TL;DR: Click Here, Help Orphans

No time to read? That’s cool, but before you go, give the Darüşşafaka Society a look and see if you’d like to help orphans get a quality education.

The Solar-Powered Underclass

I was naïve when I first arrived in Istanbul. Certainly, the city cannot hide its millions of poor, huddled masses living in gecekondu (shanty) apartments and living on wages most Americans would never accept, but I was honestly deluded into believing that actual homelessness was a rarity, suffered only by drug addicts and the mentally ill, and I’ve seen far fewer members of these two demographics in Istanbul than in Seattle.

But the city shines in more ways than one in the summers. I was pleased to see that despite the massive influx of Syrian refugees into Turkey that their clothes were clean and that their children’s needs were taken care of, at least to a tolerable level. This is remarkable, considering that many of these refugees are often unable to speak fluent Turkish, lack marketable skills, and are quite culturally alien to the Westernized and secular Turks, many of whom disdain them as an unwelcome herd of social parasites and future criminals. Indeed, I’ve been warned repeatedly that carelessly strolling into the immigrant neighborhoods in the Old City could lead to my being victimized by pickpockets and bag-slashers desperate for anything that can alleviate their destitution. But it should be noted that even xenophobic Turks concede that they are typically not violent, despite their miserable circumstances-I’m beginning to realize that our armed society does not lead to a polite society.

Eminönü: "A pretty but poor neighborhood with a large immigrant population."

Eminönü: “A pretty but poor neighborhood with a large immigrant population.”


I am sure there are plenty of charities in the country that lend a helping hand, but there is no greater provider than the Sun. When its out, the tourist traps and city squares fill with refugees and other impoverished citizens, Turk and non-Turk, who go to work selling anything they can get their hands on. Simit, packets of tissues and socks, and little flower crowns are common wares, and I’ve seen people selling bootleg CD’s, movies, cellular phones, “designer” bags, watches and perfumes.

Some of this commerce is of dubious legality. One time I was with a German girl who wanted to buy her brother back home a souvenir, and in the middle of haggling, the street vendor caught sight of the zabita (the police that aren’t polis-they’re like a cross between real cops and security guards) and booked. The girl held up her newly acquired “gift” and laughed about her good fortune, only to be shocked when my White Center upbringing kicked in and I grabbed her arm, dragging her about three blocks while reminding her between gritted teeth that showing off stolen property in the middle of a crowded street is typically a bad idea.

The most popular product of all is bottled water, which is incredibly cheap in Turkey. For little over a quarter you can drink the same stuff we pay a buck fifty for back home. This is important, because anyone who drinks tap water in Turkey is either a willful idiot or attempting to emulate Tchaikovsky’s suicide. But on a hot summer day in Istanbul, the water sellers are a welcome sight. Me and a lot of the other American students used to agree that they would be the thing we’d miss the most about Turkey and joke about how we’d come home, walk around on a hot day and wonder what in God’s name happened to our waterboy.

Well, that joke sure seems callous now.

I can tell you the exact moment my perspective changed. People weren’t kidding when they said that Istanbul is a four-season city. One day I was in Gülhane Park in the Old City, and as if the heavens decided to remind me of home, snapped their metaphorical fingers and blotted out the sun. And just as suddenly, the lumpenproletariat changed their tactics. Seeing as no one wants to buy water when you have it pouring down on you for free, the children could no longer sell their goods or do anything but sit in the rain with the mud staining their once-clean clothes and hope some passerby is soft-hearted enough to give them a coin.

I wanted to be “some passerby” myself, but one of my companions, who had lived in Turkey before coming as an exchange student stopped me. “Don’t,” she said. “The children don’t keep the money, and probably don’t get anything out of it.” After a few weeks, I noticed that the children were joined by their parents, huddling together on street corners in places like the Old City or in Taksim in filthy rags, their manner and their trade having devolved from something vaguely respectable and dignified to pathetic.

Few of these destitute are Turks, though they do exist. I was rather surprised to see a small number of them living along the Walls of Constantinople, inside the towers or in tents at the base. Not to sound cruel, but the sight disgusted me. I cannot fathom why the government would allow these people to defile such an important historical site with beer cans, cigarette butts and other trash, or allow their dogs to run around and possibly endanger tourists. One drug addict there actually grabbed my shirt and begged for money-first time in my life anyone called me “Abi” (big brother) and the first time in my life I ever told someone to “Defol!” (Please sir, kindly make love to yourself someplace else). I suppose there’s a reason why the Walls are considered one of the 100 most endangered sites in the world…

But these are the exceptions. Most Turks, even the poorest of the poor, often have family to take them in and give them a room to sleep in. Failing this, they can make arrangements with other impoverished laborers and huddle up in apartments in the Old City or Taksim or other parts of Beyoğlu, where the rents are cheapest. But separated from their families, many immigrants are not so lucky. And of course, while most poor Turkish adults can set up some kind of living arrangement, orphans and runaways are often not so lucky. I think the Wikipedia article on the subject pretty much sums up the circumstances:

"The Walls of Constantinople."

“The Walls of Constantinople.”

IMG-20140830-00762 IMG-20140830-00787 IMG-20140830-00789 IMG-20140830-00808


"Homeless shelter near walls."

“Homeless shelter near walls.”

Of Turkey’s 30,891 street children , 30,109 live in İstanbul…based in unofficial estimates, 88,000 live on the streets, and the country has the fourth-highest rate of underage substance abuse in the world. 4 percent of all children in Turkey are subject to sexual abuse, with 70 percent of the victims being younger than 10. Contrary to popular belief, boys are subject to sexual abuse as frequently as girls. In reported cases of children subject to commercial sexual exploitation, 77 percent of the children came from broken homes. Twenty-three percent lived with their parents, but in those homes domestic violence was common. The biggest risk faced by children who run away and live on the street is sexual exploitation. Children kidnapped from southeastern provinces are forced into prostitution here. Today, it is impossible to say for certain how many children in Turkey are being subjected to commercial sexual exploitation, but many say official information is off by at least 85 percent.”

Princes of Malatya, Kings of Nevşehir

Fortunately, there are institutions available to provide some of these kids with the opportunity to have a real future. At a reception organized by the Fulbright program I learned about the Darüşşafaka Association, an NGO (a admittedly strange term for an organization that predates UW by a decade) whose mission is to provide impoverished Turkish orphans with a real, quality (and completely secular) education from 4th grade all the way through high school. As they can only afford to take in a little under a thousand students, the standards for admission are high, but the organization ensures that orphans who lack the resources to receive the education necessary to realize their potential can do so. The Association has produced no small number of prominent academics, entertainers and politicians, many of whom would otherwise have been put through Turkey’s state school system, where less than one in three students receive high school diplomas. Furthermore, the schools that are operated in Turkey are slowly being replaced by Imam Hatip schools, which are de facto madrassas that many students are placed in at a young age, either by their parents or even by the government, who force low-scoring students to go to schools of their choosing. Imam Hatips produce fine imams but spend little time on more worldly subjects, forcing students to go to cram schools (dershane) to have a chance of going to college. Oh, and despite the protests of liberals and academics throughout the country, AKP, led by their own Imam Hatip alum, have made reforms to encourage parents to send their children into Imam Hatips after elementary school. Well, that’s one way to expand the party base…

Oh, and fun fact: only one in four Turkish citizens accept evolution as fact, the lowest percentage in Europe, due in no small part to the creationist agenda promoted by both the religious schools and the secular ones, who often refuse to promote teachers who express a belief in the heathen science. And guess who’s responsible for much of the creationist material in Turkish biology textbooks? The Institute for Creation Research-an American organization. Now who says religious conservatives can’t carry out interfaith initiatives?

To be a little less caustic for a moment, I’ve decided to lend a hand myself. I’ve joined the Educational Volunteers Foundation of Turkey to teach English to primary school children. While I admit I have some selfish motivations for doing so (as a Fulbright Applicant I hope gain some experience in the event that I’m selected to teach their older siblings in a university outside of Istanbul) it’s a real joy working with them. The kids are really quite bright and many speak English with genuine enthusiasm and ability. And to those reading who know me personally, don’t worry guys, I’m actually quite nice to them. After all, I am among peers-like me, they are students of foreign language, and also like me, they speak Turkish in a manner fitting to a six-year old.



"Ultranationalist graffiti near the Walls "Quran is the guide, Turan is the goal."

“Ultranationalist graffiti near the Walls “Quran is the guide, Turan is the goal.”

It’s my turn to get calls from terrified relatives now, as they’ve been worried about me since they heard about the three American sailors who were attacked by a mob of ultranationalists screaming “Yanki evine dön” (Yankee go home) and something about imperialist wars and Western aggression and-ah well, it’s been thirteen years since 9/11, you know all the stock phrases by now. The attack happened in Kabataş, a frequent transit spot for American students heading to the Old City, so the event hits close to home, as I’ve been there quite a few times and even filled my Istanbulkart at the store the sailor was attacked at. But as far as I know none of us are worried-most people I’ve talked to didn’t even know it happened-and the gang of thugs are a blip on Turkey’s political radar. Honestly, I’m most bothered by the fact that they held up a portrait of Atatürk as they did the deed, as if the man who told the mothers of the ANZAC soldiers who perished at Gallipoli that “there is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side here in this country of ours…wipe away your tears, your sons are now lying in our bosom…after having lost their lives on this land they have Become our sons as well” would take too kindly to unprovoked attacks on sailors of an allied nation. Srsly guys it was like his most famous speech and everything.