Few are unaware that a large number of Syrian refugees are now in Istanbul. They can be seen on the streets, in shopping centers and going, or trying to go, about their daily lives. These are not the beggars on the streets, most of whom aren't Syrian anyway, but Syrians, working class, middle class, factory workers, university lecturers and others who are trying to rebuild their shattered lives.
Syrians who register with the Turkish authorities are entitled to free medical care, education and other benefits. However, many prefer to register their children at Syrian schools, which are run as charitable foundations and only take TL 50 ($19.10) per month. I have written in this column before about one of these schools, Heroes and Leaders, but today's subject is not about Syrians themselves, but a response to them from other people residing in Istanbul.
Again, something most people are aware of is that some residents of Istanbul, although not the majority, are not pleased with the Syrian presence in the city. They mutter about them "taking our jobs," or say "our rents are increasing" and "they are everywhere." They blame the government for allowing these people in the country. Yet, the government's act of opening the door to people fleeing for their lives is criticized, as it causes a bit of discomfort in their easy lives. Rather than taking up the task of being the Ansar to the Mujahir – something ingrained in the Muslim conscience and something the majority of the population happily shoulders – they grumble and begrudge giving up a bit of space to people who have lost everything.
This has not gone unnoticed. The most remarkable group of people I have met to date who have taken up this task is a group of university students. Calling themselves IstBigBroBigSis (Istanbul Big Brothers Big Sisters) and backed by the Human Development and Social Education Foundation (IGETEV), this group of students has dedicated themselves to making the younger generation of Syrians feel at home. They have no grand claims to change society, all they want is for Syrian youths between the ages of eight and 18 to feel that someone actually wants them here and cares for them.
The group, inspired by one student from Galatasaray University, mostly hails from Istanbul Şehir University, although there are students from Bosporus University involved as well. There are plans to draw Marmara University international students into the project as well. Istanbul Şehir University has supported this group from its inception, and encourages them in their efforts. The students are for the most part international students who come from Albania, Kosovo, Yemen, Jordan, Syria and Egypt.
Not fazed by language barriers, the students have enthusiastically devoted their free time to helping those in need. The first activity brought the "bigs" – the students – and the "littles" – the Syrian children – together in a depot full of clothing that had been donated for Syrian families. The fact that the clothes had not been sorted meant that they could not be distributed. So one Saturday, the bigs and littles came together and sorted out a large quantity of the clothes. While they were doing this, Syrian families arrived and were given clothing. These families showered both the bigs and the littles with thanks and praise.
The second activity was held in Fatih. The Fatih City Council generously donated a recreation room to IstBigBroBigSis for a painting activity. Using sheets, paint and brushes, the two groups got together and painted whatever made them happy. From the Syrian flag to boats and suns, the children painted what was close to them. There was even one child that drew Wi-Fi, which certainly makes most people happy. The bigs also painted, helped them create new colors from the limited range and everyone had a great time. At one point, the littles spotted a ping pong table in the corner and began playing. One of the bigs came over and gave an impromptu lesson, the laughter and smiles were worth everything. The director of the social center said, "Don't worry. Let them play. This is the least we can do to put some sunshine in their lives."
These children are all enrolled in a school, but it is a school without a garden or playground. It is on a main road, and they get little play time. However, their ready smiles when allowed to indulge in something new and a bit frivolous are worth the world.
When asked why they wanted to take part in this project, the response from the bigs was very interesting. One young man answered: "I want to do whatever I can to bring a smile to a Syrian child's face." Another said: "I am saddened by what I have heard, and I want to do anything to make their lives better." Another told me: "I want to do what I can to bring young people together for a good cause." When the younger participants were asked how they feel about the project, the responses were also interesting. "It is fun spending time doing something different. I feel important," said one child, while another said: "Doing something outside of school is fun. I really had a good time."
There are more planned meetings. The IstBigBroBigSis group is planning a theatrical event at Istanbul Şehir University to draw in more participants. They are also hoping to hold a day for both the bigs and the littles at a skating rink and perhaps a day on a farm. The ultimate aim is to pair up the big brothers and sisters with little brothers and sisters. They will spend one hour a week together with the attention of the older person focused totally on that of the younger. In this way, the little ones will have the undivided attention of someone – they can do homework, play games, eat or just take a walk and talk. The important thing is that the older person concentrates all their attention on the younger one, thinking and acting only for them. For children coming from a war zone, the majority of whose parents are suffering feelings of displacement or depression, this is incredibly valuable.
As I said, this group is not out to change the world. They are out to bring smiles to a few faces. Their eagerness to devote themselves to a project that will not bring them higher grades and will not really matter on the CVs is encouraging and inspiring. But perhaps what is most moving is the way IstBigBroBigSis approaches other groups who want to do the same. They have developed a YouTube channel to inspire others to help. "We don't own this project. What we want are people everywhere to do the same. It isn't complicated and it isn't grand, but it is important. It just takes a little time," one of the organizers said.
The hope is that this project will grow, spreading throughout Turkey, and perhaps even be adopted in other countries where there are Syrian refugees such as Lebanon. Or even in countries where there are no Syrian refugees, but where young adults can help children to take a step toward a happier and healthier future.
How lucky we are to live in a city and a time where these young hopes for the future are working to make the lives of others better. Despite all the talk of the "me generation," here are young people who are sparing no thought for themselves.