Most days, Nurcan Agbaba’s job is to walk the streets in one of Ankara’s poorest and roughshod neighborhoods, knocking on door after door to ask if there is any family that needs help. On a good day, the tall, slim 30-year-old who studied archeology and has a Master’s degree in women’s rights will sit down with as many as 10 different families, all Syrian refugees, most of them struggling to build new lives in Turkey.
“We try to focus on how to help them solve their problems,” Nurcan explained. “We see people who cannot meet their basic needs and we try to guide them and tell them how to access different services. I try to make every family feel like they are special. Sometimes I too am overcome by the enormity of the refugee crisis.”
Nurcan is part of an eight-member community outreach team in the Ankara office of the Association for Solidarity with Asylum Seekers and Migrants (ASAM), a UNICEF partner. The team is under ASAM’s Al-Farah Child and Family Support Centers (CFSC) that serve five urban areas in Adana, Gaziantep, Istanbul and Izmir in addition to Ankara which 5 of these centers are funded by the European Union. The teams’ goal is not only to assess and gather information on particularly vulnerable refugee communities, but also to provide families with information as well as identify and refer at-risk children and ensure that parents access these services.
Turkey’s capital, Ankara, is home to 81,312 registered Syrian refugees, many of whom have gravitated to Altındağ, a neighborhood now nicknamed “Little Aleppo,” where rents are cheap and Arabic is heard as often as Turkish. The streets are lined by tired and cracked two and three-story concrete houses with graffitied walls that alternate with makeshift corrugated steel sheds, a world apart from Ankara’s shiny new high-rises, wide avenues and glitzy malls.
On the outreach team office wall, a large map of “Little Aleppo” is criss-crossed in fluorescent green highlighter, marking the streets the team has already visited. An average day can include identifying a case of child marriage or child labor, a sick, injured or traumatized child or parent or a single mother without a job who has no money to feed her children. Most frequently, they find children that are not enrolled in school. With families struggling for cash, many Syrian children in this area work in nearby furniture workshops. The team knows that to earn the trust of the refugees, they must carefully navigate a different culture, using non-threatening language to explain Turkish laws.
Many Syrian refugees, especially new arrivals, are not aware of their rights. The Turkish government provides registered Syrian refugees with an identity card that gives them free access to schools and health care. “If they get turned away from one school because it’s full, many think they don’t have the right to send their kids to any school at all,” explained Silhan Ceylan, at 22 the youngest member of the team. “We guide them to another school.”
They work in two-person teams consisting of a Turkish outreach worker and an Arabic translator and will revisit families multiple times to do follow-ups. On a recent afternoon, Nurcan and her translator, walked up and down a street in ‘Little Aleppo’, knocking on doors, trying to find Gade, a 39-year-old single Syrian mother of three, who had temporarily been hosted by a Syrian family after fleeing to Turkey three months ago.
Nurcan now found her in a three-room basement apartment. Aside from an old green carpet to sit on, Gade’s possessions
Nurcan toured the apartment, noting the stained concrete kitchen, battered stainless steel sink and lack of cooking gas and
stove top, the water running along the bathroom’s rutted disintegrating concrete floor and the chipping layers of baby blue and dirty salmon paint on the walls. She jotted in her notebook that the entrance door needed a lock and deadbolt.
“This apartment is one of the worst I have seen in my one and a half years on the outreach team,” Nurcan said out of
of Gade. “I am worried about their security. It is obvious that Gade and the kids are traumatized and need help or they risk falling through society’s cracks.”
Nurcan then sat down with Gade to explain how she was going to help. ASAM would take Gade and the children to register for Turkish ID cards as well as enroll the children in school. Gade would undergo a protection screening and then receive a pre-loaded debit card to buy food. ASAM would deliver clothes and a mattress as well as get her regular transportation to the CFSC where the children would be able to play in a clean and safe environment while Gade met with the center’s nurse (for her hand), the therapist for psychosocial support and guidance and register for Turkish classes.
As Nurcan left, Gade hugged and kissed her and then hugged and kissed her again.
“I also believe we can touch a life just by listening,” said Nurcan, her voice slightly choked as she waved goodbye. “We can give a person hope.”