When I first moved to Istanbul I didn’t know much about the city apart from what I had seen in pictures of beautiful and mysterious mosques dotting the city landscape. My partner had been offered a job there and I thought it would be a good opportunity for adventure and to experience a different culture.
Like most people around the world, I’d seen on television the devastating conflict in Syria and the effect the war was having on its people. So I looked for volunteering positions that focused on helping those who had been displaced by war. I applied to Small Projects Istanbul (SPI) because I liked that they were a grass roots non-government organisation helping families start a new life in Turkey.
Back in 2016 SPI was working out of a small basement in Capa. It wasn’t much but it was a cosy space with a work area for the craft collective, a small kitchen, office and a playroom that was lovingly decorated with donated books and toys. It was eventually decided that I’d help out with childcare at the centre.
The mothers dropped off their children in the playroom and began work in the craft collective next door. I wasn’t sure what to do or expect at first, but I thought it was important that the kid’s just had fun.
Between the playing and the colouring I got to know other volunteers from Syria and all over the world and talk about their experiences. Some days were harder than other days and at the end of the session we were always exhausted. But when the mums picked up their kids sometimes I’d get a shy ‘thank you’ in English and a little smile and it made my heart full.
At first I thought the kids seemed happy and surprisingly resilient despite the hardships they must have been through. But I didn’t realise how much their experiences affected them until I saw a 9 year old girl crying because she missed her father and younger girl from Aleppo said,’bombs’ while pointing to a passenger jet. It broke my heart and I began to realise the importance of psychosocial support.
I was given the opportunity to organise a weekly activity called ‘Fun Time.’ Once a week, the kids would come after school and participate in art and craft activities. It was hard trying to come up with ideas every week, but the kids seemed to enjoy getting messy making play dough and slime, painting pictures and gluing all manner of things. The children were able to express their imagination through creativity and increase their self-confidence in a classroom setting that was judgement free.
Overall my experience at SPI was really rewarding. I met some wonderful people from all the world and learnt a lot in the process. If you are thinking of volunteering in Istanbul and can make a commitment to attend the centre every week, I highly recommend it.