Max Harwood (Director), Yahya Al-Abdullah (Director)

Research output: Non-traditional research outputDigital or Visual products


‘Water’ is an ethnographic documentary profiling the recent arrival of innumerable Syrian street beggars in Istanbul, Turkey. Fallout from the ongoing civil war has displaced upwards of one million Syrian refugees into Turkey alone. Though international organisations in concert with the Turkish government have established refugee camps on the Syrian-Turkish border, migration has pushed Syrians further west, across all of Anatolia.

By the winter of early 2014, large numbers of families suddenly appeared begging on the streets of central Istanbul, over a thousand kilometres from the Syrian border. In order to document the developing situation, former Aleppo native Yahya Al-Abdullah and I set out to speak to the newly arrived refugees, initially to gather interviews to raise awareness through a collaborative film.

Over three months, we sat and spoke with dozens of men, women and children. With Yahya having lived in Aleppo for most of his life, he immediately recognised the identity of the majority of Istanbul’s beggars as native Syrian Domari.

A distinct ethnicity and nomadic Kurdish/Turkic community, Syria's Domari (or Kurbaht) are amongst the country's poorest people. Traditionally following the harvest season, the Domari travel in large families, passing from village to village, playing music and providing entertainment at weddings in exchange for food and supplies for the winter - a social and economic pattern that has existed for centuries. In dense urban environments like Aleppo and Damascus, they are known to sell basic wares and benefit from zakat (alms giving) around mosques and other holy places.

Like millions of others, the Domari were forced to leave Syria as the country spiraled out of control, in a war that has killed nearly 200,000 people and displaced over 4 million. After we started filming, it became clear that almost all the Syrians we spoke with were newly arrived in Istanbul against their will - having been ‘told’ to make the arduous journey overland, with promises of comfort, safety and job security.

What awaited them, however, was forced street begging in central Istanbul, and communal living in rundown slums that were described as ‘hotels’ run at exorbitant rates by apparent human traffickers. Yahya was shocked to realise that almost everyone we spoke to hinted at, or specifically testified to being forced to beg in a city they had never imagined they would ever visit.

After a summer of filming, what emerged was contrary to the simplistic narrative of Istanbul's new arrivals. Not the product of a failing humanitarian response, Istanbul's Syrian beggars are the result of an extremely vulnerable community disoriented by war, displaced in an already crowded megapolis. Our film; ‘Water’, is the result of one particular encounter with a small family living in Kucuk Pazar, just minutes from Istanbul’s old city. We were granted access to the family’s daily routine, and in a single afternoon captured their experiences and survival in often overwhelming Istanbul.

‘Water’ attempts to show both the extreme complexity of the ongoing Syrian refugee crisis and its demographics, whilst trying to humanise a largely faceless catastrophe of unimaginable proportion.
Original languageEnglish
Media of outputFilm
Size20 minutes
Publication statusPublished - 2016


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