The situation of African Catholic Migrants in Turkey
By Maria Lozano
Turkey, Catholic Migrants 6.5.2013
“I used to play football in a club in Nigeria.My manager told me that I was good and he gave me hope to find a team in Europe. He charged me $4000 for the process of playing in a club in Izmir, in Turkey”. This is how Pascal starts telling his story. However, right after landing in the Turkish land, he received a call from the manager: the contract had been cancelled. With a threat of not coming back to Nigeria to ask for his money, because in this case he would make his life impossible to live, he recommended him to go to Istanbul. Pascal had never heard about Istanbul. He said to him, “this is a big city and you will find help”. It happened like this; Pascal found a Turkish citizen in the station who helped him to contact a soccer club. “God put this in my path, I am sure of it. I trained myself in that club but finally all this came to nothing”, says the player.
The young Nigerian has been in Turkey for three years. “Many promises but no results, only faith in God” he says. This has been the only support he found during this time: his Christian faith and trust in God. Regardless of all that has happened Pascal is convinced: “I came to Turkey with the intentions of playing football but God brought me here for another league. I have not played a single game with any club but I am playing a game which is more important: to give God`s testimony with my life and my actions. I had one plan, but God had other plans for me. God made me find another team. I have found a prayer group, my faith has grown, I pray every day and I give praise to Him for bringing me here”.
The story of Pascal can be one, but it’s not, there are dozens like him. Young boys from Ghana, Nigeria, Cameroon, and other African countries come here with lots of hope and dreams. Following the same fraudulent system, all were promised to find a football club for them; they pay huge amounts in their home countries. Most of them are helped by the support and efforts of the whole family and once they are here, they discover that this was all a farce. Fr. Julius Ohnele, a Nigerian priest who is responsible for pastoral care of these immigrants in Istanbul, tells that the number of the players is so large that, with lot of hard work for the last five years, they organized a championship between the African players who have come from different countries: “The training and matches keep them busy and it’s healthy that they get training and keep themselves in form. Furthermore, we invite different football clubs to see them playing and through this work we have managed to place some players in clubs”.
The case of these players is just one specific case, but there are thousands of Africans in Turkey. “Some of them flee from the situation of war and violence in their own countries, for example Somalia, Eritrea and Congo. Others think that while living here, they will find a better life or a step closer to the neighboring countries. The geographic situation of Turkey makes it a place of transit for them, however the border with Greece is very controlled and in the end many of the immigrants get stuck, without money, without work, without hope. Many end with depression”, explains Fr. Julius.
The residence permit costs from $1000 to $3000 – depending on how long one had stayed as illegal migrant in the country – and it is only for six months. Finding a job is difficult and often they feel discriminated and disadvantaged in society. Some of them rely on occasional work for hire, which is also difficult to find and get very little to sustain themselves. Frequently they look for help from Fr. Julius, who he himself has almost nothing material to offer them except his prayers: “It is hard to get support or any assistance for them in Turkey, much more difficult than in other countries in Europe”.
To go back to their countries it is impossible for them, not only for the lack of money to pay the transportation. “My brothers prefer to die starving, without medical help and being humiliated, instead of going back to their homes to destroy the hopes that families have placed on them. In our own countries, they think that Europe is a land where they are going to find a better life and been able to help those who have been left in their countries. The families give out all that they have so that their child could go abroad; sometimes they borrow a big amount of money and bring themselves into debt. Going back home to admit that one has been deceived is unimaginable; better to die in misery than going back”, recounts Pascal.
“They all suffer a lot, many end up in prison. Others have tried to go to Greece with fatal results. Shortly, after arriving here in 2007, I lost some of my parishioners. I knew them, I had prayed with them. They all were drowned when the boat in which they went sank. That day I felt my heart was broken. Unfortunately, this is happening continuously” tells Father Julius.
The face a reality that is not easy for them in a country where 99.6% are Muslims. The catholic community is one of the few places where these “diaspora Africans” feel at home. Besides Mass in English on Sunday, Father Julius celebrates the African mass regularly, with its music and customs. “These meetings are a good opportunity to give them a message of hope, perseverance and encouragement. Many of them have seen strengthen their faith after suffering so many difficulties. There are rosary groups, charismatic groups. The prayer sustains us all. God is their hope”, concludes the priest.
Even though Turkey´s Christian population is barely 0,3%, Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) has supported 100 projects in Turkey in the last twenty years. A significant amount of ACN´s help has gone towards Iraqi and Syrian Refugees in the Eastern part of the country. Since 2010 ACN donated a total of €130.000,- to the Iraqi refugees, mainly via the Chaldean Church and the Salesian Fathers in Istanbul. The Salesians look after families and are particularly concerned to ensure that the children continue to receive a school education.
Aid to the Church in Need has also helped Syrian refugees in Eastern Turkey, since the Crisis in Syria began. From 2013 to 2014 ACN has donated a total of €47.000,- towards their needs.