Syrian refugees spark child labour boom in Istanbul

Thousands of displaced children are working on the streets of Istanbul and across Turkey. Nil Köksal speaks with some of them and investigates the efforts to keep them in school.

An estimated 150,000 Syrian child refugees taken in by Turkey are in living in Istanbul

Syrian child refugees in Turkey

6 years ago
Syrian refugee children-- some as young as toddlers-- are being forced to fend for themselves in the streets of Istanbul, Turkey. 6:30

The children are underfoot, barefoot, buskers and beggars. They are Syrian refugees, and many are fending for themselves on the streets of Istanbul.

Of the some two million Syrian refugees Turkey has taken in, an estimated 300,000 are living in Istanbul. Children, it is believed, make up about 150,000 of that group.

At any given time, but especially late into the night, there are scores of children on Istiklal Street off Taksim Square in Istanbul.

More than a million people walk the 2 kilometre stretch daily, but most ignore the children. As stunning as it is to see even toddlers alone on the street, to many they've become wallpaper in a busy city already bursting at the seams.

Hussein Yilmaz does what he can to get tourists' attention in Taksim Square. At 12 years old, he's doing what so many other Syrian children are doing in Turkey.

"We sell tissues, what can we do?" he says. He can bring in the equivalent of about $10 a day selling the small packets.

Yilmaz says he works because his father is injured and his mother, who worked at a restaurant for a time, is now at home.

Little drummer girl. A young refugee busks late at night on Istanbul's busy Istiklal Street (2015) (Turgut Yeter/CBC News)
He says he used to like school, and even thought about being a teacher when he grows up. However, the more time Yilmaz spends on the street being a breadwinner, the less likely it is he will ever return to a classroom.

With "no education you become a child — 12 years old, 13 years old — who's responsible to find income for your family," Gizem Demirci Al Kadah says.

She runs the Istanbul office of the aid agency ASAM, the Association for Solidarity with Asylum Seekers and Migrants. It is a non-profit NGO, partially funded by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees.

Demirci Al Kadah adds that in Syria the head of the family could work and support a family of five, but "here in Turkey that's not possible." So, she says, the entire family needs to work.

Legislation to make it easier for Syrians to get work permits has not yet come into effect. Without work permits, most families resort to begging and often use their children to do it.

Settlement and therapy

ASAM is helping families get settled in their new lives and trying to make sure children stay children.

Artwork by young Syrian refugees in Turkey depicts their response to the horrors they've survived. (Nil Köksal)
The waiting room in its Istanbul office is peppered with posters that say "you are safe here" in several languages.

The agency provides social and psychological counseling, among other services. For the children there is a special space a few blocks away, a light-filled school where they are protected at all times.

It looks like a kindergarten or daycare you might find in any Canadian city, but a bright classroom at the back of the building is covered in artwork made by the young refugees. Some draw themselves and you'll see their feet are floating in the air — a sure sign, Demirci Al Kadah says, that they feel every bit of the upheaval their families are experiencing.

She adds that as they become more comfortable and their situation slowly improves, their drawings show their feet firmly on the ground.

School and stability

On the other side of Istanbul, in the conservative district of Fatih, another more formal school is packed with classrooms, but this one bustles well into the night.

On the streets and in the classroom. Two different realities for the estimated 150,000 Syrian child refugees in Turkey. (Nil Köksal/CBC News)
It is a Turkish private school during the day, and when those classes let out, another school goes into session. Funded by wealthier Syrians, the school charges about $50 a month for those who can afford to send send their children.

Asmar Tyba is one of those lucky few. "We were living a good life in Syria before the war. It was a really good life," he says.

The 17-year-old is now living in Istanbul with his mother. His father is in Syria. His older brother is in Europe and sends money to support the family.

His entire world upended, Tyba is still making plans for university.

"Sometimes when I remember my family — we are separated we are living apart — I feel sad. But then I say, 'No, I have to build my future, I have to focus on my studies.'"

Survival trumps school

For other families, survival is the focus and education considered a luxury.

This is plain to see in the Sirinevler neighbourhood, a 40-minute subway ride from the centre of Istanbul.

Sirinevler means "cute houses," but the spaces Syrian refugees have had to turn into apartments are anything but.

Basement storefronts that would normally bring in the equivalent of $50 or $100 for landlords are now as high as $500 a month. Those who can't afford to rent sleep in parks or mosque grounds.

A Syrian refugee waits behind border fences to cross into Turkey at Akcakale border gate on June 15, 2015. Turkey says it has spent $6 billion on refugees. (Umit Bektas/Reuters)
Children, some barely clothed, play near heaps of garbage. Teen brides carry their babies when they aren't trying to scrounge up work cleaning houses in the area.

One family shows me around their home. It is spacious compared to some, but not nearly big enough for 13 people to be comfortable. The family sleeps on the floor of a space no bigger than a few hundred square feet. At the back a light curtain covers a tiny room that doubles as a toilet and a shower.

In a crowd of a dozen children in the neighbourhood, from infants to teenagers, only two go to school.

It is a dire picture and a contrast to the 25 refugee camps Turkey has set up. Though the camps may be a safer more stable option, they only house a fraction of the millions displaced. Many choose cities like Istanbul instead, hoping they'll find work more quickly.

While Turkey is promising more programs to help refugees in its cities, it is also starting to admit it can't help everyone. Nothing it does can match the demand.

Turkey says it has spent $6 billion on refugees and has done more than any other country to help. But in early July its Minister to the European Union, Volkan Bozkir, told a Turkish newspaper, "Turkey has reached its total capacity for refugees."

And many of the millions in the country will tell you though Turkey has taken them in, it is not home. They want to return to Syria, though there's little to return to and it won't happen soon.

"There's nothing," Demirci Al Kadah says. "No hospital, no school, no water, no electricity, no house. So if it (the war) ends today, we still have five years for Syria to be up and developed again."

Watch Nil Köksal's documentary on Syria's child refugees on CBC Television's The National on Tuesday night.


Nil Köksal is the host of World Report, CBC's flagship national radio news show. She begins her mornings with more than a million loyal listeners. She returned from her post as CBC’s foreign correspondent in Turkey in 2018.


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