Refugees and the unconscious integration of sustainability: life of a refugee living in Türkiye in the late 1990s

Due to ongoing conflicts, wars, and political tensions that are unjustly imposed on innocent civilians, the number of refugees in the world is constantly increasing. The UNHCR has recorded a total of 103 million people worldwide having fled their countries or displaced in their countries due to violence, persecution and violations against human rights caused by war or conflicts (UNHCR, 2023b). Furthermore, around 22% of the world’s refugees live in refugee camps, either planned or self-settled camps, which are meant to help displaced people by providing initial services such as water, food, and shelter. Regarding planned camps, it is the UNHCR and the IOM (international organization for migration) that are the ones primarily responsible for organizing, coordinating, protecting, and managing these camps (UNHCR, 2023a). Despite the overwhelming number of refugees who are forced to live in these camps, the principles of sustainability have not been incorporated by these organisations (Wardeh & Marques, 2021). The sustainability development goals (SDGs) were introduced in 2015, which included ending poverty, remove inequality, and reverse or stopping the impacts of climate change by 2030 (United Nations, 2023). It is interesting to note that refugees have often implemented several sustainability principles to ensure a survivable quality of life without realizing it. To further delve into this issue, I have interviewed a refugee family, specifically the mother, to gain insight into the sustainability practices refugees have done and to better understand what its like to be a refugee with limited access to necessary resources.

What challenges do refugees face and how are they adopting sustainable practices to ensure a certain quality of life?

“I was always worried, always anxious, always tired but I had to keep on going for them” these were the words of a refugee that will be referred to as “the mother” (Anonymous, personal communication, 20.April 2023). She was a refugee for 8 months with her family in 1998 in Türkiye after escaping the harsh tyranny of Saddam Hussein reign from 1979-2003 in Iraq (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2023). They faced numerous difficulties in Türkiye from lack of resources. The mother and her family had to adopt several practices that later can be considered sustainable practices to ensure that they could survive until they got placed in another country by the UN.    

Refugees have often limited resources, such as clean water. The UNHCR are aiming to provide at least 20 litres of water per day to every person, but since 2020 has only managed to reach this goal by 43% (UN Refugee Agency, 2020). This means that there are several million people out there who do not have enough water. In the mother’s case, the water flow was very weak where she lived, and she was concerned that it would stop. To conserve their water consumption and save as much as possible, they could only shower once a week, for example, or had to put out containers that could gather water when it was raining to use for drinking and other purposes. Food is also challenging to obtain at times, as according to the UN, 1 in 10 people still suffer from hunger, and around 1 in 3 lack regular access to food. The mother shares her thoughts on this: “After becoming registered with the UN, they would give us 150 dollars a month. We were a family of 5, with one new-born and 2 small children. It was never enough. My husband couldn’t work due to health issues, and I had to take care of the children.” The reality that this family faced was living on 5 dollars a day, 1 dollar for each person. According to The World Bank, the international poverty line at the time was $1.90 a day. They never had enough food, so the mother would walk to the food distribution centres set up by the Turkish government for the poor to get food she could take home for the family. She would also ensure that with the same food she brought, they would be able to eat dinner and supper at home. She had to do this every day to conserve their food consumption and ensure the family had enough food to survive. The mother also tried to grow food. She once found planting pots that people had thrown out and got some dirt from her surroundings to plant parsley and basil. It wasn’t a lot, but it helped them get more greens in their diet to improve their health.

Access to healthcare was almost impossible due to lengthy processes and geographical location. Therefore, the mother had to resort to home remedies for simple illnesses such as headaches and stomach-aches. She used the herbs she had planted to make teas for headaches and cinnamon to alleviate stomach aches. All of this was done using the natural resources at hand. Once, her son was badly injured and had a large scrape on his stomach. With no access to healthcare, the mother’s husband thought of applying soap that had been created by the local community to the wound to reduce the possibility of infection. To improve their mental health, the family would also go out for walks to the parks and let the children play with others.

Due to having limited resources and a new-born baby, the mother had to buy diapers. She was able to buy 1 pack containing around 45 diapers a month. She tried to minimise the waste of the diapers as much as possible and therefore also tried to potty train the new-born as quickly as possible, managing this after only around six months.

The community in which they lived was the greatest source of help for the mother and her family. They received a lot of assistance from the community, including food and clothing to help them get through the seasons. If there were people who were unable to walk to the food centers, the community would drive to them and deliver food. They would all help each other out, even in times of crisis, sharing resources and teaching each other skills like growing food or making tools from their surroundings. The mother recounted a time when her newborn baby almost died if it weren’t for the help of an old lady. The baby was running a high fever and had become limp in the mother’s arms. In her distress, the old lady took the baby and placed her under ice-cold water that she had been storing, which helped the baby regain consciousness. The old lady had learned this from local practices in her hometown. This is how the people in the community would assist each other, providing necessities and sharing knowledge to maintain a survivable life.

To conclude, refugees face many difficulties when escaping their countries, such as the physical conditions of the places they arrive at, lack of or limited access to necessary resources such as clean water, hygiene, and food, bad shelters, and poor access to medical care. To make up for these shortcomings, many refugees have had to change their lifestyles to ensure a certain quality of life. All these changes, although they may not be conscious actions, are all sustainable practices. The practices include consuming less water, reducing waste, recycling clothes, making use of local resources such as planting herbs, and reusing pots that people have thrown away. Communities help each other by sharing knowledge and support. Although unconscious, the practices that all these refugees have done and still do today contribute to a more sustainable way of life that people globally should also incorporate into their own lives. Refugees show people worldwide how to make use of the limited resources they have at hand and how it is possible to still be able to sustainably live on. As they take these teachings with them in their new lives and continue these practices, they might be one of the biggest supporters of sustainability in everyday life practices.

Zeineb Al-Bader
Zeineb Al-Bader
My name is Zeineb Samim Al-Bader. I was born and raised in Norway but ethnically from Iraq. Currently I am a graduate student taking a Joint MBA degree (ASEAN Master of sustainability management) from University of Agder and Gadjah Mada University.