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Sudanese in Istanbul: Nur’s Story

Behzad Yaghmaian recalls the experience of a Sudanese refugee family trying to cross into Europe illegally to seek asylum.

December 24, 2015

Behzad Yaghmaian recalls the experience of a Sudanese refugee family trying to cross into Europe illegally to seek asylum.

In October 2003, a young Sudanese family of three that had fled violence and persecution at home found itself stranded in Istanbul. The UNHCR had denied them refugee status twice.

They were surviving there and waiting for an opportunity to enter Europe illegally. Their story from more than a decade ago is echoed by many of the stories we are hearing today.

Nur, the mother, initially lived in a two-bedroom Aksaray safe house with other Sudanese, Sri Lankans, Ethiopians and Eritreans. In a room shared with five others, she slept on a single bed with her husband Yussuf and baby daughter Samah.

Nur’s Journey: What It Takes to Find Refuge by Behzad Yaghmaian

Part I: Fleeing Sudan: One Refugee’s Story

Part II: Sudanese in Istanbul: Nur’s Story

Part III: Getting to Greece: Nur and Leyla

Some were boys and girls as young as sixteen, and men in their thirties. Many suffered from illnesses: respiratory problems, infections, colds and tuberculosis—a killer disease among the Africans of Istanbul. Many smoked.

“This is the first piece of food I had today,” a young man told me one time I visited, showing the small piece of bread in his hand.

Minutes later, another migrant arrived with a large garbage bag filled with day-old bread from an Aksaray restaurant. The hungry residents of the safe house were overjoyed. Big chunks of bread in their mouths, they laughed and posed for my camera.

The Sudanese connections of Istanbul

Located on the third floor of a back alley in Aksaray, the house was rented out to migrants by a Sudanese “connection” — an ethnic smuggler working with a network of bigger smugglers operating on the route to Greece.

There were less than a dozen Sudanese and Somali “connections” in Aksaray and the neighboring Kumkapı. They sheltered migrants in tenements and delivered them to big smugglers from Turkey and Georgia in dispatches of five or more.

Enlarge Sudanese refugees living together in an Istanbul safehouse rented by a human smuggler. Nur’s husband Yussuf is in the blue sweater. Photo by Behzad Yaghmaian.

Joining men and women organized by other “connections,” the migrants were transported to the Meriç River in groups of twenty, or put on boats for a sea voyage to one of the nearby Greek Islands.

The migrants deposited money with their “connection.” This was advance payment for safe delivery. Some were housed with the promise of future payment in return for travel service.

Leaving the service of a “connection” for another was not customary. It cost the migrant a noticeable part of the deposit. Crossing and cheating the “connection” led to violence.

Tightening borders and a sick child

Weeks had passed since Nur’s case was rejected. Leaving was not possible. “The streets are closed,” she would say, referring to the tight border control by the Greeks.

This was being increased significantly in the lead-up to the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens. Turkey was also increasing border security in hopes of gaining EU membership.

Baby Samah’s skin rash returned. She never escaped the physical effects of her fourteen days of drugging. She was in and out of doctors’ offices and hospitals.

The hospital visits were free of charge. Medication was not. “I cannot buy medicine for Samah,” Nur told me after one of her hospital visits. “This is not a good place for a child. She is always sick.”

The residents of the safe house took care of Samah. When boredom and sadness prevailed, Samah lightened up their mood. They took her out, played with her. They bought her candy and milk. Samah rarely cried. Quiet and calm, she observed others.

Nur believed Samah sensed the adults’ mood. Staring at them with her big eyes, talking to them in her child language, she would make them smile. They would pick her up, put her on their laps. Samah would laugh and kiss them.

Nur falls sick

While Nur waited in the safe house, her throat ailment returned. A swollen gland in her throat grew large. Doctors recommended surgery. More than four months pregnant, she was diagnosed anemic. Her situation deteriorated over time.

“She gets very sick during her pregnancy. Her legs swell. She becomes very weak,” a friend told me, pleading to find a way to save Nur.

With her ailment and pregnancy, and carrying Samah, trekking would have been deadly. Many healthy and strong men had failed in the past, but Nur was ready to try her chances.

“I’ll walk a long distance if I have to.” She wished to leave the overcrowded safe house in Aksaray and save Samah and her unborn child.

New safe house

When a Sudanese “connection” failed to pay rent on Nur’s safehouse, the fourteen migrants living there were evicted and moved to a two-bedroom tenement already housing 25 migrants. Nur invited me to the new safe house.

“We are 40 people there. The place is much dirtier than our old safe house. There is no room to sleep. Please come to see our new place.”

A long stairway faced the entrance to the building. To its left stood a communal kitchen. There were no other rooms on the ground floor. Walking up the narrow stairways, I was in a small space, a platform covered with blankets, crowded with bags and a tall body under a blanket.

Greeted by friendly men and women, climbing the stairs, I reached a single room on the second floor. There were men playing cards, killing time. A man was sleeping on a bed.

The room was full of blankets, backpacks, and plastic bags. Men and women moved in and out. Awoken by the noise and noticing my presence, the sleeping man moved to a corner, making room for me on the bed.

The third floor was a narrow room facing the street. More than ten Sudanese and others sat tightly on three single beds and a blanket on the floor. Familiar faces — Muhammad, Yussuf, and others—came to greet me. All sat in their winter coats.

Nur welcomed me to her home. Samah played with the adults. Three women from a nearby safe house visited the crowded room. Jokes and laughter erupted.

A young Sudanese, perhaps in her teens, quietly watched the laughing crowd. Sitting in her hooded sweatshirt and windbreaker, she maintained a gentle smile. A man inquired about life in Europe.

The men and women of the safe house were from all tribes and religions of Sudan. Their warlords fought each other in Sudan. Here in Kumkapı, they lived in peace. “We are all friends. No fighting here,” Nur said.

Three days after my visit, the police raided a nearby house, confiscated cell phones, beat a few men with their batons and left. All visits to Nur’s safe house were banned. Assembling outside the building became prohibited. Unnecessary movements in and out of the house had to stop.

Take her with you

“I have to find a way to go to Greece,” Nur repeated in moments of despair. “Will you put Samah in your bag and take her with you?” she asked me before one of my trips to Athens. Others laughed. “Take us with you. We won’t make any noise.”

My flat in Istanbul was on the top of a hill, within walking distance of the Bosphorus and the Sea of Marmara. Standing by my building on clear, sunny days, one could see the Prince Islands and gaze at the endless blue waters of the Marmara.

“There, look over there, that is Greece. I can see it,” Yussuf said anytime he visited my flat. “These are the Greek Islands. Let’s swim. We’ll be there soon.” Nur and others laughed.

The Greek government did not provide any benefits to most registered asylum seekers. Some lived in city parks or squatted in abandoned buildings.

Many survived by hawking around in Athens and the surrounding villages. They laid out their merchandise in fancy, expensive shopping districts, places often visited by tourists and other foreign visitors. Even this small existence was threatened by the pre-Olympic policing.

Time to go

Nur was in the sixth month of her pregnancy. There were no signs of any change in her situation in Istanbul. My phone rang one day in late February 2004. It was Nur.

“Can I see you today? I am going on the journey in two days. I invited Nur to my flat. Early in the evening, she arrived with Yussuf and Samah.

A somber mood dominated our meeting. Samah was asleep in Yussuf’s arms. Eating our last meal together, we talked about Greece and Nur’s hope of receiving proper care for Samah and her new baby in Europe.

Looking at my girlfriend Leyla, Nur said, “I am calling the baby Leyla. When the doctor told me that my baby was a girl, I decided to call her Leyla.”

Not able to pronounce it right, Samah called her unborn sister “Lula.” The men and women of the safe house followed suit. “Everybody calls her Lula,” Nur said, smiling.

The migrants bought the unborn Lula food and clothes. “This is for Lula. Eat it,” they would tell Nur. Some brought her milk. “Drink it for Lula,” they would tell her.

A way to cross?

In two days, Nur was to leave Istanbul for Çeşme, an ancient town by the Aegean Sea, and a popular resort for wealthy Turks and European tourists.

Aboard a small boat, she was to reach Hios Island, hide from the police, and take the night ferry to Athens, where she and others would register with the police and apply for asylum.

When migrants were intercepted at sea, they were returned to Turkey by the Greeks. Many were deported after having reached one of the Islands, but once in Athens, the Greeks did not deport anyone without registering them and reviewing their cases.

Reaching Athens was an important challenge. “I hope to give birth to Leyla in Athens,” Nur said.

Waiting for word

The time had come to leave. “Thank you for everything,” Nur repeated, standing at my flat’s door. We embraced and said farewell.

“I will call once I reach Greece.”

Days passed and I did not hear from Nur. There was no phone call from Greece. Friends called, inquiring about Nur and her family.

All things were possible: arrest by Turkish authorities, detention in Greece, deportation, an accident at sea. After a week had gone by, I received a call from Nur, a call from a local number in Istanbul.

“Where are you Nur? Are you ok?”
“Everything is good.”
“What happened?”
“I am alone. Samah and Yussuf are not with me.”


A group of 22 Sudanese left Istanbul in a taxi and a large minibus. Yussuf and Samah were in the minibus, while Nur and four others traveled in the taxi.

Reaching Taksim Square – a decade later the site of major anti-government demonstrations – the Sudanese were chased by a police car. The van drove away. The taxi was pulled over.

“They are taking me to the hospital,” Nur told the police. The officers laughed. They did not believe her story. Negotiations underway, the police demanded 50 million liras (about thirty-five dollars) apiece from the migrants as the price for their release.

The money was put together and given to the negotiating officer. The Sudanese were free to go. Having lost the van, they returned to the safe house in Kumkapı.

Nur waited impatiently for a word about her baby’s whereabouts. Four days later, a call from the smuggler informed Nur of the safety of Samah and Yussuf. They were in Greece, housed in a dancehall turned into a detention camp on a Greek Island.

“Samah misses me. She calls for me all the time. I have to join her in Greece.”

Editor’s note: This essay was adapted from Behzad Yaghmaian’s memoir Embracing the Infidel: Stories of Muslim Migrants on the Journey West, (Delta, 2006).


Behzad Yaghmaian recalls a Sudanese refugee family trying to cross into Europe illegally for asylum.

Nur and her family lived with about 40 other refugees in an apartment in Istanbul.

“These are the Greek Islands. Let’s swim. We’ll be there soon," said Yussuf, a refugee in Istanbul.