Istanbul a city almost 16 million people call home including more than 532,000 Syrians who fled from the still lasting conflict in their home country. It is a city that never sleeps. Its streets are noisy from millions of cars and drivers who constantly sound their horns in the hope of getting ahead faster in the ever-stagnant traffic. Pedestrians struggle through the crowded sidewalks on their way to work. In a small side street, hidden among the huge stores, is a small cafe run by Şişli Municipality. Through its large windows you can catch a glimpse of the small kitchen where some women prepare cakes, pastries but also savory dishes.
Fatima is one of these women. For the past eight months, she has been working here for a small wage, offering her customers a break from the jungle of Istanbul - some minutes of peace and quietness served with a freshly brewed cup of cay and small deliciously scented treats before the noisy, hectic and merciless big city takes you back under its spell.
Fatima's story is a special one, but also one marked by loss, courage and willpower. The 48 year old Syrian woman is actually from Aleppo city. She studied English at university and turned her passion into a profession. She worked as an English teacher or translator for various companies. She spent her free time reading books about philosophy, mythology, poetry or religion, many of those in English. Fatima describes herself as a freedom-loving, independent, but also very traditional woman. But the year 2013 changed her life abruptly.
"I have no family, my life is teaching English. But suddenly there is war in Syria. I was faced with a very difficult decision: should I stay in the war or leave and start everything from zero? My friends fled, there was no more work and I was all alone. Within a few months I lost everything, I lost my life," Fatima says in a broken but strong voice. The memories still hurt.
On July 30, 2013, Fatima and her two married sisters, along with their families, decided to move to Antakya in Turkey's Hatay province – this date she will never forget. The province shares its borders and culture with Syria. There, many members of the community speak Arabic and share common values. But Fatima, a strong woman who always depended on herself, could not accept the idea of staying with her sisters' families - without a job and without a house of her own. Fatima was already aware that her chances of becoming an English teacher were slim, as her Turkish language skills were not sufficient to get hired at a school. Therefore, she also took easier jobs for which she was overqualified. But the money was not enough and Fatima made another brave decision.
"I lived with my sisters and their families in Antakya for four years. I met many people there and made relationships. But life there is too difficult. It is a small city with few job opportunities for me, and at the same time I have considerable expenses, such as rent and other utilities. Anyway, I just need to work and if somehow possible in my profession. English is my life, I have never done anything else. I can't give up my passion so easily. So, I decided to move to Istanbul," says Fatima as she serves the next customer a cup of tea and a small croissant.
This was not an easy decision for the passionate English teacher, because she is aware that the job market in Istanbul is bigger but at the same time hard-fought. Her age and an absent work permit for Istanbul are both big hurdles she has to overcome. But even this has not stopped her from pursuing her dream. In the first months and years in Istanbul, Fatima tried in vain to get help from various organizations. She needed any permanent job so she could apply for a work permit and residency in Istanbul - the first step towards her dream. But most of them closed their doors. Without a work permit, no job. Applying without a permanent job was hopeless, registrations for Istanbul are closed and available only in extremely exceptional cases.
"I asked many organizations in Istanbul, but also in Antakya, for help. I needed a work permit to be able to work as a teacher or interpreter again. But no one could help me. One day my friend and neighbor told me that a German organization was supporting her because her little daughter needed medical treatment. She gave me the contact information and I did not hesitate and called them. I explained my situation and the difficulties I had in getting a work permit and finding a permanent job. After an initial meeting, they decided to follow up on my case and try to solve my work permit problem by referring me to a job as soon as an opportunity arose. It was the first time that someone listened to me and took my situation seriously,” explains Fatima.
Almost a year later, the longed-for call came. The municipality of Şişli is launching a project for Syrian refugees - it was looking for women who have experience and a passion for cooking and are not afraid to serve customers in the small café managed by the municipality.
"My case worker received the information from the municipality and then contacted me directly. Of course, I didn't hesitate and applied right away. Yes, it has nothing to do with the English language, but it is a job that I like to do because cooking is one of my hobbies. For the people in Aleppo, food is very important and plays a big role. Therefore, I had no problems with the preparation of pastries and snacks. I am really glad for this opportunity," she explains while she is offering another cup of tea.
Two months ago, Fatima was finally able to get her work permit and residency for Istanbul. The project will end in two days and so will her employment, but the municipality has already offered Fatima to give her a permanent contract, which would also give her a better salary.
"The moment I was granted the work permit, I called my case worker and told her the good news. I am so happy that I can find work now. The work here is good, but my goal is still to work as an English teacher or interpreter. Any job where I can speak English. My dream is to go to Europe and open an office for translators - Arabic-English and vice versa. The first step towards realization is done. I can work, I will work and I will realize my dream", she says with a big smile.
With financial support from the European Union, Welthungerhilfe (WHH) addresses persistent gaps in people' access to legal, social and welfare services, including issues related to work permits, through job referrals. Within the scope of the project, Welthungerhilfe (WHH) assists more than 8,000 vulnerable Syrians and non-Syrians living in Istanbul and in cities of Ankara, Eskişehir and Kütahya.