My City Istanbul | Stories of Belonging

What kind of a city do children want to build together? Young children, Syrian refugees and local Turkish children living together in Istanbul’s Tarlabaşi neighborhood told the world their answers to this question in the stories they created during the “My City Istanbul” workshop.

Fatma with her VR cardboard at the Tarlabasi Community Center, Istanbul, Turley

Of the many issues concerning both displaced communities and host countries in the current global refugee crisis, one of the most crucial is community integration and social inclusion. This is a problem that must be addressed with care and creativity.

With more people on the move today than ever in our recorded history, the global refugee crisis is posing one of the greatest humanitarian challenges of our time. A large contributing factor to the current crisis — the largest number of people on the move since World War II — is Syria’s ongoing civil war, which since its start in 2011 has created nearly 5 million refugees. Most of the refugees have fled primarily to neighboring countries and to Europe.

There are currently more than an estimated 2.7 million Syrians refugees resettled in Turkey*, making it the world’s nation with the largest community of Syrians displaced by the ongoing conflict. A majority in Turkey do not live in camps but are resettled in cities and towns**. This population requires effective solutions toward registration, accommodation, and integration and inclusion.

This latter challenge of community integration is a massive one — but discussions of integration with regard to the refugee crisis were largely absent from media and policy circles until 2016. While citizens and civil society organizations have been responsive and in many cases welcoming to refugees, a rapidly shifting policy environment, uncertain legal statuses for refugees, and strained resources have caused rising societal tensions. In this environment, refugees — especially children — are at risk for isolation, loneliness, conflict, and, in the long-term, for falling off the path toward education and livelihoods. Creative solutions are needed to reduce these risks, and to provide local receiving communities with support towards inclusion.

Katy and Oscar of VRTOV, and myself, doing a VR cardboard demo with Fozi, Muhammad, Cansel, Aynur, and Ayse

My City Istanbul: The Project

Within this context, I worked with Jeff Anderson of the U.S. Consulate in Istanbul to co-design a program with Melda Akbas at the Tarlabaşi Community Center for local and refugee children, aimed at exploring community integration and belonging through art, creativity, self-expression, technology, and collaboration.


The result is “My City Istanbul.” We designed and delivered this project to aim at integration through collaboration between refugee children and local children living in the rapidly-gentrifying and central neighborhood of Tarlabasi in Istanbul, Turkey, using creative self-expression in an exploration of their situation as co-habitants of the same city. Our international set of project partners, including the virtual reality studio VRTOV and the media production company Noya International, came together to deliver a workshop that employed virtual reality (VR), film, image, comics/graphics, dialogue, skills building, and collaborative storytelling to engage the children in the social process of creating artworks together that reflect their hopes and dreams for a shared future in the same neighborhood.

Oscar of VRTOV scanning Rima in front of our icebreaker portraits

The goals of the program are:

First, to address community inclusion and integration through the social process of collaborative media production and storytelling;

Second, to expose the children to new media technologies, including VR, by putting it directly into their hands; and

Third, to have the children tell their stories to a wider public, thereby creating a more intimate, personal, and human portrait of refugees and the communities that receive them.

The Workshop

The children, 20 all together, 10 Syrian and 10 Turkish (with one child speaking a Kurdish language) ranged in age from 8–14. Their names are Fatma, Judi, Jud, Zeynep, Ada, Nergis, Ayse, Zuhal, Gulsun, Cansel, Aynur, Muhammad, Ali, Ali Resim, Seyithan, Fozi, Sidra, Dima, Rima, Amjad, and Semira. They were selected to participate by the Community Center, for their facility with media and their prior relationship to the Center. Many of the kids went to school together already. Many of them blew us away with the level of talent and creativity they were already demonstrating.

They each brought their vast intelligence, energy, and creativity with them to work and play with us. They each rapidly demonstrated their quick wit and personalities — which you can see in their finished stories — with only a few remaining reticent throughout the process for reasons we could only guess. We were careful to frame story brainstormings and dialogue in largely positive, forward-looking terms, with only one question aimed at looking at the homes they left behind (for the Syrian children) or at putting themselves into the shoes of someone who might have to leave (the Turkish children) — and the responses to this particular question were poignant and moving, and guided our story scripts.

Over the course of three days, the children created a series of short films, images, cartoons with the original characters The Alien Astronaut and The Happiness Monkey — characters that are meant to welcome and guide you through Istanbul, and that are perhaps largely allegorical for the children’s situation.

Displaying the Children’s Stories

One outcome of the project — which we hope will be the precursor for a workshop series in other European cities facing similar issues of refugee integration — is reflected in the media and stories the kids created, and their distribution.

Seyithan filming his video.

Videos. We released 15 short videos directed by the children on the project’s Twitter account. Through a relationship with Twitter Video, several of these were distributed by Twitter. We also distributed some of them on our Facebook page, laid out the videos as their own story on Storify, and released the full set of videos edited together on Facebook to recognize the UN Summit on Refugees and Migrants.

We also released a behind-the-scenes case video on Twitter and on Facebook.

Shaarik Zafar, Jeff Anderson of the U.S. State Department enjoying the kids’ VR experience

Exhibit. Following the workshop, the youth participants presented their work at an event at Tarbalaşi Community Center, with attendees from the U.S. State Department, their families, representatives from their school and municipality, NGOs working on refugee issues, and some international and Turkish press. The children were able to display their images, cartoons, and VR experience. A second exhibit and event is currently being planned for the south of Turkey to showcase the program, and to forward discussions on integration.

Samira and Mohammad with the 3D scanner

VR. All of the images and cartoons the kids created during the workshop were combined with 3-D scans of them to form a collaboratively produced short interactive VR experience. VRTOV post-produced this into both an interactive version (for exhibit) and a web-based VR display, and created a virtual gallery of the kids’ work, along with their partially visible faces (to protect their identities), and a soundtrack of their wishes and thoughts — in English, Arabic, and Turkish — for how to build their new homes and new city.

We have released the VR experience the day of the UN Summit on Refugees and Migrants as a call to participants to remember the hopes and dreams of all children caught in this crisis, including those who have been resettled.

The Project’s Outcome

The outcome of the workshop is reflected in the stated perceptions of the children who experienced it and the strengthening of their shared community. In the words of one child participant, “Now we will be able to speak to each other. Before we didn’t know how or if we should.”

The workshop put innovation directly in the hands of refugee and local kids and grounded them in self-empowerment. It wasn’t as important to jump on the current VR wave so much for the novelty as it was important to put VR into the kids’ hands. It allowed kids to work together by using tech and creativity to build bridges. And it unleashed their imaginations about the city they currently live in together, but also led them to gently explore the impermanence of place, focusing on what they left behind (for refugee kids) or what they would have to leave behind (the local kids) to create shared empathy and to understand where they’re going together in their new community. This kind of personal engagement helps open up avenues of expression that may lead to shifts in the children’s self-perception and their ability to comprehend their circumstances. All of their stories reflect a sense of longing to belong, and a keen eye for understanding their surroundings.

The project allowed them to exhibit their work to their community and to representatives of international organizations. Working together, the children gained a sense of belonging, collaboration, and visibility with their communities in Istanbul. At the end of the process, the children expressed a newfound sense of community with each other.

This kind of community integration is vital for mutual understanding and community resilience. Through collaboration and creative storytelling, and through the exercise of learning new skills and using emerging media tools, the children were engaged to build a shared vision of what their future and their city can be.

Fozi and his VR cardboard creation

Lina Srivastava