Is Istanbul "safe"?
Other than “how are you doing”, “how is Istanbul”, and the like, the most frequent question I am asked is, “Is Istanbul safe”?
This question largely spawns from two things: the city’s proximity to Syria and last month’s bombing outside the Blue Mosque. Given that fears have not relaxed as the weeks pass and the perspectives I have gained since I arrived, I would like to address the points raised.
First is geography. Yes, Turkey is in a bad neighborhood. We’ve got Syria to the south, and if you listen to CNN, it sounds like the world is on fire over here. However, Syria is 500 miles away from Istanbul (at its closest point) so the fighting is well away from the city. Turkey, for its part, has the second largest military in NATO, and its membership means that if the fighting were to ever cross the border, the United States and every other member would have to join in its defense. As a student on this program, we are strictly forbidden from going within 100 miles of the border- the entire south east portion of the country.
On a more localized level, Istanbul is ultra-secure. Like, I have three security cameras in my International Journalism classroom alone. Airports and shopping malls have TSA-style checkpoints at their entrances (which sadly doesn’t get you out of normal security procedures after checking in). Museums, historic sites, and even our school and dorm have security procedures in place to keep anyone unauthorized out. The police and military have a huge presence here, and are able to stop anyone and ask for identification (which we are legally required to have on us) at their discretion.
If you’ve been keeping up with my posts, you’ll know by now that Istanbul is a “city of neighborhoods”, with no true center. This also helps with security matters. The tourist zone is largely confined to one district, at the very tip of the “Old City”. This is secluded from the rest of the city and most residents have no reason (or desire) to go there except to visit the sites. If an attack were to happen, it would most likely happen there, as it did in January. This is key, because it means there is a minimized risk to students on a day-to-day basis, and steps can be taken to protect us when we do go there. For example, we didn’t travel to the sites as a group, in order to not draw attention to ourselves. We’ve also been careful to avoid big noisy groups ourselves, and stick to the edges of plazas and alleyways away from the crowds while walking around.
On a day-to-day basis, SU is based in Ortaköy and Beşiktaş, two secular residential neighborhoods with minimal tourism and a safe distance from the Hagia Sophia. SU also has a very thought-out emergency plan (not just for attacks, for any event) and has walked us through it a number of times. The coordinators are also constantly updating us with protest locations and danger zones to stay away from.
But what about the Syrian refugees? It's true that 2.5 million of them now call Turkey home, a far greater cry than the 10,000 or so Washington is currently arguing about accepting into the US. However, they largely don't cause any issues in the city. There are certain areas we've been recommended to stay away from, but I've encountered few, and those I have come across have been pleasant and, well, as normal as can be expected in their current situation.
As the 15th largest city in the world, Istanbul will always be a target for attacks. But it’s the same target New York, London, Paris, and Los Angeles face as well. The key is to be smart while you’re out and about and not take unnecessary risks. You also cannot be afraid to travel, either. We get one lifetime (that we know of) to see and experience as much as we can. We can’t let the bad guys scare us out of living life to its fullest, and as long as you look before crossing the street over here, you should be just fine.