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African immigrants on the streets of the Kumkapi district in Istanbul.
African immigrants on the streets of the Kumkapi district in Istanbul.

On Somalia Street, Istanbul, African migrants seek a new life

'Istanbul's Mogadishu' is the name Turkish newspapers have given to the city's Yenikapi district since it became home for migrants from across Africa, many of whom face expulsion if arrested.

ISTANBUL // When the muezzin's call for the dhuhr prayer rang out from the Katip Kasim Mosque in a rundown neighbourhood of Istanbul this week, dozens of men arrived. But it was no ordinary crowd that gathered midday in the mosque: about half of the men were Africans.

"Istanbul's Mogadishu" is the name Turkish newspapers call the area around the mosque in the Yenikapi district close to the Sea of Marmara on the European side of the Turkish metropolis. The street in front of the 17th-century mosque, Katip Kasim Camii Sokak, has been dubbed "Somalia Street", because the neighbourhood has become home for migrants from across Africa, many of whom do not have Turkish residence permits and face expulsion if arrested by the police.

Some have been here for years.

"I want to go to the United States," said Ali, 39, from Senegal, who only gave his first name. Like other Africans in the neighbourhood, he declined to be photographed because of fear of the police. Ali said he had come to Istanbul two years before and was earning money by selling perfume on the street in upscale and tourist parts of Istanbul.

"It is hard," he said. "But I live together with friends, so it becomes a little easier."

The area around the mosque is also home to Kurds, Armenians and members of other minority ethnic groups. Streets are dotted with telephone shops offering cheap calls to African countries and to Asian nations. Laleli, a quarter frequented by Eastern European tourists for cheap clothes and other supplies, is just up the road. Turks share tea with Africans and Eastern Europeans at cafes that dot the sidewalks.

On Somalia Street, Johnny Kitoko-Mboma, from the Democratic Republic of Congo, left a telephone shop and set out for home, a small flat he has been sharing with his wife and two young children since they arrived in Istanbul several months ago.

"I am stuck here," Mr Kitoko-Mboma said. "There is no work permit, there are no jobs, they do not give jobs to Africans."

Mr Kitoko-Mboma, 34, said he and his family left Kinshasa because of violence.

"My mother and my father are dead," he said, adding they were killed as a result of political strife. The family ended up in Turkey after a weeks-long journey that took them through Tunisia and Lebanon.

Now his money was running out.

"If I can find work, I want to stay here, but I have been told the Turks do not accept asylum seekers at all," Mr Kitoko-Mboma said.

Turkey's asylum laws grant refuge only to migrants from Europe. Refugees from all other countries face expulsion if they do not register with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees.

The commission tries to find countries willing to take them in, a process with an uncertain outcome that can take years. Refugees are allowed to stay in Turkey, but rarely are given work permits.

Turkey is a major transit country for hundreds of thousands of migrants from Asia, the Middle East and Africa who want to get to the West but lack the necessary documents.

There are no official figures for the number of Africans currently in the country, but Turks and Africans in Yenikapi agreed there are several hundred, if not thousands, in that part of Istanbul alone.

While they wait, many Africans in Yenikapi try to get by on odd jobs and avoid the police.

"Every now and then you find work for a few hours," said Abdul, 28, from Eritrea. "It's hard."

Not all Africans on Somalia Street are illegal migrants. Issa Konyate, a businessman from Senegal, said he had been in Turkey for a year and had travelled frequently between Istanbul and Dakar. He said he trades in textiles, managing several Senegalese football players in Turkey and had also helped Turkish entrepreneurs to set up a factory in Senegal.

"It's good business," he said. "There are no problems."

Africa has been on people's minds in Turkey recently. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister, flew to Somalia and Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the opposition leader, travelled to a refugee camp in Kenya on separate visits. Turks donated US$200 million (Dh735m) in famine relief during Ramadan. Mr Erdogan has said Turkey would bring field hospitals to Mogadishu and rebuild schools and roads.

Turkish residents on Somalia Street said they felt pity with the African migrants.

"They are poor people," said Salih Kartop, a Kurdish grocer in the neighbourhood. "Their countries are even poorer than Turkey. Some of them come in here and ask for a tiny piece of butter, not even a whole stick, because they cannot afford it."

Asked about news reports of fighting and heavy drinking among the Africans, Mr Kartop shook his head.

"I haven't heard anything like that, and I have been here for 10 years. Only people with money can make noise, if you don't have money, what can you do?"

Atam Donukok, a Turk of Armenian descent, said most Africans were "very, very good people, super people", although some were engaged in petty crime and drug dealing.

"But there are bad people everywhere, aren't there?"

tseibert@thenational.ae

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