Syrian refugee boys are passed out on a sidewalk in Istanbul after inhaling "the flame," seen in a plastic bag next to them. Photo: Ahmad Zaza

On the streets of Istanbul, amid the throngs of tourists, a new disturbing sight is increasingly common: Syrian orphans, refugees of the war next door, are turning to drugs.

Dressed in worn-out clothes and often barefoot, these children can be seen staggering around after inhaling a newly discovered substance, nicknamed “the flame.”

Sometimes they are also trying to sell packets of tissues or bottles, their sole form of income. Other times, they have no merchandise to sell and resort to chasing anyone who passes, asking for money and help.

They are just children, filling the street with their noise.

Mother lost at sea

Ten-year-old Omar and his brother, 15-year-old Ali, are originally from the northern Syrian province of Aleppo. They became homeless in 2016, after losing their mother to the sea during an attempt to reach Europe by boat. The two boys were rescued by Turkish ships and brought back to Turkey, but this time with no one to provide for them.

Their situation as orphans on the streets of Istanbul made them easy prey for the begging gangs of the metropolis, according to the elder brother.

Ali recounts their father being killed in a shelling attack in 2014, which prompted their mother’s decision to flee for a safer life in Turkey, and then Europe. After their mother drowned, the boys were placed in an orphanage.

“We faced harassment by older Syrian boys there, and my brother and I had to flee. We started begging in Izmir, then we travelled with one of the guys that we met to Istanbul, where we could make more money by begging,” Ali told Asia Times.

The flame

The two brothers started using “the flame” in Istanbul after watching other homeless children inhale it. 

The flame is the street name for a type of heavy-duty adhesive glue, which is squeezed into a plastic bag and inhaled. A small tube costs just one Turkish lira (under 20 cents), while a larger bottle sells for 4 lira (75 cents). They are widely available in shops and legal for anyone of any age to purchase. This makes the substance a perfect escape for many homeless Syrian children trapped in a painful reality.

Ali explains that the drug takes his mind off the biting winter cold and hunger, as well as the struggles he and his brother faced after their mother’s death.

Ten-year-old Omar soon started using it too, despite his young age.

“When I saw my brother using the flame, I first tried to stop him, but after a while I wanted to try it,” the boy said. 

“Then I felt happy and now I can’t start my day without inhaling it. Sometimes it causes violent coughing, but that goes away quick.”

Mohamed, a resident doctor in Istanbul, says that when inhaling solvents such as the flame, the fumes replace a high percentage of the oxygen in the brain, depriving its cells of oxygen.

The immediate effect of the substance is alertness, which gives a type of high, and then dizziness. Some people experience a loss of balance, confusion, distorted perception of colors, sounds and shapes, and hallucinations. This state lasts (depending on the quantity used) from 15 to 45 minutes but can be prolonged for hours through intermittent use. The more chemicals concentrated in the brain, the faster the loss of consciousness.

In the short-term, the flame can cause severe coughing, headaches, and vomiting. If the substance is inhaled continuously over a long period of time, the doctor warns, it can cause suffocation – or even death. 

In all cases, addiction to this makeshift drug has devastating health risks over time.

Like other chemical solvents, the glue contains toxic elements that rapidly cause damage to the nervous system. Once inhaled, these substances travel quickly to the brain and cause direct damage to brain cells as well as serious skin inflammation and harm the respiratory system.

For an hour of happiness

There are no accurate statistics for the number of homeless Syrian children in Turkey, but there are thousands, if not tens of thousands.

Seventeen-year old Saeed is also from Aleppo. He was forced by the cruel conditions of war to come to Turkey with another young man from his neighborhood. Saeed’s plan was to work and send money back home after his father, the family breadwinner, was killed. But the young man accompanying Saeed from Aleppo stole his money and threw him out in the street. 

Saeed never told his mother what happened to keep her from worrying. Instead, he began begging in the streets.

Saeed says he began using “the flame” six months ago, and it immediately became a daily habit, an indulgence before and after work.

“When I inhale the substance, I lose consciousness. Sometimes I get a headache, but it doesn’t matter.”

The young man says he wants to feel happy “even for one hour” at the end of the day. ♦

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