Istanbul’s Hobbit House: recycled refuge where children are in charge – The Guardian

Hidden in the back streets of old Istanbul, the Hobbit House is no ordinary children’s centre. For a start, the children are in charge. Secondly, many are refugees from the war in Syria. Thirdly, the entire three-storey building has been renovated using recycled material.

“Here they protect the children from the bad hearts outside,” says seven-year-old Perevan, president for the month.

“They” are Murat and Sinem Asilcan, a Turkish couple who spent seven months renovating the building and who opened it a year and a half ago to provide an outlet, a place to read and eat and find clothes, for disadvantaged children in Istanbul’s Balat and Fener neighbourhoods.

House



Sinem Asilcan, with children at the Hobbit House Photograph: Kareem Shaheen for the Guardian

Many Syrian families live up the hill from the area, once home to Turkey’s Armenian, Jewish and Greek communities, whose touch still graces the homes and antique shops and the nearby cathedral, the seat of the Greek Orthodox patriarchate in Constantinople.

Turkey hosts more than 3 million refugees who fled the war across the border in Syria. Children selling flowers and tissues are a common sight on the streets of Istanbul.

When they set up the house, the Asilcans decided to refurbish it entirely using recycled material as a way of instilling the value of sustainability in the children. Except they do not see it that way.

“We don’t teach them anything, they’re teaching us,” Sinem said. “Children show men and women how we should live our life because they are pure, they are visual, they understand sharing more than we do.”

Hobbit House, Istanbul



Inside the Hobbit House, which takes in on average 100 children a day. Photograph: Kareem Shaheen for the Guardian

The children appoint three presidents who are tasked with deciding which cultural activities to pursue, such as theatre, music and readings, and where their next cultural tours are going to be.

They study Turkish and, during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, they send out children’s brigades that visit nearby homes and inspect fridges to see if everyone has enough food for the week.

Families in the neighbourhood have taken to the house, often volunteering to cook for the children or sending pastries and homemade food so they can have lunch at school, while some donate extra clothes and books.

The only rule appears to be that the children aren’t supposed to discuss where they’re from, because the couple wants to ingratiate a feeling of community rather than highlight differences in identity.

Around 100 children a day visit the house. Sinem said some came to them with stories of abuse and assault, confiding in them as their caretakers.

The centre does not have a regular source of income but instead relies on donations that go towards providing the children with books, clothes and other school materials. The Hobbit House hosts regular breakfasts to encourage people to donate and learn about the community.

“Don’t waste your stuff, send it to us in Istanbul,” said Murat. “If you have too many books, send them to us, we want them, and we want you.

“Keep calm and send books, and the other things you don’t use in your life, and we will share them with the children, and we will carry your favour forward.”

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