ISTANBUL: Tulips, Tourists and the Syrian Refugees

Emirgan Park, Sariyer

Istanbul’s highways are lined with Syrian refugees.

Your first evening in Turkey is spent with an international politics student. Along İstiklâl Caddesi, distinctly Arab-looking families huddle in the chill while their children play in the gutter. You ask her where they came from.

“Syria.” She says, pronouncing it Sye-Riya.

You probe her for details: “Is the government doing anything to help them? Why did they choose to come here and how did they cope during the winter?”

“Most of them were…” she pauses, trying to remember the English translation of the word. “Scammed? Is that the correct word? They were brought here illegally by people who took their money and passports and then left them on the street.”

“What do ordinary people think about them being here?”

“They don’t, really. This is the restaurant I was talking about. Will it be okay?”

You had been looking for a place to eat. The conversation then turns to Turkish cuisine, and you don’t get another opportunity to discuss Syria for the rest of the evening.

Tulips and Chickens on a Roundabout near Eminönü

The local government in Istanbul have spent a not-insignificant portion of its budget on tulips. You decide to spend a day in Emirgan Park to look at the displays, as it had come highly recommended by the guidebooks, fellow tourists, and the Turkish people you met.

It takes longer than expected to find the right bus.

“It will say ‘Emirgan Park’ on the front if it,” the chef at your hostel told you confidently. In an unrelated aside- this man used to work in the best kebab shop in my town. You can find pieces of home everywhere.

You scan the destinations of every bus for half an hour, at which point you begin to wonder whether you’re actually at the right bus station. Dejected, you sit down and try to figure out what to do when something catches your eye. You squint at the little piece of yellow paper displayed in the driver’s window of a far off bus.

“I think that says Emirgan.” You say slowly. “And I think it might be pulling away.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, it definitely says Emirgan on it.”

Your friend stares at you incredulously. She hitches up her massive bag and breaks into an ungainly sprint to catch up with your only means of getting to the park.

The buses in Istanbul always stop to collect more passengers. The driver sees you running for his bus, opens the doors and accepts your thanks with a curt nod.

Fluffy Tulips in Emirgan Park

The bus was stuck in traffic for several miles, then you got off too early and had to walk the last half hour stretch past dilapidated wooden houses and overgrown gardens- and you endured those stresses for what is best described as a low-budget monoculture Kew Gardens, minus the greenhouses and charm. With the immense amount of time and effort it took to reach the park, it is painful for you to admit that you are disappointed.

Dead daffodils line the paths. The Tulips are in bloom, and they have been planted into beds the shape of trees (see photo below) and similar organic objects. The fibreglass water feature is falling apart and has been patched together using pieces of chainlink fencing. Bird faeces are on every surface. You stand in the same place that Pierre Loti stood in to gain inspiration for his writing.. and are again somewhat underwhelmed.

Well maintained green spaces are abundant in London, and Emirgan Park withered in comparison.

Darcy and the Tulip Tree

It rains on your way home. Dust, cigarette butts and sunflower shells float down the street. You pass a man wearing a keffiyeh sitting under some scaffolding with his infant daughter in his lap. His clothes are soaked and he is openly crying.

You put your expensive camera back into its bag to save it from the rain, and then shuffle past him like everyone else.

As this has made Freshly Pressed, I’ll include a few links for donations.

UNICEF’s Syria Crisis Appeal: UK/US

Demand action from your MP or Senator!



    • Thank you!

      You know, I was promised 211 different types of tulip.. and I only saw 20. Where did they put the rest of them?

  1. Poignant and powerful – how the ideas of Syria intertwine with real time moments in Istanbul. And the chickens and tulips. Just the juxtaposition of images and ideas here are powerful. I like how you resisted the photo of the wet, grieving man holding a child. Moving. Thank you for sharing. – Renee

    • Thanks! I think there’s something quite parasitic about taking photographs of vulnerable people. The world isn’t a zoo, after all.

  2. Looks great, we have something like this in Slovenia, but it’s much smaller. Great post!! :))

    • Even worse, they can’t legally work without their passports, and so they end up taking the lowest jobs for wages that are a fraction of what a Turkish citizen would earn.

  3. It is so disheartening to hear of the refugees plight. I have known Christian Syrians and wonder how many of them remain or had to flee. It is difficult to know that the world is doing nothing to aid them.

    • Absolutely- our governments (the UK and US at least) were very keen to sell weapons and provide soldiers to the rebels. Are they as enthusiastic about helping the thousands of displaced citizens that are now stuck in a state of limbo in various refugee camps? Of course not.

  4. I like the way you started with Syrian refugees and then went on to tulips. Political commentary sneaked into your travel blog 🙂

  5. It’s unfortunate that governments do a lot of talking about foreign aid, but don’t do a lot to help the people when they come to the country leaving their whole lives behind. That government apparently ignores them and leaves them to live in the streets, I guess I do feel a little less guilty about the fact that the Australian government takes them to camps. Whilst I still believe this is terrible I also feel that a roof over their head, warm food in their belly and access to medical assistance is something. It’s so sad to see what humanity does to one another.

    • I don’t think any of the governments expected the conflict to last quite so long, and set up provisions to last a few months at the most. Two years later, two thirds of all the Syrian refugees in Turkey are living on the streets and there is very little money left to help them.

      An entire generation of children are missing out on an education too. At least in the camps there might be some schooling provided, however basic.

      • Very, very sad.
        Yes they do get basic schooling in the camps I believe. It is quite heartbreaking because it is not the fault of these people that they are in this position.

  6. We were in Istanbul last year, “we” meaning me and eight other family members, and we went shopping down the road that leads off Taxim Square. It was all lovely and beautiful so we decided to return there a few days later, not knowing that Monday is always a riot day and that we would be separated and tear gassed

    • Did all of you get out okay? I can’t imagine how scary that must have been, especially with the language barrier.

      It was disheartening speaking to some of the people who participated in the protests though. Their hope for change vanished when Erdogan was re-elected, and they’d rather accept the situation (as bad as it is- some people are facing 25 years+ jail time for taking part, and Erdogan’s policies are getting steadily more totalitarian), than risk going the same was as Egypt or Syria.

      • Yeah, we all made it back to the hotel in the end. We had a young woman showing us around for the first few days and she said that a “tricky” voting system had been introduced that meant if you voted for a different party your vote didn’t count as much, or something along those lines. Basically the people are having a hard time voting out their current leader. Another guide said that that part of the world was running out of tear gas and there had been an increase in the suicides of young policemen who didn’t really want to suppress the rioters. It’s quite sad that we still have problems like this where governments can’t be trusted.

  7. Hey great post its nice to learn about what’s really happening to all of the Syrian refugees. I wrote a post on the city of Aleppo, Syria that you might find interesting. Feel free to stop by and check it out. Have a good one!

  8. We lived in Syria in the 1980s and our first daughter was born there. Her birthday is today and I ‘gave’ her present—with her blessing—to Oxfam’s Syria appeal in Australia. My heart breaks for this once fine country and her people.

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