Backstory: A child's refuge in a migration maze

Talya has a thin face, with shadows. I know she's 11, but so tiny, she could be 8. I wonder about her nutrition. She wonders about her spelling. Clutching her donated notebook,she superseriously writes "doo" and looks up pleadingly. I grin, sheepish, shake my head. She's warmly dressed against the cold. There are plastic clips in her hair – green, yellow, and pink. Someone loves this child, cherishes her, sends her willingly to this twice-weekly school.

Twice-weekly school. It's all this child and the 30 other immigrant students at the Christ Church refugee school get. They're from Africa, Iran, Iraq, and their families are illegal immigrants.

I volunteered as an English teacher here last year for two months in classes held in the nave of Christ Church, beneath swooping archways. Students play, learn, and eat rolls and apple slices for breakfast.

Talya's mother wants to go to America or Canada or Australia. The family has been here now eight years, says her mother. That's eight years without a legal income, without schooling, without healthcare.

Political, diplomatic, and economic forces conspire against immigrant children like Talya. Thousands of them are here with their families, seeking asylum for all kinds of reasons. The children are caught in a game they may never comprehend – their families share an illegal status that may or may not turn into the temporary legal respite of asylum and designation as refugees. But whether their families ever find a new country to accept them is never assured.

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Strategically vital to the international community, Turkey has a bright future: a surging economy, a rising standard of living and a progressive if conservative government. Still it has its problems – the wide gap between rich and poor, inept and corrupt bureaucratic structures, weak social welfare systems, and widespread difficulties for women.

And now, the European Union is exerting complex and contradictory pressures on Turkey as requisites to EU entry. On the one hand, Europe is pressing Turkey to improve its human rights record and act humanely to asylum seekers. On the other hand, it insists that Turkey prevent the illegal flow of refugees into Europe.

To compound the problem for Turkey, over the past five years, Europe and other Western countries have developed a "fortress mentality" inhospitable to refugees. UN data show that the number of refugees accepted in EU countries has declined dramatically – almost 50 percent – over the past five years.

Meanwhile, thousands desperate enough to risk their lives come by leaky ship across the Mediterranean, or overland from Syria, Lebanon, or other countries to the east; or they simply fly in and overstay their three-month tourist visa. They come from all walks of life – doctors, bakers, shopkeepers, lawyers. Desperation is the common denominator.

No official tally exists but governments estimate that, extrapolating the number of illegal aliens arrested, there are between 500,000 to 1 million refugees in Turkey. That's no small problem.

On arrival, they register with the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) as asylum seekers, and the wait begins. Most don't know it, but the process may take four to five years. Life is precarious. The families aren't eligible for health services, work permits, or public education. Finally, if they're given refugee status they wait for a country to accept them – which may never happen.

If, at the first stage, refugee status is refused, the Turkish authorities give 15 days notice to leave the country. Then, according to refugee workers, if the immigrants have money they can pay a smuggler thousands of dollars to enter Europe illegally. If not, they go "underground," disappearing from the radar screens of authorities – officially ceasing to exist.

But some take up lives in the chaos of winding slum streets in rundown buildings – firetraps, up to 10 stories high with no lifts and little sanitation.

"With no ID they cannot rent rooms legally," says Murat Kalkan, a worker with the Istanbul office of the International Organization for Migration an intergovernmental migration management organization. "Unscrupulous landlords charge huge rents. Sometimes 20 or 25 people must live in one room. With no right to work, they are also vulnerable to exploitation by factories that prosper on the cheap labor."

Many refugees come from educated, sometimes privileged, backgrounds, and the dramatic drop in their standard of living compounded by the difficulties of their immigrant status can be so shocking, he continues, that even those "who arrive determined to somehow make a better life for them and their families spiral down into hopelessness."

The children in the Christ Church refugee school are a mixture of those waiting for a status determination, those accepted as refugees, and those refused. Once met, they're not easy to forget. I went back to the school recently to check in, and found that there are success stories.

The day I was there, a former Iranian student of mine, a 13-year-old and her 16-year-old brother were leaving. They'd found a sponsor in Canada. At a small farewell ceremony, the girl's father is jubilant, if nervous, still fearful enough of Iranian authorities to not want any family names used.

"When we left Iran," he says, "We didn't know what a pit we were falling into."

A well-paid government professional, suddenly under suspicion of being a covert Christian, he and his family quickly caught a flight to Turkey. Four difficult years ensued, with no recognition by the UNHCR.

"We need a country," he confides earnestly, "We want to have something for our children, a good life, without fear."

I also recently met some of the other parents in the small sunny courtyard of the Istanbul Migrant Assistance Programme (IIMP), a Methodist relief group.

A scattered queue of Africans, their parted and braided hair gleaming in the sunshine, was waiting for medical attention. The doctors they would see were refugees themselves. The man translating Somalian to English is the father of another former student. His smile is generous in his big face, he laughs often, and his eyes are shining with a quick intelligence. "We had to leave Somalia," he says. "It was too dangerous." He explains that he'd witnessed a murder and was frightened for his life – as well as for his family's well-being. He paid $4,500 to smugglers for a trip to Italy by ship. But the ship took the family to Turkey. And here he remains, having been turned down for refugee status. He says he paid smugglers twice to take his family overland into Greece – both attempts were unsuccessful. "So we stay here. Eight years now, and a new baby – but what can we do?"

The West seems to be closing against people like this man, says Cathy Phillips, a coordinator for IIMP, which finds sponsors in Western countries who can take responsibility for helping settle a refugee family.

"The big majority of these asylum seekers are the cream of the crop you know," she says, sadly. "They are the hard workers, the deserving. All they need is the chance to start again without fear, in freedom."

In the meantime, twice each week Talya, and others like her, cheerfully take what they can get at the refugee school ... and wait for refuge.

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