[This is a follow-up to the excellent work of photojournalist Sebastian Meyer last week and Kamaran Najm that we will host next week.]
The recycling workers in Tarlabaşı recently made the headlines for their generous aid to victims of the earthquake in Van that killed over 600 people on October 23, 2011. “Many of the workers are originally from Van”, explains Veysi one of the workers collecting paper, cardboard and metal from garbage bins for recycling. “It made it easier to get organised, but it is not the only reason we felt we needed to help.”
On the Recycling Workers Association’s initiative, Tarlabaşı residents gave enough clothing, blankets, food and hygiene items to fill 12 large lorries, and send them off to earthquake survivors in Van. They even managed to persuade some of the stores to donate aid: “One shop gave us five boxes of winter clothing”, Veysi says. “As soon as we had collected these items, we sent them off for people to wear before the snow starts falling.”
“We will now start to collect toys for the children there”, one of Veysi’s colleagues says.
Ali Mendillioğlu, president of the association, told the daily Radikal that the Tarlabaşı recycling workers were inspired by news of their colleagues in Ankara and Antalya, who had also collected aid to be sent to Van. “We are not doing anything special, we are just doing what needs to be done”, Mendillioğlu told the newspaper.
Veysi has been working in recycling for nine years. Working together with his father and his brother, the income from recycling paper and other materials feeds a family of six – all of them live in an apartment in Tarlabaşı. “If there is enough work, we make about 30 to 40 TL a day, on slower days it sometimes is only 10 or 15 TL”, he says. A typical working day starts at nine in the morning and can go on until one or two of the next morning.
Because they are not officially commissioned to collect paper and other recyclable materials, they have to operate half-clandestinely. “The municipality doesn’t want us to collect paper, they try to hinder our work”, Veysi explains. “About 90% of our income comes from paper – if it wouldn’t be for that, we might not have been able to send aid to Van – but still they try and keep us from doing what we are doing.” The Municipality has a separate garbage collecting system, and sees the recycling workers as unwanted competition. “We were harassed, sometimes beaten up. So we founded the Recycling Workers Association four or five years ago”, recalls Veysi. “It provided us with a strong network.” He smiles. “Strength in numbers.”
Despite being now able to operate more freely, the recycling workers face trouble because of the municipality: “Sometimes they even intimidate shops not to give us any paper or cardboard. They threaten to fine them, that’s why shops often don’t give us as much paper anymore.” Often municipality workers and the zabita (municipal police) confiscate the karts the recycling workers use to collect and transport their load through the city. “One metal kart costs 80 Lira”, explains Veysi. “The bag costs 10 Lira. I myself have lost over 1,000 TL to the Municipality because they took eleven of my karts away from me.”
The depot the family rents in Tarlabaşı costs them 350 TL a month. In the storage room they collect paper, cardboard, iron, nylon and sheet metal that is first sorted into separate piles, and then picked up by lorry drivers who will transport it to recycling facilities on the edges of the city. With the pending demolition of the neighbourhood, Veysi’s family and their colleagues are now forced to look for another workplace: “We have been here a long time, but now we might have to go far outside the city centre. There is no other place around here where we could have depots like this”, says one of Veysi’s colleagues. Since many of the recycling workers and their families live close by, this would mean a long commute.
Why is this assistance necessary? Our colleagues Graeme Smith and Charla Jones visited Van in the aftermath of the earthquake and Graeme explained why it was that so many people opted to live outside, even if their homes were still standing in his blog entry at the Toronto Globe & Mail here. He also added for us:
“Waking up in the middle of the night, amid strong aftershocks, really does make you think seriously about sleeping outside. You lie there in the darkness and stare up at the ceiling, hoping that it won’t fall on you, and try to remember whether the building showed any sign of damage before you went to bed. You try to mentally calculate what kind of structural problems could have been caused by the latest tremors, and you stay awake waiting for the next one. It’s enough to make you crazy, especially if you’re among the thousands of survivors who lost friends or family in the rubble.
No wonder so many people in eastern Turkey are now choosing to camp in the freezing cold — and that’s not even counting the thousands who lost their homes entirely. This is a homelessness crisis on a massive scale, with winter snows already falling in some places. I’m sure the people in that region will deeply appreciate any donations that help them survive the coming months.”
Back in Tarlabasi Veysi says that the hardest part, however, is to be treated unjustly – not only by the municipality. “People often look down on us, they think of us as dirty.” He does not want to give in to that: “We might not be rich, but we have big hearts”.