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A crowd of people stand outside a bright orange building.

Photo by Lisa Gilman

  • YOLO Art Center and Café: Art, Culture, and Belonging for Syrian Refugees in Türkiye

    My friend Alaa Alkatib and I joined the crowd of mostly Arabic speakers on May 15, 2022, on a windy, narrow bustling street in the Balat neighborhood of Istanbul. We waited to enter the grand opening of the YOLO Art Center, a new cultural center and café run by young Syrian migrants. Alaa smoked while he chatted in Arabic with a Syrian friend. A businessman came out of the small coffeehouse behind us uttering something angrily in Turkish. Alaa responded, also in Turkish. After a short exchange, the man’s tone changed. He went inside his café and returned a few minutes later, offering us glasses of tea.

    Bayan Agha and Jihad Bakr, the Syrian founders of YOLO, came to Türkiye during the early years of the civil war in Syria—which started March 15, 2011, and continues today—when they were in their early twenties. They did not know how long the war would last or whether they could ever return. They have now settled as foreigners in a neighboring country that has welcomed Syrian refugees with ambivalence.

    The couple had longed for a place where young people, like them, who shared the trauma of war and displacement, could come together and “share things other than the war, other than the pain.” They dreamed of creating a place in Istanbul where young Arabic speakers, especially artists, could gather and belong.

    A small crowd of people poses in the entryway of the cafe, many giving peace signs or hang loose.
    People gathered in front of Yolo Art Center and Café.
    Photo by Lisa Gilman

    That day in May was the grand opening, the culmination of years of saving, planning, and working.

    Alaa, a Syrian oud musician, came to Türkiye in 2015. Though he is professionally trained in a Syrian conservatory, as a Syrian and a foreigner, he struggles to make a living as a musician in Türkiye, or even find opportunities to perform. While we sipped our tea, he explained to me that the Turkish businessman had asked him why they were in his country and didn’t return home.

    Although millions of Syrians live in Türkiye legally, their lives are precarious. The Turkish government grants Syrians who left after the civil war began temporary protection, a status given to people forced to leave their country and who cannot safely return. The status allows them to remain in Türkiye, work, and pursue education. Though they are not technically “refugees,” I use the word in a more general sense to refer to people who have had to flee their home country and seek refuge in a foreign one.

    The government assigns migrants to live in designated cities. They risk arrest, or even deportation, should they be found in other locales. Their assigned cities often do not meet refugees’ economic, social, or cultural needs, so some choose to travel or move without authorization. It had been a bad week for Syrians the week of the center’s opening. The police were cracking down, checking the documents of Arabic speakers, arresting them, or sending them back to their assigned regions. The government had also informed thousands who had been on a path to citizenship that the process had been halted, with no explanation about why or what to expect in the future. Many Arabic speakers were too scared to leave their homes, which left the streets of Balat mostly quiet on that Sunday afternoon.

    A man shakes the hang of a woman in an orange dress, matching the orange building behind them. Others stand and sit around them.
    Bayan Agha greets people on the center’s opening day.
    Photo by Lisa Gilman

    Yet the excitement shared by the young people clustered in front of YOLO was palpable. The bright two-story orange building with blue trim that interrupted the relative dullness of the rest of the street promised something they craved. Bayan greeted us with a warm smile as we entered the chatter-filled building.

    Young people sipped coffee and fruit juices, seated on wooden furniture surrounded by brightly painted walls and plants hanging overhead, decorated by Bayan who is trained as an architect. We made our way into the crowded basement for the dramatic percussive improvisations of Omar Alkilani, a Syrian guitarist and the founder and manager of Refugee Guitars Orchestra. His performance was part of a five-hour opening day program.

    I was in Türkiye for a few weeks working on a global book project on arts initiatives by “refugees,” for “refugees.” I had hoped to interview Bayan and Jihad while I was in the country, but I got COVID and had to quarantine until I could return home to the Washington, D.C., area where I teach folklore at George Mason University. I followed up with Bayan and interviewed her remotely on August 31, 2023.


    Thirty-four-year-old Bayan is from Aleppo, Syria. She was studying architecture when the war began. Her parents were the first in her family to come to Türkiye, but she waited until 2013 after she graduated. At first, she lived in the city of Bursa where she was assigned, but she was unable to work in her field because of government restrictions. The only opportunities for people with her training were on the black market, where the pay was low and there “was no future at all.” She was frustrated. “I love architecture a lot,” but she had to give it up.

    After three years in Bursa, Bayan took a risk and moved to Istanbul where she was not authorized to live. Keeping a low profile, she worked as a social worker for almost two years and then for a TV station. The station eventually provided her with a journalist card, which allowed her to be in different parts of the country, including Istanbul. With this increased freedom, she created her own business, a casting agency for Arabic-speaking people.

    A man and a woman work on a laptop at a small cafe table.
    Jihad Bakr and Bayan Agha
    Photo by Lisa Gilman

    Though she enjoyed her work, Bayan explained that she and Jihad wanted to do “something helpful.” There are neighborhoods in Istanbul where large numbers of Arabic-speaking immigrants live, and there are Syrian restaurants, businesses, and faith-based organizations. But there was no place “supporting art and culture” or for more secularly oriented young Arabic-speaking people to gather. Their vision of building community was a place where others like them could speak Arabic and create and share art in their own language in a safe space.

    “Language is the most important way that we communicate,” Bayan claimed. “If you are not communicating in your native language, how can you express yourself?”

    Financing the project was near impossible. The couple applied for funding from “many, many, many organizations” to no avail. Bayan thinks that people may have gotten “bored of refugees, especially the Syrians” since the war has dragged on for so many years. Determined, the couple each worked multiple jobs and used all their savings, fully aware that the project was a risk. But Bayan said, “we knew this is what we wanted.” After all, they had already lost everything when they left Syria. If they lost their savings, “we can start from zero again. We are still young.”

    In 2016, the Turkish government invited Syrians who had professional degrees to apply for citizenship. With Bayan’s architecture degree, and since both her parents are doctors, the family qualified, and they applied together. They waited and waited. At some points, Bayan said they were hopeless because their “future was not clear at all.”

    After six years, the family finally obtained citizenship, which gave Bayan the confidence to start YOLO. Without citizenship, her situation was precarious: “Today we are in Türkiye, but tomorrow no one knows where we might be.” Investing in a project was a financial risk because she did not know how long she would be allowed to stay in the country. “It’s dangerous to spend all my savings in a country that I don’t feel safe. But after I took citizenship, I said, ‘okay, now I can start.’”

    A person playing guitar and another singing on stage before a crowd.
    Omar Alkilani (left) performs at the center’s opening.
    Photo by Lisa Gilman

    The three-story center is ambitious. “We are doing lots of things,” Bayan explains. “Actually, we are changing almost every week.” They are trying to create a place where lots of different people and activities fit, and “it’s very hard to find a space for everyone.” Its mission is “to democratize access to the arts” and create an inclusive environment.

    At first, the couple had imagined a café with a stage. But they were most concerned that there was no place for emerging Arabic-speaking artists to develop, so they incorporated workshops and open-mic nights into their vision. After more reflecting, they realized that a place to just be together and talk was also important.

    The café on the main floor, which the founders think of as a salon, is a place for people to gather and connect. Though it has small and large tables for groups of different sizes, the goal is for people to talk across tables and across the room. Upstairs, the YOLO Training Center is dedicated to classes, workshops, and other structured activities. The basement, YOLO Stage, is for scheduled performances, including music, comedy, open mic nights, and discussion sessions. The large room with a stage can accommodate seventy people seated or one hundred standing.

    In the year and a half since it opened, Bayan and Jihad have organized activities across the three spaces: therapy sessions (including drama, drawing, and family constellation), open discussions, game nights, chess tournaments, karaoke, open mics and jam sessions, live musical performances and competitions, stand-up comedy open mics and competitions, language lessons, guitar lessons, and more. They have also hosted international artists. Because there are no venues for Arabic-language stand-up in Istanbul and few in the wider region, YOLO’s stand-up comedy has become “somehow famous” and is attracting people from both within and outside of Türkiye.

    A person behind a counter, wearing a black latex glove, handles coffee mugs Behind them, neat rows of glasses and canisters on shelves.
    Touf, YOLO’s first barista
    Photo by Bayan Aghar
    A person smiles, holding a microphone close to their mouth.
    Sico performs stand-up comedy.
    Photo by Bayan Aghar

    At YOLO, the founders aim to transcend differences across religion, gender, and sexuality. Bayan explained that among Arabic speakers, there tend to be tensions between those who are more religious and those who are more secular. People often judge each other based on “their clothing, way of talking, or whatever small things.”

    So the atmosphere of safety and inclusivity that Bayan and Jihad have created is “very, very, very rare,” she says. “No one is feeling different. Whatever your religion is, it’s not important here at YOLO. Or whatever your thoughts are, everyone feels free and feels comfortable to have a conversation and to hear the other side. Many of them have become friends. They are sitting at the same table, or in the same show, or in the same training.”

    Faith is closely tied to gender and sexuality and intertwined with specifications about women’s dress and restrictions on women’s expression in spaces where men are present. Bayan personally takes the responsibility to eliminate gender or religious discrimination or divisions. At YOLO, “it’s not allowed for people to feel this separation.” It’s a lot of work. “I’m always in the place. I’m always on the café floor. I’m the one who is responsible. I’m trying to give women their space and the opportunity for them to be involved.”

    They have held sensitive events, like discussions about feminism in Arab countries or violence against LGBTQ+ people. Bayan always attends. “Even if there is a leader for the session or a specialist, I always sit during the whole session because the conversation might go to something like gendering or whatever. I always cut into the conversation and put things back in line.” Patrons now know that prejudicial perspectives are not tolerated. People may complain among themselves, but “out loud, they cannot say anything because I’m always there.” She monitors what transpires and lets people know if they do something that is not welcome.

    In a brighty lit room, people sit in a semicircle watching a Zoom session on a projection screen.
    Filmmaking workshop for Afghan residents at YOLO Art Center.
    Photo by Bayan Aghar

    The YOLO Art Center and Café is explicitly welcoming of queer people. When she worked as a social worker, Bayan met LGBTQ+ migrants. It was a new experience for her. She learned “how they are thinking and the things they are facing.” After YOLO opened, she realized that many of their clientele might be prejudiced against LGBTQ+ people. So, Bayan made it a point to “invite them on crowded days.”

    Some of their dress or gender expressions made it obvious that the guests “are belonging to the LGBTQ community.” The first time, about eight came, and their “outfits were strange for the others.” Some of their regular clientele stared and seemed shocked and then looked to her to see how she would respond. But when they saw that she was warm and welcoming, “they said, okay, she is supporting them. She didn’t have any reaction. She sat with them talking. So everyone after that, even those who seemed uncomfortable, they start to talk to them also.” She remembered that at first, they were curious and approached the guests as if they were different, but then it “became normal here, even for conservative people. They were sitting next to a gay person, and it was normal.”

    On February 6, 2023, the earthquake along the Turkish and Syrian border destroyed cities and killed tens of thousands. Syrians on either side of the border, most of whom were already displaced by war, once again lost homes, family members, neighbors, friends, and livelihoods. Many survivors had to leave the region because their new homes crumbled. New traumas compounded existing layers.

    After the earthquake, YOLO increased its focus on therapeutic activities and social support. At the time of our interview, they offered group therapy sessions twice a week with two different providers.

    I asked Bayan how YOLO has been received by their neighbors, Turkish business owners and residents. “At the beginning, it was very, very, very hard,” and they did not always feel physically safe because of the anti-Syrian and anti-Arabic sentiments rampant in the country. Relations have since improved. It helps that Bayan speaks Turkish and can explain to their neighbors what they are doing. They also serve their neighbors tea and invite them to events. She feels that the neighbors now understand what they are doing and have become more accepting.

    Bayan’s explanation reminded me of the incident between the café owner and Alaa on opening day. Alaa is fluent in Turkish and had calmly talked to the man and explained his situation rather than responding with equal anger. I interpreted the tea as a peace offering.

    A crowd of people in the street ouside a row of businesses.
    Turkish men seated at café across the street from YOLO Art Center.
    Photo by Lisa Gilman

    Türkiye’s political situation is volatile, and politicians have fueled anti-Syrian sentiments in their rhetoric and election campaigns. Leading up to the presidential election in May 2022, Bayan described signs in the street with slogans like, “We don’t want Syrians here anymore.” The government violated international law when they deported Syrians back to northern Syria in 2022, and it has threatened to deport a million more, according to Human Rights Watch. During the election, Bayan and Jihad became afraid to host events because many Syrians were afraid to leave their homes. Walking to the center, standing outside to smoke, or just being together in a public space speaking Arabic was dangerous.

    She is adamant, however, that YOLO is separate from politics. “Being a refugee is not easy. We are always vulnerable, wherever we are.” Refugees are impacted by politics, but engaging in the politics of a foreign country has its risks. She prefers to focus on the positive and engage in a project intended to foster discussion, inclusivity, artistic expression, and belonging.

    The future of YOLO is unknown. Though its services, activities, and community are vital for young Syrians and other foreign artists in Istanbul, Bayan and Jihad are struggling to keep it open. At the beginning of 2024, they anticipate seventy percent rent and fifty percent salary increases, and they worry that they will be forced to shut down.

    The center is named for the English expression “you only live once.” Bayan elaborated, “You only have one chance to live, so make every moment count by being yourself and reflecting on your essence.” Bayan and Jihad take advantage of every moment by improving the opportunities for themselves and other young Arabic speakers whose lives are driven by forces outside their control. They hope others will recognize the value of their mission and support what they are creating at YOLO, so that they can continue to pursue its “bold vision for the future—where art is accessible to all and serves as a catalyst for positive change.”

    Lisa Gilman is professor of folklore and English at George Mason University and editor-in-chief of the Journal of American Folklore. This essay is part of a larger project on arts initiatives by refugees for refugees.

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