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TIAFI Community Centre Creates Safe Space for Syrian Refugees in Turkey’s Izmir

“We used to give out 200 portions of food a day. Now we see around 350 people coming in each day to eat a free warm meal,” said Anne, the founder of TIAFI. 

“We used to give out 200 portions of food a day. Now we see around 350 people coming in each day to eat a free warm meal,” said Anne, the founder of TIAFI. 

Izmir, Turkey’s third-largest city, is home to around 200,000 Syrian refugees. For years they have been trying to adapt and integrate into the host society after having lost everything they had in Syria to war.

And yet, Syrian refugees living in Izmir struggle with understanding and speaking the Turkish language and primarily live in the poorest, most dangerous neighbourhoods of Tepecik and Basmane. There, rent is the cheapest but the living conditions are poor. 

Syrian refugees who arrive in Izmir after running away from war in Syria are disoriented and scared. They desperately try to hold on to any help they can get, especially now as their situation is becoming increasingly dire because of the current economic crisis in Turkey, but the harsh reality of being a refugee is that often there is no one they can turn to. 

TIAFI, a non-profit organisation that opened a large community centre in the Tepecik neighbourhood, aims to change that. It created a safe space for Syrian refugees where they can come for advice, eat a warm meal, or take part in empowerment programmes.

Most importantly, however, when Syrians come to the centre they can see that not everyone has abandoned them and that there is hope that one day there will be joy in their lives again.

TIAFI has been extremely successful in empowering Syrian refugees

Most of us cannot understand how difficult it must be to have to build a new life from scratch, to try to forget the traumatizing past where we lost our family, our home, and all our money to armed conflict. The unpredictability of war could change that in a matter of days, however, and if that happened we would not want the world to turn its back on us. 

Anne O’Rorke, the founder of TIAFI, had been working in Turkey before opening the community centre and she saw how little assistance Syrian refugees were getting and how much of a safe haven was needed for them. 

With these things in mind, she established TIAFI Community Centre in 2017. What started off as an empty building with no doors and windows is now a colorful, welcoming space where refugees can find refuge from discrimination and injustice. 

TIAFI community centre is decorated with art made by Syrian refugee children | Photo: Katarzyna Rybarczyk

It is impossible to put TIAFI’s activities into one category as the centre manages a wide range of programmes designed to help refugees, particularly women who have lost their husbands, create new lives in Izmir. 

TIAFI organises workshops during which Syrian refugee women learn how to make clothes or jewelry. The items they make are then sold online so the women are not only learning useful skills that can help them find employment but also they can feel proud of the fact that people not only in Turkey but around Europe want to purchase their work. These workshops also strengthen their creativity and give them the chance to pursue their passions. 

Another aspect of TIAFI’s work is hosting phone repair classes for refugee women. The knowledge they gain there prepares the grounds for them establishing their own small businesses where they take broken mobile phones in and fix them in exchange for payment. They can even run such enterprises from the comfort of their own homes, which makes it a perfect option for women who are single mothers.

TIAFI runs programmes not only for refugee women but also for children. Even though many Syrian children are too young to understand what exactly war is, they have already been traumatised by it. When they come to the centre, they can forget about the scary things they saw in Syria and during the journey to Turkey, however. They get help with homework, dance, sing, and play with their peers. They can also eat a nutritious meal for free because often they do not have one waiting for them at home. 

TIAFI offers support to refugee children who have been traumatised by war | Photo: Katarzyna Rybarczyk

Sadly, some children TIAFI works with are experiencing not only psychological but also physical trauma and have lost their limbs in bomb blasts. For them, as well as children who were born with disabilities, TIAFI organises exercise classes during which they can improve their motor skills. The NGO also provides children with devices such as wheelchairs and prosthetics that are essential for their development but that their families would not be able to afford otherwise. 

Giving refugees food and clothes, helping them develop their professional skills, and assisting them with finding employment are all extremely important but TIAFI understands that empowering refugees takes more than that. It is a long process of teaching them how to reshape their fractured identity, of showing them that, even though it might take a while, they can heal their wounds and find happiness again. 

The economic crisis in Turkey is taking its toll on Syrian refugees

As Turkey’s economy is struggling and prices of basic goods and services are increasing daily, the poorest, which includes Syrian refugees, are amongst the most affected. 

With Turkish lira losing as much as forty-eight percent of its value this year, basic goods such as food products and medicines have become unaffordable for many. Thousands of migrants who were already vulnerable before have now been pushed into extreme poverty. 

Rents are going up rapidly so families live in fear of not being able to cover the costs and losing their homes. Once they pay rent and utility bills they have very few liras to purchase food and other essential products so often they have no choice but to skip meals to save money. 

One can go to the shop one day and purchase something, come back the next day to buy the same thing, and see that the price went up by 10 liras or more overnight. These changes are particularly difficult for those who have to carefully plan their expenses and who do not have a regular income.

As food is becoming a luxury for some, increasing numbers of refugees, as well as poor Turks living in Izmir, rely on TIAFI for assistance. 

“We used to give out 200 portions of food a day. Now we see around 350 people coming in each day to eat a free warm meal,” said Anne, the founder of TIAFI. 

On top of that, the currency crisis in Turkey has led to a rise in anti-refugee sentiments as some Turks blame refugees for ‘stealing’ their jobs and putting an additional strain on the country’s services. 

Running a centre for refugees is not easy

The economic crisis is a big challenge for TIAFI because the costs of running the community centre are rising and ways to secure more funding are limited.

Many people refrain from donating money to NGOs, wrongly assuming that they need to send large amounts to make a difference. In reality, however, even the smallest amounts can have a positive impact on the lives of refugees and every attempt to help others, especially if we ourselves do not have much, is highly valued.  

Getting more funds is not the most difficult thing about running the community centre, however. 

“The biggest challenge in working with refugees is giving them hope, teaching them what it means to dream, showing them that there is a future,” Anne told me. 

Most of us take dreaming for granted as we do it automatically, often without even realising that we’re dreaming. Our dreams vary in kinds and shapes, but what they have in common is that they give us hope that something nice could happen in the future. 

And yet, if someone has lost everything they ever worked for and loved, and for years have been subjected to degrading treatment and suffering, having dreams is not a natural thing. For them, thinking that one day that could change is beyond belief. 

That is why the process of refugee integration takes time and it is important to celebrate even the smallest achievements. 

There are countless things everyone can learn from Anne and her team; perseverance in trying to do good despite obstacles, bravery, compassion, and unstinting devotion to fighting for human dignity. Above all, however, TIAFI shows how important it is to care about those who have been less fortunate in life than us. 

Refugees are humans like anyone else with warm hearts and ambitions but they were unlucky enough to find themselves in the midst of dangerous times filled with bombing campaigns rather than smiles. The more people realise it and stop being indifferent to it, the sooner refugees will succeed at rebuilding their lives and getting back what has been taken away from them. 

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