original article in German: “ein netz aus. freunden. die kuchenstube fur einwanderer”.
We sit in a dark café. In front of us two men. Syrian, refugees. Arrived in Istanbul with their family. And now desperately desperate. Searching for the daughter who has suddenly disappeared. Serpil looks at the men. She takes notes of what is reported to her. Certain words are circled. Nods of the head. Carefully a friend translates what the men report. In the background music that sounds like longing. And we stir the sugar into our teacups.
This is an absurd situation. Far from the usual Istanbul-reality. A reality that smells of sea water, in which elderly men sit in the sun, cats go hunting over the rooftops and musicians play guitars and songs in the streets, surrounded by young dancing people. This is another reality. One that takes place in the side streets. There, where tourists rarely get lost. And yet it is so close to those places that can be found in any travel guide of Turkey. About a hundred meters away from Istiklal Avenue – the main shopping street of Istanbul – there is the Tarlabaşı neighborhood. Left behind Beyoğlu’s bars, pubs, restaurants and entertainment places and crossed the Tarlabaşı Boulevard, you can suddenly find yourself in almost empty, unpaved and unlighted streets. Here live many migrants, refugees. Human beings that in istanbul are not looking for pleasure but for shelter.
And this is where the organization called Mutfak has rented a place. Serpil is one of many members of this group. The Mutfak, in German “Küche”, was founded with the idea to function as contact place for those who arrive in Istanbul and experience a sense of helplessness. Contact persons is probably the right word to use, one that recalls partnership and equality. Because what the Mutfak does not want is to be a charity organization. An institution which acts from above. Here there is everyone, how and when s/he can. The Turkish woman supports in case of administrative formalities, the Syrian guy hosted a cooking evening, the Nigerian organized a film screening, the German gives English lessons. Originally ,it all started meeting in Tarlabaşı, for cooking and eating together, hence the name. Meanwhile, there are also language courses, arts and crafts activities for children, arts and cultural events and in particular a huge network of people who are close to the Mutfak. There are contacts with lawyers, women’s groups, police officers – a network that spans over the whole Turkey and its borders. Everyone gives what s/he can. Each supports the community with her/his own skills. And everyone is welcome.
Serpil member of the Mutfak since three years, in 2011 she came to Turkey for her doctoral dissertation. For her Germany was too small, too narrow and she had enough with the feeling “you’re different”. She does not regret the exclusion that she has experienced. Not any longer. It has marked her, providing her with skills from which she can now only benefit. “I wanted to engage myself here in Istanbul, in the Mutfak, with what I can give. To a certain degree I can understand the voicelessness and powerlessness of those who come to Istanbul – and who are perhaps forced to come here and who are usually considered mere strangers. Those who feel alone”. Being able to use her experience to stand aside other people gives her a good feeling. And often it is mainly what Mutfak communicates: a feeling of assistance. Young people become visible and meet every week in a neighborhood where any travel guide recommends not to enter. Inviting to talk, cook, learning together, making music. So that people without a home feel a bit more secure, comfortable and no longer alone.
Serpil has given Turkish language lessons and supported people in case of administrative formalities being a contact person for some migrants and refugees met through the Mutfak. She might be asked: “Serpil, you know the way, can you come?”. It has been the same when the Syrian girl disappeared and Serpil has been asked to meet with the family.
She looks at the men examining them. She lets them explain the circumstances. She asks when something is not clear. She asks about the official status of the family. She knows Turkey’s refugee policy. She knows whom to ask to know the available options to search for the girl. And unfortunately, she also knows how low are the chances to find the lost girl, how cruel is war and what consequences it brings. More than two million refugees from Syria have now arrived in Turkey. And there are not enough infrastructures to accommodate this mass of people and to offer them security. Many are homeless and beg to survive.
Sometimes Serpil is tired. Tired of an oppressive reality, in front of which many just close the eyes. Sometimes it gets too close to her. She wonders why she spends money for another pair of shoes when children sleep on the street. Because stories do not let her go. Stories of deported asylum seekers, of children who have to play plastic instruments until late at night on Istikal to earn money for the family. Of him or her, of whom wants her help, a help that she cannot give. It is difficult to jump from Tarlabaşı back to Beyoğlu. There, where the flow of tourists pass by. Where people stay up all night partying and where during the day young ladies go from one shop to another to buy the perfect clothes for the fall season. Sometimes Serpil struggles with these two realities. Yet, the very fact that there are people living this tension, it means that a bridge can be built. At the musical evenings of Mutfak, Erasmus students and refugees get to know each other. People joyning the offered language courses break out of isolation. Serpil know of stories of people that now may officially remain in Turkey, of diabetics who are now supplied by doctors. Of many, many people who feel good, warm and taken seriously. And Serpil is part of these stories.
Serpil grabs her block. Quiet and serious, she talks about the options. Whom she can contact, to which group of the network of Mutfak she can resort. She also wants to try again with the police. In this case too she offers mediation between the family and the authorities. She does not know if the girl will be found. But she is there as a contact person. This family, this girl are not alone.