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The Thing Syrian Women In Istanbul Desperately Need

Photographed by Charlotte England
There are an estimated 2.7 million Syrian refugees in Turkey. Women outnumber men, but you would never guess this as you walk through Istanbul. Many of the men selling pashminas, spices and fake Nikes in the touristy bizarres are quick to tell you that they’re Syrian, hired — usually illegally, and for a fraction of the local wage — because they speak good English. But in the city centre, Syrian women are noticeably absent. Instead, most are at home, or else on the outskirts of the city, working in textile factories where the pay is appalling and the conditions exploitative.

Last week, policymakers announced controversial plans to return migrants who arrive in Greece by boat, to Turkey. The United Nations, Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch have all condemned this proposal, which they say could be illegal under EU law. Legally, EU countries can only refuse to consider a person’s refugee claim if there is a safe third country to send them back to.
According to Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, Turkey is not a safe country for Syrians; in addition to the country having previously returned people to Syria, the government still refuses to grant Syrians official refugee status — instead classifying them as "temporary guests."

Temporary guest status has meant that the vast majority of Syrians in Turkey have been denied the right to work. This has made it extremely difficult to survive, let alone integrate and establish a stable life in Turkey, and contributes to why such a huge number of people risk their lives trying to get to Europe. In mid-January, Turkey did grant Syrians the right to work for the first time, but in practice, few have received permits. Meanwhile, illegal and exploitative labour practices have become entrenched, and are unlikely to just disappear.
Photographed by Charlotte England
While unemployment — or precarious and exploitative employment — affects almost all Syrians in Turkey, women are affected in specific ways; they face additional barriers, which often make them the most marginalised.

I asked Anna Tuson, Head of Communications, Funding and Partnerships at local NGO Small Projects Istanbul, what barriers Syrian women face to earning and integrating in Turkey. “Everything,” she said, without hesitation.

The labour market in Turkey was already oversaturated before the arrival of millions of refugees, Tuson explained. If Syrians are hired — especially Syrian women — it’s usually because the employer knows they are vulnerable; they can exploit them by paying half or quarter wages, making them work long hours, and in some cases sexually abusing or assaulting them.

In addition to this, Tuson said, women bear the brunt of responsibility for childcare, and traditional gender roles often restrict them to the home, further limiting their ability to work. “Many of their husbands probably wouldn’t let them get on the bus and go to another suburb and work in a factory,” Tuson explained, about the women she works with.

Small Projects Istanbul started as a charity focused on improving access to education for Syrian children. But women dropping their children at class began to ask if something could be done to help them too. After improving their children’s prospects, the women said, their priority was finding a way to earn income. The Olive Tree Craft Collective — a women-only social enterprise, based in an area where many Syrians live — was developed to meet their demands.
The project sees women make bags, knit scarves, blankets and hats, make silver rings, or twist macrame bracelets, all of which are sold through local partners. The women are paid in food vouchers, as it would be illegal to give them money.

When I visited the collective’s small premises, in the Fatih district of Istanbul, it was immediately identifiable in the otherwise quiet neighbourhood by the women and children clustered outside. As I slipped in, a toddler made a break for freedom, crawling rapidly towards the bright sunshine outside. A bus-load of older children had just been taken to an art class in the city centre, but still the place felt at capacity. I was shocked to learn that only half of the 50 adult women members of the collective were present — because of the restricted space, members can now only work at the centre in shifts.

We have to cap the number of women who are allowed to join, and we have to cap the number [of products] that they’re allowed to make so that we know we’re not going to have an excess,” explained Tuson. “It’s a shame… We know there’s more need in the community, because five women are asking [to join] every week now. We know that we could probably expand triple or quadruple and fill all those places, but we’re still restricted by the number of products we can sell, [and by the size of the premises.]”

When I speak to some of the women working, I understand why Tuson says it’s a shame for them to have to stay at home some days.

Wafa, a woman from Damascus, is sewing drawstring cotton bags for local artist Yasemin Zamanpur, who paints them with a design and sells them online and in shops around Istanbul under her brand twelv12, and returns the profits to Wafa and her colleagues.

Since fleeing the civil war in Syria, Wafa and her two youngest children have been living with her brother in Istanbul. Her husband is in prison in Syria. At first, she stayed at home; as she couldn’t speak the language or legally work, she had nowhere to go. Besides, as a woman she was expected to run the house and take care of the children. Attending the centre has given her a reason to go out and a chance to meet people.
“I was bored at home,” Wafa told me. “I learn new things here, and we [she gestures to the women sitting with her, around a table laden with sewing machines] help each other.”

While poverty is a big and obvious problem, unemployment is damaging to Syrian women in other ways too, emphasises Sanem Ozturk, who runs a series of workshops — including a language class — for Syrian women with another NGO, Kadav. Without the social networks they had in Syria, staying at home can be extremely isolating for refugee women, and gives them little opportunity to learn even basic Turkish, she said. Many of the women Kadav work with struggle to get by at the shops or to access healthcare and services, for instance, because of the language barrier. Getting women out of the house, to places where they can form social support networks, and learn new skills, as well as earning, is really important.

But there is a limit to what small projects with limited, unreliable private funding can do. Ozturk believes that without bigger policy changes, and longterm plans for refugees, things will only improve for a lucky few. Not only does a gendered perspective need to be applied to refugee policy, she said, so that women get the specific support they need, but the state also needs to accept that many refugees are in Turkey for the long run, and to make adequate plans to help them with employment and education on that basis.

In a speech made this weekend, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said that the country would continue to maintain an open door policy when it comes to accepting refugees. However, if more focus was put on helping refugees to integrate and earn in Turkey, then perhaps this would reduce the number of migrants forced to risk their lives travelling to the EU — and then there would be no need to violate EU law by forcibly returning them.