Istanbul’s Glue-Huffing Teens

Feb 07, 2014 at 2:56 PM ET

“You cannot take a picture when I am sniffing,” the young man tells us. “Because we would look bad in America.”

Agit is a 23-year-old drug addict. He says he has been living on the street for the last 16 years. He always carries a cloth, which he occasionally sniffs for a fix. He lives under a bridge in Beşiktaş, a central Istanbul district, with his five friends and their dogs. They have two couches, a mattress and a chair. To keep warm, three of them sleep on one couch.

Agit and his friends are users of paint-thinner and/or glue. The streets of Istanbul are full of these groups of teenagers who manage to seem invisible to other citizens, even in bright daylight in this grinding metropolis.

Paint-thinner or glue sniffers, known as tinerci or balici in Turkey, represent one of Istanbul’s saddest social problems, and one that shows few signs of getting any better. Many of the young men we met did not want to talk in detail about their addictions. But experts say they use these drugs, which increase adrenalin levels, to cope better on the streets.

Teens can buy paint-thinner and glue from any hardware store. A tube of glue costs less than $1, and a 1-liter can of paint-thinner goes for around $4. Both products have warnings not to be sold to anyone under 18. The paint-thinner is poured on a cloth and then inhaled via the mouth or nose. The teens suck glue in from a plastic bag after blowing air in it.

Many of the children live in cave-like holes in Istanbul’s 1,600-year-old city walls, under bridges, in tunnels or abandoned houses.

In the trendy Istanbul neighborhood of Cihangir, for example, three or four kids welcomed us to their “home”—the ruins of a 17th-century Turkish bath. One of them, İhsan, a 24-year-old, says he has been living on the street ever since his parents died in a fire.

Ferhat Şahin, the head of the Children of Hope Association, an independent organization that works with homeless kids, says İhsan’s predicament is far from rare. According to his group’s studies, there are more than 5,000 kids living on Istanbul’s streets—and as many as 1.5 million children in the city are forced by their parents to beg or work.

Şahin, a 33-year-old man who was once a street kid with a drug addiction, is now married with a child, and is passionate about helping other kids on the streets. He told me that he had a happy childhood until his dad lost his job and forced him and his brother to work as shoe polishers.

“I was 7 years old when my father sent us to work on the streets,” he says.”I had to bring home a packet of sugar and my brother had to bring a packet of tea. Otherwise we were beaten brutally”.

He decided to escape from home, jumping on a train to Istanbul when he was not even 8 years old. When the police apprehended him, he told them his parents were dead. He was put in an orphanage the same day.

Again, he found himself in an environment where he was regularly beaten, and decided to escape with two of his friends. That’s how he encountered streets, drugs and absolute loneliness for the next 12 years.

“We approached this group of teenagers in Beyoğlu [a district known for its shopping and busy night life], one of them gave me a cloth with paint-thinner on it,” Şahin says. “I sniffed it and threw up. They made fun of me. In order to be accepted in their group, they told me to cut my arm. It was like a mark of courage. And I did it.”

Şahin’s life changed when a TV show interviewed him. As a result of the publicity, he was offered help by many volunteers and came across the association he now heads. It provides a shelter home for homeless kids and tries to keep them off the streets, helping them through rehabilitation and with the search for a job or an education.

Many of these children find themselves on the street because of domestic violence, economic difficulties, divorced or broken families and problems linked to immigration. Şahin says that more than 50 percent of the kids are from eastern or southeastern Turkey. If they are under 18, the state puts them in an orphanage, but if they are older, there is no institution to help them.

Emrah, a 28-year-old who lives at the shelter home is angry with the government. “I cannot find a job because of my criminal record,” he says. “And my crime is to use drugs.”

He says that when he was on the streets the police treated him brutally: “They insulted me, beat me. Once they took us to the Istanbul forests in the night and left us there.”

It is not only the police who target these kids; criminal gangs also do so. “These youth are under the threat of sexual abuse, the human organ mafia, prostitution gangs and terrorist organizations” Şahin says.

The Turkish government started a program in 2010 to save these kids from the streets but Şahin does not believe it has really helped. Meanwhile, many of the young people themselves are increasingly desperate.

As I shake the hand of the young man at the shelter on my way out, Emrah leans forward and talks to me as if he is sharing a secret: “I have a fiancée back home in Adana. I did not tell her I live here. I have to find a job and start a clean life with her.” I can’t help but agree.