Turkey’s Academic Future: A Degree of Uncertainty

On July 23, Mira, a 21-year-old international student at Gediz University, was on her way to the pristine beaches of Cesme on Turkey’s Aegean coast. Instead of enjoying her stroll with friends, Mira found her university campus and dormitory had been cordoned off for its alleged link to banned U.S.- based Muslim preacher and political figure, Fettulah Gulen.

She returned to Izmir bewildered and homeless. More than two months since the closure of Gediz University, her belongings remain inside the university dorms.

In the aftermath of Turkey’s military coup attempt on July 15, allegedly orchestrated by Gulen, the government has carried out a purge of the country’s judiciary, military, civil service, schools and universities.

In its effort to cleanse the education sector of all Gulen influence, Turkey has closed 15 universities linked to his organization (FETO), suspended around 6,500 employees of Turkey’s education ministry, suspended another 4,225 academics, and forced 1,577 deans to resign until investigations concluded. Approximately 66,000 university students have been affected by the purges in higher education; 4,000 of themare international students.

In Izmir, the Council of Higher Education, known as YÖK in Turkish, closed three out of nine universities. YÖK is the government institution spearheading the sweeping transformation of Turkey’s higher education sector and dictating the future of students and academics affected by the attempted putsch.

With the closure of Gediz on July 23, communication between the administration and the students have also been severed as the ban was imposed on every university website. University staffs found their emails disabled and some of the professors were even compelled to change their phone number.

Mira only gets a chance to communicate with her former professors when she runs into them on the streets of Izmir or in some secret rendezvous.

“It is still very unclear what will happen to the students,” a foreign professor from an Izmir’s private university, tells Newsweek Middle East, on condition of anonymity.

YÖK has not decided whether the thousands of professors who were fired, will be reinstated. “Not only have they lost their jobs, but they have a black mark added to their names that will stay there for a very long time,” adds the professor.

Inside his spacious office, the professor sits in front of a desk full of examination papers. Books of Derida, Plato, Homer, Rousseau, and other philosophers adorn his imposing bookshelf.

The aftershock produced by the closure of alleged Gulen-related universities has warned academics in Izmir private universities to exercise caution. So much as a book in an office shelf can also be found “dissident” and “incriminatory,” explains the professor looking at his collection.

“There is a general sense of paranoia and uncertainty,” he adds.

On January 11, 2016 more than 1,000 academics across Turkey signed a peace petition denouncing the state-carried violence against Kurds in the country’s southeast. As a response, an Istanbul court jailed three academics, dismissed 30 and suspended 27 on accusations of exceeding the limits of academic freedom, propagating terrorism and sedition.

“In Ankara 100 academics are still under investigation for signing the petition,” he says. “It’s been more than seven months since then and we still don’t know what’s going to happen to them.”

Having been established in 2008, Gediz University is quite unrecognizable today, following the Turkish authorities’ intervention.

A security guard mans the entrance and no one is allowed in. The sprawling housing developments around the campus, whose raison d’etre was to serve the student population, are now abandoned. Since Gediz was located in a district of Izmir away from the city center, students began to flood into the new housing developments in the area.

Much like the professor, most students are afraid of the government’s retribution if they spoke openly about the situation.
“A friend of mine from Cyprus was going to buy a house near the university,” says Ziad, 22, a Syrian student from Latakia. Other students furnished empty apartments they thought would house them for an academic year.

“Every private university in Turkey has a ‘guarantor’ state university obliged to take responsibility,” says the professor. “The official line is that these will absorb the students.”

In the case of Gediz University, its guarantor school is Katip Celebi. International students from the universities allegedly linked with Gulen, are required by law to attend the allocated state universities, with the exception of students who were studying in English and whose degrees are not offered in English at the allocated schools.

YÖK gave these students the option to select three universities that offer their degrees in English, from which YÖK will select one. Turkish students, on the other hand, are not required to attend a guarantor school.

“Even if we change university, the program will not be the same. I am used to Izmir, I don’t want to go to a new place where I don’t know anyone,” Mira tells Newsweek Middle East while expressing her reluctance to change her university.

“I don’t want to change my life,” she adds.

“But everything will change; my house, friends, the market where I bought my school supplies. I’m scared.”

The months after the failed coup have been plagued with rumors and a painstaking wait.

“We have no idea about what’s happening,” says Mira. “Every new information is worse than the last.” For international students like Mira, who have been in Turkey for a number of years, the university closures and reshuffling of students is a grievance, many cannot afford. “I haven’t told my parents. They wouldn’t understand because I don’t have any information to tell them.” Other students are afraid that their parents would ask them to return to their home countries. “They should have changed rectors and the people inside, adds Mira.

Since the closure of Gediz University, Jude, 21 and Bashar Barakat, 24, from Aleppo, Syria, have been staying at a hotel.
In mid-July, they had to rush to Katip Celebi to pick up their transcripts, and check their bank accounts to make sure their funds were still intact. They were travelling to Cyprus in search of a university. With a trunk full of bags, the students attempted to beat the looming registration deadlines to enroll in a Cypriot university.

“We have lost hope in Turkey,” says Jude.

“They [YÖK] can’t tell students to go find another university just like that,” says Barakat. “I like Izmir but I don’t like the other universities,” he adds.

Barakat was born in North Carolina, U.S., and moved to Aleppo in 1998, where he stayed until 2011, after which he returned to the U.S. to enroll in a community college in North Carolina. He later moved to Turkey’s Gaziantep, where he started his degree at Zirve University. After a year of studying at Zirve, he moved to Izmir and enrolled at Gediz, even though his credits did not transfer and he had to start from the beginning. “Now I will start again in Cyprus. I should cry in the interview, instead I laugh.”

Jude has lived in Turkey for three years while her family found refuge in Saudi Arabia. Cyprus is her only option which might bar her from entering Turkey in the foreseeable future. “If Jude leaves Turkey, she doesn’t know whether she will be able to come back, given that Syrians now require a visa to enter Turkey,” explains Barakat. Overwhelmed by the prospects of not finding a school, missing deadlines, or having to repeat a semester, Jude still manages to maintain a sense of humor. “I will miss the food at Gediz University,” she says.

It is very hard to find accurate information from the updates of YÖK and the guarantor universities on the future of the thousands of affected students. “No one helped us,” says Mira.

“How can YÖK tell us that everyone will have a university when there are people who can’t pay for it?” she says in disbelief.
According to YÖK, tuition fees for students hailing from the closed universities will remain the same at their new universities as a way of eliminating tuition discrepancies for students who will transfer to a private university that is more expensive than their former school. With regard to scholarships and financial aid, YÖK has not specified whether it will uphold merit-based scholarships granted by the universities that were shut down, as well as any other kind of stipend granted by those universities.

For students like Mesut, a former engineering student at Gediz University, and whose name has been changed for fear of a negative impact on his transfer application, the tuition scheme works against him. Mesut chuckles sardonically at the irony of his current situation. In 2013, he enrolled as a student in Katip Celebi, but was soon disappointed at the university’s academic level and limpid campus life. He decided to transfer to Gediz University and landed a scholarship that cut his tuition at the private university by half ($3,000 USD annually). Given that Katip Celebi, his guarantor school, offers his degree in English, he must return to Katip Celebi, which is free of charge, and pay the equivalent of a full tuition at Gediz ($6,000).

“I don’t want to pay $6000 when it should be free,” he argues. While Izmir University of Economics, a non-profit foundation university, offers his degree in English, its degree doesn’t have a class of third year students.

His last resort is to apply to transfer to Bahcesehir University in Istanbul, which may or may not accept students from alleged Gulen-related universities.

“In principle they can apply [to universities],” explains the professor. “Whether it is easy? That’s a different question.”

According to him, students from the closed universities will be judged under ideological grounds. “It is very likely students will be treated differently. They have been blacklisted for a long time to come.” For those who managed to graduate from the universities before their closure, “their diplomas will be worthless,” he adds.

With only a short time before the semester starts, scheduled for September 25, students are still waiting to hear news from YÖK. “I already missed the deadline to apply to universities in Germany,” says Mesut.

Ultimately, he believes his academic career is no longer in his hands, but in the hands of bureaucrats.

“State universities are understaffed and under resourced. They are under a lot of pressure already. Simply adding 60 or 90 students to a department can be a grunt in some cases,” added the professor, let alone distributing 66,000 students over the universities.

As YÖK announced that all credits will transfer to the new universities, the professor questions the issue of curriculum that will be applied. “It’s not only a matter of numbers, it is a huge problem.”

Meanwhile, students are worried their degree requirements will change. This academic year, Mira will be entering her third year as an architecture student. “I don’t know if I will have to repeat one year or two…I just don’t know.”

“I came here [to Turkey] to study, not to get involved in politics,” she adds. This summer, the architecture student intended to do an internship in Izmir. However, the unanticipated closure of the university left her without a required letter of recommendation from a professor. “We are still waiting,” she says.

Originally published in Newsweek Middle East on September 2016



After EU-Turkey Agreement Smugglers Run Out of Business but Refugees Are no Less at Risk

After EU-Turkey Agreement Smugglers Run Out of Business but Refugees Are no Less at Risk

Aksaray, Istanbul’s former human smuggling epicenter, is Yakzan´s office and hunting ground. The square is now empty and Yakzan is out of business for the first time in twelve years. After the closure of the Western Balkans migration route and the signing of the EU-Turkey Agreement that is meant to end irregular migration to the EU, even the most veteran smugglers like Yakzan have reached a standstill. With no customers in sight, he glides lethargically through the neighborhood as many of Turkey’s more than 3 million refugees and asylum-seekers face the bleak prospects of living in Turkey. Both actors in the human smuggling business wage in the consequences of an agreement rights groups call illegal.

The 38-year old smuggler is an imposing man. His towering body, built by weightlifting and protein supplements, juxtaposes the soft lines around his eyes and mouth. He is soft spoken and bashful whenever conversation drifts away from his line of work. But once his work phone starts ringing, he stares away and begins to shake his leg frantically.

Yakzan began working as a smuggler in Syria in 2004, sending Syrians to Europe through airports in Libya, Egypt, Algeria, and sometimes, China and Russia. He lived in Libya between 2006-2008, where he personally handpicked his network of middlemen inside the airport. “I approached people and gave them my number,” he explained while sipping arak, an anis-flavoured liquor, and his habitual nocturnal drink. Once he got the ball rolling, he smuggled around 200 Syrians a month through airports in Algeria and Libya.

At his friend’s place near Atatuk airport, Yakzan made a few calls and scheduled a trip to Turkey’s Northern border, where he also smuggles people to Bulgaria inside freight trucks for about $3,500. He offered to get a second bottle of arak, but only had euros on him and the plan fell through. He lit another cigarette and with the sound of a plane taking off in the distance said in jest: “In this plane two people are go,” meaning two people are being smuggled into Europe.

On a Thursday morning in April, shortly after the first round of deportations of refugees and asylum-seekers from Greece to Turkey, Yaksan sat on the second floor of one of Aksaray´s cafés. He stared out the window into an empty park, taking in the view with an abscent gaze. A few children ran in the playground and old men sat on benches, chatting and counting their prayer beads. “This place used to be packed,” he said motioning to the playground, “look at it now.” Men and women from countries like Syria, Irak, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, to name a few, would gather in the park before boarding buses to Turkey’s western coast. Today Yakzan chain smokes and downs one Nescafé coffee after another.

“The problem is not that there are no routes, but that there are no customers,” he said. In the three weeks prior to the implementation of the EU-Turkey Agreement of March 18, around 26,878 refugees and asylum-seekers arrived in the Agean islands from Turkey. Only three weeks after the agreement, the number of arrivals decreased to 5,874.

Amnesty International condemns the EU-Turkey Agreement on the basis that Turkey’s asylum system fails to meet the basic needs of its more than three million asylum-seekers and refugees. Yakzan, like most of his customers, is a Syrian Kurd from Northern Syria. He fled to Turkey with his family during the early stages of the Syrian conflict and settled in Aksaray to carry out his business. It wasn’t long before Yakzan’s family became afflicted with the same troubles his customers were trying to escape. At the lack of durable solutions, difficult access to the labor market, lack of education for children and an elusive protection status, Yakzan decided to send his wife and two young daughters on the parlous sea crossing to Greece last summer. Yakzan’s seven-year-old son stayed with him in Istanbul as leverage. He is not attending school, but this is a sacrifice Yakzan is able to justify as his family’s best shot at reunification in Europe. The EU-Turkey deal will return men, women, and children who made it to Greece after March 18 2016 to refugee camps and detention centers in Turkey.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) recorded 156, 364 people arriving in Greece from Turkey this year, most of them from the world’s top refugee producing countries. Refugees and asylum-seekers risk their lives taking different routes in the Mediterranean from countries like Libya and Egypt. Around 2,443 have drowned at sea this year alone and the toll keeps rising. On June 3, 342 people were rescued from a shipwreck of Crete with an estimated 700 believed to have been on board. Without an ambitious resettlement program for refugees, people will continue to turn to the deadly Mediterranean routes. Yakzan looks at Europe´s response to the crisis in slightly different terms. “Turkey will pocket the money from the EU but will not be able to stop the flow of people,” argued Yaksan. “For every dollar Turkey gets from Europe, I will get a dollar.”

The veteran smuggler makes a sharp distinction between his work and the baseness attached to his profession, particularly the thriving business of sea crossings. He describes his work using the Arabic word for beautiful—“shogel helu”—and steers away from ethical conundrums by following a utilitarian approach. “Smuggling people is not a crime,” claimed Yakzan. “People need to survive and I am helping Syrian Kurds who are stateless in Syria reach a better life.” Under Turkish law, migrant smugglers face between three to eight years in prison, and more if they are part of a larger organization. “I wouldn’t go to jail because there is no one dying through my work,” he said matter-of-factly. As an example, he tells the story of a friend, a smuggler like him that served three months in prison for being caught with 1000 fake and stolen passports. “Sea smugglers deserve to die in prison,” he argued, but not him. “We are Kurds and we don’t put people’s lives in danger,” he finished.

However, most of the refugees and asylum-seekers that arrived in Greece resorted to crossing the sea in overcrowded rubber dinghies because they couldn’t afford to pay a safer, if not more successful, passage. Yaksan’s most expensive destination is the UK, at $15,000 USD. Scandinavian countries go for $12,000 and transit countries like Italy for $9,000. Paradoxically, in the human smuggling business the cheapest options are the costliest in human lives. Safety is an expensive service in the smuggling business, but so is paying off a network of airport clerks and government officials. “I can send people ‘by luck’ or through a deal with Turkish airport authorities,” Yakzan added. “When I send five people this way in a day, maybe one or two pass,” he said, “but if I make a deal with an airport employee, he will pass.” Yakzan pays around $9,000 to a middleman who is then in charge of bribing the necessary authorities.

Back in Aksaray, two young Syrian men with sleek hair and hardened demeanors joined Yakzan in a small poker table. One was a young Syrian smuggler working in the Turkish coast. His business halted completely after the implementation of the agreement, which he deemed unfair. Engaged in conversation, he claimed never to have crammed people into the boats and instead of going into the logistics, he simply said no one had died. Before the agreement he used to be an observant of other people’s odyssey to Europe. Now he is the one planning his own.

During Yakzan’s daily rounds of Aksaray, a man greeted him profusely and whispered a few words into his ear. “He is a police officer,” he later said. “He was asking for baksheesh”, or a bribe. Shortly after, another man crossed his way and stopped to exchange a few words. “He works in the Bulgarian route,” he explained. For Yakzan, the human smuggling business consists of a chain and he is only part of it. “If I don’t make money, nobody in Aksaray makes money,” he said referring to the smugglers, middlemen, hotels, restaurants, and landowners who catered to the hundreds of thousands of refugees and asylum-seekers that reached Europe in 2015. “Turkish officials are not making money anymore,” he said in reference to the agreement, “so in Turkey, there will always be a way.”

What the international community fails to understand is that “Europe is our last solution,” said Yakzan after finishing a plate of kunafe, a popular Syrian sweet. Refugees and asylum-seekers choose to take dangerous and illegal pathways to Europe when they cannot live dignified lives in Turkey. Even though Yakzan wants to leave Turkey, he is skeptical of life in Europe and imagines his future with heartfelt distrust. “People think Europe is a paradise, but once they get there they find out it’s not true.”

Yakzan is hopeful that the smuggling business will pick up again, but he is betting on reunification in Europe as a way out. He claims he will leave the smuggling business behind once in Europe and dedicate himself to learning the language. However, he vows to continue speaking Kurdish at home. Ultimately, “Europe is for the children,” he said before doing one more round in the empty streets of Aksaray.

Names in this article have been changed at the request of the source to protect his identity.*


Inside the Last Pork Butcher Shop in Istanbul

Inside the Last Pork Butcher Shop in Istanbul

When I set out to visit the last pork butcher shop in Istanbul, I never thought the experience would become a juicy trip into the lives of a Turkish Rumeli family. Within a few visits to their unmarked shop, Ideal Salam, which directly faces a gas station in the Beyğolu district of Istanbul, I tasted a fatty slice of the Kozmaoğlu brothers’ long history as pork butchers. Since 1967, the brothers have sold exquisitely fresh pork and charcuterie in Turkey, a predominantly Muslim country that persecuted the Rumeli—Ottoman Christians of Greek descent—and ultimately expelled thousands of Anatolian Greeks to Greece. Istanbul, however, is their home, and the pork butchers are uninterested in talking politics. They prefer to agitatedly discuss the logistics of the dying pork business in Turkey, their views on the Ecumenical Patriarchate, their community, and each other.

Lazari, 75, the oldest of the Kozmaoğlu brothers, sat at the entrance to his shop on a hot June afternoon in Istanbul. The heat that day was disarming and Lazari was caught off guard by our presence. Kozma, 63, stood behind the meat display and proceeded to  explain to his brother the purpose of our visit. The shop’s left wall was lined up with an assortment of wine, gourmet mustard and other imported sauces. The right wall held the cheeses, equally enticing. But the meat counter was the real center of attention. Were it not for their affordable prices and the shop’s location in Dolapdere, a neighborhood adjacent to the infamous Tarlabaşı—known for its crime, drugs and sex workers—Ideal Salam would be a boutique charcuterie.

“Muslims are not supposed to eat pork, but our clients are wealthy Muslim people and for them it doesn’t matter,” stated Lazari authoritatively. “If you are rich, it’s OK to eat pork regardless of religion.” When asked whether wealthy Christians also buy their products, Lazari looked straight at me and snapped: “There aren’t any rich Christians left in Istanbul.”

Turkey is a secular country, but in recent years it has experienced a wave of conservatism under the auspices of its ruling party, The Justice and Development Party (AKP). Most pig farms and slaughterhouses have been closed down, for example. There are only two pig farms left, according to Lazari, and the number of pigs in Turkey is diminishing. In 1970, the pig population reached 18,000. By 2009, it had fallen to 1,717. “There used to be seven butcheries like this, but now there aren’t enough animals,” he said. “My friends switched to beef.”

The brothers are a testament of the challenges facing those who raise pigs and process pork. In 1972, the brothers owned a pig farm in Kesan, Turkey. Four years later, their venture into pig breeding became too expensive to maintain. Up to 2013, they also owned a slaughterhouse, but the government failed to grant them a license and must now buy their meat from two farms in Antalya. “They [the farms] don’t take orders,” he explained. “They send meat whenever they have it because there aren’t enough animals.”

At 3 PM, the heat had not subsided. Kozma offered us soda and told his brother to open the front door for ventilation. Only the meat was kept cool in the chilled confines of its glass display. Lazari sat adjacent to my translator, and as our interview progressed, the irascible butcher’s movements loosened up. At one point, his outstretched arm rubbed my chin. And to my Turkish translator’s complete lack of astonishment or discomfort, the conversation would occasional shift to her personal life, or deviate altogether.

“Two weeks ago I went to Athens,” Lazari told us in one such non sequitur. Twenty people Rumeli people had gathered in the city to party. “I got drunk with a friend I have known for 50 years,” he said haughtily. “I will do it again soon.”

Life hasn’t always been a celebration for the Rumeli brothers. “I’ve gone through so much in this industry,” muttered Lazari under his breath. I seized his candidness as an opportunity to bridge the Greek Orthodox community’s troubled history, dating back to Ottoman rule and continuing throughout the formation of the Republic, with the demise of pork butchers in Istanbul. But Lazari disagreed, and turned the tables by asserting his identity as Anatolian Greek ancestry in Turkey. “I was born and raised here,” he replied. “And I love my country.” He harshly contested the suggestion that Christians are second-class citizens in Turkey. “The country being a Muslim country has nothing do to with me or my business,” he added. “People want pork and someone has to do it.”

Turkey, it seems, has been at a crossroads since the glory days of the Ottoman Empire. It inhabits a contradiction, which perhaps is not meant to be one. Underneath a blanket of nationalism, weaved by the Turkish state, lay a people rich in religious and ethnic diversity. “I used to have long lines outside my shop on holidays,” recalls Lazari. “People came to get their cold meats and salami.” Some estimates place the size of the Greek community in Turkey today to about 2,000 people. Before the 1923 population exchange between Greece and Turkey, between 80,000 to 100,000 Greeks lived in Istanbul. All that is left of its inhabitants are empty buildings and, for those who stayed, a yearning for better times. “When I was little, 150 people would come to my birthday parties,” said Lazari. “Now only my family comes.”

The Kozmaoğlu brothers are used to media attention, but that doesn’t mean they like it. I first approached Kozma about an interview in February, and he was about as eager to talk as most Turks are to try pork. After exchanging a few words—mostly Kozma repeating the date of the shop’s inception—I bought salami and left. I returned several times and only managed to get a treat from Kozma: delicious cold meat samples, a considerable victory for someone who doesn’t speak Turkish.

After a few months and no progress, I felt ashamed of being fed so much free salami and ham, so I took a bold decision. I set out for the last time with my phone and Google Translate. While I managed to secure an interview and have lunch, I left Ideal Salam disoriented. Before stepping out of the shop, Kozma had asked for a kiss. In my failed attempt at building rapport, it turned out that Kozma was as confused as me.

During our interview, the brothers tell me that have not experienced hostility from their community or backlash against their craft. If they ever did, Lazari claims he would “beat them up.” Since Turkey is a secular country, the government condones their business, yet not without galling conditions. Turkey doesn’t allow pig imports, one reason why the dwindling pig population is so worrisome. All pork products must be labeled in two contrasting colors and placed in distinct counters away from other meat products. And if a restaurant wishes to offer meat in their menu, they must use a separate kitchen. Thus, out of convenience, many opt not to offer pork.

“We don’t care if we don’t earn money from pork,” said Lazari. “We just don’t want to let it go. But if we can’t find the meat, we will have to stop.”

The brothers have been called “the last pork butchers of Istanbul” by both international and Turkish media so often that they don’t even have to make an effort to promote themselves as such. “The government is afraid of us because we do so many interviews,” Lazari joked. “It’s good publicity for us.”

Lazari gets to the shop at 6:30 AM to beat traffic and leaves early for the same reason, so by 4 PM it was time for him to go. Once our interview was over, Kozma was left tending the shop. He had kept mostly silent in the presence of his older brother, but once Lazari was gone, he began a litany of complaints. “He gets to go home early and I stay here until 7 PM,” he began. “I also arrived at 6.” Kozma joined his brother as a partner in the business in 1972 after serving the army. “The business would have fallen a part without me,” continued Kozma, his face expressionless except for his big blue eyes.

We stayed a while longer, listening to Kozma’s complaints about his brother. Once the wound down, he allowed us to look in the back of the shop, a request Lazari had rejected a few minutes later. I wanted to ask Kozma about his life and his take on the profession, but that is Lazari’s job. He offered us a slice of ham instead.

Originally published in Munchies on July,2016

Inside the Last Pork Butcher Shop in Istanbul

Delivering Bread in Cairo Is a Balance of Life and Death

Delivering Bread in Cairo Is a Balance of Life and Death

Aish baladi, like the Nile, is a source of life. The handmade bread is an Egyptian staple, which at one point existed in 82 varieties. In Cairo, its ubiquity is made possible by the network of agalati—bread carriers—who deliver the bread to the restaurants, ful (fava bean) carts, and street stands of the metropolis. The coarseness of the bran and wheat turns the bread into a magnet for dust and the city’s airborne toxic elements, but that doesn’t stop anyone from eating it. The art of the agalati is in carrying large trays of bread on their heads as they maneuver through the manic streets of Cairo on a bicycle, like lunatics sailing into the tempest on a rowboat.

At Regala, a Downtown Cairo bakery illuminated only by a few fluorescent bulbs and the flame of the oven, the floor is covered in bran, which is almost indistinguishable from sawdust. Some of the eight men who work there choose to work barefoot, teasing each other and only turning to me once they have mustered the boldness brought on by their camaraderie. Others, like Mahmoud, try to follow the conversation over the shaabi music blasting from their headphones.

cairobreadD8C_5781zThe outside of Regala bakery in Downtown Cairo. Photos by Amir Makar.

Inside the bakery, the dough is tended to with delicacy, but with the swiftness of a fast food joint. Regala bakery produces 24,000 loaves a day, equivalent to 1.5 tons of flour. Ali, a 24-year-old man who holds a technical degree, dreams of quitting the job. His long eyelashes are fringed with flour, as if he himself had recently come out of the oven. “I don’t like standing all the time and taking no breaks,” he complains, as one of the guys prostrates next to him for a rushed, two-minute prayer.

“The subsidized bread is not enough for everyone,” says Ahmed, the owner of Regala. Egypt is the world’s biggest consumer of bread and importer of wheat, with Cairo spending $3 billion a year on imports. The government’s costly subsidy system has been in place since the 1960s to keep bread prices low. Today, a loaf of subsidized aish baladi is 5 piastres (less than one US cent) and reaches roughly 50 million Egyptians. Recently, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi implemented a smart card system to hold bakeries accountable and eliminate graft at the ground level.

cairobreadD8C_5624sThe dough before going into the oven, covered in bran

Cheap bread is considered a human right for more than 80 million Egyptians. “Bread, freedom, and justice” has been both a rallying cry and the yeast fermenting social unrest in Egypt for the last half a century—from President Anwar Sadat’s attempt to lift the bread subsidies in 1977, to the inflation of food prices in 2007 to 2008 and the fall of former President Hosni Mubarak. If people can’t have their bread, they take to the streets.

In Egypt, aish is the word for bread, but it is also the word for life. When Egyptians are under stress, people say akl el aish murr—“eating bread is bitter”—a proverb that more accurately tries to say: Unemployment is high, economic opportunities are scarce, corruption is ripe, marriage and food are expensive, traffic is unbearable, etc. But Egyptians are not ones to complain.

cairobreadD8C_5614sTrays of dough are stacked up, waiting to be thrown in the oven.

For Ahmed, who sells bread at market price, bread tastes bitter. “I make about 10 percent profit,” he says about his bakery. “The price of gas and flour are too expensive.” A subsidized, 50-kilogram sack of flour costs eight Egyptian pounds, but 162 pounds for Ahmed. A tank of gas—taller than Ahmed’s youngest worker, 13-year-old Mustafa—is between 80 and 90 pounds.

cairobreadD8C_5800zFaran, a baker, handing the trays of dough to Mahmoud before they go into the oven.

At 7 PM, the men are swarmed with work. The time is just after the Maghreb prayer, and the demand for bread is running high with many Cairenes hunting for dinner. Customers materialize in front of the bakery, extending one pound and leaving shortly after with four loaves of bread. A taxi driver parks in front, pays 25 piasters and sets off with his loaf; the engine never stopped running.

cairobreadD8C_5565zMahmoud, 22, places the dough in the oven.

“You are riding in a sea of death,” said 22-year-old Mahmoud, one of the agalati responsible for satisfying Cairo’s vital bread demand. The bread delivery boys transport the loaves through the city’s infamous traffic, mass of pedestrians, and narrow back-streets of downtown Cairo on trays up to 2.5 meters long and weighing between 30 to 35 kilos. They do so by balancing the trays on their heads, with one arm stabilizing the tray and the other maneuvering the bicycle.

cairobreadD8C_5527sMustafa, 13, is in charge of placing the freshly baked bread in trays and taking them to the front of the bakery.

The job of the agalati is extensive and crucial. Without them, bread would not be available on every corner and forsaken fast-food stand. The men must fight to keep their balance and hold their ground among the sea of vehicles. “There is no respect from the cars,” says Ahmed, who at 39 still does bread deliveries. The risk of the agalati never reaching his destination is always present, but death is the least of his worries. Ahmed is confident that drivers try to be careful “because they know the bread is all we have,” he said with a tinge of complacency.

cairobreadD8C_5658sAli is in charge of selling the bread to customers.

“We learn how to bike by watching others,” explained Ahmed, an approach that applies to every worker at the bakery regardless of his task. “It’s up to your eyes and your mind,” he said.

Ultimately, bread deliveries are a daring game of dexterity. When asked how long it takes to gain the skills of the agalati, Ahmed shot the question back at me with disdain: “Well, how long do you think it takes?” The agalati’s journey to the double-decker, 30-kilo tray is gradual. It may take a lanky Egyptian teen up to a year to reach such mastery—and countless falls, after which he brushes the dust off the bread and places it back on his tray.

cairobreadD8C_5734sRamadan must wear a rolled-up scarf to balance the tray and protect his head.

The agalati have specific routes and average between 50 to 80 bread deliveries a day. The journeys can take anywhere between ten to 30 minutes, back to back. “Carrying the bread is painful,” said Ahmed, pointing to the back of a worker named Ramadan to illustrate the pain that travels down to the middle of his spine. But someone has to do it.

cairobreadfinalRamadan places the double-decker tray of bread over his head with the help of Ali.

For Ahmed and the agalati, little has changed since the Revolution. “People who steal still steal. People who take bribes still take bribes. Everything is still the same,” said Ahmed.

“Bread is still the basis of Egyptian life,” he continued. “Even when you don’t have money, you eat bread.”

Originally published in Munchies on March, 2015

Eating Inside a Syrian Refugee Camp in Germany

“I was so thirsty, I drank water from the sea with a bit of bread,” recalls Basel, a 25-year-old Syrian man from Damascus. He is speaking of the day he was forced to wait for a rubber dinghy to Greece on the coast of Turkey. Refugees and migrants hid in clusters along the terrain, and Basel acted as a tourist to avoid the police’s vigilant eye. He got his swim trunks on, dipped into the sea, and took selfies with a friend. The heat exacerbated their thirst and hunger, lack of cigarettes, and growing desperation. With the blazing sun on their shoulders, a pair of vacationers who were enjoying the day out on their small sailboat close to Basel knew there was something unusual about the men. So, they approached them with the few provisions they had on their boa—water, cigarettes, juice, and fruit. Basel did not say a word.

Three months later from a café in Mannheim, Germany, Basel recounts his 25-day journey from the Greek island of Kos to Bejamin Franklin Village, a refugee camp in Mannheim. Along with a small group of friends, he embarked on the perilous trek to Europe during the spike of the refugee crisis, one that after four years of bloody civil war in Syria is finally making headlines. As countries like Macedonia and Hungary closed their borders, Germany maintained an open-door policy, expecting to host 1.5 million refugees by the end of the year. 

The high school´s courtyard close the the Red Cross´s clothes distribution centerThe high school’s courtyard, close the the Red Cross’s clothing distribution center. All photos by the author.

For Basel, the days inside Benjamin Franklin Village begin with the first person to wake up. He is in charge of urging others to pick up breakfast, only served between 8 and 10 AM. Today, it was Basel. “Samir, Baloud, wake up,” he nagged others to awake from their slumber, only to be met with silence. Basel shares a room with five others; among them is Samir, a musician from Latakia who made the journey with him. Their days center around the prepackaged meals, 2.5 liters of water, and other snacks given by the camp. If the men fail to get out of bed, they miss their only chance for an insipid frozen meal, wieners, yogurt, a small chocolate bar, and pita bread for the day. 

Waiting becomes a routine. They eat, sleep, text. Sometimes they get on a bike, run an errand to the nearest supermarket, go downtown, or play soccer. Other than that, the men stay in bed and wait for their names to be posted on the “transfer” list. Basel and Samir were among the 10,000 refugees stranded in Budapest when Hungary closed down its central train station. They were among the thousands who marched to Austria and were granted passage by Germany.

The hallway just outside the guy´s roomThe hallway just outside the Samir and Basel’s room.

Benjamin Franklin Village is nothing like the idyllic German village its name so deceitfully invokes. Instead, it is a former American military base’s idea of a village; big apartment complexes with paved streets running like sterile creeks, a high school, and a football field. The village that once catered to American comfort and familiarity now hosts more than 5,000 refugees, an unlikely sanctuary for a mix of displaced peoples and orphaned cultures. 

The hours crawl by at a snail’s pace. Without the kettle and electric grill Basel and Samir smuggled into the camp, the monotony would be unbearable. This way, they can at least have dinner on their own terms. They can grill wieners and mortadella, sip tea or Nescafé on their own time. Both men came to Germany after years in Turkey proved unable to fulfill their dreams for the future. In Germany, they will become residents, learn German, and be allowed to work and study. It’s been two months since they arrived in the camp and the wait threatens to become another fact of life. “Come, let’s play,” says Basel to Samir, kicking a soccer ball. The two men then step out of the threshold and into the container’s desolate hall, where Samir aims at the ball and shoots. 

The guysThe guys of Benjamin Franklin Village.

Germany allocates refugees to different camps across the country with a computer-generated system called EASY.  Each “länder” or state has a distribution quota based on taxes and population. Basel and Samir were sent to the state of Baden-Württemberg, which has the third highest quota in the country.  

“The biggest administrative challenge is registration,” says Christiane Springer, a German Red Cross administrator operating Benjamin Franklin Village. The large influx of people brings with it non-state actors to accommodate large numbers of asylum-seekers and migrants. NGOs and state agencies operate the initial reception centers. Anything from basketball stadiums, empty army barracks, schools, and makeshift containers are used for the initial months before the asylum-seekers are granted refugee status. Prior to the peak summer months of sea crossings and Europe’s panicked response to the refugee crisis, the maximum amount of time a refugee could spend in a reception center was three months. Currently, the waiting time has been extended to six months. 

Making dinnerMaking dinner.

Cigarettes accompany the colorful trays of frozen food as well as each passing hour. The catering company that provides food to the refugee camp complies with a set of guidelines imposed by the German government. Meals are different every day, but variety only lasts a little over a week. After that, the soupy meals begin to repeat themselves.

“We didn’t come here to eat,” says Basel. “The food is bad, we complain; but after three minutes we forget about it.” Despite the tedium of cafeteria-style meals—ironically served in the old high school’s cafeteria—there is enough food to fill their anxious stomachs. “You get bored of bread, butter, and jam,” he continues, “but there is so much waste.” While breakfast falls short of being a satisfying feast, it is wholesome: modest buns, milk, water, jam, fruit, and one awkward spicy green pepper. For dinner, the men eat the wieners, mortadella, or prepacked burger patties given in the morning. Soon, abandoned yogurt cups and plastic cutlery begin to pile up on the planks used as tables, among tobacco and rolling paper. 

Basel’s charisma illuminates the otherwise gloomy containers and apartment buildings where refugees sleep. He strolls up and down the camp’s main street, waving to people and chatting about the latest updates. After months together in the camp, the five men have little to say to each other during the day, but at night, the room transforms into an Arab-style coffeehouse. The kettle allows for round after round of mate for Baloud, originally from Homs, and Nescafé or black tea for the others. “Mama Samir,” as Basel calls his friend, grills wieners with melted mozzarella bought on the store. 

Scrambled eggs feastA scrambled egg feast cooked on an unauthorized pan.

According to UNHCR, 62 percent of sea arrivals in 2015 are men, of which 22 percent are between the ages of 18 and 59. At night, visitors gather in Basel’s room to smoke, chat and drink tea. Samir takes out his guitar and occasionally plays “Nothing Else Matters.” The first night of my stay in the camp, Basel asked a friend with a smuggled electric stove and pan to cook for us an unprecedented delicacy: scrambled eggs. The occasion merited the use of olive oil, one of his most precious possessions. The eggs were served hot on the large, unauthorized pan.

Basel and Samir’s social life have not been affected by Benjamin Franklin Village or their extraordinary circumstances as refugees. On Friday night, they headed to their German friend’s house for dinner. The men blended perfectly with the flat’s cool ambiance and house music. Sipping wine and chopping vegetables in their friend’s hip kitchen, Benjamin Franklin came up only briefly, before it quickly evaporated with the soup’s steady brewing. The doorbell rang and in came another friend, who carried liquor and an assortment of juices for a brave attempt at cocktails. Once everyone sat around the table and Samir had promised to make baba ganouj for next time, everyone began to eat, silently and pleased. 

Update: As of November 21, Basel and Samir have been transferred out of the camp and into collective accommodation, and await the next steps toward becoming residents.

Originally published in Munchies on November, 2015


Syria’s war: Women risk death to give birth in Aleppo

babyAJEToday, Al-Zahra Hospital specialises in obstetric care, assisting in the majority of births in eastern Aleppo. It is the last of its kind [Ismael Abdulrahman/Al Jazeera]

As air strikes continue to rain down on the besieged city’s hospitals, pregnant women lack proper medical care.

On June 8, the second day of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, Fatma* took her newborn baby to Aleppo’s Children’s Hospital. Days after she gave birth, her baby boy began to experience problems breathing.

“He was turning blue,” said the 29-year-old mother of five. The doctors placed the baby in one of Aleppo’s 20 remaining incubators and Fatma exited the facilities. Moments later, inside her parked vehicle, she watched as a missile hit the hospital.

Government air strikes across rebel-held Aleppo and the deliberate targeting of medical facilities present yet another deadly challenge for pregnant women and newborn infants in the besieged city.

There were seven nurses and two doctors in the children’s hospital at 10:05 am that Wednesday, at the time of the air strike. After the attack, amid clouds of dust and broken glass, the doctors rushed nine newborn infants to the basement and carried roughly 30 children and infants to a section of the hospital that had been spared.

All nine babies survived and stayed in incubators underground for two days. While the children’s hospital closed partially, its medical staff never evacuated. Volunteers joined the hospital’s staff to help with repairs. After only two days, the hospital reopened and was back on its regular work schedule of receiving between 15 and 20 newborns every day for paediatric check-ups.

The aerial attacks across rebel-held Aleppo have decimated the obstetric careinfrastructure that was once available to pregnant women in Syria. Al-Zahra Hospital is the last remaining obstetric clinic in Aleppo.

Of the two remaining general hospitals, Omar Bin Abdulaziz Hospital and Al-Quds Hospital, the former has a small obstetric department but has come under attack in the month of June, and the latter closed down after the air strike on April 28 which killed approximately 30 people.

Today, Al-Zahra Hospital specialises in obstetric care, assisting in the majority of births in eastern Aleppo. It is the last of its kind. The small clinic has only one operating room, nine medical beds, and one delivery room with three beds. About 100 pregnant women visit the clinic every day and 30 births take place.

“The hospital is very small and we have to reduce recovery time,” explained Dr Malek, one of the last three gynecologists in eastern Aleppo, in a phone interview. “Normally, women who undergo C-sections need between 12 and 24 hours of recovery time,” he continued, “but here we discharge them in three hours.”

The lack of healthcare facilities and medical staff in eastern Aleppo has created a void in prenatal and postnatal care. The small supply of doctors makes it impossible for the three gynecologists working in Al-Zahra to take appointments.

“Before the war, pregnant women would see their doctors nine to 10 times,” said Dr Malek.

The gynecologists all work 24-hour shifts for 10 consecutive days and rotate, but it is not enough. Furthermore, patients must still wait on average around four hours before they see a doctor. “It is exhausting work and there is a serious need for another hospital in Aleppo for pregnant women and deliveries.”

In the meantime, most women visit the clinic only to give birth to their children.

Access to the seven hospitals operating in eastern Aleppo is also a great impediment when women seek obstetric care. A visit to Al-Zahra can prove to be a life-threatening endeavour.

Public transportation and taxis stop running at night for fear of attacks and pregnant women in need of urgent care must wait until the next morning to reach the clinic. “Sometimes women give birth at the hospital’s door,” said Dr Malek.

According to Dr Malek, the lack of medical facilities, doctors and unsafe access to hospitals has led to an upsurge of clandestine clinics run by “inexperienced and uncertified midwives”.

“These are very dangerous and have negative effects on the newborn babies,” explained Dr Hatem, the director of the Children’s Hospital. “Sometimes they bring the newborns to our hospital after two to three hours from birth and we find them in terrible health. Many of them are dead before they reach our hospital.”

The five years of Syria’s civil war have killed more than 400,000 people, according to a report by the Syrian Center for Policy Research and pushed thousands to the brink of starvation.

Stress, poverty, poor health and malnutrition in pregnant women are all leading causes for prematurity and miscarriages. Any given month, Al-Zahra Hospital assists on the birth of 20 premature infants, according to Dr Malek.

Dr Malek treats one or two cases of anaemia in pregnant women who, depending on the severity of the case, may require blood transfusions. Malnutrition in pregnant women is harder to treat. “They need a dietary programme and this depends on the financial state of the family,” Dr Malek told Al Jazeera. “They are not supported by any NGO.”

The price of baby milk in eastern Aleppo, for instance, is around 3,200 Syrian pounds ($6.6 USD).

“Mothers prefer to breastfeed, but a lot of them can’t access their babies,” explained Dr Mustafa, a paediatrician working at the Children’s Hospital, 300 metres away from Al-Zahra. “They send their husbands to check up on their children.”

Indeed, for women who have children at home, paying a visit to their children in the hospital is not always a sensible choice. Ruaa, also a mother of one of the nine babies inside the hospital on the day of the air strike, chose to return home to her three children after witnessing the attack on the children’s hospital. For a whole hour, Ruaa remained uncertain about the fate of her baby.

In eastern Aleppo, a kilo of diapers stands at 1,200 Syrian pounds ($2.5), a hefty sum for most families. According to Dr Malek, some women ask to be sterilised after they give birth. There are still others who ask for contraception, which al-Zahraa offers despite its shortage of birth control.

“There are some cases of women that ask for an abortion,” said Dr Malek. But the hospital does not perform an abortion unless there is a medical reason that makes it necessary. In these cases, continued Dr Malek, women opt for dangerous and alternative methods with the aid of clandestine midwives.

Pregnancy in Aleppo is plagued with precariousness and uncertainty. Women lack the necessary access to prenatal and postnatal care, and even when scarce medical care is available, patients are made into targets. “This is where we live,” said one of the doctors working in Al-Zahra. “We don’t have a choice but to keep fighting.”

*All the names in this article have been changed at the subjects’ requests, except for Dr. Malek, who agreed to use his name for the purposes of this article.

Originally published in AlJazeera on June 27,2016


How Turkey’s Syrian refugees are getting by

On Jan. 15, the Turkish government’s handling of the humanitarian crisis in neighboring Syria took a major turn when officials introduced regulations to grant many of the 2.5 million Syrian refugees work permits. While international human rights organizations welcomed Turkey’s decision, the action has yet to improve the lives and working conditions of many Syrian refugees in Turkey’s workforce.

Ali works in a small sweatshop in Zeyntinburnu, a working-class neighborhood in Istanbul hidden to passersby and regulatory bodies. Inside a dingy basement, 15 Syrians are assembled in two lines, sitting in front of sewing machines whose constant hum overcomes the Arabic songs blasting from the radio.

“I am a math teacher with 20 years of experience, but none of the Syrian schools in Istanbul want to hire me,” Ali told Al-Monitor. Originally from Idlib, he arrived in Istanbul with $6,000 in his pocket a year and a half ago, after teaching in a public school in rebel-held Idlib became a deadly profession. Unable to find a teaching job in Turkey, he now works 11-hour workdays six days a week and earns 1,000 Turkish lira (about $350) per month, which goes directly into paying his rent (800 Turkish lira) and utilities (200 Turkish lira). “The salary is not enough but it’s better than nothing,” he said. To get by, his two sons, 12 and 14, also work 11-hour days in a sweatshop where they only make 500 Turkish lira each per month. “I don’t want to be rich,” he said, “but I’ve lost hope.” All that is left of Ali’s life savings is 50 Turkish lira, which the stress-ridden man keeps in his pocket.

About 85% of Syrians in Turkey who live outside the refugee camps try to join the unofficial workforce due to lack of work permits. Turkish employers take advantage of low-cost refugee laborers, who earn roughly half the normal wages.

Diaa Ajaj works in a small pastry factory in Izmir. His family owned a pastry shop in Damascus before they fled the war. Since 2014, Ajaj has worked 10-11 hours a day, six days a week, for 1,300 Turkish lira a month. Because he doesn’t have a work permit, he is vulnerable to exploitation.

“The guy before me was Turkish and earned 2,200-2,500 Turkish lira,” Ajaj told Al-Monitor, meaning he earns a staggering 40% less. While he speaks fluent Turkish after living there more than three years, he doubts he can find a better opportunity. “The average [monthly] salary for unskilled Syrian refugees is 1,000 Turkish lira. I live just to work,” he said. “There is nothing else in my life.”

Ossama Darwiesh was a general surgeon in Aleppo. Since he arrived in Turkey 10 months ago, he hasn’t been able to perform a single surgery. Instead, he provides general health care to Syrian refugees in a temporary field hospital in Kilis. Turkey doesn’t recognize Syrian medical degrees and lacks a system to license refugee doctors. “The problem [for doctors] is not salary, but how to continue as a doctor,” Darwiesh told Al-Monitor by phone. “How can I continue as a surgeon without surgery?” he said.

Syrian doctors are thus restricted to providing their patients with other services. “The kimlik [temporary protection status] allows Syrians to go to government hospitals and get care, but language is a big problem,” Darwiesh said. “Turkish doctors just give [them] medicine and tell them to go.” According to Darwiesh, Syrian doctors find work in clinics supported by humanitarian aid organizations and nongovernmental organizations, earning on average 2,800-4,300 Turkish lira ($1,000-$1,500) per month.

Although a large number of Syrian doctors have risked passage to Europe on inflatable boats, “There are about 30 doctors without work in Kilis,” said Darwiesh, noting that many resort to opening their own informal, private clinics. “The Turkish government is flexible,” but it would be preferable if there were formal rules and certifications. As it stands now, the government allows Darwiesh to work today, “but maybe the situation changes tomorrow,” he added.

For now, Darwiesh plans his life six months at a time, unable to look further ahead. Under his current plan, he will stay in Kilis and work on improving his language skills. “The situation is similar [in other cities]. It’s terrible for me,” he said.

Khaled plays music on Istiklal Street, one of Istanbul’s main arteries and the site of the latest explosion in Turkey. He plays with five or six Syrian musicians on average nine hours a day. Their performances attract hordes of Arab tourists drawn by the wistful Arab tunes. During breaks, the musicians lament over their financial woes. The group earns 40-100 Turkish lira per day, sometimes more in the summer months. They split every cent that falls into Khaled’s accordion’s case. All his earnings go toward paying his monthly rent of 500 Turkish lira and utilities of 400 Turkish lira. “I started playing music in the street after I was [only] earning 900 Turkish lira a month in a sweatshop,” the musician said.

Mohamed is fortunate to work for a German aid organization in Gaziantep, yet his income is still not enough. While he earns 3,000 Turkish lira a month — a salary that the majority of Syrian refugees in Turkey can only dream of — he is constantly looking for ways to cut his family’s expenses. “I can’t save anything,” he told Al-Monitor by phone. “Life is very expensive.” The father of two is also responsible for his family back in northern Syria. His rent is 550 Turkish lira, “but we are living in a place that is like a dungeon,” he said. “I am struggling to have a life of dignity.”

Despite his relatively high salary, Mohamed doesn’t have a work permit or permission to live in Gaziantep, since he registered under temporary protection in one of the camps along the Syrian border. Mohamed lived a few years inside a refugee camp, where he was working “for a pack of cigarettes, teaching English.” His situation has improved since then, but like the other Syrians interviewed for this article, he is unfamiliar with the new labor law and is mostly concerned with just getting by. “There is no improvement for Syrians,” said Mohamed, “but I am satisfied. I am more than happy to help my people who are in need.”

Originally Published in Al-Monitor on March 28th 2016