Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 12 December 2018

Syrian beggars bring their message of misery to Istanbul

It's heart-breaking to see Syrians of all ages, women and men, even young boys, hitting the streets of Istanbul and begging for money.

In the heart of Istanbul's tourist district, where the beautiful Hagia Sophia and the Sultan Ahmet Mosque (more commonly known as the Blue Mosque) stand thronged with tourists, you are bound to be approached by a beggar.

These days the beggars are from Syria. I kept on being asked "Arabiya?" (Are you Arab?) before they went into a long explanation of how they got there, the state of Syria, and how desperate and hungry they were for "any piece of food. Anything".

They would show me their Syrian ID cards as proof of their nationality, and would predict that as an "Arab sister" I would be more generous than some others, and more understanding of what they are going through.

It was heartbreaking. I couldn't believe what I was seeing. Syrians of all ages, women and men, even young boys, are hitting the streets and begging for money.

A teenage boy near one Istanbul cafe told me no one would hire him, and so he has been forced to beg. "They hate us now," he said. "There are just too many of us. No one trusts us to give us work because some stole or were not reliable workers, giving us all a bad reputation."

No one could have predicted a few years ago that Syrian vagrants would be joining the crowds of beggars we encounter in some places in the Middle East, from the poor countries of Africa and from Yemen, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Palestine.

The numbers of Syrian beggars are growing in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, the three countries that have set up refugee camps for Syrians. As the camps grow at an alarming rate, so do reports of crime and prostitution.

I was surprised that even in the UAE, this Ramadan, a Syrian mother and her child were going around my building knocking on doors asking for help and money. "We lost our home," said the woman standing in my doorway, holding her small daughter's hand. "Our business and everything. Our loved ones have been tortured and killed. Please be kind and give whatever you can." They both looked malnourished.

Technically, we are supposed to report such incidents to the police, because it is said that many of those who come to homes are scam artists. But in this case, my neighbours and I didn't have the heart to do that. We would give the woman and child food and change, hoping that we were helping someone in need.

In Istanbul, we would see Syrian beggars waiting near the tourist sites. They approached mainly Arab tourists, who were in town in great numbers this year according to some of my Turkish friends.

That is not surprising, since much of the Arab world, particularly popular getaway spots like Egypt, Lebanon and Syria, is sinking further into the abyss of violence and turbulence. That leaves Turkey as one of the most popular countries for Arabs to visit.

My friends and relatives from Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Lebanon and even Canada have made their way to Turkey this year. The fact that you can walk around the sites and use public transport makes the city even more special, given how we tend to rely on cars to get anywhere in the UAE, and most of the rest of the Arab world.

The historic sites, the charming greenery and nature, and my personal favourite, the way the citizens treat stray animals, leaving bowls of water and food for cats and dogs that have been vaccinated and neutered or spayed by the government - all combine to make my Istanbul trip one of my favourites.

So I really hope nothing happens there. I spoke to a few members of the riot police, who were patrolling quietly in Taksim Square, the battleground of recent protests over a park that grew into bigger protests against the government. These policemen said they are preparing for a whole new wave of protests in September.

With most of the region in turmoil, we don't need further instability.

As for the plight of the Syrian refugees, there and across the Arab world, I believe it will just get worse with time, and I see no quick solutions for their struggles. God be with them.



On Twitter @Arabianmau