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ISTANBUL, Turkey – The 3.7 million Syrian refugees residing in Turkey are commonly referred to as “guests,” a term that often carries the implication that they will one day go back to their war-torn country, says Fatima,* one of these refugees.

“We are not guests; we are working and living here,” she says. “A guest is when you sit in somebody’s place and you don’t pay any money and you don’t work. We have to be here and we do our best to live here in a good way.” 

UNFPA is helping women like Fatima do just that through its Women and Girls Safe Spaces around Turkey. Five are located in Istanbul, four of which were managed, until their recent handover to the Ministry of Health, through a partnership between UNFPA Turkey and a Turkish NGO, the Association for Solidarity with Asylum-Seekers and Migrants (ASAM), funded by European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations. 

The centres have two aims, explained Kerem Renda, until recently the Istanbul Women and Girls Safe Spaces Supervisor for ASAM: “One is to empower women. Two is to ensure access to sexual and reproductive health-care services.” 

Each centre’s staff includes social workers, psychologists, health educators and a mobile team that goes into the field. These field workers, known as health mediators, are mostly Syrian women who work with muhtars (local elected officials) to build a network among refugees to encourage them to come to the centre. Word gets around once that initial trust is built, and now a single centre in the Istanbul neighbourhood of Fındıkzade, where Fatima lives, has served over 8,700 people. 

‘There is a space I can feel free here’

Like the other Women and Girls Safe Spaces in Turkey, the centre in Fındıkzade provides services such as primary health care and reproductive health services, psychosocial support and referrals to job agencies, education and training. It is a place where women feel safe and able to speak openly about their needs. 

“There are some things you can’t talk about with your family, it can be embarrassing, but here they have courses and lectures,” says Fatima. “You can talk to a doctor privately, so you feel more comfortable. There is a space that I can feel free here.” 

Another refugee, Sarah, says women like her often don’t want to visit hospitals, because they don’t always feel welcome. At the Women and Girls Safe Space, it’s different, she says: “Here, you can feel like yourself, like, valuable. There is someone to listen to you.”

Supporting not just health but also well-being

Building community and forging relationships with refugees is an important part of the mission of the Women and Girls Safe Spaces, says Altuna Söylemezoğlu, UNFPA’s Istanbul Field Associate for the centres. “Some women cannot go anywhere because of their husbands, but they [the husbands] trust us here,” she says. Because of that trust, the Women and Girls Safe Spaces are able to host events such as tea-time, educational courses and even field trips. 

Staff at the centres also work to expand those relationships of trust into the broader community. 

After Layla, a Syrian teenager, registered at school with the help of Amina Alsheikh Hasan, a social worker at the Women and Girls Safe Space, she experienced conflicts with some of her classmates. “In my first year of school, there were these ‘You are Syrian, I am Turkish’ [attitudes],” Layla says. But Amina met with Layla’s teacher and invited her to the centre so that she could learn more about the situation of Layla and other refugees. After that visit, the teacher brought the Turkish and Syrian girls at school together for a conversation, which helped to resolve the issues between them. Layla also says she enjoys the picnics organized every two weeks by the centre which bring local Turks and Syrians together to share food and stories.

‘As a woman, I live in fear’

Not all of the women share such experiences, however. “I can’t dare to talk to my neighbour because she can’t speak Arabic. I don’t know what her reaction towards me will be so I don’t make the first step at all,” says Sarah, another Syrian refugee. She and Fatima both say they are fearful of being pushed out of their apartments or even being deported. “As a woman, I live in fear,” Fatima says. 

According to ASAM supervisor Renda, the primary reason many refugee women come to the centre is to look for jobs, as financial instability is a constant concern. But it is through providing job referrals and educational courses that the staff at the Women and Girls Safe Space are able to build a connection with the refugees. Once that hurdle has been passed, they can start to talk about family planning, education and health. It takes a long time, but their goals of empowering women and providing sexual and reproductive health services are slowly being met.

—Elif Karataş

* Names of all Syrian women have been changed to protect their privacy.