I interviewed the head of the Children of Hope Association, here in Istanbul, today. Children of Hope is an organization, here in Istanbul, that works to help street children get off the streets, reunited with their families and integrated back into society. I have been researching this piece for the past couple of days and today was the day to put that research to good use! The man that I interviewed is named Ferat (pronounced Fer – ot) Şahin (pronounced Sha – een) and his story was simply incredible.
Şahin took over as the head of CHA approximately a year ago when the organization’s founder, Yusuf Kulca (the man I had originally planned to interview), retired. Şahin lived on the streets of Istanbul from the time that he was 7 years old until he was in his twenties. During that time he struggled with drug addiction, wound up in jails, witnessed violence and watched his street friends die from drug overdoses and violence.
When I interviewed him today, he spoke of a time when he and a friend were sleeping on the streets during the winter time and it was very cold out. When Şahin awoke, he tried to wake his friend, but his friend had died during the night from the cold. It was at that moment, said Şahin, that he “woke up”. What he meant by that was that he woke up to the way he was living and the hardships he was enduring on a daily basis. He had decided that it was time for him to try to change the circumstances of his life.
I started to think about all the different ways that I have heard people describe that moment when we “wake up” to the reality of our lives and are essentially “saved” (for lack of a better word). In my circle of friends, we call that a “moment of clarity”. Some people would call it “divine intervention”, others might describe it as a veil being lifted from their eyes. However you may describe it, Şahin had that moment when the circumstances of his life became to great to bear. Today, at the age of thirty one, he is the head of this organization, making a difference in the lives of these homeless kids, married and about to become a father. I think that is just remarkable -to have come from the dregs of society and do the work that he does now where he is really trying to make a difference in the lives of others.
Today, the future of Children of Hope seems bleak. They receive no funding or support from the government or the community. The work that CHA does is largely viewed as unimportant. The few that do appreciate what CHA is trying to accomplish are not capable of giving the kind of money that it takes to keep and organization like this running. The social workers and Doctors and Therapists that work with the organization are either paid a little or do so on a volunteer basis. All of the other members of the staff there are also volunteers. The donations that do come are usually in the form of food (some of the neighbors in the surrounding community will bring meals for the children on occasion). To top it off, in the last 6 years, Şihan has been fighting the government to keep the land on which the foundation resides as the government wants to use that land to build a shopping mall.
This interview was nothing like I expected it to be (no surprise there). First of all, I didn’t expect Ferat to be so young (he is 31 years old; two years younger than me!). Second, was the dramatic differences between the organizations I have visited in the US (my only reference point) and this one. The CHA home base is located in one of the poorer sections of Istanbul (which makes sense considering who they work with) and the buildings resemble something that you imagine seeing in a slum. A far cry from what I have seen in the states. There is also, from what I could gather, not a whole lot of structure for the residents. The basic agreement is that they can come and go as they please as long as they adhere to the agreement to not use drugs or behave in a harmful manner. Don’t get me wrong, there is a lot of working with social workers, police and doctors to ensure that these children have a fighting chance, but from what I saw, that was most likely done off of the CHA grounds. Regardless of the facilities or the way the program is or isn’t structured, the results are what are important. Here they are: In the last year that have been 16 extra special success stories where the children have been taken off the streets, been gotten off of drugs, have received therapy, and have been helped to find jobs. These 16 kids are now grown, working members of society, married, and parents themselves. You might be saying 16 doesn’t sound like much, but I am of the opinion that every little bit makes a difference. Also in the last year, CHa has helped 145 kids find jobs and Şahin has removed 745 children from the streets. Not too shabby for such a small and financially limited operation.
In this line of work, what matters is the impact that can be had on a child’s life. Şahin speaks of his experiences working at CHA as a second chance at living his own life. “Today,” said Şahin, “when I look back, I think the best thing I’ve ever done in my life was run away from home and live on the streets, so that one day I could come to [Children of Hope].”
Peace and Love