First of all, let me thank my friend Justin Cannon for helping me to review this post, and correct any English mistakes. :)
In previous posts, I spoke about how I ended up living in Istanbul without ever planning to.
In this post, I am going to explain a bit about what that was like, to suddenly be in a different country in which you don’t speak the language, and you can’t work legally to support yourself.
When I finished my planned vacation and the time finally came for me to leave Istanbul to return to Syria, I couldn't The borders on both the Syrian and Turkish side were closed (though, I found out three months later that the crossing was only closed for a few days to cars - not people - but what can I say? Media!). Since I had told the founders of the Serbian Travel Club at which I was staying that I was only staying for three days, It was really embarrassing for me to tell them that, in fact, I couldn't leave. The club has a maximum five day policy in order to offer free accommodation to as many travelers as possible, so I felt that I had exhausted my opportunity and now was infringing on others’ as well.
The first week after I surrendered to the idea that I couldn't just go back home was horrible. I spent my days reading the news, trying to figure out when I would finally have the chance to return. I also waited for news from my family to at least know that they were still alive, but that was impossible since there was no electricity in Aleppo - sometimes for days at a time. There were Internet and cell phone outages for weeks. So I felt isolated, alone, and completely in the dark about the situation of my family and friends back in Syria.
And to make matters worse, I had no money. As I said before, I wasn't planning on staying here, so I didn't have much money on me.
Sure, plenty of people have their own money problems. But they’re not in a foreign country on their own.
Buying food was the easiest problem to manage. I used to buy only the cheapest things that could fill my stomach. Several times, I skipped meals to save money.
I lost 15 kg in a matter of three months.
Sometimes, lunch was a piece of bread and a glass of ayran. Fruit? Forget it.
Luckily, this didn't last long. Ramadan was near which meant the Turkish government would soon offer free food and water during “iftar” (the period at the end of fasting) each day.
I went there on foot every day, traveling 11km both ways (according to Google Earth) to save on transportation money.
It was very strange for me, and I felt ashamed when I collected the left-overs. But I must survive, and at least it’s easier than asking people for money. I wouldn't ask anyone; I would just take the left-overs while I pretended to be cleaning.
So, this is how I manage to survive the first month while spending almost no money. Free accommodation from the Travel Club and free food from the government. It was difficult, but being surrounded by all the nice people in the Travel Club, especially the founders, made it easier for me.
After apologizing a few times that I was overstaying my welcome at the club, they told me I could stay for the two months, which is as long as the Travel club project lasted.
That first month, I read the news every day, hoping and waiting to hear that the borders were open and functional.
But after several weeks of waiting, I lost hope. I felt that I had no choice but to accept my current situation and start looking for a source of income.
I started looking for a job in big shopping malls and computer chain stores, since I’m experience in computer-related stuff. I was a part-time IT consultant, IT manager, and maintenance contractor back in Syria. But here in Turkey, it’s a different story. After visiting the malls and the computer stores, I understood that without being able to speak Turkish or having a Turkish National ID number and job permit (which is almost impossible to get and costs between 1700 and 3000 dollars), it’s impossible for a guy like me to get a job here.
So, after two days of walking on foot all around this big city looking for a job, I was sure what I wasn’t going to be able to find the same standard of job that I used to have in Syria. I started lowering my expectation and started visiting restaurants, flower stores, pizza shops, cafes, supermarkets, and Internet cafes asking for anything. Dish-washing, cleaning, food preparation, anything! (By the way, yes, I asked the workers at the “iftar place” if they could give me a job. You guessed it, they laughed and said no, thinking I was some sort of stranger tourist, crazy and joking, I guess?)
After awhile, it wasn't insulting anymore to be asked the same questions and receiving the same answers over and over again, in every place I searched for a job. They asked, “What can you do?” I’d say I was a computer engineer and technician. “What kind of job are you looking for?” Anything available, I’d reply. “Ha, sorry. We have no job for you.”
It was very difficult. I’d never had such feeling in my entire life. And it wasn't about the money. My friends were supporting me, and I had money transferred to me from time to time.
But I’m not used to taking charity and sitting at home. I’m not that kind of person. It’s hard for me to ask for money from anyone. So, often, I had only a few coins in my pocket - enough to buy some chips and a can of cola.
Yeah, it was very difficult. I even started to envy scavengers when I would see them at their work. I started to envy people that I’d see smoking in the streets. I started to think, “Oh. . . they buy cigarettes. They must have a job!”
But I couldn't do anything about it.
The days were passing me by, and the time had come for the Serbian Travel Club to close. So I had to move out. The founders of the Club were very nice and offered that I travel with them to Serbia. We went together to the Serbian Consulate in Istanbul to ask about the procedure. They said it was very easy and definitely possible, so for the first time in a long time, I felt secure. Finally, I had a plan in case I couldn't find a job or place to stay. I wouldn't have to sleep on the streets.
And, sure enough, the project finished. They had to close the club, and I had to move out. . .
I had to stay alone in this huge city - without friends, without anyone to visit or call or speak with. I started feeling sad when I saw people laughing, sitting in cafes, joking and conversing. I was all alone for days and days after leaving the Club.
It was a very awful and sad feeling for me, for many reasons which I will explain in my next posts. . .
From a Syrian who's living in Istanbul, With love.