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It’s dinnertime and every table is full at Hayata Sarıl Lokantası, a cozy restaurant with crisp white walls, a patterned-tile floor, and cheery flowers on the café-style tables. “Are you going to serve that sometime tonight?” a floor manager barks sarcastically into the cramped kitchen, where black-apron-clad servers scramble to fill new plates while a tiny dishwasher churns through the old ones, steaming up the room like a sauna on an already sultry Istanbul summer night.

The scene is likely familiar to anyone who’s worked in a restaurant, but with a major difference: the diners are members of the city’s homeless population, being cooked for and served by volunteers and people who once lived on the streets themselves.

By day, Hayata Sarıl Lokantası, which opened its doors in November 2017, is a more conventional eatery, a laid-back bistro serving homemade Turkish dishes to local workers, tourists and passers-by. Proceeds from the lunch service, as well as donations, fund the free meals for the homeless served at the same tables come evening.

“The homeless are our guests here; it’s a rare chance for them to be seen and treated equally,” says Elçin Kitapçı, the president of Hayata Sarıl Derneği (Embrace Life Association), the civil society organization that operates the restaurant on a side street near Istanbul’s central Taksim Square. “Our employees are one step ahead of those receiving food – they are a very good example to those who come here to eat at night, as well as to our other customers and to our volunteers.”

Hayata Sarıl Lokantası was born from the vision of Ayşe Tükrükçu, a tough, no-nonsense woman who knows the situation of her evening guests all too well. A survivor of childhood abuse and rape, she was sold into prostitution and spent four and a half months homeless in Istanbul after escaping brothel life, sleeping in hospital emergency rooms when she could, washing her hair in the sink at public bathrooms and eating what other people threw away.

“I first heard Ayşe talk about her idea for the restaurant at the Yedi food conference in 2016. I think you could say her speech was the hit of the event,” says Didem Şenol, the acclaimed chef of Istanbul restaurant Gram. “We were all in tears as she talked about her life story and founding Çorbada Tuzun Olsun [a soup-delivery service for the homeless in the Taksim area].”

“We all see people living on the street as we’re busy going about our days, and don’t know how to help,” adds Şenol. “So when I heard about Ayşe’s restaurant idea, I thought, this is something I can contribute to.”

A rotation of well-known Istanbul restaurateurs such as Şenol have served as “guest chefs” at Hayata Sarıl Lokantası, spending a couple of days side-by-side with the formerly homeless kitchen staff to show them how to prepare some of their signature dishes to add to the menu for a month.

“The homeless are our guests here; it’s a rare chance for them to be seen and treated equally.”

“For lunch we made bread and hummus, a potato-and-leek soup with nettles and milk foam, etli kapuska [a cabbage-and-meat dish] with smoked yogurt and şekerpare [a syrup-soaked Turkish pastry]; we served the kapuska and the şekerpare at dinnertime too,” says Şenol of her stint as Hayata Sarıl Lokantası guest chef. Other top Istanbul chefs who have volunteered their time and expertise include Mehmet Gürs of Mikla, Maksut Askar of neolokal and Civan Er of Yeni Lokanta.

Helping with the dinner service for the homeless really made an impression on Şenol. “The people were very hungry and respectful and appreciative, but also joking with each other and with Ayşe,” she says. “It’s about more than food: people come for the food, of course, but also to eat together, to share the table, to have someone taking care of them.”

In its first seven months of operation, Hayata Sarıl Lokantası served more than 16,000 free evening meals, an average of 120 to 150 each night. The homeless guests queue patiently outside while the staff and volunteers wipe down tables, set out bottles of soda and ayran, and put a plate of food, a napkin, a cup and utensils on the table in front of each chair. The restaurant can serve around 25 people at a time, and as soon as one table is finished eating, the volunteers clear and then re-set it for the next group to come in – a fairly hectic process.

The meals, though, are just a starting point, as are the six-month paid kitchen apprenticeships that help the formerly homeless learn a trade. “We all need work, love, food and life; it’s not enough just to give [the homeless] food, but it can open a door,” says Tükrükçu, who glows effusively as she explains her full vision: a rehabilitation center for the homeless where they can receive psychological therapy, treatment for substance-abuse problems, legal assistance, eye exams and other basic medical care, help finding homes and other services.

“This is my biggest dream because I didn’t have access to these things when I needed them,” Tükrükçu says. “There aren’t any services like this for the homeless in Turkey. People don’t even know the scope of the problem because the homeless aren’t officially registered or counted.”

The civil-society organization Şefkat-Der, which helped Tükrükçu during her time on the streets and is one of the few groups in Turkey devoted to helping and advocating for the homeless, estimates that there are 7,000 to 10,000 people without homes in Istanbul, and around 70,000 in the country as a whole. The Istanbul municipality opens some temporary shelters in the cold winter months, but their capacity is low and few other services are available.

“One cup of food won’t solve everything, but raising awareness will, eventually,” says Kitapçı, the Hayata Sarıl Derneği president. “Our goal is to make a profit and create sustainability in social services.” Currently, she admits, the association and the restaurant still rely on donations and sponsorships, which they get from large corporations such as the appliance manufacturer Grundig, as well as from individual diners who add a small contribution on top of their bill.

“A 10,000 Turkish Lira sponsorship is very valuable, but 1,000 people leaving 10 Turkish Lira each is priceless – it means we’ve made 1,000 personal connections, and those people will tell others about what we’re doing here,” says Kitapçı. “Everyone who eats here is part of this project.”

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Jennifer Hattam and Courtesy of Hayata Sarıl Derneği

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