During the day, Hayata Sarıl Lokantası (Embrace Life Restaurant) in Istanbul, Turkey, functions as a regular restaurant — patrons order, eat, and pay for their meals. But in the evening, after 7 p.m., things change: guests typically order a meal for themselves and one for the homeless to pick up. This small, ground-floor place, which is tucked away in the city’s historic Taksim Square, was founded by Ayşe Tükrükçü, a former sex worker and survivor of sexual abuse, who was determined to transform her painful experiences into a force of social good. The motto of the restaurant is “employment, food, life.”
Tükrükçü wanted to go beyond offering food for those who are struggling financially, including former survivors of violence like her. She started an initiative to provide housing, job training, and other services at the restaurant. Run with the help of donations and the support of volunteers, the program also offers psychological assistance and personal coaching.
Once they graduate from the program, participants receive continued support, including financial help for higher education if they choose to go in that direction. And if they want to continue in the food business, they can sign up for trainings at some of the best restaurants in Istanbul. This is all an outcome of local collaboration, Tükrükçü says. “From the chefs who come to teach, to the personal coaches who come to offer their wisdom, to the friend who sends us paper soup cups, we are in this together,” she says.
Explaining the many barriers former sex workers, abuse victims, and the homeless face at getting a fresh start in life, Tükrükçü says her personal experiences helped her understand that what is needed most to build a new life is skills. She says she was sexually abused when she was five years old, and beaten by both her parents until she left home in her teens. She says no one was there while she was going through those trying times, adding that she had to stay in bathrooms and work at numerous brothels. She says she was eventually sold to a bordello in the southern province of Mersin. “I have been sold to a total of seven brothels across Turkey,” she says, adding that these experiences strengthened her resolve to support others going through similar challenges.
While Tükrükçü’s crew are mostly focused on the restaurant, she’s already dreaming up her next projects. Next up, she wants to build a laundromat for the homeless. She says she knows how much having access to clean clothes would improve the physical and mental health conditions for those on the street. “When people come together over a purpose to support those in need, beautiful things happen,” Tükrükçü says. “And that is how we fix the brokenness — through a strong, shared determination to collaborate, hand-in-hand.”
Photo of Ayşe Tükrükçü (top, right) and team by Nimet Kirac