Country of origin: The Netherlands
Age group: 23-25
Reason for going abroad: Volunteer and research at NGO ‘Small Projects Istanbul’
Travel destination: Istanbul, Turkey
Grant: Spring 2018
From September to December 2018, I lived in Istanbul with the support of the Kilroy Foundation, doing research about humanitarian work and volunteering at ‘Small Projects Istanbul’, an NGO based in Turkey that provides access to supplementary education services and community support to those displaced by the Syrian conflict.
The view from a café on the the Asian side of Istanbul and the waters of the Bosphorus.
I have been interested in the topic of migration and refugees for many years, starting in high school. I did volunteer work with refugees in the Netherlands and I wrote academic papers about migration-related topics. Then I went on exchange to Turkey in the Fall of 2015, the peak of the so-called refugee crisis. Migrants had been crossing the borders to Europe for many more years, but now the border crossers suddenly received much more attention in the media, probably because there were higher numbers and the the human tragedy became more visible through pictures and stories. At that time, I was feeling sad and shocked and powerless. This motivated me to take action and become involved with a humanitarian organization that provided some support to displaced people.
As I was finishing my Bachelor, I decided to take a gap year and become a volunteer for a small NGO, with a desire to make a personal connection to those who have been labeled as refugees. I found an English-speaking NGO in Istanbul and after I contacted them I was invited for an interview. I still remember the first time I visited the community center. It was in a basement, hard to find, in a neighborhood with small and winding streets where I had never been before. I got lost along the way, but finally found the right place. There were Syrian children playing outside. I walked down the stairs to the basement, which was full of activities and people. There were improvised classrooms: tables, chairs and a whiteboard. There was a workshop space were a group of Syrian women were making handcrafted products to sell in a social enterprise. Their small children were looked after by volunteers in the child care area, with toys, books and a colorful carpet to play on. There were no walls in this basement separating the different activities. It also gave a strong feeling of community and togetherness. I had my interview with the volunteer coordinator and I was welcome to join, and help with the childcare and teaching English to teenagers and children.
Language club with Syrian children at the community center of Small Projects Istanbul.
For me this NGO was not just the volunteer activities, it was also the social life happening around it, the gatherings in that space, Sunday evening social activities, the people I met there from all around the world. I became part of a group of friends that met each other through the NGO. We would celebrate birthdays together, go dances and concerts and play football games. I remember that I felt invited into the social life of the NGO so naturally. From the first day I would meet a new person, they could be your new friend. It felt like everyone was taking care of each other and making life better together. I knew that many of these people had been through horrible experiences and were traumatized by the violence in their own countries. I remember feeling somehow ashamed of my privileges, how things were so much easier for me. I was also inspired by how my friends were making the best of their daily lives, living every day without knowing what the future would bring.
Eating falafel with Abudi, a Syrian volunteer at the NGO.
As my volunteer period ended, it was hard to say goodbye and I promised to come back. I visited Istanbul several times in the year after my volunteer work and I always made sure to visit the NGO and meet up with the people that I got to know there. Some of them were working in different places now. I still felt a strong connection to these people and I wanted to come back again for a longer time. As I was choosing a Master, I was convinced I wanted to specialize in migration. I found the Research Master at the University of Amsterdam, where I could design my own program along a disciplinary perspective of my choice. I felt most connected to the Anthropology department, as I associated this discipline with storytelling, questioning the familiar and making connections between cultures, people and places. The program included the opportunity to conduct your own research project in a place of your choice. I knew immediately that I wanted to return to Istanbul.
I became involved in the same NGO in Istanbul again, this time as a researcher, doing daily observations and conducting interviews with staff and volunteers, while also doing volunteer work myself and participating in the social life of the organization. The research concentrated on humanitarian workers’ ideas of helping refugees in Istanbul, what activities they do in the community center and how the NGO is organized. During the period of the research I was actively involved in the NGO, through volunteer work and participating in activities. I conducted twenty interviews with current and former staff members and volunteers about their experiences at the organization. I also took daily field notes with my observations of the life at the community center, focusing on the organizational side and the perspective of the staff and volunteers.
Selling products made by Syrian women of the NGO’s social enterprise ‘Muhra’.
Now I am back in Amsterdam working on writing a Master thesis based on the research I have done in Istanbul. I am very thankful to the Kilroy Foundation for their support. I hope that my research and volunteer work in Istanbul can contribute to a better understanding of humanitarian work and that it will be an inspiration to other young people with humanitarian ambition, which is simply the desire to help others, make new connections and to share your skills, hoping to make the world a friendlier place.
Do you want to read more? I have shared my thoughts about travel, international mobility, borders, inequalities and privilege, as a form of personal reflection which I hope will lead into a wider conversation on this topic on my blog here.