The pandemic has changed many things in our lives and is still continuing to do so. What would you do if you had trouble accessing even basic services, lost your job, did not have accommodation and on top of it all got sick? Semih Öztürk from Support to Life Istanbul tells us what supporting lives mean for a humanitarian worker in times of the COVID-19 pandemic.

My name is Semih Öztürk. I am a social worker, and my job is the purpose of my life. I have worked at various non-governmental institutions and in different cities. For almost two years,  I have been working at the Istanbul Support to Life House, a community center in Küçükçekmece. As implementing partner of the Germany-based humanitarian aid organization Diakonie Katastrophenhilfe, our main objective is to improve the living standards of refugees, ensure their access to rights and services and support their active participation in the community. These activities are financed by European Union Humanitarian Aid. We follow up on individual cases with counseling, information, awareness sessions, workshops, advocacy and mobile protection activities to support our counselees’ access to basic rights and services.

The COVID-19 pandemic is one of the biggest disasters of the 21st century. It is a menace to not just human health but also psychological, social and economic integrity. Unfortunately, it has hit refugees who are an already vulnerable group the hardest. We witness it daily in the field. For instance, one of our counselees without refugee status had a number of chronic health problems and was working illegally - let’s call her Leyla. During the pandemic,  Leyla lost her job, then her house because she was unable to pay the rent. She couldn’t access health services even though she urgently needed regular dialysis.  Leyla’s story is not an exception. Thousands of people are in a similar position, but they all have one thing in common: they arestruggling to make ends meet and make it through the pandemic.


Requests for support from our association skyrocketed when the Coronavirus reached Turkey. People were unable to even meet their most basic needs such as food, accommodation, and hygiene. Our specialized staff looked into every case and distributed food and hygiene materials to hundreds of homes in need.

Because of the pandemic, people are facing more risks. For instance, when schools closed, thousands of children couldn’t participate in distance learning because they had no television, internet, or computers. Some children were driven to illegal employment - we saw that the age of working children decreased, with kids as young as 10 working. We also received more requests for support from people who experienced gender-based violence. Economic impasses resulted in many people losing their homes. But for me, the biggest challenge was that as a team, we worked overtime and sacrificed our private lives when necessary in order to respond to all demands. Still, the need was so great that it never felt like what we could offer was enough.


As the pandemic continued, we adapted to the ‘new normal’. We put preventive measures in place to keep our staff and the people who come to us for help safe and healthy. It was difficult to keep that distance with people who were unable to meet their own needs, who needed us to stand by them, support them, empower them. If we go back to Leyla, after spending a few days in the hospital for her kidney condition, Leyla reached out to us.  She had difficulty walking. At the same time, she needed accommodation, apply for protection, and access dialysis treatment. There was an NGO that could help her with accommodation, but for her to check into their center, they requested aCOVID-19 test which Leyla couldn’t afford. When she was discharged from the hospital, we helped her get the test, and set her up for the night until she received the results The following day, we brought her to the accommodation center; supported her to have a legal status which ensured she could access health services for dialysis treatment.

A brief moment like this, an ordinary human voice can present you with that hope and faith. Just like witnessing the joy of children when we deliver food-hygiene sets to their homes… Seeing that we have a positive impact on people’s lives motivates us to try and fight more in the face of challenges.

Semih Öztürk
Support to Life Social Worker / Istanbul


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