How You Can Help Refugees in Turkey – Interview With A Humanitarian Activist Zsuzsa Nago
Have you ever wondered how you can help refugees in Turkey, but for many different reasons you didn’t go into action.
Well, guys, good news is coming! Every little thing we do matters and that’s why I reached to Zsuzsa Nago, an activist from Hungary who came to Ankara, Turkey to help refugees. Thanks to her group called Heart Workers we all got a chance to help and impact lives of hundreds of people who need help.
Read how you can help in the interview with one amazing Expat Woman in Turkey – Zsuzsa Nago.
I will let her tell you in her own words something about herself and how she came up with the idea to come to Turkey and help refugees.
I’m firstly and most importantly a human. Other identities, some chosen by me, others I was born with it: a Hungarian teacher-journalist-activist from Transylvania. I earn my living with teaching English, which I love for many reasons, but my passion is being an activist. Thinking and speaking about something I believe in, without action, does not satisfy me. I came to Turkey because I saw the horrors of the Syrian war in the news and saw the refugees pouring into the neighboring countries, carrying just small packs or their relatives on their backs. And I simply felt I want to do something about it. Turkey was a logical choice as it is a neighbor to Syria, it has many camps and it was stable and safe at that time. So I found a teaching job and arrived here in 2013. I have seen many Syrian families sitting on the street and it touched me how dignified and united they were. They didn’t even beg, only sat quietly. I brought them food, clothes, I even had a few children coming to my home once. But it was still too little, so I was very happy when I found a few students, all poor but with a great heart and determination, so we collected 400 liters of milk and clothes, rented a minibus and went down to Suruc, a small town by the Turkish-Syrian border which had 7 refugee camps at that time, and distributed the aid. One of our friend who has organized this was killed one year later in the Ankara train station bombing. In 2015 I left my university job in Ankara so that I can go back to Suruc and stay longer. Eventually, I stayed in one of the camps for 4 months, building and demolishing tents and doing everything else what was needed. I left Suruc not long before a Daesh suicide bomber killed 32 students in our community home, students who came to help the refugees rebuild their lives back in Syria. Afterward, the camps did not accept volunteers anymore, for security reasons. So I had to look for ways to help in the cities.
You created a group Heart Workers. When did you create this group and who are the members of your group?
Since arriving to Turkey my main focus became the Syrian refugees, so I organized different actions and groups:
- in Ankara, where refugees live in slums;
- in a refugee camp in Suruc, a small town by the Syrian border;
- in Bodrum, a popular touristic destination from where the majority of the refugees left for Europe and died in the sea;
- in Hungary, which has seen hundreds of thousands of refugees passing through on their way to the West; then Ankara again.
As Syrian refugees in Turkey don`t even have a refugee status (they are called `misafir`, `guests`), nor work permit (unless educated and among the very few who could apply and did receive permission) they can only work illegally and they are greatly used and abused by some. Turkey has accepted more than 3 million refugees, and about 50,000 of them live in Ankara. They have no regular income and many can not reach the services the Turkish government provides, for the lack of information or because they are not registered appropriately. Their life is very difficult.
So in May of 2016 I founded a group called Heart – Workers, which every week visits the refugees in Siteler and Solfasol, two neighbourhoods in Ankara and we were bringing food, clothes, toys, school items, hygiene stuff, medication, or pays for the rent/bills – whatever was needed and whatever we could get donation for. Ever since winter started, we have been focusing on food and warm clothes.
We are really small, but exactly, for this reason, our help is direct, quick and personal: it goes from hand to hand. In our database there are 112 families, the average number of children is about 4-5. The volunteers who are part of the group come from many different countries and background, and so do the ones who are not physically in Ankara but are sending aid so that we can spend it on whatever it is needed. The common point is that they all care and want to do something beyond being sad and angry about what is happening in Syria and with its people fleeing the war. The first members, with whom we gave actually birth to this idea and visited the refugees for the first few months, were a Canadian teacher, an Egyptian student, a Bolivian teacher and a Pakistani Ph.D. student. After the first few months many new members have joined, at the moment there are 150 group members but there are only about 5-6 of us who actually go and have direct contact with the refugees.
How can people join your group Heart-Workers and what skills are most needed?
Because we are all working full time or studying, we can not expand this group to involve different activities where volunteers could make themselves useful. We ran out a week ago of all resources and started to use our own money again, just like it was at the beginning. But this can’t go for a long time unfortunately, so what we need the most from people who want to help, is funds to help us buy these cards, or for them to pay the utility bills of these families (we are regularly being sent bills families can not pay for and each time a different member has paid for them).
How do you get the information about the families or people who need help?
Initially, we went to the center of Solfasol, a small, but beautiful slum in Altindag district, where we knew there were Syrian families living. We spoke to the people there, got invited into their homes and we helped those who we met. The majority of them are from Aleppo and are as poor as the few Turkish families living among them. Then the word spread and every time new people arrived at the spot where we handed out whatever we brought – those times we registered them (name, phone number, number and ages of kids) and called them to the spot, next to Solfasol cemetery, the following weekend. It is very hard to send
It is very hard to send away people with empty hands, so luckily next to the cemetery, where we stopped our car, there were people selling potatoes and eggs – if we had nothing else to give, we bought them at least potatoes and eggs. It was beautiful to see how some people shared these with others if they came too late. We are actually very lucky to be able to witness and have a part in making people happy, happy just for the simple reason that they can send their children to sleep with a full stomach, at least for a while.
For the past few months we have developed deeper relationships with two families, one in Siteler other in Solfaol, they also contact us when a new family, who has difficulty providing for themselves, moves in the area. They tell us about the widows, the orphans, and the sick people.
What do you try to provide to refugees and how do Heart-Workers find funds to help refugees in Ankara?
At the moment we only try to provide the most important and basic thing, which is food. We asked the families what they need the most, and they told us that these cards (prepaid BIM cards) are the best, as they can buy with it whatever they need, whenever they need it. For the past 4 months, we brought these cards every weekend once, for 8-9 different families. The people who have been donating so far are our friends or friend`s friends and all the people who came at least once to Solfasol and Siteler. It is impossible not to want to give, however little when you meet these people face to face. The expat teachers at Bilkent university have also been helping us a lot, organizing donation drives, where people brought a van full of clothes, canned food, hygiene, toys, household items, they were amazing actually.
What are the monthly financial needs of the average family that you help? It can help people know and decide to sponsor a family for some time, so the family can concentrate on things like work and education.
Jameel, our contact person in Solfasol told us that the cards we gave (75tl worth) are enough for 3 weeks for a medium sized family (3-4 kids). Meaning, they can buy oil, sugar, lentils, rice etc., so they will not starve. The rent usually is about 250tl, plus the bills: water and electricity. The idea of sponsoring a family is the best, we already have a US family doing this to one of our families. We put them in contact, they communicate through WhatsApp with the help of an Arabic translator. If anyone is interested in doing this, we would be very happy to create the contact.
Do you also collect and bring clothes to the refugees?
At the moment not, as we have no depot where we can sort out and pre-pack them, nor transport. But if someone has clothes and can arrange for transport, we can direct them to Jameel’s home and they would help to distribute, or they can give them to the muhtar, who would do the same.
Do Syrian families you work with send their kids to school in Turkey?
Syrian refugees have right for free education in the place where they are registered. In some schools they go at the same time with Turkish kids, other schools have too many children so the Syrian kids go in the afternoon. The majority of the families we spoke to do not send their kids to school. Either because they have no transport to do so, or because the kids are working selling tissues or the older ones are doing manual work and the family needs the money they are earning.
When the children sell tissues, they are often taken by police and put in children’s home (Cocuk evi in Turkish), and are kept there sometimes for months. One of our families just moved to Istanbul, and I have a voice mail from Muhammad, an 11 years old child (we communicate in Turkish), saying Ankara had too much police and he could not do his work, so now he is looking for work in Istanbul but could still find nothing. He is 11 only, it is very sad when a child has to be a grown up so early, and this is their reality.
What are the ways in which people can help refugees in Turkey? What is your advice for the ones who wish to help, but don’t know where to start?
There are many ways. You can join a group like ours, you can start up your own or just approach those you can see sitting on the streets, you can speak to the children selling tissues. You can either give them food, nappies (these are usually what all families ask for), which you can do even without speaking Arabic / Turkish. If you speak though, it is even easier: just ask them how is their life, what do they need, then take it from there.
Are you familiar with organizations similar to yours’ in other Turkish cities?
There are many groups like ours in all places where there are refugees: like Bodrum Humanity, Small Projects Istanbul (SPI) or the Refugee Volunteers of Izmir (ReVi).
How can people contact you, how they can send funds or any other kind of help?
They can contact us by joining our group or just sending an email on Heart Workers. We are not registered charity so we are not doing fundraising, all our donations came from friends, family, group members or their friends. They know and trust us. We regularly post about what we do and keep all receipts which are available if requested. If you want to help, you can either send us pre-paid BIM cards, or fund us so we can buy them, or we can also put you in contact with a family so you would have a direct contact and help them out whenever they are in need (food and bills usually).
Thank you, Zsuzsa, for a great interview and many helpful information about how we can all help refugees in Turkey.
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