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Arts + Culture: A Syrian Cultural House Opens in Istanbul

Meet the young Syrians seeking to create a bridge between Syrian and Turkish culture - and to provide safe haven for their country’s exiled artists.

Written by Karen Leigh Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes

When a Syrian arts collective opened in Istanbul earlier this year, Syrians living in Turkey finally had a place to go to celebrate their culture. Arabic language books are notoriously hard to find in Turkey, which reportedly hosts about 2 million registered and unregistered Syrian refugees. With the center now open, once-promising artists who were forced to leave their studios and sponsorship have a platform to connect with one another, and to finish their work.

“The need was greater than I expected,” says Sherry Alhayek, one of initiative’s founders. They named it Hamisch, which means “margin” in Arabic, with a founding mission to serve as a bridge between both Syrian artists and writers, and Syrian and Turkish culture.

Started by a group of young Syrians and Syrian-Americans, the enterprise is one of tens of fledgling young service initiatives founded by young people living in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. It’s one of the first to focus on culture, with most of them addressing pressing issues like access to food and medical aid.

Here, Alhayek discusses the organization’s mission and how the initiative came to light.

We’re eight to ten people. We’re all founders, we don’t have titles. We have discussions and decide what we’re going to do together. A bunch of them are writers. When I moved here, we were looking for Arabic books. And you couldn’t find Arabic books. So it started with, there should be a place where people can come find and read Arabic books. So we started there, as a discussion about Arabic books, and then developed into the culture, about going back to the culture and trying to be that bridge between the Syrian and Turkish cultures.

Turkey and Syria have been neighbors forever, but we don’t know much about their culture, and the Turks here, the main information they have about Syria is that there’s a war going on and it’s a disaster and we should donate some money. That stereotypical image. So we want to reverse that, and also make Syrian culture more visible, creating knowledge about Syrians in Turkey.

We had a lot of meetings before we decided what would be our final mission. We talked about just doing a library, and then developing that. We decided on a name, Hamisch, which very much related to the idea that as Syrians, our culture has always been in the Hamisch, on the margins, because for years it’s been left back and Assad’s culture has been presented as the main culture of Syrians and us as individuals or intellectuals; we’re on the margin. So that’s how it basically started and we started digging into finding Syrian artists or musicians who are here and they don’t practice their music or art or whatever here, they stopped and they don’t have a place and they suggest ideas for us and we take that into account and try to plan an event.

Right now we are funded by donations, so we can’t plan big things but we take consideration and advice from young artists. We have film festivals and related events coming up soon. We have a panel event where we invited youth and media to come in and asked the what they expect from Hamisch, and what did we all think about certain issues.

There have been suggestions about getting more involved inside Syria. Right now though we are all based in Istanbul, so we are thinking Istanbul, but we might have events in the south and other cities where there are Syrians. If we are able to take that and go to Gaziantep, and interact with Syrians there, for example. We’re fundraising.

We aim to be a focal point, they know they can come to us. Even if we can’t help them, we can connect them to someone who can help them hold an event or be what they need. If one artist comes in and says he needs help with something, the other can help. The needs are bigger than what I expected them to be.

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