Midnight In Istanbul

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Walking through Taksim square I spot three children lying on the metal air vents that sit above the subway station. It was dark and it was starting to get chilly. I stood next to them on the metal air vent, warm air bellowed out. They seemed very passive. The middle child told me their names, Ali, Muhammad and Ahmad, and that they sleep in Gazi park. Their clothes and skin were dirty and they looked like they hadn't washed in weeks. Crowds walked past the square shouting and screaming, the local football team had just won the league. Huge crowds were swelling and chanting, cars honked, people waved flags from the windows as they drove by. Muhammad signaled his annoyance to the noise, they wanted to sleep. There was a gentle hum from the air vents and warm air flowed through the metal grating, even I was feeling comfortable and sleepy. I took some photos and bid them farewell. As I shook Ali’s hand I could feel a plastic bag in his sleeve, which he then put to his face. I realised that the boys were high on glue, the reason why they were so passive. I left but felt unsettled, so I went to buy some kebabs for them. I was gone 15 minutes and the three of them were fast asleep, the bag of glue tossed aside. As I approached some other street kids went up to them, stole some packs of tissues and ran off. I tried to wake Muhammad but he would not wake from his glue-induced slumber. I put the kebabs in a bag and placed them under his arm so that they may have them when they wake, so long as they’re not stolen by some more street kids.

After meeting a Syrian friend I walk back through the Fatih neighbourhood of Istanbul. It’s an area with many Arabs. My friend tells me you can go out and only speak Arabic and you’ll be fine, subsequently many Syrians have settled here. It’s late in the evening, I cross the main road and spot a small gang of kids running between the cars. I can hear their Arabic and ask where they are from, most are from either Aleppo or Damascus. I sat with them and soon they became curious of me and asked me to take their photo. They had set up next to a set of traffic lights where cars regularly stop, and they playfully skip between the cars washing the windows with foam cleaners and bottles of washing up liquid. Cars honk and drivers yell at them, some give money, some don’t. The kids seem to be between 5-12, one of the older kids has a phone, he’s probably in charge of the group. One girl shows me how much money she has. She tries to count in English, eventually telling me 8 Turkish Lire, though really it was closer to 12 TL. Over the next hour and a half most of the kids make about 5 TL, with the same girl getting a 5 TL note at one point, which she proudly parades to the boys. Some of the kids ask me for money but I refuse, I don’t want to encourage them to be out on the streets like this, or encourage their parents to send them out. They should be at home in a safe environment, it’s no way to grow up looking up to people for money, always feeling below everyone. It’s something that will stick in their mind for a long time.

Two days later I pass back through Fatih and see the kids again. It’s just the two older boys, it’s later in the night and they weren’t working hard. They take the camera and took photos of each other and of me, some of the Turkish people walking past give us weird looks. After buying them a sandwich each they start trying to do handstands in the road and I count how many seconds they can hold them for. Mahmoud (the younger one) got eight seconds, while Ahmad got four seconds. Every now and then as they hung upside down some change would fall from their pockets and jingle across the road and they’d laugh and scramble after it. Then they tried to do the bridge position. They’d both try to hold it at the same time as I took a photo. They could only hold it a few seconds before collapsing in a heap, laughing at each other. Perhaps at this time the war seems so far away. There are so many street kids in Istanbul, partly because it’s hard for Syrians to get work here with the language barrier being a key problem. These kids march out everyday to beg, to clean windows, to paw at people for money, to look like they carry the weight of 24 million suffering Syrians. But it’s moments like this that show them for what they are, kids missing out on a childhood. No one this age should carry so much burden on their shoulders. They come back to the roadside and sit down, there aren’t many cars passing now, it’s almost midnight in Istanbul.

A small group of young girls tore through the bushes in Gazi park, picking the flowers from the bushes, ignorant to the shouts of the locals sitting in the park. The locals weren’t going to get up to stop them. In 15 minutes they must have picked near two thirds of the flowers from the bushes. They took the flowers to the side of the park to prune the spines off the stems, and then fill a small cup with soil and plant the flowers in the cup. They took the cups and ran into Taksim square with the flowers, to the crowds and buskers. They started to dance to the music, ripping the petals off the flowers and throwing them in the air in delight, the crowds clapping and cheering, unaware of where the flowers came from. The girls danced in a rain of pink petals until the music stopped, disappearing into the crowds. All that was left behind was a puddle of pink petals on the edge of the square.

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