The Embrace Life restaurant is tucked away on a side street in Istanbul’s central Beyoglu district. A tiny place, it serves the usual fare of soups, stuffed vegetables and schnitzels to customers until 6pm every evening – after which all food is free for the city’s homeless.
Staffed largely by volunteers, the restaurant also offers its homeless patrons psychological support and help finding jobs. Celebrity chefs regularly run cooking workshops there and there are plans to expand services to include a new facility with showers and laundry services.
The project is the brainchild of Ayşe Tükrükçü, a prominent social activist who says that her own traumatic upbringing, full of sexual violence and exploitation, has led her to dedicate her life to helping society’s most marginalized people.
“If you’ve ever been hungry, you know what it’s like to be hungry,” Tükrükçü said. “If you’re ever left to live on the street, you know what it’s like to be homeless, to be cast out of society. I’ve been homeless many times and all I want is to live like a human being.”
Tükrükçü, now 52, was born in Gaziantep. At the age of nine, she was raped by an uncle, and endured a childhood full of sexual abuse and violence. She married in her early 20s, only to be sexually trafficked by her husband, who sold her to a brothel when she was 26.
In 1997, Tükrükçü finally managed to leave but was left impoverished and homeless. Mor Çatı, a prominent women’s shelter foundation, applied for a housing allowance on her behalf, but the request was rejected.
Tükrükçü soon discovered that her past as a sex worker made it even harder to find accommodation, a problem exacerbated when she started to campaign for the rights of other vulnerable women.
Nonetheless, she continued to highlight the poor working conditions at many of the city’s brothels, as well as the lack of social security for sex workers despite them paying tax on their income. Tükrükçü argued that government lapses in oversight meant that children were often found working in unlicensed brothels.
She would sometimes return home to find her belongings on the street when landlords found out about her campaigning.
“There are 63 brothels in Turkey, they all have terrible work conditions,” she explained. “My fault was to speak out about the government’s mistakes.”
She also began to volunteer distributing soup to homeless people in Gezi park near the city’s iconic Taksim Square.
Tükrükçü, who even ran for parliament in 2007 to raise awareness on these issues, has accused the government of abandoning the homeless.
She recalled one public row with Ahmet Misbah Demircan, an official in Istanbul with the ruling Justice and Development party (AKP).
“I told him the situation, what we’d been doing, and he said ‘May Allah help the homeless,’” she said. “So I told him, ‘May Allah help you, at least they have me as a sister, who do you have? You’ll leave but we’ll stay and be here for them.’”
Tükrükçü founded the Embrace Life Foundation in 2017 with the goal of helping the homeless regardless of political belief, religion, race and gender.
According to Şefkat-Der, an anti-poverty advocacy group, there were 70,000 people – 7,000 in Istanbul alone – living on the streets in Turkey in 2018.
Şefkat-Der volunteer Cemil Güler said the idea behind the soup distribution and the restaurant was to help the city’s homeless gain a measure of control over their lives.
“Their marginalisation from society pushed them to crime,” he said. “We wanted to change that, we thought these people needed to get a grip on life. That’s why we’re here.”
That is exactly what happened to Embrace Life cook Serkan Yerli, who met Tükrükçü after years on the streets.
“For 14 years I sat at a corner waiting for death,” he recalled. “I fell asleep at the same place every night, hoping to wake up in the afterlife.”
“I met Miss Ayşe when they were distributing soup,” Yerli continued. “My life changed when I met the people here. I started to work. I learned how to be strong in the face of life and renewed my faith in people.”
“Miss Ayşe became my second world,” he added. “She was the first amongst the people who got me back on my feet psychologically. She always pulled me back up when I felt like giving up.”
Due to limited resources, the restaurant can only offer a few jobs. There has been little assistance from the government, whose support for the homeless is limited to opening up spaces for them to stay in winter and offering some food. The government’s abandonment is a symbol of broader polarisation in the country, where many factions are left to fend for themselves.
Many homeless citizens are also unable to vote because they don’t have a permanent place of residence, further limiting politicians’ interest.
Can Niyazi Bad, a volunteer at the restaurant, said local authorities had done little to try and solve the problem of homelessness.
“We go to the municipality to say there are homeless people here, they tell us that they don’t have any homeless people registered,” Bad said, adding that meetings with the Istanbul and Beyoglu municipalities had yielded no results.
Still, despite being ignored by the government, Embrace Life has inspired others to dedicate their life to the city’s homeless.
Pınar Tur, a restaurant employee, moved back to Istanbul from Spain where she had been studying gastronomy to help at Tükrükçü’s restaurant.
“After I came here, my career plans changed, my outlook on life changed,” she said. “You come together for the same cause with people that you maybe wouldn’t even sit at the same table with. This is as real as it gets.”