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Virus spreads anxiety among Istanbul's African migrants

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Istanbul (AFP)

With a list of names in his hand, Alfa Barrie is on the phone to an African migrant, one of Istanbul's undocumented workers looking for help as the coronavirus pandemic hits Turkey's largest city.

"Where is the house? Send me the location. I am coming," he says.

Barrie's three-member team, works with a voluntary group called Tarlabasi Solidarity Network which normally helps drug addicts and the homeless but has now redirected its attention to migrants, mostly Africans, to protect them against the spread of the coronavirus in Turkey.

"We call the head of the house. They come down to pick the package. We give them shopping cards, hand sanitisers, masks and gloves," Barrie said.

Because of the social distancing rules Barrie, from Sierra Leone in west Africa, does not go inside the homes. Instead, he hands the aid bags over outside their apartment building.

Wearing face masks, the group tours Istanbul neighbourhoods densely populated by African migrants in a car loaded with aid packages, visiting at least 300 addresses per day.

"We have close to 5,000 beneficiaries on our list waiting for help. We have completed almost 25 percent of it," Muhammed Siddik of the Tarlabasi Solidarity Network told AFP.

The network operates with donations from the volunteers as well as from manufacturers.

Some 80,000 African migrants from Nigeria, Senegal, Guinea and elsewhere -- most of them undocumented-- live in Istanbul, according to the network.

Officials say the city of 16 million people has recorded almost half of the nearly 80,000 coronavirus cases nationwide. A reported 1,769 people have died of the virus in Turkey.

- 'How to survive?'-

Idriss Camara from Sierra Leone comes down from his building in the Aksaray neighbourhood, where diverse migrant groups including Syrians live, to pick up the aid package.

The voluntary group also provides instructions about the deadly virus.

"All instructions are in here, so you can follow in both French and English," Yasir, a Turkish volunteer with the Tarlabasi Solidarity Network, tells the group of Africans in the street before he hands them the leaflets.

"There's a Whatsapp number you can call or send message when you feel sick or your friends are sick. You can call immediately this number and we'll try to help you," he says.

Idriss looks happy to get his aid package but he is worried how long he can continue.

"Imagine we are in a pandemic. You know what's important for you to be in a pandemic, you need a lot of things for life to go on," he told AFP.

"We are foreigners, we are immigrants ... We are actually looking to the government at least to take care of our own interests," he said.

Idriss lost his job in the textile business after the coronavirus struck the job market.

"I am not working. Everything is shut down. How could I survive?" he said desperately.

- 'Future tough'-

Siddik of the Tarlabasi Solidarity Network called for measures to protect migrants before it is too late.

"All the migrants including undocumented ones are the most disadvantaged group victimised by the pandemic," he said.

"They live in crowded groups like five, six people in a small house. If the disease spreads among them in the very near future, we will be unable to generate a solution," he warned.

The migrants don't have easy access to hospitals because of language problems and some are even sent away at the door, Siddik said.

Last week, an African man died of COVID-19 in his house because he couldn't get hospital treatment, he added.

In a small dark underground flat, nine African men live in squalid conditions in the Aksaray neighbourhood.

"Nine of us are living here. We are taking measures. We don't go outside. All of us wash our hands regularly," one resident, called Christian Williams also from Sierra Leone, told AFP.

"We economise on our food, because we don't have much food stuff. I am worried about our bills: electricity bills, water bills. We don't work now," he said.

"The future is very tough because things are hard right now. We can't predict the future."

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