Between March and June 2020, Jean-Jacques Rousseau fellow Pınar Öğünç made 35 interviews with people from Turkey, mainly workers, to write about structural problems, inequalities of their sector which became more visible in these harsh times. Five of them were translated to make them available to an international non-Turkish speaking readership.
Aziz ranked first in his school in Syria. When he came to Turkey as a twelve-year-old, he found himself in shoe workshops. He persevered and now, at age 20, he is a master shoemaker. The perspective of an immigrant on a crisis that turns the world upside down is quite different. The experiences that Aziz had have matured him, but as you will see in his story, his insistence on seeing everything positively has kept his soul fresh, strong, and childlike. When he has time off, he wanders around the city, and makes funny videos for Syrians who are fatigued by sadness. He wants to laugh and to make others laugh.
When Corona began, I was working in a shoe workshop in Güngören. Now I’m on unpaid leave. I have been in the shoe business for more than eight years. I was studying in my home country. I was twelve when I came to Turkey. Now I’m a quarter of a year away from 20. Anyhow, even when there was a ban for those below the age of 20 to go out, nobody really minded me.
»We have been through so much, Corona won’t make a difference!«
How did I get here? When I look back, it feels like a tale. You know why? We were in Aleppo. We came for the first time with my older brother. They found work for me; my weekly pay was 150TL. To save on the transportation cost, I would sometimes walk from Esenler to Güngören. I didn’t get along with my brother, he was married. When I could no longer stay with him, I returned to Syria to be with my mother and my father. I started school. I studied English and then I learned to read in Turkish. No writing, just reading. When a bomb fell near the school, my father told me to go away.
I didn’t have much Turkish, I was twelve and I hit the road. I went through the border illegally. First Kilis, then Antep, and then Istanbul. You ask me how I was able to do all of this on my own, I actually don’t know now. I found my way to Istanbul, but I didn’t know how to get from the main bus terminal to the workshop. I finally made it to Güngören. Nobody could believe that I got there on my own. Two of my brothers lived in a single bedroom in İkitelli, I stayed there. They found work for me at the shoe workshop district. The boss was yelling at me every day, swearing at me, scolding me … This continued for seven months. But I learned the craft there, I became a man. Am I boring you?
Our work is seasonal. Even without Corona, we would have taken a break. But if they had not given us leave, we would have at least received some pocket money. That is how things are done. They give money to those who work well so as not to lose them. There are ten people in the workshop. I’m the only Syrian there. But there are a lot of Syrians in the shoe work. No social security of course, social security is very rare.
Of course you don’t know this – I have so many stories that I forgot. My parents came to Istanbul in the meantime. Now I live with them. When my mother, my father, and my paternal grandmother were at home in Aleppo, a bomb fell and half the house was destroyed. My grandmother passed away because of the shock. My mother and my father survived and then they came here. My father was in the construction business in Syria and here, he works in textiles.
Now when I have time, I make a lot of videos. For example, Corona arrives in Turkey or let’s say they are deporting Syrians without papers, I make funny videos about them. I make people laugh. Look at my live feed and check it out. You will see the laughs in the comments. Exactly, I look at things that I experience from a fun perspective. I do the videos in Arabic, sometimes I use Turkish, but the videos are for Syrians. Why would I do something sad, people are already sad, I want them to laugh.
»I was discriminated against as a Syrian when I first arrived in Turkey, yes. Some Syrians went to Europe, so I feel that now since there are fewer Syrians, our importance has grown.«
One of my videos on Corona was shared by an Arabic channel. Really. I was so proud. I have an acquaintance who is a tailor, he is older and he likes me, I used him as an actor. I rarely use Instagram, mostly TikTok. You will not understand the Arabic, but you can check me out on @azizhalil22. I have been doing this for over a year. I use my phone. Sometimes friends help to hold the camera and sometimes I put my phone somewhere to film. And this feels so good to me. I’m at home, let’s say, and a comment comes, “We laughed so much, you are a legend,” and I’m immediately uplifted. I’m not thinking to make money, that’s not why I’m doing it. The most important thing is to promote myself, which I’m thankfully able to do. Once, when I was coming home from work, a boy stopped me on the street and kissed me. I asked him who he was. He said he watches me on YouTube. I felt for a moment that I was famous. It was a beautiful moment.
I was discriminated against as a Syrian when I first arrived in Turkey, yes. Some Syrians went to Europe, so I feel that now since there are fewer Syrians, our importance has grown. We also learned some things. I really like Turkey. What do I like? I like my work, my neighborhood, all of it. Of course one misses the past. I was studying in my country, I was ranked first in my school. But there is nothing to be done. What happens happens. I never wanted to go to Europe; I never liked it there.
In response to this question, my parents would say, yes, they would want to return. But I don’t know if I would want to return to Syria. Even if everything was normal. There really is no answer. I told you things, but there are also things I haven’t told you or rather, things I forgot. Because I cannot remember some very difficult things. I like looking at things positively. Even bad things.
We have been through so much, Corona won’t make a difference! When I first arrived, my brother was also unemployed and we were so poor that one day when we were walking with my cousin, we found 50 cents on the street. I told him to save it so that we could buy bread. You go to work, you don’t have shoes yourself and you wear slippers. You don’t have a jacket, it’s winter outside, think about it. We went through these difficult times and thankfully we are here today. When I started, I was an apprentice, I did middle work and now I am a master. This requires patience, you have to be smart, you have to work very hard and you have to wait.
I mostly want to develop my videos. On my off days, I go out to make videos. I wander around, but I’m not able to go too far. When Corona is over, I will probably work in the same place. Exactly, we make women’s shoes. We could make a pair for you one day if you want.
The day we spoke, the number of cases was 126,045 and the number of deaths was 3,397.
*The unforeseeable state of emergency launched by a virus with a global reach, has made visible the already-existing inequalities of capitalism, deepening the gaps; many say that nothing can remain the same after this. Is that true? Why would everything not remain the same? While this order of things, which owes its existence to colonialism, sexist divisions of labor and precisely that deep inequity, has our souls and bodies enveloped, just like this ominous virus – is it possible to recover from it? Women, men, workers, clerks, the unemployed, the white-collar workers, the blue-collar workers, those claim that the era of “collars” is over, freelancers, those working from home, those still working, those being forced to work, those in quarantine, those who cannot see their future, and those who are fatigued by what they see in their future. Why did we begin this long series of articles? Because we need to hear each other’s voices, to hear about each other’s troubles, and to look for our remedies through and within the remedies of others.
Translation by Merve Unsal