Since this article was written, Small Projects Istanbul has opened a new and much larger Community Education Centre to accommodate the growth of their programs and demand for support.
She sits on the stairs to Galata Bridge, an infant sleeping in her lap, a young boy tucked under her arm beside her. Her head is bowed, eyes diverted, one hand held out to passers by. Our eyes meet briefly as I slip a lira note into her hand and she quickly looks away, humbled by her circumstances. Her face is etched with worry, her age undefinable.
I am on my way to Small Project Istanbul‘s Olive Tree Community Education Centre. Opened in June 2015, the Centre is designed to assist women and children, like the ones on the stairs, escape the downward cycle of poverty that curtailed education and lack of opportunity caused by the Syrian war has almost ensured.
I make my way down the pedestrian mall and into the narrow street in the Fatih district of Istanbul, searching for what I expect will be a large community centre, based on my own narrow experience.
What I find is a small storefront, no more than 500 square feet, bustling with activity. In the window, a half dozen children sprawl on a thick rug surrounded by colorful pillows lined against the glass, playing with puzzles or reading. Less than two feet away is a row of four small tables where women are setting up craft projects. Two sewing machines with another table for cutting fabric is off to the right. Another small table sits at the back of the room between the fridge and counter top. Every seat at the tables is taken. The few walls are decorated with hand-drawn pictures of trees and fish and snowflake cutouts. Despite the organized chaos, the room has a warm and welcoming feel to it.
“They need more space,” is the first thought that comes to mind. And they do.
Small Projects Istanbul is the brainchild of Karyn Tomas who was living in Damascus at the start of the Syrian war and saw firsthand the devastation done to the lives of the families there. With 1.9 million Syrian refugees in Turkey and more than 400,000 Syrian children out of school due to language, social integration and economic barriers, the needs outweigh the ability of the few local organizations to meet them.
Small Projects Istanbul is working to do so, one family at a time. With a primary focus on assisting refugee families in accessing both formal and supplemental educational opportunities, this volunteer-run organization is busy with activities designed to bridge the language, social and economic gaps that hinder integration into a new community and future success.
The whiteboard calendar by the sewing machines lays out the programs that run all day, every day at the centre. The variety of activities speaks to the specific needs of the community and the ability of the volunteers to provide them. Weekend and after school Turkish classes are available for children ages 5 to 12, as well as a Turkish homework program that assists those requiring extra help to understand their lessons and catch up with their peers. English, Turkish and German classes are available for adults in preparation for future opportunities and reunification with family members in other countries. Arts and music programs provide an opportunity for creative expression and legal courses assist the refugees in understanding their rights in their new home.
Small Projects Istanbul also has a scholarship program, the bulk of their funding, that provides whatever is necessary to ensure children are able to continue their education, whether it’s the cost of books and supplies or tuition for private arabic schools. 20 children have been helped through the scholarship program to date.
It is the craft collective, however, that catches my attention. In a country where Syrian refugees have been denied the right to work legally, helping the parents to become self-sufficient is key to ensuring the children remain in school. Twice a week for four hours each day, Syrian women from the neighborhood come to make braided and beaded bracelets, silver rings and canvas bags that will be sold with all proceeds going back to Small Projects Istanbul. A stipend is paid to the women who make these crafts that, while not enough to sustain them, eases their financial burden.
They vary in age, education level and socio-economic background, yet share the same desire – to create a better future for themselves and their children. Most are alone in Istanbul, their husbands having gone forward to Europe to try to secure a better future or stayed behind to try to salvage what little is left of their homeland. For others, they have been widowed, their husbands casualties of a war with no end. It is within this small storefront that a transformation is occurring for these Syrian women. For some, the collective is the first time they have worked outside the home. They are developing not only craft skills, but a new sense of pride, independence and self-sufficiency as well.
The recent announcement by the Turkish government to allow work visas for Syrian refugees will help some but is no panacea for those who are uneducated or unskilled, as many of the Syrian women are. With an existing 10% unemployment rate and fears this will increase as the recent bombing in Istanbul impacts the already struggling tourism industry, competition for existing jobs is tough.
My lira note is only a temporary respite to the challenges the woman on the stairs faces. What Small Projects Istanbul is doing will last a lifetime and plans to expand are already in place. With more space and more funding, the opportunities for this grassroots organization to have a positive impact on Syrian families within the community are endless.
I leave wanting to find a way to help this organization grow and succeed in their mission for one simple reason – they reminded me that one person can make a difference and that no act is too small to have a profound effect on the lives of others.
If you would like to learn more about Small Projects Istanbul, donate to their programs or purchase one of the items made by Syrian women, please go to Small Projects Istanbul or check out their Facebook page.