Why Myriame Coulibaly had to bring her family to Turkey
Myriame with her two children, Ina and Said, on the Yalova seaside. Photo by Kathryn Balleh
Istanbul is a city built around water. The Bosphorous, the iconic strait that connects the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara, is filled with boat traffic comparable to a busy city intersection, only without the stop signs and green and red lights. A variety of public, private and personal watercraft navigate these currents from early morning to late night, moving the 15 million people of Istanbul from work to home and everywhere else.
Every two weeks, many UNHCR registered refugees take the ferry from Istanbul to a nearby city, Yalova, to obtain a signature from their official immigrant registration office. When refugees are registered in Turkey, they are assigned an office. For most, it is a small village or city in the middle of Turkey, where it is hard for foreigners to find work or even rent an apartment. For the lucky ones, it is Yalova, an upper-middle class seaside city host to popular local beaches, a large retiree population, and a location only one hour from Istanbul.
Diane Tomi, is one such refugee registered to Yalova. Each month, she must spend nearly 130 Turkish liras (about $30, but felt as $130 according to local wage standards) to go to her immigrant office and give a signature. Diane is from Cameroon, and she is the founder of Moms2Moms, an NGO created to help single African mothers in Turkey, for whom no other such NGO exists. “I think about Moms2Moms as a project that will be just for African immigrants,” Diane tells me. “A program where they can feel confident.”
Diane Tomi, founder of Moms2Moms. Photo by Kathryn Balleh
Diane, a single mother of three children (two in Cameroon and one with her in Istanbul) is an exceptionally strong woman. Energetic and empathetic, in the five hours we were together she received no less than 3 phone calls from single African mothers in Istanbul facing eviction. She told these women she would do whatever she could, and offered them to stay at her house in the meantime.
“The hardest problem for these women,” she explains, “is finding a normal life.” In Turkey, refugees, asylum seekers, and displaced people are constantly worried if their residence permits will be renewed for another year; if they will be able to pay their rent; if they will have the right paperwork to send their kids to school; all sorts of insecurities keep refugees from gaining a sense of normalcy and permanence.
The last time Diane saw her two children in Cameroon was in March 2013. She is here because, in her own words, “I’m just the hope of my family… I’m just a hope of my family.” As she describes it, most African immigrants in Istanbul are chosen by their extended family as the one who will go out, outside of Africa, and try to provide better conditions. “Our responsibility is too much,” Diane said. She says this is the reason most people do not go home to visit. Every trip home is a calculation: that money could be sent home, it could make a difference. Diane says even if she was given the money to bring her children both to Istanbul, she would give it to Moms2Moms, because otherwise “it would be selfish.”
I look around on the ferry at the Turkish families sitting together. I wonder if they know how lucky they are.
When we arrive to Yalova, Diane and I take a dolmus (shared taxi) about 20 minutes into the city to visit Myriame Coulibaly. Myriame recently moved from Istanbul to Yalova because she could no longer afford the monthly ferry rides. She and her husband have been in Turkey for the last 4 and a half years, and neither have been able to find steady work.
Myriame, Mohammad, and their family. Photo by Kathryn Balleh
Myriame is different than other African refugees because she didn’t come as the family representative. Her family in the Ivory Coast is a powerful one, with large numbers and wide-reaching influence. However Myriame had the unique fate of giving birth to an albino daughter. In the Ivory Coast and other parts of Africa, albino children are highly sought after commodities. People who believe that their body parts contain magic kidnap albino children, take their blood and their hair, and make potions. It is a dangerous and risky life for these albinos, and when Myriame saw her daughter, she knew it was not going to be an easy future.
Photo by Kathryn Balleh
Myriame is a calm woman, graceful in her movements and in her managing her two young children atop a hilltop home in a Turkish neighborhood where she does not speak the language and stands out as a clear foreigner. Her experience in this neighborhood, however, has been quite positive. As we were speaking, a neighbor woman came to the front door and asked Myriame in English if she needed any bedroom furniture. She had extra and wanted to give it to her. Myriame, aided by Diane, told her she could come back in the afternoon and would be happy to receive it. Myriame’s next-door neighbor, also Turkish, ask her kids to call him “baba,” and gives occasional work to Mohammad, her husband, when he can.
Photo by Kathryn Balleh
Myriame’s daughter’s name is Ina. When she was born, she was kidnapped from her mother when the operating nurse saw that the baby was albino. Thankfully, due to the influence of the family, Ina was returned by the same nurse in a matter of hours. But even though this crime was reported to the police, nothing was ever done to punish the nurse for her crime.
Myriame knew having an albino child in the Ivory Coast was not an option. Her uncle on her father’s side was also an albino. “People were making rituals with his blood and hair, and they were constantly harassing him,” she told me in French, while Diane translated. She said his life was extremely difficult. Although he was able to get married and have his own children, he could never walk anywhere alone. When he had his hair cut, he had to burn it and bury it so that people wouldn’t come steal it. “My parents hid many things from us as children, but I know he suffered a lot,” she said.
When Ina was 6 months old, she and her husband came to Turkey. Not long thereafter, she gave birth to another albino child, her son Said. She and her husband were both shocked at the unlikely event of two albino children. When this took place, she said she knew she would never be able to return to the Ivory Coast. “Hiding one child is fine. But two children, it’s impossible,” she said.
Photo by Kathryn Balleh
Now Myriame and Mohammad are looking for ways to leave Turkey so that her husband and kids can have a stable future. “For me, my stuff is finished,” she said. “But for my kids, it has just started.” Her biggest hope now is that her husband can find work. They don’t know where they want to immigrate to, it may be Europe, Canada, or, perhaps, the U.S., but she just hopes that the family can find any place where they can be secure and work.
“They want someone to walk naked on the street before he can get help,” Diane told me, speaking of the way the world views African immigrants. “You will never see a black person do this.” She said Africans may have nice shoes, or a clean shirt, because they do everything they can to retain their outward dignity. “Black people are not the people who like to show their misery,” she added.
But Diane says she can’t blame society. “If they show you sugar and salt in two piles, you will never know the difference,” she said. “They just see us.”
Myriame says the people around her have given her hope. She believes she will be able to find a way to start a secure life, for herself, her husband, and Ina and Said. As Diane and I leave her home to return to Istanbul, we wave goodbye and make our way back to the ferry terminal. We board with other refugee families, Turkish families, and some European tourists also returning to Turkey’s cultural capitol.
“In Turkey, sometimes you feel homeless, you feel lonely, but you have water,” she said, comparing the living conditions here to the situation in Cameroon. “The life there is hard, like many countries in Africa. It’s just misery,” she said.
For now, some African immigrants will try to make Turkey there home. Others see it as a bridge to Europe. Safe Place International aims to help the single African mothers looking for a better life for their families in their transitions in Turkey. Moms2Moms provides a social network as well as grocery cards to help provide food and other basic necessities.
Please help us help African mothers by making a donation, which will go directly to Moms2Moms.