Istanbul Letter: Sweatshops, not school, await refugee children
‘Of course there are children working here’, said the boss of one subterranean workhouse
Syrian children in a disused building in Istanbul. There are 600,000 refugee children out of school across Turkey. Photograph: Ozan Kose/AFP/Getty Images
They come from all over Istanbul to shop at Olivium, a cylindrical tower of stacked glass and concrete overlooking the working-class neighbourhood of Zeytinburnu. There are brands galore here, many of them local names from Turkey’s €35 billion textiles industry.
Just a stone’s throw away, the worker bees of this soaring sector toil in subterranean workshops, producing everything from leather jackets to long abaya dresses. This workforce reportedly includes a growing number of Syrian refugee children.
A few random enquiries leads us down a narrow stairway into a workshop. The manager, Majid, stumbles out of a glass-fronted office, bleary-eyed and slightly puzzled at the arrival of strangers. “What do you want?” he asks.
“Are there any children working here?”
“Of course there are children working here,” Majid says, apparently unperturbed. He sends a machinist to fetch a child, one of three who work in the back. The boy steps into the office, blinking and awkward in the harsh fluorescent light.
€240 a month
Arif, who is only 12, comes from Aleppo. The eldest of three, he became man of the house when his father died in battle. He has been at the workshop for three years, doing odd jobs. He works 12 hours a day, five days a week, earning about 800 Turkish lira (€240) a month – about two-thirds of the minimum wage. He buys his own food and sleeps on a camp bed with a brown cover next to a sewing machine.
His family lives outside Istanbul, where life is cheaper. It is thanks to Arif’s wages that his eight-year-old brother and seven-year-old sister can go to school.
“I don’t like work,” Arif blurts out. “I want to go to school too.”
What subjects did he like at school?
“Don’t ask him stuff like that,” says Majid. “He doesn’t know.”
Arif’s arms hang limply by his sides. Clearly his heart his heavy.
“I want to work with computers,” he says, finally. This seems to come as a surprise to Majid, who gives an impressed nod, before sending the boy back to his duties.
Majid (42) arrived from Aleppo five years ago. He has a few roles in the workshop, designing the long robes and overseeing the staff. Everyone sleeps on the premises, taking it in turns to have body washes in the toilet during the day.
As time goes on, Majid seems more and more agitated, hogging the translator for his long diatribes. He seems to be beside himself. Refugees from home are constantly begging for work. He is fed up, he cannot cope. Life here is so expensive.
How much does he earn? “I’m a multimillionaire. That’s why I’m sleeping here.”
Eventually Majid divulges that he earns 3,600 lira (€1,100), which is just under three times the minimum wage. “But I’m here 24 hours a day, watching over the workers,” he says. “And I support my family, my mother, my sister, my sister’s kids. I’m looking after everyone.”
He is determined his children will have an education. It costs 1,600 lira (€480) a month to send them to school in Istanbul. “I want them to learn. I don’t want them to do refugee work,” he says.
Just then, the big boss walks in. Mehmet is Turkish and owns the workshop with his brother. Young and sharply dressed, he watches placidly as Majid carries on talking. It’s hard to read his expression, but he isn’t telling Majid to get back to work or us to leave.
Isn’t Mehmet worried? “Yes, it’s illegal. They’re not supposed to be sleeping here,” he says.
I point out that I’d been referring to the three child labourers. He shrugs, as if the question were completely beside the point. “There are 2.7 million Syrian refugees in Turkey. Only a 10th are in camps. We are helping the rest,” he says.
“The authorities close their eyes.”
Little wonder that it has all come to seem so normal. There are 600,000 refugee children out of school across Turkey. While it’s impossible to say how many of them work, it’s a fair bet that hundreds of thousands are helping to feed their families, be it sewing buttons in factories, selling tissues on the streets, or picking vegetable on farms.
They have already been dubbed “the lost generation”, yet these are the people who will one day rebuild Syria.
Their struggle has only just begun.