Photo: Ceren Suntekin

A Place of Dreams and Hopes

By Nalan Sipar

In the impoverished Istanbul district of Tarlabaşı, Turkish, Kurdish, Syrian and Roma children play together. In spite of their ethnic differences, they are united by a common denominator: their poverty. The Tarlabaşı Community Centre is the only place here for dreams and hopes.

The alien Jackie asks the thirteen-year-old Samira: Can you show me your city?” Happy to do so”, says Samira. The somewhat wobbly camera follows the girl and the doll Jackie through the over-crowded bazaar. They stroll carefree through the narrow, riddled streets of the Tarlabaşı district. At last, they arrive at the Tarlabaşı Community Centre: in front of the building, the alien Jackie says: Hmm, in this street, children unfortunately don’t have a place to play”. And then he must return to outer space.

The lost district

The children of the Tarlabaşı Community Centre wrote the screenplay of the short film The Alien Jackie, performed and shot it themselves. The Centre is perhaps the only place where they can give their imaginations free rein. The district of Tarlabaşı, where they live and from which the Centre takes its name, is one of the poorest parts of Istanbul. Although only a few hundred metres away from the glamorous Taksim Square, there is nothing here of its expensive shopping centres and historical sights. Two fundamentally different life realities in Istanbul. The people in Tarlabaşı are discriminated against in several ways. They belong not only to the economically weakest group, but also to ethnic minorities such as the Roma or Kurds. You also see more and more Syrians here.

The chilldren of the Tarlabaşı Community Centre make a doll for their short film The Alien Jackie.
The chilldren of the Tarlabaşı Community Centre make a doll for their short film The Alien Jackie.

Art against prejudices

Ceren Suntekin is a social worker at the Tarlabaşı Community Centre and knows very well the conditions in which the children live here. They come from very poor family circumstances and often live in one-room flats”, she says. They have neither their own room nor a desk. Some of them have to look after their younger brothers and sisters because their parents have to work a lot. Many of them therefore leave school and start working”, says Suntekin.

For a social worker like Suntekin it is therefore important to win the children for artistic activities. Art is very important to us”, she says. At school it’s neglected or even completely ignored. Art helps the children question their prejudices, develop and become team players.”

The  centre affords children of poor families the opportunity to play music or theatre.
The centre affords children of poor families the opportunity to play music or theatre.

The district where no one dares to go

Suntekin has been working at the Tarlabaşı Community Centre for twelve years. Before that, she heard only negative things about the district: At the beginning the police warned us and said the residents would chase us away and throw stones at us.” Tarlabaşı, she says, is a district where no NGO dares go. Sometimes I have to work late into the night and can go home only then. But nothing has ever happened to me”, she says.

This bad reputation is also the Tarlabaşı Community Centre’s chief problem. It depends on financial support from outside. The city of Istanbul has no interest in investing in such a project. It would prefer to raze the entire district to the ground and rebuild it”, says Suntekin. Only private donors and foreign embassies offer financial support, on a project basis. Sponsors include the Embassy of the United Kingdom, the German Society for International Cooperation (GIZ) and the Dutch Bernard van Leer Foundation. The Centre has to fight for its financial survival year by year.

Derelict buildings shape the image of the disctrict 
of Tarlabaşı.
Derelict buildings shape the image of the disctrict of Tarlabaşı.

Prospects for lost youths

The Tarlabaşı Community Centre gives lost youths new prospects. For Suntekin, it is a labour of love: Our former children are now in grammar school or preparing for university. Many of them still visit us here. Three of them even work here as pre-school teachers. And when I see what these children have achieved in their lives, it’s the biggest motivation for me to continue working here.” She very much hopes the Tarlabaşı Community Centre can go on with its work.

All photos: © Ceren Suntekin
More about Tarlabaşı Community Centre

Photo: private

Nalan Sipar is an editor and presenter at the Deutsche Welle. She has lived in Germany since she was fifteen-years-old. In her work she tries to explain Turkey to Germany and vice versa.