ISTANBUL — In a deserted neighborhood on the outskirts of Istanbul, 40 Syrian families have taken shelter in what was once a refuge for packs of stray dogs. Amid the old crumbling homes, refugees have set up a humble camp.

They are just steps away from the bustling Fatih district, known for its ancient Byzantine walls and a mosque of the same name. But in this forgotten corner there are no utilities — no water or electricity in the abandoned area, now strewn with trash. But the families are desperate to provide a roof over their children’s heads during the long, cold winter.

Some of the roofs have nearly collapsed, leaving just one or two rooms for a family of more than seven people. The Syrians have made tents of blankets and constructed their own windows and doors to shelter themselves.

They bring water from nearby houses or the mosque, and work together to collect remnants of plastic garbage, roaming streets and bins searching for any plastic materials. At the end of the day, everything is placed in a bag three times larger than what they have collected. They gather their finds in their makeshift neighborhood until it becomes a sizable pile. Then they call the tradesman and sell him the scraps.

Two weeks ago, one of the houses fell over on one of the families, and the police hurried to save them. Luckily, no one was killed.

(photo: Syria Deeply)

Abu Yahya, 47, has transformed a room for washing the dead in the nearby mosque into a house. With its oppressive iron door and prison-like windows with wind whipping through, he says the room doesn’t feel much different than a Syrian prison cell. But he counts himself fortunate in these hard times.

“I am very lucky. My room is better than half of the houses Syrian people are living in,” he says. “I have a door and a window. True, there is no glass pane to keep the wind out. But I have this blanket and half a mattress. I bring some newspapers on cold days and put them underneath me. My pillow is that rock.”

Most visitors come to this area for sightseeing, attracted by the ancient walls, cobblestone streets and the view over Istanbul. It is shocking to find such scenes of human suffering only a short walk away.

Better than a refugee camp

Near the Fatih Mosque, there is a small deserted house, its windows gone. The building is full of garbage, but children are playing there and making toys from the refuse. One child is playing with a broken shaving blade while another one ties a broken toy car to a rope and pulls it. Their faces are covered in dirt.

Um Ibrahim, from Hama, says that she has been living here with her husband and three children for five months. They are living in a two-room house, one of the rooms without walls. “We made walls out of blankets. And we sleep in the inside room, since it is warmer,” she says.

For her family, the abandoned district is the best option they have. “It is better here [than Syria or a refugee camp],” she says. “There is no rent to pay. It is just my husband who is working, and so we can’t afford an apartment. The nice thing here is that it is an area close to every working place.”

Her husband, Abu Ibrahim, collects water bottles in Eminonu to feed the family. “We didn’t have running water or electricity back in Hama, so we are used to this,” Um Ibrahim says.

(photo: Syria Deeply)

“Many Turkish people are surprised when they see us and tell us, ‘Why don’t you go to the camps?’ My answer is always that we don’t need anybody to give us charity. We are living and working here to afford our food and needs.”

She says the refugee camps in Turkey are like “prisons,” citing the heavy monitoring and lack of freedom. She believes that this is the right of the government, but she has no interest in integrating her family into camp life.

“Many men got used to staying in their tents all day doing nothing, but making trouble for their wives and children, or even with the police,” she says. “It is unfair, sitting for more than two years without any kind of job. You turn into a lazy person and lose interest in everything. We refuse this type of life.”

The United Nations has appealed for $6.5 billion for Syria and its neighboring countries to help some 16 million people affected by the conflict. The world body has emphasized that the increasing number of Syrian refugees and displaced people is putting pressure on host countries, like Turkey, in a way that could result in deep regional consequences. The UN estimates the number of Syrians displaced inside and outside the country at nine million.

“The host countries can no longer justify to their citizens to care for all of the Syrian refugees as they did at the beginning of the revolution,” Um Ibrahim says, though she admits the steep cost of living is a daily challenge.

“It is now our duty to maintain this hospitality and respect the traditions of this country. It is a shame to sit and ask for charity. We can work and we are working, thank God.”

This story was translated from Arabic by Zain Frayha.