Sabeen sat cross-legged on the Istanbul sidewalk, her back facing the döner kebob stand across the road. Tissue packets were spread on the ground in front of her knees. Each one sold for three Turkish lira.
Her left forearm had a gray-blue tattoo with “love” written in Arabic and English, the words slanted on her left wrist and spilling over toward her palm. Her right arm held her 3-year-old son, Radwan. Sabeen’s grasp on Radwan was tight, not a comforting embrace, but a claw.
Once pedestrians had bought up all her tissue packets, she would walk 15 minutes with Radwan back to the hotel where she stayed. In her hotel room, she kept a cardboard box of 200 packets that she bought wholesale at a supermarket on the other side of the Bosphorus River, in Asia. After collecting another 10, she would return to that same sidewalk near Taksim Square to keep selling.
In Gezi Park, 2 blocks from where Sabeen was selling her tissue packets, Zeinah stood as tall as her 5-foot-3 frame could. Her children, Asil and Fathi, tossed water bottles to each other from the shopping cart that she pushed around Gezi Park. Asil and Fathi stopped only when they saw the candy in my hand. Then they took turns on my lap as I sat on the park’s fountain with Zeinah.
Both Sabeen and Zeinah assumed I worked for the Turkish police. Only government officials trying to rid Istanbul of refugees ever stop to ask a Syrian her story.
Zeinah’s apartment was right on Taksim Square, which made it more expensive than Sabeen’s distant hotel. But Zeinah needed a place where she could keep her water bottles cold. Otherwise, no one would buy them. Four other Syrians shared the apartment with Zeinah and her two children.
Sabeen barely spoke, for fear of the police. She saw everyone as undercover police, but she continued selling without a permit because she was hungry. Her husband looked for a job during the day, leaving her to earn money for the hotel room in the interim.
She did not know how long the interim would last. Sabeen could barely comprehend how she got to an Istanbul sidewalk in the first place, having previously enjoyed life as a housewife with an electrician husband in Aleppo, Syria.
According to the Turkish deputy Prime Minister Besir Atalay, there were over 1 million Syrians in Turkey as of June 2014. The Turkish government believes far more live in the country unregistered.
Zeinah’s husband did not know she was in Turkey. And she did not know where her husband was. He had enlisted in the Syrian Armed Forces, but left after basic training. President and Commander-in-Chief Bashar al-Assad sent a warrant for his arrest on desertion charges. Zeinah did not know where he went after that or if he was still alive. She could not contact him, and life in Syria without him became too terrifying to bear.
Life in Turkey was terrifying, too, but Zeinah bore it.
Sabeen did not know any Syrians in the city besides her husband and son. She felt a loneliness she could not escape or change. Everyone literally looked down on her, with her tissue packets in a neat row in front of her.
Sabeen’s son Radwan placed the kebob I bought for him on the sidewalk, unrolling the pita and picking at the chicken with his fingers. He fed his mother roasted peppers and onions. She pushed her leopard-print headscarf out of the way to accept the bites of food.
The Turkish people have grown tired of Syrians driving down wages and taking their jobs. Bakery lines are longer and hospitals are crowded. According to Istanbul governor Huseyin Avni Mutlu in a statement on July 16, 2014, the Syrians wandering the streets of Istanbul “are damaging their [Syrians’] image as a refugee.”
The Turkish also believe the Syrians have tarnished Turkey’s image as well, with their dirt and confusion, disease and despair.
The Turkish government admitted in August 2014 that there was no long-term plan for the Syrian refugees. They are not legally refugees, according to a technicality in the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees, but “guests.” The government assumes the Syrians, as guests of Turkey, will return to Syria after the conflict abates. In the meantime, no Syrians receive the rights and benefits of refugee status, such as protection against deportation and resettlement aid.
Sabeen and Zeinah do not feel like guests. Sabeen said to me that she did not want to talk to me anymore because I could not prove my intentions. The government has begun cracking down on beggars, forcibly removing them from the streets and putting them in Syrian refugee camps.
Zeinah heard about anti-Syrian protests in Istanbul and its suburbs in July and did not understand why the people were so angry. Turkish locals destroyed Syrian shops and cars, threatened to lynch a Syrian man and injured five Syrian women. Their anger should be towards Assad, Zeinah said.
Zeinah insisted her husband did not desert. Now she has deserted him. And the world has deserted her.