There are a lot more children on the streets of Istanbul. The streets are full of children. There are young girls aged eight or nine begging on the streets. Women cradle young babies in alleyways and street corners, their hands outstretched.
For the past few months we have been watching documentaries about the war in Syria, now we see some of the effects first hand. The crisis is very tangible here.
One evening, we’re waiting for some of the people from the Mutfak in a bar, somewhere between Tarlabaşı Boulevard and Istiklal Caddesi.
A young girl comes into the bar, perhaps aged ten or eleven. I see her walking up to adults, holding her hand in front of her. She looks into the faces of the people around her, who for the most part avert their gaze, shake their heads, or just push past her.
One of the women who volunteer in the Mutfak comes in. The girl goes to her as she did with the others, and taps her on the arm. The woman grins at the girl and pokes her playfully back. They poke each other and I see the girl crack something like a smile for the first time. She sits with us at a tall table, climbing up onto a stool and helping herself to a nearby glass of cola.
“That’s not whisky, is it?” I ask.
“No, only cola, no problem”, says another woman from the Mutfak, who was the previous owner of the glass of cola. She says something to the girl in Turkish, who says something back. “Halep?” I hear the woman ask. The girl nods.
I nudge H. “She’s from Syria. Why don’t you speak to her?”
H looks at me like I’m crazy. “I can’t just go speaking to young girls,” he tells me.
“It’s ok, you’re with us.”
He sighs, and looks at the girl, who is staring into the cola. “You speak Arabic?”
“You’re from Syria?”
“Yeah, I’m from the villages around Aleppo,” she replies in Arabic.
He tells her he’s from Aleppo too. He asks what her story is and she begins to tell him. Her father’s leg is amputated. She’s in Istanbul with four siblings, her mother and uncle. The uncle is taking care of them and showing them around the city. She’s learning Turkish on her own.
“I’m going to the toilet”, she tells him in Arabic, climbing down from the high stool and marching upstairs.
H looks at me. “The way she was speaking, her body language, I don’t feel like I’m speaking to a child. I mean like… I can’t speak to her as a child, she seems like an adult. She seems like an old woman.”
H gives her two lira, but she’s not satisfied. She tells him to ask me for money. She points at the people around us and I know she wants him to ask on her behalf.
“Look…” he tries to explain to her that his situation, although different from hers, is not so very different that he has a lot of money. We don’t really know these people, we’re strangers here ourselves.
She goes to the table next to us, where some others from the Mutfak have gathered, leaving the girl with us. These people don’t want to give her anything, but she keeps asking. People have turned their backs to her, but she taps them on the back, willing them to turn around and change their minds. Most of the people ignore her, not even looking at her. Don’t give her any attention, or she may catch hold of it and pull.
H taps her on the shoulder. “Look,” he tells her, “these are dead clients, don’t keep pushing. There are thousands of others, go try your luck with them.”
She walks out into the night air and disappears.