I’ve made my first visit to the Yusra Community Center in the Balat district of Istanbul just up the Golden Horn from the city center. My taxi driver needed one phone call and two stops to ask for directions before, quite accidentally, I saw the brightly curtained corner window of this essential agency. Perhaps the taxi ride, the need for directions, the getting lost, and the stumbling into the right street are all apt metaphors for trying to help Syrian refugees, my purpose for this trip to Turkey. The office/play area/classroom/registration center is tiny, barely the size of moderate hotel room. When I entered, some twenty women, most holding babies, crowded around Shahla Raza (I’ll call her the Head of Mission) to register for whatever services the center can provide: Turkish language classes, play time and a play area for children, Pampers, flip-flops, perhaps a pair of patent leather loafers from a retiring ex-pat diplomat.
Before coming to Istanbul, Shahla worked in the refugee camps near the Syrian border. There, the numbers of displaced people run into the hundreds of thousands. There, the crowding, the wish for order, the needs of people who have just escaped the horrible destruction of their cities, schools, hospitals, homes, families are, of course, magnitudes larger than what appears at the door of the Yusra Center. But they, too, are survivors of like horrors.
About 150 households have registered; households may include several families gathered in the same flat. By contrast, there are some 300,000 refugees living in Istanbul. Yesterday, the UN counted 2.5 million refugees in Turkey; Turkish government officials say 3 million; unofficial numbers estimate 4 million.
You might well imagine how crowded a tiny flat feels when twenty mothers and their babies arrive all at once, leave their shoes at the entry, and surround the single person taking their information.
Further south, in Iraq, Fallujah is emptying itself. There are 69 million displaced people in the Middle East and Africa. Half of those are children. Many of the children have been separated from their parents. Many have not been to school in years.
I plan to supply some bookcases and to fill them with books. Someone else will have to read to the little ones in Turkish or Arabic.
I don’t know how to separate the big from the small.