A group of volunteers are helping Istanbul's refugee-owned restaurants in Istanbul’s Fatih district to adapt to a Turkish tradition in order to feed refugees struggling amid the pandemic.
In one of the busy streets of Aksaray, Fatih, a banana-laden food truck is parked across a tea house where Africans and Turks sit on tiny chairs sipping tea.
On the upper storey of the teahouse, two Sierra Leoneans, Alphajor and Maryam, run a small restaurant where they feed at least 50 people for free every day.
Alphajor has struggled to stay afloat in the past two months due to the Covid-19 pandemic. But the 40-year-old, who became an unofficial leader of his community, understands that jobs have dried up in the city and many people from his community are in the worst shape they have ever known, and pushed to desperate margins.
“It was difficult to survive. But I told myself, you know what, if I have 10 Lira, I’m gonna give away two so they (fellow Sierra Leoneans) can survive too,” he says. A few seconds earlier, he was on the phone speaking to someone who was asking for his support in paying household bills.
“These are the hard times for everyone...But when you have good people around coming to help, it’s bearable,” he says.
This is why when Tarlabasi Dayanisma, a volunteer-based refugee support group, offered to help him and his business partner Maryam to participate in their “askida yemek” project, he agreed.
Meaning “paying it forward”, or the “food on the hook”, the project is an adaptation of an age-old Islamic tradition called “bread on the hook”. It is still practised by Turkish bakers today. It’s simply the act of paying extra while purchasing bread, so the needy can take the paid-up bread home. Refugees in Turkey are now taking the tradition forward to support each other.
Cassava leaf, crain leaves, beans, tola, okra, groundnut soup, and rice are some of the dishes that can be found at Maryam and Alphajor’s restaurant. Maryam cooks several meals a day, except on Sundays. All the food is gone by the end of the day.
She says that while home-cooked food in Istanbul is “sumptuous” for Sierra Leoneans, there is more to their service. Since the project began, they have been feeding more people every day as they announce the menu on Whatsapp groups.
“This project is amazing, because it helped many Sierra Leoneans and Africans,” Maryam says, as she leaves the kitchen watching customers come and go.
Alphajor and Maryam are particularly happy about helping out African women. The pair are planning to register an NGO in order to work towards women's empowerment.
Yasir Bodur, one of the founders of the Tarlabasi Dayanisma, is the project’s architect. He says their aim is to create a self-sufficient support system.
A researcher focusing on the African diaspora in Turkey, Bodur came up with the idea of establishing Tarlabasi Dayanisma during his field research, which gave him an insight into the economic hardship of African refugees in Istanbul.
“These restaurants (that accepted to participate in the project) already have the people they are looking after,” says Bodur.
Since they are already willing to help others, these restaurants can adapt to the 'bread on the hook' tradition, he thought.
For him, it made sense to have restaurants in Fatih join in with the project. Istanbul has many districts where refugees and migrants from around the world reside. But Fatih is one of the busiest refugee hubs, as well as being known for its large Syrian refugee population. The district lies in the heart of Istanbul.
In Findikzade, to the south of the iconic Fatih mosque, Somalis who fled conflict and instability in their country have found a home. The refugees mainly see Istanbul as a gateway to Europe, but many are increasingly choosing to build lives in the city itself.
Omar Adan, a 26-year-old law faculty student who came to Turkey eight years ago, immediately volunteered himself for Tarlabasi Dayanisma when Bodur explained askida yemek or the 'food on the hook' project to him.
He works part-time at a Somali restaurant named Dalsan where he serves food. After his evening shifts, he used to drop food round at the homes of hungry people months before Bodur came up with the “food on the hook" project.
“The majority of the customers who come here are Somalis but the scope of people we help is much wider than that. It’s Somalis, Ukrainian, Syrians, Ethiopians and others,” Adan says in fluent Turkish. For him, the struggle of one refugee is no different to another — whether they come from Syria or Somalia.
The restaurant has created a fixed menu for the project. They serve four meals: soup, rice or pasta, meat or chicken and salad.
Prior to the project, Adan handed out food packages to families three days a week. He's now able to deliver food to poor people four days a week.
His workload has increased, but he doesn’t see it as a burden. “For us, this project is a humanitarian responsibility,” he says.