When I met Zayn Muhammed he was selling packets of tissues outside of a mosque, in the Şirinevler neighborhood in Istanbul. He took me to see the single room that he, his wife and five children currently live in. The family came to Istanbul from Syria in October, after their village northwest of Aleppo was bombed. There the family lived a middle class lifestyle, with Zayn owning a grocery store and selling olives from his orchard. When the family arrived in Istanbul, they moved into tents in Şirinevler park with other refugees from Syria who had nowhere else to go. When the weather turned cold and living conditions in the park became unsanitary, the Turkish government closed down the tent camp, sending many of the refugees to official government run camps, while others decided to take their chances living in urban centers in Turkey. Zayn and his family were offered an unused spare room by a Turkish family he had befriended in the neighborhood. He told me the Turkish people in the neighborhood have been kind to his family, in part because of his five young children, offering them some food, clothes and other supplies. The government is trying to find Zayn a job, but in the meantime he tries to sell his packets of tissues. His wife Nahida spoke of the difficult transition to life in Turkey, with basic amenities like water and electricity costing far more than the family was used to in Syria. Zayn is unsure of what will become of the family, and knows they can’t live in the small room together in the long term. Like other Syrians crossing the border into Turkey every day, Zayn and his family are in limbo unable to get citizenship in Turkey, and unable to return to the village that was once their home, where they lost everything.
Church bells mingle with the call to prayer as smoke rises from chimneys and sunlight pours through clouds. Sarajevo is a city of contrasts that somehow come together to make something very special. I must have missed something when I came here in the summer, maybe walking the hills in the stifling heat deterred the development of any romantic feelings for the city. I’ve been staying the last week here with good friend and fellow photographer Cat Norman (http://catnorman.com), who’s shown me lovely tree lined parks, small neighborhood mosques with rugged wooden minarets, a smoke filled speakeasy-esque bar (that’s technically not allowed to be open right now for some reason), and of course where to find the best burek. It’s a city teeming with life and smiles, but also harsh memories of the past. Children play next to buildings riddled with bullet holes, while the hillsides are dotted white with tombstones in what were formerly public parks, filled up with bodies from the 1992-1995 siege. I’m always taken by the dates when I walk in these cemeteries, they all end in 1992, 1993, 1994, a stark reminder of the great tragedies that occurred here twenty years ago.
But all that’s in the past now and the people of Sarajevo have made great strides to pick up the pieces of their city and turn it into something truly lovely. It’s got all the beauty and style of cities in Western Europe, with half the price tag and half the crowds. Some magazine called National Geographic put it on their list of hot places to go in 2014, and I’d definitely put it on my list as well. Plus if you come later in the year, my friend Cat will have opened the swankiest new hostel in town. Should be exciting.
I’m heading to Istanbul tomorrow and will be joining a Reuters journalist down in Gaziantep, near the border with Syria. We’ll be investigating the situation with Syrian refugees trying to integrate and survive in cities along the border. It’s something I’ve been interested in working on for a long time now and I can’t wait to get down there and start working. In the meantime, below are some reasons you should visit Sarajevo!