Turkey, Istanbul: Meet Syrian refugees on the Turkey Women's Expedition

Rahaf Saad knows first-hand the problems facing people who have fled Syria to begin new lives in Istanbul. "You don't know what to expect, you don't speak the language and the new country doesn't want you," she says when we meet at a community centre run by Small Projects Istanbul (SPI) in the suburban outskirts of Turkey's biggest city.

Saad had been studying for her master's in population and development in the Syrian port city of Latakia when she had to leave "because the war wasn't ending and the education system was getting worse".

Now she's operations manager for SPI, an NGO set up in 2012 by Australian Karyn Thomas, who had been working in Damascus and fled to Istanbul herself.

According to the UNHCR, Syria is the largest source of refugees worldwide. About half its population has been displaced since the civil war began in 2011. More than 4 million Syrians have ended up in Turkey, including about half a million in Istanbul, which now harbours more refugees than any other country.

But because Turkey is only a partial signatory to the UN's Refugee Convention, Syrian refugees can't apply for resettlement, only Temporary Protection Visas that give them no financial or medical support and don't allow them to work, or not legally, anyway.

"A displaced life in Istanbul is full of obstacles and stress," says SPI co-founder Shannon Kay, who greets our small group visiting as part of Intrepid Travel's new Turkey Women's Expedition.

About 250 Syrian families now participate in SPI's activities, which include bilingual childcare, Turkish, Arabic and English language classes, computer workshops and psycho-social support in the form of counselling and music, drama and art workshops to bring a little play back into people's lives.

SPI also runs a women's social enterprise helping about 40 Syrian women earn an income, which has beneficial ripple effects for their families and communities. "Technically the women are working for themselves as small business handicraft producers," says Kay. SPI buys their products and sells them through its online shop, local and international markets and stockists in various countries.

It's not just about helping Syrian women become financially independent. "It's also about enabling them to fulfil their own potential [because] being displaced can really break down your sense of hope in the world and your confidence in yourself," says Kay.

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We meet some of the women over lunch, a traditional Syrian feast of freekeh, roasted eggplant, hummus and home-made yoghurt served at long communal tables. Some of them are silent, some are friendly, most wear hijab and long black dresses. Rahaf Saad, sitting next to me, wears jeans, a down jacket and no headscarf.

After lunch, we all pile into a small room and take our seats around another long table for a craft session. My teacher is Hadiya, who wears a pink hijab and sassy red reading glasses and uses gestures and smiles to show me how to wind coloured Turkish cotton thread around a wire loop to make a key ring. An Argentinian volunteer came up with the design, which the women also use to make jewellery under a catchy brand name: Drop Earrings Not Bombs.

The key rings we've made are pretty, but the highlight of the afternoon is hanging out with a bunch of women whose quiet joyful attitude and humility feels like a lesson in its own right.

We exit through SPI's gift shop, a small bright room decorated with beautifully hand-made objects: colourful earrings, canvas bags, hand-dyed scarves, macrame plant holders. I buy an olive-green cotton T-shirt with a quote on the back in English, Turkish and Arabic. "Be a voice, not an echo", it says, which reads like a call to action to us all.

THE DETAILS

Louise Southerden travelled as a guest of Intrepid Travel.

MORE

traveller.com.au/istanbul

goturkeytourism.com

FLY

Turkish Airlines, code sharing with Qantas, flies daily from Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane to Istanbul via Singapore. See turkishairlines.com

TOUR

Urban Adventures' Olive Tree of Istanbul evening tours include a visit to Small Projects Istanbul and a Syrian meal. Costt $68 with proceeds going to SPI. The craft experience is part of Intrepid Travel's 12-day Turkey Women's Expedition. See urbanadventures.com, intrepidtravel.com and smallprojectsistanbul.org

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