo to Istanbul. He arrived to Turkey covered in mud with only one small bag of clothes. “War isn’t the actual shooting or the battle, it’s the aftermath,” Ali says of his experience escaping Syria. After a failed attempt to cross to Europe by sea, he remains in Turkey until he finds a way to reunite with his brother in Germany.
Nina, 16, lived as a refugee in Syria after fleeing her home in Iraq with her mother and sisters. When conflict began in Syria, the family fled for a second time to Turkey where they have been waiting two years for resettlement to the United States through the UN. “I want them to live free,” Nina’s mother says about her daughters’ new lives in Buffalo, New York.
Orouba has been an activist since her university days organizing protests in Syria. Banned from working in Syria because of her personal opposition and family’s anti-government history, Orouba worked most of her life as a journalist outside of her country. She and her daughter Halla live in Istanbul where she is an advocate for refugee rights.
“Istanbul is a city for fighters,” Maisa says of the resilience required for Syrians to start new lives in the city. Maisa came by herself alone to Turkey.She works as a music teacher and director of a singing group, The Istanbul Mosaic Choir. She says she named the choir mosaic because she hopes mixing cultures in the group can bring understanding about Syrians to Turkey.
Shams was pregnant with Abdullah when she came to Turkey while her husband travelled to Germany to apply for refugee status. FaceTime calls with Abdullah’s aunt and father in Germany are the only form of communication he knows while his parents try to gather the resources for reunification.
Abdurrahman started a new life in Istanbul with his magic tricks. He fled from Aleppo to Istanbul where he decided to pursue his dream to perform as a magician. His dedication payed off when he was chosen as the only Syrian on the TV show “Turkey’s Got Talent.” He hopes to work as a magician outside Turkey but can't because of limits on his Syrian passport.
Shams lives with her husband's family in Istanbul. Language barriers and documentation make it a challenge for Shams and her sisters to find stable jobs so they rely on money sent from Germany and Damascus to survive.
Limited space and expensive rent requires innovative housing for refugees in Istanbul. This lead Ali to open a hostel for Syrian men when he came to Turkey to escape violence in Aleppo. Many of the young men in Ali’s house came to Istanbul by themselves making this housing their best option.
Mary studied agriculture in Syria but became a self-made business woman in Istanbul after coming from Damascus with only enough money to afford the price of her ticket. She earned money teaching Turkish to Syrians in Urfa, Turkey then settled in Istanbul where she opened Şef Café with her Turkish business partner and started two other projects on her own.
Nejla, 13, lived in Istanbul eight months with her father waiting for word from the Swedish embassy about reuniting with her mother and little sister in Europe. Nejla has spent most of her young life in transition.Not enrolled in school, she fills her time watching YouTube videos and connecting with Swedish people on social media in anticipation of a new beginning in Europe.
Can School was started as a charity project for Syrian children in Istanbul. Since it’s opening, the school has lost funding and receives no support from the Turkish government. Can is one of a growing network of Syrian schools opened in Istanbul because language barriers and discrimination make it difficult for children to attend Turkish schools.
Omer came to Istanbul from Aleppo with just one small bag and his guitar. At sixteen years old he started an independent life in Istanbul, going to school and working as a musician to pay rent for his own apartment. “Live a music life,” Omer says about his hopes for the future in Istanbul.
Despite challenges of assimilation, the Syrian spirit in Istanbul prevails. After a musical performance, a group of Syrian men clap along to lyrics that tell of the country they've been forced to leave behind. While some of the older men say they’d return to Syria if given a chance, most now think of Turkey as a permanent home.
Rapper Ismaeel celebrates his wedding night in Istanbul. He’s part of a group of young performers that continues to grow as more Syrians decide to stay in Turkey.