How Istanbul Is Extending the Olive Branch to Syrian Refugees

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©. K Martinko – Children's crafts on display at the Olive Tree Center, run by Small Projects Istanbul, to help resettle Syrian refugees

Tourists can witness it firsthand, thanks to Intrepid Travel's partnership with a local NGO.

Intrepid Travel, the world's largest adventure travel company, has earned global recognition for its efforts to make travel more sustainable. A certified B corp and signatory of the UN Global Compact, it has offered over 1,000 climate neutral tours since 2010 and now has an ambitious goal to become climate-positive by next year.

Less well-known, however, is its involvement with social justice projects. A division of Intrepid, Urban Adventures, runs a series of shorter tours called In Focus. These partner with NGOs, non-profits, and social enterprises to reveal and explain local issues to visitors.

These issues could be things we've heard about on the news and wish to understand in greater depth, or they could be situations we'd never know about unless they were explained to us. Either way, the In Focus tours offer fascinating insight into a foreign city's inner workings, not to mention the face-to-face cross-cultural interactions that make travel so meaningful.

I had the pleasure of participating in an In Focus tour while visiting Istanbul, Turkey. I joined a group of five other travellers, led by Jen Hartin, Intrepid's Destination Manager for the Middle East, and we went to the Olive Tree, a resettlement center for Syrian refugees.

The Olive Tree is run by Small Projects Istanbul (SPI), a local NGO that was formed in response to the refugee crisis of the past five years. Turkey has received four million Syrian refugees thus far, with roughly one million settling in Istanbul. As the European Union's aid money dries up, Turkey's own economy lags, and its citizens feel growing resentment toward the newcomers, it has been a struggle to integrate Syrians into their new home.

Enter SPI and its inspiring work. The five-storey center in the bustling Çapa neighbourhood includes a daycare, where children can play while their mothers are trained to work in a social enterprise upstairs. The women produce silk-screened t-shirts, hand-dyed embroidered scarves, cotton tote bags, and, most notably, beautiful handmade earrings as part of the 'Drop Earrings, Not Bombs' campaign. By learning handicraft skills, the women are employed and better positioned to support their families.


© K Martinko – Handcrafted earrings made by the Syrian women at Small Projects Istanbul (April 2019)

The center assists more than 150 Syrian families with learning Turkish and English, developing computer skills, improving Arabic literacy, offering counselling services, hosting a homework club and gathering point for teens, as well as organizing field trips for the kids to get acquainted with their new city.

Our tour lasted 4 hours. Together, we took public transit and walked through the colorful Tuesday market to get to the center. A delicious Syrian dinner awaited us upon arrival – platters loaded with bulgur pilaf, lemony parsley salad, hummus, pickled vegetables, flatbreads, and shakriya (lamb stewed in yogurt). As we ate, Jen and Emre, finance manager for the center, spoke about the impact SPI's efforts are having on refugees' lives. Our meal was followed by a tour of the facility and an opportunity to purchase any of the handicrafts.

Syrian dinner

© K Martinko – Sitting down to a Syrian meal with other participants in the Urban Adventures Olive Tree tour (April 2019)

This tour was of personal interest to me because I've spent the past four years fundraising and assisting 20 refugees from Syria and Congo to resettle in Ontario, Canada. I have been curious about how other countries are coping with the same influx, particularly those that don't have an ocean and continent separating them from the conflict.

Unsurprisingly, many of the issues we face here in Canada are the same ones encountered in Turkey – limited budgets, donor fatigue, lack of housing and employment opportunities, a disengaged public. And yet, the success stories are comfortingly familiar – people who have lost everything and overcome the odds to reconstruct their lives and give their children stability once again.

handicrafts at Small Projects Istanbul

© K Martinko – Directions for making tote bags and newly screened tees are on display at the center.

Did the tour feel voyeuristic in any way? Not at all. This is learning at its best, talking with educated individuals who are on the ground, able to explain, answer questions, and dispel myths. The Syrian families themselves were not present, as the tour occurred after business hours, and that alleviated any sense of awkwardness that either side – visitor or visited – may have felt.

I returned from the tour feeling better informed about the refugee situation in Turkey and encouraged by the good work I'd seen. Urban Adventures runs this tour once per week and donates all proceeds back to SPI; even our guide Jen's time was donated. If you find yourself in Istanbul, I urge you to check it out.

(You may ask: Why is this featured on an environmental news website? Because it's all interconnected. A world in which people lack housing, food, and education is not a place where anyone will have time or energy to give thought to environment stewardship.)