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Stitching a life

Mouneer Kalthoum

From Aleppo, Syria

now in Istanbul, Turkey

Left Syria January 2013

Mouneer Kalthoum sits at a sewing machine in a basement workshop, stitching together pieces of green fabric decorated with Minnie Mouse. Eleven hours a day, he and 20 other Syrian refugees push acres of cloth through the clattering machines.

Until the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad bombed and destroyed his house in Aleppo, Kalthoum was a general contractor who built schools and hospitals. He employed 80 people and brought home about $60,000 a year.

Now Kalthoum earns $350 a month — and he pays $300 of that in rent for the three-room apartment he and his wife and four children share with his sister’s family — 11 people total.

He is 34, but his sideburns and his hair are tinged with gray. “After two years of this, I look older,” he says with a weak smile, pulling on a cigarette.

Most of the nearly 700,000 Syrian refugees living in Turkey are clustered along the border. But more than two years into the war, the refugees are increasingly spreading out. Thousands have settled into the sprawl of Istanbul, more than 700 miles from the border.

Kalthoum arrived in January. Because of heavy fighting, he and his family were forced to flee their home in Aleppo more than a year ago. They moved to a small village where his wife’s father lives. Then the government shelled that village late last year and they were forced to move again.

His wife was eight months pregnant, so she and their three children went to stay with other relatives in Latakia, a Syrian city with a good hospital.

Kalthoum went ahead to Turkey to try to build the family a new life. He hitched a ride to the border in a car with rebel fighters, then made the 15-hour bus ride to Istanbul. He has an uncle here who promised that there was work for Syrians.

He had about $2,000 in cash in his pocket, but the rest of his money is stuck in a bank account that he cannot reach. He said he had about $40,000 invested in projects that he was working on, but it is all gone.

“It’s true I lost everything, but I can compensate by hard work,” he says. “I came here for my children’s future. I started from zero, and I can start again from zero.”

Mohammad Abboud gave him the chance. Abboud works for a wealthy Syrian businessman who owns the workshop where Kalthoum sews, as well as two others in the same neighborhood that employ dozens of Syrian men.

Abboud says Kalthoum’s shop produces 10,000 pieces of clothing a month that are exported to Egypt, Iraq, Tunisia and Morocco. He says Turkish workers are generally paid more than twice what the Syrians earn.

That has led to complaints that Syrian workers are taking Turkish jobs, as well as fears that Syrians are being exploited. Abboud says his boss is merely trying to offer Syrian refugees a fresh start.

Mouneer Kalthoum, his wife, Sanaa Dadoa, and their four children share a small apartment with his sister and her four children in Istanbul.

“We want to show the Turks that we are here not just to take their money but to work,” Abboud says. “We are producers, not consumers.”

The workshop is on a side street in a quiet Istanbul neighborhood that is filled with Syrians. Children speak Arabic as they kick soccer balls around in the street, and Syrian women walk along with bags of groceries.

Down a long flight of concrete stairs, 14 sewing machines fill a basement room with whitewashed walls. Fluorescent lights hang by long wires from the high ceilings. A few couches are scattered in one corner, where some of the workers sleep.

A huge central table is covered with bundles of cotton cloth and fleece, ready to be stitched. Syrian pop music blasts from a boombox, and a few paintings of cheerful landscapes hang slightly askew on the walls. Everyone smokes.

Many of the Syrian men who work here have university degrees and had prosperous jobs in Syria. Kalthoum studied electrical engineering in school.

“My life doesn’t exist anymore,” he says. “My future is lost, but I am worried about my children’s future. I feel like I can do nothing for them, and it’s awful.”

Every day, about 3,000 Syrians leave the country.

Since you started reading, roughly ## Syrians have left the country.