Every year thousands of people from western Europe, the Middle East, and other parts of the world travel to Turkey for cheap cosmetic surgeries. The ones that come to Istanbul usually meet Ibrahim, a Syrian refugee now working in the plastic surgery field to make sure all his clients are satisfied. While medical tourism is a booming industry bringing millions of dollars each year the ones that work in the field do not find it that charming.
Ibrahim is one of many Syrian refugees in Istanbul working odd jobs and trying to keep afloat. The first Syrian refugees arrived in Turkey ten years ago, escaping turmoil and bloodshed in their homeland. The mass influx of refugees continued in the coming years and over 3.6 million Syrian refugees crossed the border into Turkey. Syrian refugees account for the significant bulk of the country’s 4 million refugees and asylum seekers, making Turkey the world’s largest refugee host.
“When the war started, I had to go to the army in Syria, so instead of doing so in 2014, I came to Mersin in Turkey. For 6 months I worked in a sugar factory, then I came to Istanbul and worked in a textile factory. Eventually, I learned enough about textile to start ironing clothes, after that, I began working in a hotel where I stayed almost 7 years doing translations and house renting on the side,” shares Ibrahim. Like many Syrians, Ibrahim is not able to come back to his home country without facing jail time nor able to legally relocate to Europe due to the lack of documents.
“After hearing me complain all the time how much my job in the hotel sucked my friend offered me to come work for him. He has been working in the cosmetic surgery field for 4 or 5 years and decided to open a small company for himself,” recalls Ibrahim.
In 2014 Turkey drew 40 million tourists into the country and nearly half a million of them were there for surgical treatments. In recent years more and more people from richer areas travel to developing nations for medical treatment because operations there are less expensive than in their native country. This trend is especially prevalent in cosmetic surgery tourism.
Besides low cost, Tukey’s location is also a driving factor in medical tourism. It is situated between two continents and serves those citizens who do not wish to wait for cosmetic procedures in their own country and those who might not be able to receive high-grade surgeries back home. Visitors from Europe and the United States will find Turkish healthcare to be rather inexpensive, “while also appealing to affluent citizens of troubled neighbouring Middle Eastern countries by offering relatively high-quality healthcare they lack access to domestically.” In comparison, rhinoplasty in the United States costs $4500 while the same procedure in Turkey is $1500.
“Every day after I wake up and open the laptop, I have some new leads whom I have to contact about the operation that they want, I send them all the information about surgery, before and after photos,” shares Ibrahim when asked about his daily responsibilities.
“But if I have surgery, I have to take care of customers. I pick them up from the hotel, take them to the hospital for blood, Covid-19 tests, and to meet the doctor. After they pay and have a chat with the doctor, they are taken to the operation room for anaesthesia. If the patient agrees beforehand, I am also in the operation room taking videos for social media. After the surgery is finished, I stay and check up on them to see if they need anything. The next day I pick the patient up from the hospital and take them to the hotel. If they need it, I will also take them to after-surgery check-ups later in the week. I kind of do all the stuff.”
While Ibrahim is working in the cosmetic surgery field for less than a year, he is quickly recognising patterns and specifics of customers that come for procedures. “We do everything. We had one girl from America who did a hair transplant, eyebrows transplant, breast augmentation, Brazilian butt lift, tummy tuck, liposuction. Even men and women do the same kind of operations. A guy before asked me to do Brazilian butt lift, but I just told him that it is not going to look good on him,” he tells.
“It’s completely different from my job in the hotel. In there some days I was just working for 12 hours behind the desk. My current job is challenging because now I’m always around doctors, in operation rooms, everything is about medicine which I don’t even know. I kind of like it because there is so much different and interesting information to learn but I hate the job kind of too,” explains Ibrahim.
While hair transplant and dental procedures are also in the scope of cosmetic surgeries, they are some of the lighter and more enjoyable procedures Ibrahim has to deal with. He explains that more graphic surgeries involve dealing with blood, fat, or private areas of the patient’s body. “First operation I had to record I was disgusted but now I’m completely used to it. Although, the weirdest surgery I will have to deal with will the on the 15th of this month. It is a penis fat injection operation. When I first heard about it, I was not pleased, and I don’t think I will go record it. It is especially weird when patients send you the after pictures when they are already back home. You know the patient send you his penis picture, you have to send it to the doctor. The doctor will get back to you. You’re going to see the same penis 3-4 times.”
“Now from the financial side, this job is way better than the hotel. Because I get salary and I get 2% commission from every operation. It is not a lot but it’s in Euro so whatever comes is good,” shares Ibrahim. Turkish Lira ended 2021 down 44%, its worst year since 2001, which caused prices to skyrocket, and drastically reduced the buying power of many workers who receive their salary in local currency. Therefore, getting paid in stable foreign currency or asking tourists who come for cosmetic surgeries to pay in euro or dollar is highly lucrative in the country.
While Ibrahim enjoys a higher pay and certain aspects of the job, he cannot imagine himself staying in it longer than he needs to. “I like the medical information in this job and being around the doctors, operation rooms. But in general, I don’t enjoy this work. I really hate it when I have to go the next day after the operation to pick up the patient and he looks all tired and so messed up, I hate that stuff. I’m kind of always looking for a job and if I find something better – I’m out”.
With the Turkish Lira falling in value and new cosmetic surgery businesses opening each year to accept more and more foreigners there is no doubt that Turkey will remain a popular destination among medical tourists. It is an unusual business with its own quirks and features capitalising on humans’ demand to meet the highest standards of beauty. But it also offers a chance for newcomers to learn and immerse themselves into the not so charming world of implants, transplants, and surgeries.