Inside Basmane

Basmane is a district within the city of Izmir (western Turkey), where due to its multicultural heritage and solidarity, many refugees have found safe haven. Photo-essay.

Giacomo Sini Francesco Moisés Bassano
12 January 2017
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At the corner of Gaziler Caddesi, the kebab seller Emre is listing how to ask for a bottle of water in Turkish, Arabic and Kurdish. Minimal knowledge of these three languages is a sort of passport to enter Basmane, a neighbourhood in Izmir. Away from the large modern avenues of Alsancak, showcase of the secular and republican city that for years gave a majority vote to the CHP –  the centre-left party founded by Ataturk – and from Kemeralti, the ancient bazaar with its colours and scented spices, Basmane sustains the original multicultural soul of Izmir, the city where Greeks, Armenians, Europeans and Turks lived in harmony before a catastrophic fire in 1922.

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After the immigration agreement between the European Union and Turkey, over 300,000 migrants of Kurdish and Arab Syrian origin fleeing from the recent conflicts have sought refuge in Izmir, joining the Kurds from southern Turkey and the Roma already resident here since the days of the Ottoman Empire. Basmane presents itself as a tangle of steep streets climbing up the hill where the old houses are painted and some are in ruins, collapsed into smelly landfills. The upper part of Basmane, at the foot of Alexander the Great’s castle, is called Kadifekale. Its illegally constructed houses –  called in Turkish  "gecekondu" 'overnight cutlery' –  are inhabited mainly by Kurds from the Mardin area now involved in the war between the state and the PKK. So it is not rare to see wall graffiti praising Öcalan or YPG. The area above the castle has recently been destroyed by the many projects of "urbanization" and "gentrification" that the Turkish government has been gradually implementing across the country.

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The beating heart of Basmane is Kapılar, a social space that for about a year has offered workshops for children every week, Turkish and English language courses, cultural events alongside dinners in the Open Kitchen, and thanks to volunteers, legal or language assistance. The centre is also made available to the many associations that help refugees in Izmir. The aim is to overcome isolation and foster inclusion within the ethnic groups not only of the Kurds and Arabs who live in the neighbourhood, but also to facilitate encounters with the Turks themselves. "The important thing is to enter into relations of trust with the neighbourhood and the city, and it takes a long time for this to happen," explains a local woman who works at Kapılar.

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The Kapılar Collective which works within the centre, but is also independent from it, seeks to encourage debate on issues that in Turkey sound almost heretical, such as feminism, ecology and the rights of minorities. On the upper floor of the centre Yalcin, a textile worker of afroturk origin, handles the collection and distribution of food and clothing for the most deprived people of the neighbourhood. When we meet him he shows us a list of supplies required by state schools, branded products that many families cannot afford. "In the district where child labour prevails, refugees are convenient to many because they are paid half the salary of a Turkish worker, so it is important to encourage these families to send their children to school," says Yalcin. Many Turks, "not exempt from the racism that often erupts in violence, believe that the state aids refugees more than the natives."

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After the agreement with the European Union and the closure of borders, a large proportion of refugees is now inclined to remain in Turkey with the hope one day of obtaining citizenship, but as Selin, a volunteer, points out, the problems are legion, from the economic to entering the education system or the lack of documents. A major obstacle is language, "for the Syrians there are special schools, but they are totally lacking for the Kurds." As a result, pro-Government NGOs try to stir up conflicts between the two groups.

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Many non-profit associations continue to operate in the district. Praxis is a collective of musicians who go around Basmane teaching music especially to women and children, often with recovered instruments donated by citizens. Waha seeks to offer medical and psychological counselling for women in particular, besides taking care of the distribution of medicines, tissues and shampoo both in the neighbourhood and in informal camps like the one in Torbali. Julie, a Dutch girl who decided to stay in Turkey to work with humanitarian organizations after her Erasmus program was over, says that informal camps still exist but are often moved from one place to another in order to divert journalists' attention. Sometimes landowners then pay the police to ensure that certain fields are chosen instead of others, to facilitate the employment of migrants as laborers in the vegetable fields littered across the country.

It is not easy to make contact with families that live in Basmane. After the coup of July 15 in Izmir, which was mainly seen here on television, many are afraid to talk to journalists and photographers. Some assistance centres for refugees were forced to close on the grounds of having links with the coup leaders, prompting a general tendency on the part of refugees to demonstrate their allegiance to the Government by participating in public events.

Nour, a 27 year old Syrian woman of Palestinian origin, has no fear however and invites us into her blue coloured house. She lost the use of her legs due to an infection, but managed to escape from Damascus with her mother and brother. Her dream is to get to Germany where maybe she can have an operation on her backbone, and continue her criminal law studies one day. Nour is very determined: "One day I shall visit the Vatican, I love churches, in Lebanon I studied three years in a Christian institution". While she talks, television news show the recapture of Aleppo by Assad's forces, one hears gunshots and bombings. Nour stops talking with her usual enthusiasm and asks her mother to kindly change the channel. From another side of the small room comes a Skype call, which her brother picks up, sitting on the couch for hours: it is Nour's father who is still in Damascus. Few words, many smiles and so many expectations.

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Naser is a 50 year old former Iraqi soldier who arrived in 2014. Two of his six children suffer from immunodeficiency and one from a cancer probably caused by the chemical weapons used by Daesh. He lives in precarious conditions in Buca, another suburb of the city. "I could not stay in Basmane," he says, "the children needed more light and the air was unhealthy. Here rents are higher, 500 pounds a month, and I have to pay for electricity and gas. Fortunately the neighborhood helps us with food." One of the children has been in bed for months, his body rejects any kind of medication and local doctors hold out little hope, "He might have a chance if I could go to Holland, there I have a brother with Dutch nationality, but the Turkish government will not let us move because we made the request as refugees here. I have tried for months to contact the UN offices without getting any answer."

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According to the laws in force in the country, before the asylum application of each is examined, refugees must be temporarily placed in one of the twenty official refugee camps or one of twenty-eight "satellite cities" – including Izmir – where the long wait to be resettled in a third country commences. Under no circumstances may asylum seekers leave their assigned city, while the request to leave the country is almost never accepted because many of them are registered as refugees in Turkey prior to the agreement. Meanwhile, the Turkish government do not guarantee any assistance.

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In Izmir there are refugees who adapt quickly, like Aisha, a 21-year old Syrian girl who having perfectly mastered Turkish is at the complete disposal of her compatriots to help them in their many  bureaucratic applications; or like Youssef, a 24-year old Kurd from Qamishlo, who after spending two months in Assad’s prisons, has finally managed to continue his medical studies in the town university.

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The streets surrounding the Basmane train station are a real Bazaar, with restaurants, stalls and activities managed by Syrians. The prices are lower than elsewhere, and perhaps those who feel nostalgia for the Damascus and Aleppo destroyed during the civil war can find some solace in these streets.  Life jackets for people aiming to travel over the Aegean Sea and beyond, commonly referred to by refugees as the "Dead Sea", have now almost disappeared from the shop windows. But whereas for Youssef or Aisha, Izmir has come to represent an opportunity to rebuild their future, for many others, Europe and its dream of freedom is even more distant.

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All photos by Giacomo Sini. All rights reserved.

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