Turkey Pulse

Afghan kite runners revive old tradition in new home

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Article Summary
The 116,000 Afghans seeking asylum in Turkey are often overlooked, but a kite project aims to lift their spirits.

A multicolored kite floats against the blue sky, held by 5-year-old Sohrab and his sister, both trying to get it to fly higher. Their friends, laughing and shouting in Farsi, also run around with their kites, wrists moving in sharp jerks to ensure that the kites can still rise, despite the weak summer wind.

The scene seems like a flashback to Kabul’s freedom days, with its internationally known kite runners. Yet the scene is not Afghanistan, but Turkey, and these Afghan children are in forced exile in the southeastern city of Gaziantep.

While most adults rested over the early afternoon heat during Ramadan this past June, a group of young Afghan refugees met twice a week to attend a kite workshop held by a group of Turkish and international volunteers. The workshop was designed by Martina Dominici, an Italian political researcher who came to Turkey through the European Voluntary Service and spent her summer volunteering with Turkish nongovernmental organizations to learn more about the Syrian refugee crisis.

Arriving in Gaziantep, a city that is home to more than half of the country's whole refugee community, Dominici noticed there was a need to develop more projects for Afghan refugees. “Compared to Syrians, there seem to be less projects for Afghans, but this is mainly due to their fewer overall number and the state of emergency for Syria,” she told Al-Monitor.

Turkey currently hosts almost 3 million Syrian refugees, making the 116,000 Afghans seeking asylum there feel somehow forgotten since the beginning of the Syrian conflict. The Coordination Group of Afghan Refugees has sent an open letter to the UN Refugee Agency, the UNHCR, as early as 2011, asking that their problems not be shelved or ignored after the current emergency.

The kite workshop aimed to give them back some of their lost ground and help children recover some elements of a lost childhood, said Dominici.

Turkey currently hosts almost 3 million Syrian refugees, making the 116,000 Afghans seeking asylum there feel somehow forgotten since the beginning of the Syrian conflict.

Dominici’s project was supported by the Gaziantep Training and Youth Association (GEGED), a local NGO that has supported disadvantaged young people, including Afghans, since 2012. “I noticed that the activities for Afghan children weren’t structured enough, so I thought of introducing a new project that could give them the chance to have fun but also develop new skills,” Dominici said.

"Drafting the project proposal was a burdensome process,” said Yasemin Erdemgil, a German-Turkish volunteer who worked with Dominici. Ever since the imposition of the 2016 state of emergency following the military coup in Turkey, the work of the NGOs on the ground has become difficult as bureaucracy and control mechanisms grow more cumbersome. The volunteers worried that the workshop wouldn’t see the light. “But in the end, we were pleasantly surprised that we got the approval to carry it out in such a short time,” Erdemgil told Al-Monitor.

Dominici explained that the educational part of the workshop was meant to teach these children the cooperation and survival skills necessary to work in a competitive group, even more so as refugees, through the metaphor of building a kite together. “But most importantly, it was meant as an opportunity to discover — or rediscover — their origins, as usually the younger ones are those who suffer the most from a discontinued identity after a political displacement,” she said.

The idea of kites was inspired by Afghan culture, where kites have been a common form of entertainment for decades, representing national pride and Afghanistan’s golden days. However, after the Taliban regime banned the popular activity, they also became a symbol of peace. Seeing Afghan kites flying again over a summer sky — although not in their homeland — was meant to send a message of hope for the young generations of displaced Afghans.

“Throughout the workshop, kids were very engaged, from choosing the different templates and colors to the shape of the tails, using recycled materials,” Erdemgil explained. But when it came to the much-awaited field trip on June 15 to Gaziantep’s Alleben Park, just outside the city’s chaos, to fly the kites all together, the volunteers were worried that the heat would prevent the children from coming.

“We were worried no one would show up, as it was one of the hottest days of Ramadan in Gaziantep,” Dominici recalled. Despite the heat, all the kids who took part in the workshop joined the trip, along with their parents and older siblings. “As child labor is common among refugees in Turkey, the ones who benefited from this activity were the younger ones. We were therefore happy to see a few teenagers, too, for once, and I hope we were able to contribute with a happy memory in a dark moment of their lives,” she said.

In a city that has found itself drowned in an unexpected refugee influx, some Turkish volunteers have witnessed episodes of racism toward the different refugee communities in Gaziantep. “Therefore, we wanted to make [these kids] feel at home, treating them as if they were Turkish kids. We hope we made them comfortable here,” Ufuk Can Celik, a local volunteer with GEGED, told Al-Monitor.

The workshop rapidly became the starting point to give Afghan kids more space among the busy refugee help centers’ schedules. “We wanted this project to keep going and expand across the city," explained Ali Aslan Ozaslan, director of GEGED, "so we pitched it to other centers. Now we are offering this activity in partnership with five NGOs aimed at different Afghan beneficiaries."

At the Association for Solidarity with Asylum Seekers and Migrants (ASAM), one of the NGOs currently hosting this workshop, kites became an opportunity to create bonds among children from the same forced displacement background. “While the activity was at first aimed solely at Afghan children, this workshop ended up being a great opportunity for both Afghan and Syrian refugee children to integrate and be together,” Esra Kalkan, a peacebuilding officer at one of ASAM’s Gaziantep branches, told Al-Monitor. “We are planning to officially have a mixed group of kids from Syria and Afghanistan in our third workshop.”

Souhaib Ajam, one of the teachers supervising the kite-making process at ASAM, explained that Afghan and Syrian kids will fly their kites together at the end of September. “I hope there will be enough wind,” he smiled. “I think this kind of playful integration is a good opportunity for the two groups, despite language barriers. But they’re learning English and they’re kids, so in the end communication is not really a problem.”

Stefania D'Ignoti is a freelance multimedia journalist who covers the Middle East. Her work has appeared in The Economist, Forbes, The Associated Press and La Stampa, among others. On Twitter: @stef_dgn

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