When Hayata Destek (Support to Life) launched a photo exhibit at Istanbul’s Cezayir earlier this month featuring Syrians from all walks of life, the goal was to show the human side of the country’s war to a population whose antagonism towards Syrians has been growing.
As refugees pour across the Syrian border, settling largely in the south but now starting to trickle into Istanbul and other major cities, concerns have grown that the more than 1 million Syrians now living in the country will stay permanently, squeezing the job market and causing rents to skyrocket, particularly in border cities like Kilis and Antakya.
As Turkey has played a massive role in the distribution of aid to Syrians, NGOs and aid programs here have found themselves in the hot seat. Last week, a controversial convoy of internationally donated aid was allowed across the border for the first time since the conflict began.
Here, Elif Gündüzyeli, Destek’s communications manager, discusses overturning prejudice through the exhibit, called “The Guest,” and the advantages and disadvantages of being a Turkish NGO in today’s tense political climate.
Syria Deeply: How did this project come about?
Elif Gündüzyeli: We have been doing projects in the field since October 2012, human aid projects in cities like Urfa, Hatay and Kilis. We do distribution projects. We don’t do cardboard boxes, but we give them restaurant ticket cards, which we load so that people can do their own shopping for hygiene products and food and drinks. We also have community centers in the field where we give legal aid to the Syrians.
When we do a project, we first do an in-depth assessment where we meet with the families in person and get all their details, their needs and priorities. From doing that, we have encountered families from all backgrounds, education levels and ethnicities.
We decided to turn our experience into a book project, which we did with the same photographer and journalist from the photo exhibition. We needed to do this because we saw an increase in the number of Syrians in Turkey, and there’s now prejudice against Syrians in Turkish society. We noticed a great deal of it, and we wanted to explain and show the human side of the whole crisis, because since the beginning, the attention here has been on the geopolitical side. We then decided to organize the photography exhibition as a follow-up to the book. We wanted to show the refugees not as refugees but as guests, temporary asylum seekers.
SD: As a Turkish NGO, how are you funded?
Gündüzyeli: We have a Syrian aid program [in this country] that’s run by international donors and NGOs, completely independent from the Turkish government. [Because we’re not funded by the government,] we face some limitations in the field, but on the other hand, we’re not dependent on government politics.
SD: Turkish aid to Syria has been hotly debated here. What are the advantages and disadvantages of being a Turkish NGO?
Gündüzyeli: One of the advantages is that we are a completely independent NGO. That’s not always easy: usually when you’re a humanitarian aid organization in Turkey, you might be biased according to politics, but we are not.
We go from door to door to each and every family and determine what they need. But sometimes we face a disadvantage there because people might think we do our distribution through other means, like political influence.
The way the Turkish government has been dealing with the crisis has been limiting. The Syrians’ status isn’t “refugee” but not yet “asylum seeker” either, and some crossed the border illegally. So it’s hard to [pinpoint] the families in need.
An advantage of Turkey is that the camps, which we call “guest houses” run by the Ministry of Internal Affairs, are good camps: they’re in a relatively good situation here compared to neighboring countries.
SD: How did you choose who would be featured in the exhibit?
Gündüzyeli: All of the people are beneficiaries of our programs. We chose the portraits by having as many people as possible from different backgrounds, ethnicities and genders. We hope people come away paying more attention to the fact that Syrians are human and that any human can be displaced. It’s the best thing we can offer. We aren’t doing advocacy for the [government’s] Syrian program. We work in the field and we see things, and we want to show them to people in Istanbul and Ankara and Izmir who don’t know what’s happened in the fieldWe wanted to show, as neutrally as possible, that this is the humanitarian side of it.