“Istanbul Has Many Refugees from Syria but No Refugee Camps”: Creating Home at a Community Center

By Nell Gabiam
Submitted to Session P4810 (Refugees from Syria: State Policies, Humanitarian Aid, and the Lived Experience of Exile, 2017 Annual Meeting
LCD Projector without Audio;
Al-Nur is a community center for Syrian and Palestinian-Syrian refugees in Istanbul. It was founded in 2014 by a second-generation Palestinian refugee from Yarmouk camp in Syria. The center hosts a variety of activities ranging from English and Turkish language courses to piano lessons, to creative writing, all taught by local as well as international volunteers. The organization’s website notes that “Istanbul has many refugees from Syria but no refugee camps.” Whether Istanbul’s lack of refugee camps is good or bad is not elaborated on, but the community center clearly sees itself as providing a sense of home to refugees from Syria, both Syrian and Palestinian. Although created by a Palestinian–Syrian refugee, al-Nur caters to all those who were displaced from Syria rather than specifically to Palestinians who were displaced from Syria. Thus, it offers an interesting vantage point from which to reflect on Syro-Palestinian relations outside of Syria and to think about commonalities as well as differences in the experiences of exile of both populations. It also offers a vantage point for examining Syro-Palestinian solidarity within the context of exile in Turkey. While its creation was part of an effort to reach out to refugees from Syria, the center welcomes anyone who would like to take advantage of the classes offered there.
My paper is based on fieldwork conducted during a month and a half at al-Nur. During this time, I took part in al-Nur’s activities and interviewed its director, managing, staff, and volunteers, many of whom are themselves refugees from Syria. I focus on the ways in which the philosophy that guides al-Nur and the personal experiences of its staff destabilize the dominant humanitarian and political assumptions that shape our perception of refugees in the 21st century.