The Russian (left) and Ukranian embassies in Istanbul. Photos: Tressler.


On my way out to the Ukrainian Consulate last Wednesday, I didn’t know what to expect, or why I was even going there for that matter.

With the war dragging into its third week, some 20,000 Ukrainian refugees had already arrived in Turkey, according to the news. Most had arrived either by bus or on foot, fleeing the fighting and bombardment that pounded their towns and neighborhoods.

Where could one find them? Especially in Istanbul, home to 15 million people? I figured the consulate would be a good place to start. A Google Maps search showed the location, up near the Florya Aquarium on the northwest side of the city. You could get there with the Marmaray, the intercontinental metro that runs beneath the Bosphorus.

Actually, the Marmaray passes right through our neighborhood in Uskudar, and I thought of just getting on early that morning. But it was a work day, and even though my teaching schedule is light this term, one still needs to make an appearance. I went to the campus in Kuştepe, had coffee, checked the news for the latest on the war. Zelensky, the Ukrainian president, was saying that peace talks were “realistic,” but at the same time Russian forces were still pounding the hell out of Kyiv and other cities, and people were continuing to either fight or flee.

Around 10 o’clock, I headed out to the metrobus. It’s the best way to get around this big city, and I figured it would connect with the Marmaray at some point. My phone indicated the Zeytinburnu stop. Some fifteen minutes and ten stops later, I got off at Zeytinburnu, an industrial neighborhood, and went in search of the Marmaray connection. There was the M1 line but no Marmaray in sight. A metro worker, in short, indifferent English, said I would be better off going to Yenikapi. So I got the M1 and took it eight stops to Yenikapi, and switched over to the Marmaray. Checking the route, I noted that the Florya Aquarium was indeed a stop, about eight stops away.

At this point, it was getting near lunchtime. I’d lost an hour bumbling about between metro lines. Over the past two years, with the pandemic, we have limited our use of the metros (poor ventilation, crowded cars), so my city navigation skills have got a bit rusty. So it felt good to have a refresher course, as well as revisit old stops in the city that I haven’t seen in so long.

But back to the mission. The Marmaray was not crowded, so I found a seat and sat looking out the window. It was a grey, overcast day, patches of snow clinging to rooftops here and there, as well as along the rolling Thracian landscape. The train goes north, all the way up to the old Ataturk airport. I checked the directions to the Ukrainian Consulate again. A Google advisory indicated: “Open – about as busy as it gets.” The consulate would close for an hour at 1 o’clock but at that point it was only noon, still plenty of time.

I got out my notepad and thought of what I would ask the Ukrainian refugees, should I come across any, jotting them down. “When did you arrive in Istanbul?” “Where are you staying?” “What are your plans?” “What do you think of Zelensky’s announcement? Do you plan on returning home any time soon?” Etc. Of course, such stories have already appeared in the Turkish press and elsewhere.

It felt strange, sitting on that train heading north to the outskirts, in the middle of the week. Was I just looking for a break in my routine? Perhaps this was all just nostalgia for my old days as a journalist. Back in California, I’d interviewed families fleeing wildfires, packing belongings hastily into cars as the smoke over the horizon got ever nearer. Here in Istanbul, I had seen Syrian refugees on the sidewalks in my neighborhood, having fled the bombing in Aleppo and other towns just south of our border here.

At the Florya Aquarium stop, I got off and went down some steps out to the main street. Adakale Street, which goes directly to the consulate, was right there. I crossed the intersection and headed in the direction my Google navigator indicated. I was in a respectable, one could even say affluent, neighborhood on the city’s outskirts. The streets were tree-lined, the houses neat and prominent looking.

A few blocks up, I saw the consulate. It looked just like any other building in the neighborhood, distinguishable only by the blue and yellow flag posted outside, and a prominent blue sign that read, in Russian and English, “CRİMEA İS UKRAİNE.” Directly across the street, there was a school, and dozens of children were playing in the yard. Local moms passed along the sidewalk, with babes in strollers, bundled up against the chill.

The scene outside the consulate was much quieter than I expected. About 25-30 people stood in line at the entrance, all carrying their passports and papers, evidently waiting for scheduled appointments. They looked neither weary nor anxious. There were no demonstrators nearby, no placards or banners. I noticed one armored police car, parked a discreet distance up the road, a couple of beefy cops leaning against the hood, but they seemed to be there just as a precaution. A few taxis idled at the curb, ready to whisk people back into the city. One could even say the scene was dull.

Normally, Ukrainian citizens can stay in Turkey up to 90 days on a tourist visa, but the government has waived that visa requirement because of the ongoing situation. The Turkish administration has also been reported as saying the Ukrainians can stay as long as necessary until the conflict ends. If the first casualty of war is decency, it is good to know that for the time being, decency is still standing here.

With this in mind, I wondered what the people were waiting in the line at the consulate for. I mean, if it was Turkish residency they wanted, they would need to apply at the Turkish Foreign Police offices, not the consulate.

Standing there viewing this quiet, orderly scene, I felt conspicuous, as if I were a spy, especially when I snapped a few photos. I wanted to approach some of the people in the line (“Excuse me? Do you speak English? I’m writing a story about the refugees …. ) Maybe my reporter skills were rusty, or maybe I was just gun shy, but I didn’t want to bother anybody.

On the long ride back into the city, I felt a bit disappointed that I hadn’t spoken to any of the Ukrainians. Why was I so gun shy? Back in the old days, I would have just gone right up to people and introduced myself and just started talking to people. All I had accomplished was that I had gone to the consulate. Back in my newspaper days, my editors would have probably chewed me out. “What? Is that it? Get your ass back out there and talk to those people!”

Well, it wasn’t really my job anymore, I reflected. In those days, somebody was paying me, my rent and food depended on me having to frequently bother people who didn’t really feel like talking to reporters. At least now, I can afford to be considerate, ha. Maybe in wartime, being gun shy can be luxury . Besides, as I said, the scene was so orderly, so quiet … if there had been bedlam – hundreds of huddled, traumatized women and children, screaming anti-war protesters, police in face shields and riot gear – hell, I might have felt more comfortable approaching people, strange as it may sound.

Of course, the scene at the consulate belies the reality of what’s happening, that there is a war going on just across the Black Sea to the north. Thse people are our neighbors. Millions of Ukrainians have fled their homes, and thousands have made and will continue to make their way here to Turkey. So those 25 or 30 people I saw, standing and waiting so calmly and patiently, remind us that more and more are arriving every day.


The next day, I headed for the Russian Consulate just to have a look. It was a lot easier to get to, since it’s located near the Santa Maria Roman Catholic church on Istiklal Avenue in the heart of the historic Beyöğlu district. I’d passed by it many times, a handsome, broad-faced gold-colored building with the emblem and sign in Russian near the entrance.

I’d read in the news that some Russians have also fled to Istanbul. In fact, a day or two ago, a Russian DJ called Oxxxymiron gave a concert at a club in Kadıköy attended by many Russians who have recently arrived. The concert was broadcast on YouTube, and the story has been reported by CNN and The New York Times. So I was curious what the scene outside the consulate would be like.

Approaching the consulate, the avenue crowded as always, you see that heavy iron police barriers have been set up in front. At least a dozen armed policemen were clustered behind the barricade. The police didn’t seem to be on any high alert, casually eyeing the passersby, chatting amongst themselves. Nearby, a small handful of people stood inside the barrier waiting for appointments. There have been reports of anti-war protesters outside the consulate, but there were none present at the moment. The people passing were the usual tourists, sightseers and shoppers.

It was tempting to underline the contrasting scenes outside the two consulates I’d visited, especially since Russia is the generally perceived antagonist in the conflict. But I reflected that the Ukrainian consulate is way out in the suburbs, while the Russian consulate is here in the heart of the city. In the years I have lived here, I have witnessed many protests and demonstrations, which usually begin up near Taksim Square and make their way down the long, narrow avenue. Some of them, like the Taksim Square Park protests of 2013, turned violent, with police firing tear gas at the demonstrators.

Given such recent history, mixed in with the current conflict, it is understandably necessary to have the heavy police presence in front of the Russian consulate. And a police presence on Istiklal is pretty normal, since protests involving anything can erupt almost anytime (like with inflation, which in Turkey is well into the double digits nowadays).

Anyway, I stood there only for a few moments, as I did the day before, not wanting to be noticed, to take in the scene inconspicuously. I snapped a couple photos and was on my way. I walked through the Beyoğlu back streets, where in the evenings the bars are lit up and full, and in the summer time people sit at tables long into the night drinking and listening to pulsating local and club music.

But it was only lunchtime and most of the bars were still closed, boarded up. An Irish pub was open, and I went in, sat down and ordered a tall pint of Weihenstephaner, a smooth German draft, and reflected on the past two days. The scene at the two consulates was generally routine, uneventful, but they perhaps serve as portraits of Turkey’s neutral role in the conflict. Still, it’s thought-provoking to realize that you have these two consulates quietly going about their business while just over the Black Sea to the north, the bullets and bombs are flying.

The beer tasted good, and I enjoyed the sunlight that was coming down into the dim backstreets, the people sitting at tables having lunch or coffee. Most places were still closed, but the people were out. I reflected again about how big the city is, having traversed much of it the past two days, from the factories to the far-flung suburbs, to the underbelly of the vast metro network, to the historical center, and you realize that just about anybody is welcome here. That’s a great thing about the city, but the more I reflect about the war to the north, and the quiet here, the more I realize that quiet is a fine, rare and lucky thing if you can ever find it.


James Tressler, a former Lost Coast resident, is a writer and teacher living in Istanbul.