Communities

A Bowl Full of Hope

by Jennifer Hattam

March 13, 2015

“There’s one!” Hearing this cry from within their ranks on a recent late-winter night, the small convoy of cyclists pulled over to the side of the busy boulevard and sprang into action. A keen-eyed member of the group had spotted a florid pink-and-purple blanket inside a brick archway—a tell-tale sign that someone was sleeping rough on Istanbul’s streets.

The team quickly poured a piping-hot bowl of pureed lentil soup from a large thermos into a takeout container, topped it with a few slices of bread and a plastic spoon, and left the meal alongside the sleeping figure before pedaling off once again toward the city’s 4th-century aqueduct, in search of more mouths to feed.

During Istanbul’s cold winter evenings, the volunteers of “Engelsiz Çorba”—the name of the project roughly translates as “Unhindered Soup”—bring together three groups, all marginalized to varying degrees, in Turkey’s largest city: cyclists, the disabled, and the homeless.

With plenty of traffic and crumbling infrastructure, Istanbul’s streets are almost as unfriendly to able-bodied bike riders as they are to the disabled—not to mention the homeless they are trying to help together. Even riding as a group, with neon-orange safety vests and helmets, is a harrowing experience, as vehicles zip by within inches of the riders or pull out into the street with no warning. Despite the challenges, Engelsiz Çorba’s weekly soup deliveries always include disabled and non-disabled riders working together.

“As cyclists, we also have a disability in a way, since car drivers don’t respect us,” says volunteer Kemal Soylu, adding that conditions in the city make it difficult for the disabled to go outside as well. “We want to help integrate them into society.”

No official statistics exist on the number of homeless in Istanbul, and even anecdotal analysis of the issue is nearly non-existent, according to an economist working on poverty issues who did not want to be quoted. The anti-poverty organization Şefkat-Der (Compassion Association) has made its own estimate of 7,000 to 10,000, but that figure likely falls short of capturing the true number of homeless in a city of 15 million.

“Many young people are coming from other parts of Turkey to the big cities to try and find work; some of them get success and some of them end up sleeping in parks and empty buildings,” says a Şefkat-Der representative, who asked to be identified only as “B.” In addition to advocating for the needs of the homeless, whose ranks have swelled recently as Turkey struggles to absorb more than 1.6 million refugees from neighboring Syria, Şefkat-Der runs Istanbul’s only year-round shelter, the 20-person-capacity Evsizler Evi (Homeless House) in the central Beyoğlu district. The Istanbul metropolitan municipality allows up to 2,500 people to seek respite in covered sporting facilities owned by the city, but only when the temperatures dip below freezing, as they often have this past winter.

The harsh conditions don’t deter the Engelsiz Çorba cyclists, who see their late-night rides as a way to deliver not only food, but also hope and solidarity. When they find people awake on the streets—sheltering under overpasses, inside metro entrances, on the grounds of mosques, or alongside ancient city walls—the group makes a point of talking with them, hearing their stories, and giving them information about their rights and where they might be able to find further help.

“The homeless, the refugees, their sheltering problem is not just their problem, it’s our society’s problem too. The disabled are also part of society and their problems must be our problems as well,” says Oğuzhan Gürel, a blind teacher who frequently participates in the rides by travelling on the back of a tandem bicycle and by holding the soup containers while they’re being filled by another volunteer.

The group emphasizes that their work is not simply charity for the disabled, recalling an anecdote from a previous ride when they came across a man collecting paper scrap to sell, an Afghan factory-worker who had fled to Turkey during the war and was barely surviving in Istanbul. The only person in the group who could communicate with him in order to learn his story? A blind rider who spoke a bit of the language.

Through sharing experiences like these and making themselves a regular presence on Istanbul’s roads, the Engelsiz Çorba team hopes to make it harder for society to ignore those struggling to ride, navigate, and live on the city’s streets. Walking home after riding along with the soup squad for several hours on a cold February night, it was indeed impossible not to notice a blanket-swathed figure huddled in an alcove—and to wish there was just one more bowl of soup to offer.

Images courtesy of Engelsiz Çorba.

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A Bowl Full of Hope