Lisa Morrow
Last updated: 4 February, 2016

Small Projects Istanbul: little things make big things happen in Syrian community

“We are the change. We’re not waiting for governments, we’re not waiting for top down advice. We are just creating it from a grassroots level.”

Official figures set the number of Syrians living in Turkey at 2.2 million, with only about 300,000 staying in government run camps. Mainly located on the border with Syria, these camps offer little in the way of facilities. According to statistics gathered last year, some 350,000 Syrians live in Istanbul, although the real number is thought to be much higher. Until recently they have not been able to legally work in Turkey and are often unable to access education. Not surprisingly, many feel the risks involved in making the journey to Europe outweigh the alternative of living in a no man’s land of non-existence, with little if any guarantee they will ever lead a normal life again.

As a result, despite many of the borders across Europe having closed since the attacks in Paris in November last year, Syrians are continuing to try to cross over from Turkey. The European Union plans to give Turkey $3.2 billion to stop more people reaching their shores. If this is to be effective, a new approach is needed to enable Syrians in Turkey to access education and give them a reason to stay.

Small Projects Istanbul, a non-government organisation, is doing just that. It was founded by an Australian woman named Karyn Thomas, who has been involved in education and volunteering throughout her life. After selling up the successful childcare centre she ran for many years, Karyn headed overseas. Like me, she ended up in Turkey by chance, but unlike mine, her story is far more dramatic. Karyn had been living in Damascus since 2008, and volunteering in the Yarmouk Refugee camp, a 20-minute drive from the centre of the city. In late 2012, having survived a sniper attack on a café where she was sitting, and a rocket attack on her neighbourhood, she told me she never thought of leaving until one day she suddenly realised there were no other foreigners to be seen. This made her wonder, “Is there something that I’m not understanding?” which resulted in her move to Istanbul. Two weeks after she left, Damascus and the Yarmouk camp were bombed from the air. Up to that point around 100,000 Syrians had already left the country, a figure which now seems like a trickle compared to the tidal wave of people fleeing today.

When she arrived in Istanbul Karyn had no set plans to keep on working with people displaced by civil conflict, but from talking to her I think it was inevitable. Most of her life has been spent trying to help people, and according to her youngest daughter, she’s “always doing these small things that make a difference”, which is how the name Small Projects Istanbul (SPI) came about.

Karyn and the SPI team believe it is imperative for refugees to continue with their education and to develop skills which will be of use when they are finally able to return to Syria. They don’t rely on a database or professionally produced needs assessment in order to enable this. All that is necessary is a willingness to listen and to act. Karyn tells me, “It’s not our aim to change the people’s way. It’s our aim to help put their kids in school, to help them with education and to value the things that they value.”

One way they’re doing this is through their centre The Olive Tree. It’s located in Çapa, a suburb of small narrow streets teeming with people and crammed full with rundown apartment blocks. Only a few tram stops along the line from the fairy tale beauty of Sultanahmet with its beautifully maintained mosques and museums, it’s a far cry from the tranquil old city most tourists get to see. Today is Tuesday so the centre is barricaded behind stalls making up the regular weekly street market, piled high with fresh fruit and vegetables, clothes and a multitude of household odds and ends. The Olive Tree centre has only been running since the middle of 2015. Already Karyn, along with community liaison officer Siba Alaradi, co-director Shannon Kay and communications manager Anna Tuscon, have had an impact on the lives of Syrians living in Istanbul, which makes the decision to stay put more attractive.

The centre is just one large room, painted in clean bright colours with different areas marked off by rugs on the floor. A basic kitchen takes up one corner, kitted out with a fridge and utensils donated by a long-term expats who returned to their country of birth. The opposite corner holds shelves piled high with kids’ books, many donated by two other expats who live in Istanbul and run an English language bookshop. Another set of cupboards is jam-packed with games, easels, paints, dress up boxes and a multitude of learning aides all neatly stacked and organised.


Within minutes of arriving I’m put to work collating and stapling forms to be given out to volunteers. Working with me is Zeynep* a young woman who fled Syria halfway through her university degree. She volunteers regularly at the centre, translating for those who speak only Arabic and working with the children. Zeynep explains how she wants to improve her English and SPI are helping her with this so she can sit the university entry exam and finish her degree. In the meantime she looks after her two older brothers. We laugh together at the difficulties of learning Turkish and keeping house as she tells me of the nutritious and tasty soup she cooks them most evenings. Switching to a more serious tone she tells me the rest of their family is still back in Syria but offers no other information. I don’t ask for any more details and we quickly switch to talking about safer topics while we finish our task.

For the first hour or so it’s just me, Zeynep, Karyn and another new volunteer, Beatrice. As we work together laying out mats and soft rubber balls, toy trucks and other wheeled toys and dolls Beatrice tells me a bit about herself. Back in the States she decided she wanted to help displaced Syrians and started a fundraising campaign. Her efforts raised enough to get her to Istanbul and to buy ten cameras and a projector. She plans to start teaching photography to the kids right away.

As we get organised for the mother and toddler group, women slowly begin to turn up. Seeing new faces they wait hesitantly at the door, but on being greeted by Karyn and then Siba, another member of the SPI team, they take off their coats and start to chat. Siba graduated as a structural engineer from Damascus University but as with so many others, the war meant she and her family had to leave everything behind. Siba felt lonely and defeated until she found SPI. She saw an opportunity to help and now works closely with the Syrian community in Istanbul. Like all who volunteer she expects no recognition, so it’s wonderful to learn she has been chosen by the BBC as one of their 100 Inspirational Women. Not that this means anything to the women bringing their children in to play. To them Siba is simply a friendly young woman with whom they can chat about ordinary things and share a laugh.


Behind them some of the children head straight for the mats to play with the toys. They know exactly which ones they want to use but are happy to share when prompted. One tiny little girl, swamped by the too big padded ski suit she wears, sits quietly in a corner on her own. When she finally comes to see what we’re doing she stares at me blankly, not reacting to my smile, the offer to hold my hand or even to the doll I offer her. Later on I see her sitting alone again, smiling now, but still making no move to join in. Karyn tells me she was born prematurely in a room housing thirty people.

A few of the women go off to the markets to do some food shopping. Although they’ve been coming for a few months now, they’ve only just started to trust the centre to mind their children. Those who stay behind, even the grandmother who says she’s too old to play, are encouraged to engage with the children. Staff, assistants and parents alike are taught to use accredited childcare practices, get to learn new skills and gain in personal development. By now all the kids have been kitted out in over-sized T-shirts and are having fun painting. I’m on my knees working with two little boys. One of them knows what to do but I have to show the other one how to hold the brush, dip it in the paint and apply it to the paper. I’ve forgotten what it’s like to be a child, but I can guess these kids haven’t had very many opportunities to learn how to play.

The mother of one of the boys, well dressed in a long black coat and headscarf, smiles as I talk to her son. Like all the women I meet she doesn’t want me to use her name or photograph her face. I don’t speak Arabic and she doesn’t speak English, so between us we manage a bit of Turkish and we communicate. Two of her children are with her in Istanbul, and she has three more back in Syria. I can’t even begin to imagine how traumatic that is and how stressful. I learn from Karyn that her husband was taken and although nothing is said, it’s obvious no one expects them to be re-united. Despite this the woman is sweet and gentle and never stops smiling. She’s quite excited to talk to me and I can see from the way she looks when she plays with her boys how much she loves them and enjoys being with them in this setting.

Despite the unhappiness of the personal stories of the women and children present, The Olive Tree is an overwhelmingly happy place. It’s a mass of children, toddlers, pre-schoolers and older kids, talking, playing together, painting, laughing and learning, all while being helped and supervised by Karyn, their mothers and the volunteers. When I told Karyn how surprised I was that being in the centre had given me such an enormous feeling of joy she smiled and nodded contentedly. She told me she wanted the centre to be a place “where people really deeply struggling can meet one another and not always talk about war and the sadness. They already know that.” It is clear this philosophy is working and that there’s “a lot of power in opening a door to a friendly space”.


The ultimate aim is for Syrians and other displaced people using The Olive Tree to run their own events and classes. So far this only happens on Sundays when none of the major organisers turns up. However this doesn’t mean they have time off. All of them have been working seven days a weeks since the centre opened. I don’t get to meet Shannon because technically it’s her day off. She’s spending it at the bank and with the accountant but her main work is placing kids in schools. It is possible for Syrian children to attend Turkish schools, but the language barrier, social integration issues and economic hardship means nearly half a million Syrian children living in the country don’t receive any education at all.

Syrian parents want their children to keep up with their peers so that when they return to Syria, they won’t have fallen behind. So far SPI has placed about twenty kids in local community Arabic schools. It’s difficult and expensive. Unlike the Arabic schools near the border which are free, in Istanbul they need to charge fees to be able to afford to rent a space for the teachers and to pay them. SPI provides 1500tl (about AUD$729) per term per child. Given that Syrians have large families, this means there might be four or five children in a family so it isn’t possible for all of them to attend school. Shannon’s job is to assess which of them will benefit the most and then make arrangements. There are no financial payments made to the SPI team for doing this work, but they are rewarded. In Karyns words, “To see the light in parents’ eyes when their children go back into school is really precious … It’s like what they say about small moments, irreplaceable.”

Writing and blogging about life in Istanbul, I regularly have people contact me asking what they can do to help Syrians living in Turkey. I sense from their words they feel overwhelmed by the scale of need, and are unsure of where to start and how best to help. Karyn gives the best answer when she says, “No matter what you do, the dishes still need doing”. It’s not by tackling grand schemes that SPI effects change, but in their focus on developing small manageable projects that address an immediate need. As well as co-ordinating partnerships and funding for SPI, Anna Tuson makes videos, posts items on Facebook and talks about the latest project happening in the Olive Tree. Syrian women are learning to make jewellery so they can generate an independent income and support their families. Just before Christmas SPI finalised an arrangement with a shop in the Grand Bazaar to sell their products in store and on-line. The range consists of high quality bracelets and handmade silver rings, with the words, ‘Be the change’ etched onto the band. “And that’s what we are,” says Karen. “We are the change. We’re not waiting for governments, we’re not waiting for top down advice. We are just creating it from a grassroots level.”

To date Small Projects Istanbul have been managing on donations made by family, friends and concerned strangers. There are plans to rent larger premises to dedicate a permanent space to the production of jewellery, as well as more room to run homework clubs and hold language classes, but these will have to wait until they have the necessary funds. Money is tight. There is nothing in the budget to spend on expert opinions and assessments but from what I’ve seen, there’s no need. United solely by their desire to effect real and meaningful change, this diverse grouping of people has found a way to help Syrians living in Istanbul. The work of SPI might only be on a small scale at the moment, but from little things big things can grow.

* Name changed at request of interviewee to protect her privacy.