Behind Istanbul's Süleymaniye Mosque lies a historic district that, decades ago, teemed with life. It was "the real Istanbul," nostalgic locals will tell you. But now the area is a different world, and most of the old families have decamped to other parts of the city. According to the Metropolitan Municipality, restoring the neighborhood to its former glory has been a priority for a long time, but so far Istanbul has done little to deliver on that promise.
During spring 2011, long-smoldering tensions in Syria, Turkey's southeastern neighbor, consumed the country in a civil war. The conflict has claimed nearly 200,000 lives and forced more than 3 million people out of their homes. Turkey opened its border to all Syrian refugees, and more than a million have taken asylum there. While a quarter of them live in camps, the rest have settled in cities. Istanbul now houses about 70,000 Syrian exiles, according to city officials.
One Kurdish refugee community has moved into the houses around the Süleymaniye Mosque. Knowing little Turkish and lacking official documents, they have a hard time finding work. The local attitude toward the Syrians has soured as they continue to multiply, and the governor of Istanbul Province, Hüseyin Avni Mutlu, said in June that refugees begging on the street would be expelled to camps near the Syrian border.
The exiles are not without benefactors, however: Istanbulites regularly bring them food, clothes, and other necessities. Last February, in the company of Finnish photographer Esa Ylijaasko, I visited the refugees near the mosque several times. Ylijaasko and I would drink tea with them and sit by a wood-burning stove, with cigar smoke wafting through the light of infrared lamps. Ylijaasko recently sent VICE a beautiful body of work from which the following photographs were taken.