Turkish people like spicy mussels with some drops of lemon juice. Abdulkader Hussein, 13 years old, knows it already in spite of not going to the school. He doesn't know how to divide neither he knows the History of his own country – Syria – but he was forced to learn what Turkish people like to be able to survive. Everyday at 6pm he carries the shells which were prepared by his mother and he exhibits them on the corner of Istanbul's most crowded street: Istiklal. He stays there until the sunrise, among wealthy tourists, drunken guys and prostitutes. “I have some friends here in the street who protect me”, says the small seller, with an adult body expression and the eyes enlarged by the thick glasses lenses. “Still I had already to escape from a knife who was thrown against me by a drunken transgender”. He sells the small mussels for half lira (15cent) and the big ones for 1 lira (30cents). Usually he gets 20 euros per day.
In 2012, Abdulkader and his older brother, who was 12 at that time, left the northern's Syria Kurdish town of Hasekeh and crossed the border to Turkey on the mountain path. “The sky was always red, there were explosions and people with no legs and arms. My parents told us to escape”, he says. The two brothers stayed on their aunt's house in Mardin for almost one year until their father, a construction manager, was murdered in Syria. “He was leaving the construction site when a car passed by and shot him from inside. My mother told me there was blood everywhere”. It was the last time he remembers to have cried. Then the mother joined the chidren in Turkey and moved to Istanbul hoping to find a new job. She didn't. Abdulkader started his snack business while his brother was employed in a tailoring. The children pay all the house bills.
The small refugee got used to sleep during the day and to play just on the free times: he plays guitar and he speaks with the rest of his exiled family on Facebook. Lightened by the neons of the bars, he speaks about Syria's war episodes with a surprising coldness: “I watched a video of Daesh (arabic acronym to Islamic State) in which a man is caught for being listening to loud music and he is beheaded in the middle of the street”. He refers to all the conflict's players – and they are a lot -, as characters of a cartoon serie: for him the kurdish fighters of the People's Protection Units (YPG) are heroes like Batman, Joker and Penguin, the enemies, are Bashar al-Assad and Daesh. “I have a cousin with the same age as me who is already fighting with YPG and he knows how to shoot an Ak-47 and use a granade”, he states. “I also want to be a warrior but my mother doesn't allow me to touch on weapons”. When Abdulkader decides for his own he will go to the mountains to fight for the Kurdish cause. For now he is a refugee of a war on a country that he doesn't even feel like his own.
Abdulkader is one of the 2 million Syrian refugees living in Turkey: 75% of them are women and children. Just 250.000 are living in camps where food, education and basic needs are provided by the Turkish government and international aid. But the majority of the Syrians prefer to try a new life on a major Turkish city and Istanbul is their favourite: is now home of almost 1 million war displaced. Small arabic children are spread by the most popular sites of Istanbul, often barefooted and with signs of malnutrition.
On Suleymanyie, on the back of the biggest Istanbul's mosque, some of them live on the ruins of old buildings with no toilets or water. Ahmad, a 13 years old boy, lost his mother in rural Damascus when he was 10. “I wake up depressed every day. Sometimes I think it would have been better to stay in Syria”. The largest population of this dramatic slum is from Kobane, the Kurdish town assaulted by Islamic State on the beginning of 2015. “We didn't have time to collect anything. We ran away just with the clothes we had in that moment”, says Maurat, 27, who lives in a 2 square meter room with the wife and two baby daughters.
During the night, on a Syrian restaurant of Beyoglu, two employees discuss their way to be smuggled to Europe. The smuggling services are expensive: 5000 euros for going by boat to Greece, 8000 for the walking way to Bulgaria and 15000 for a safe trip by plane. Children with less than 14 who travel with the parents don't pay to the smuggler.
There are about 30 Syrian schools in Istanbul. In the one of Eseryurt, on the city's outskirts, children play after receiving the annual diplomas. The school was given by municipality but all the teacher's wages and school bills are paid by private donations. “Today a mother started to cry because two of her children received the diploma and she recalled her third child who was killed during a bombing in Syria. Some of this kids were used as human shields and other ones participated on the war”, says the principal Abir Qudsi. “Last week a girl that left a letter saying she was going to Aleppo to release the father that is arrested there. We have to deal with this very sensitive stories everyday”.
Many of the kids live just with their mother and their brothers: father is often in Syrian or already migrated to Europe. That's the case of Huda, 35 years old, who pays the school of her little daughter Sirine with the money earned by her 17 years old son, who receives 260 euros for a 12 hours work day without holidays. The goal is to join the father who paid 5000 euros to be smuggled to Europe from Libya. He is now in Germany. “Turkish treat us like slaves. Being a Syrian in Istanbul is just like having a sort of disease”, says Gule, another wife who expects to join the husband in Germany, taking with her two daughters.
On the market of Ortakoy, Ahmad and Mohammed, two cousins from Aleppo of 10 and 11 years old, are used by a Turkish man for selling flowers and toys. “In Syria we were collecting the shrapnel of the missiles and bombs and we sell it to the blacksmith. We were making more money than here”, Ahmad says. Then he tries to sell a small propeller to the son of an Arabic Gulf couple who is his age and his size. “If I feel strange selling toys to children like me? Not really. They seem younger than me. I don't feel a children anymore”.