I recently spent time in Istanbul to learn about some of the people who have sought refuge in Turkey. My day started with refugee families headed to America in the near future, followed by a meeting with UNHCR to discuss the plight of thousands of refugees living in Turkey but, for one reason or another, are struggling.
At the Resettlement Support Center run by the International Catholic Migration Commission (ICMC), one of our partners, I saw refugees from several countries being interviewed by ICMC staff about their experiences. These preliminary interviews are an important step in preparing refugees for the in-depth process run by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Interpreters and ICMC staff were very busy working with refugees from Iraq, a woman from Afghanistan, and one from Somalia. DHS teams cycle through Istanbul every few weeks to meet with refugees like these to determine if they have suffered persecution or have a well-founded fear of persecution and are eligible for resettlement to the United States.
On a different floor, a cultural orientation class for adults preparing for resettlement was in full swing. They learn about interviewing for jobs, taking the bus, and life in America. As an exercise, the trainer had members of the class “interview” for a job as a kitchen assistant. I was impressed by the energy they brought to this simple role-playing exercise. One aspiring “candidate” made a strong case because he claimed he could cook so many things — from Middle Eastern specialties to Mexican food!
I was glad to have the chance to meet with nine Iraqi children, ages 8 to 14. I found them busy coloring drawings of the airplanes that will take them to America — odds are very good that once in the United States, they will assimilate quickly. When one child mentioned that he was headed to Detroit, I insisted there were two things he needed to know: cars and Motown music. The kids knew about cars, but were unfamiliar with Motown until I mentioned Michael Jackson — then the room erupted in smiles.
Meeting these happy children was the highpoint of my day. A short time later, however, I had a more sobering conversation with Elif Selen Ay, a protection official of the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR).
She told me there are 30,000 refugees registered with UNHCR in Turkey, not counting the Syrians who have fled into Turkey in recent months. They are interspersed through the country in 64 satellite cities; only approximately 2,500 live in Istanbul.
The small UNHCR office is working overtime trying to help them and the needs of the refugee population is great. This office works with refugee children who are separated from their parents or families and fending for themselves; I was told that about 17 unaccompanied minor children arrive each week. There are also refugees who are victims of rape or other forms of gender-based violence, as well as elderly and sick refugees in need of medical care.
UNHCR works to find psychological services for victims of torture or trauma — such as the girl from the Democratic Republic of the Congo who had been raped twice: once by guerilla fighters and once by the police who were supposed to help her. The UNHCR protection official was glad that Medecins Sans Frontieres had opened a clinic in Istanbul where rape victims can get help and she also said that “about once a week we come across a refugee who is suicidal.”
Getting medical care to refugees who need it is challenging. “The worst are the chronic conditions,” she said, mentioning illnesses like HIV and tuberculosis. Then she reflected and told me about one Iraqi couple, parents of a toddler and a newborn, who were severely disabled. They had been injured in two different violent episodes. The mother had both legs amputated; the father had an arm and one leg amputated. It was clear she had worked closely to find solutions for this family. Some of the other Iraqis she meets have arrived in Turkey from Syria, fleeing violence for the second time in their lives.
Still, she and the UNHCR office are devoting their energy to improving the situation. She has served as a technical adviser to the Government of Turkey as it prepares a new asylum law, still under consideration by a committee of parliament. An urban task force is discussing other refugee needs with government ministries that are headquartered in Ankara.
She had my attention today, but also knew I was en route to the border areas of southern Turkey. There, the government has set up camps for more than 80,000 who have fled violence in neighboring Syria. Her parting message to me was clear: help the refugees in camps, but don’t forget urban refugees struggling to make it in towns and cities across Turkey.