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Syrian refugees in Turkey: “They are everywhere”

What you cannot miss is all the stories in the media testifying to the fact that the Syrian has become a troubling part of everyday life in Turkey.

“Suriye” [Syria]. The word spills out the lips of a kid of no more than ten. He pushes a pack of tissues towards me. He has dark hair and a darker complexion. The scene is by no means unfamiliar to me. The kid has many names in common parlance: gypsy kid, Kurdish kid, street kid… Yet as I am to learn throughout my stay, first in my hometown, Bursa, and then in Istanbul, today he goes by a name that is new to my ears: “Suriyeli” [Syrian]. “Suriye”, he repeats, while my glance focuses on his big, dark brown eyes. The word attracts my attention. I tuck a lira in his palm and ask: “Neredensin?” [Where from?] He gives a blank look and responds in the exact same tone as earlier: “Suriye”. Is he actually from Syria? Did he understand my question at all?

That day, I speak with a friend from Istanbul. “They are everywhere in Istanbul too”, she asserts: “Some even wear their Syrian passports around their necks to prove that they are Syrians.” A week later, in Istanbul, once the escalator brings me out to Taksim Square, I see for myself children (some of them accompanied by adults) walking around with a cardboard sign that reads: “I AM FROM SYRIA. FOR GOD’S SAKE, COULD YOU HELP ME. I DO NOT SPEAK TURKISH.” In addition, many of them walk around with their passports in their hands. The cardboard sign and the passport can be seen as tools that legitimize the act of begging by transforming a beggar who is looked down upon, and negative signifiers in Turkey such as “the gypsy” or “the Kurd”, into “the Syrian”. However, there are also limits to sympathy. The Syrian refugees, now more tangible and audible than ever, gradually risk becoming a meta-category for fear and distaste. The Syrian, once an image on the TV screen, is now a bitter reality on our streets.

Searching for Syrians in Bursa

Since my return home, I have been inundated with stories. In Bursa—a town that has historically served as the centre of international and internal migration in Turkey—the Syrians, I was told, can be found everywhere. At first, when I roamed the streets downtown, the distinction between a Syrian and a Turk seemed simply imperceptible. Bursa—like Istanbul—is a city that attracts many tourists from Arab countries. Even if I could—and I do not think I can—distinguish a Turkish citizen from an Arab visitor, I still would not be able to tell whether the person who is taking a walk on the street is a Syrian refugee—which he very well could be. So I went back to the people who were telling me stories about the ubiquitous Syrian, starting with family members and extending my inquiry to people with whom I have spoken in bazaars and coffee shops. While “they are everywhere” seemed to be the common response, names of a few districts were also thrown around. One of these places was Demirtas. Located en route to Istanbul, this little (now) industrial part of the town is known for its conservative community and proximity to farmlands and more significantly, the Demirtas Organized Industrial Zone.

Get off the bus at Demirtas and you are greeted by the central mosque. I ordered tea in a teahouse attached to the mosque, and asked the waiter whether he had seen Syrians in that locality. His response was the one I had come to expect: “of course, they are everywhere.” I asked him to point one out. He was surprised by this follow up question. So was an older man who had for some time been eavesdropping on my exchange with the waiter: “What do you need them for?” he asked. I explained how pretty much everyone I spoke with was telling me that Syrians were everywhere, yet I had yet to encounter one. My answer did not satisfy him: “You cannot just go around asking for Syrians, hoping to find one. Of course they are around. At that corner in a shop, one of them works. A friend rents his house to a Syrian family.”

By then, the circle around me was gathering. Another jumped into the conversation: “Look, brother, they are right over there, that group of men. Come after the evening prayer and the mosque’s courtyard will be full of them.” The group he was pointing to consisted of five adults. They were speaking a language other than Turkish. Arabic, perhaps, or Kurdish even? It was not perceptible to anyone around me. However, the strangeness of the language was enough to make them all take it for granted that the group of people consisted of Syrians.

Syrian refugees, they assured me, would work during the day and come to the mosque at night. I was told that many Syrian families have been renting and sharing apartments together. A number of news pieces on Syrian refugees reported that their presence in the urban landscape had caused a fluctuating housing market and inflated the rent. Men worked in the construction sector while women were in the garment industry. “Visit the street parallel to this one and you’ll see them,” asserted a man in the group. The street parallel was full of filament workshops, one after the other, whose open doors revealed machines buzzing loudly as they produced the yarn—one of Bursa’s main exports. I was informed that among them, there were many Syrian refugees working there and that many others worked as seasonal workers in the farms around Bursa and neighbouring towns to collect fruits and vegetables. No one knew whether they received social security benefits, or even had work permits. However, the common claim was that many worked for lower prices and held multiple jobs.

The minibus driver, a local of Bursa and inhabitant of a district adjacent to Demirtas, confirmed that Syrians could also be found everywhere in his neighborhood. Pointing to the industrial complex, he said, “the region hosts many Syrians. Some even came with their own cars. You can see cars with Syrian license plates driving around.” He continued: “There are also kids running in the streets, waiting at the red lights, asking for money from the cars in exchange for a hasty wipe of the windshield”. A passenger interrupted his words. He said that he had seen those Syrian kids too, and that they risked their lives by wandering around busy roads and jumping in front of cars to ask for money. He was not happy that the government kept on welcoming more refugees within Turkish borders. As we approached the city centre, the driver pointed out a seemingly abandoned warehouse: “There are many Syrian families living in tents there,” he said. There were indeed some tents in that run-down and neglected place. 

On rumours and vulnerability

At a time when the public in Turkey as well as in many European countries continues to ossify negative assumptions about their refugee populations, my search for Syrians in Bursa, a city where “the Syrians can be encountered at every footstep”, left me with more questions than encounters.

What you cannot miss is all the stories in the media testifying to the fact that the Syrian has become a troubling part of everyday life in Turkey. One favourite theme is that Syrians are here in Turkey to stay. As the war in Syria enters its fourth year and tensions in the region continue to escalate, interviews conducted by journalist show fading hopes of return by Syrians both in Turkey and elsewhere. Academics, such as Brookings Institute fellow Kemal Kirisci, speak of “extending citizenship and the right to vote to the Syrian refugees” as a probable scenario and advise the Turkish government to take steps in this direction—which feeds into another fear, that the Syrians are used strategically by the Justice and Development Party government to extend the party’s voter base and secure future election for its Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. This thesis was not only prevalent before the municipal elections in March (and vocalized by the deputy chairman of Turkey’s opposition party, the Republican People’s Party), but has continued to spread. Following municipal elections, people shared anecdotal stories of Syrians coming out of the voting booths. A local in Bursa with whom I talked about this situation added: “Syrians voted with fake IDs in the municipal elections in March. That is how the Justice and Development Party won.”

Stories of peaceful coexistence are rare, given the length of the war in Syria. Turkey has had an open door policy with Syria since October 2011. While the problem at first was one of international politics—the settlement of Syrian refugees in camps, their registration, and providing them with humanitarian assistance—which was commended by the international media, the issue has gradually become a social one. Although camps in Turkey were depicted in rosy terms, they also had their shortcomings. As National Geographic Emerging Explorer Aziz Abu Sarah succinctly argues: “camps offer no work possibilities, and just like in prison, you receive your daily portion of food and water and are asked to wait, hopelessly, passively.” The prison metaphor finds its echo in the narratives of Syrian refugees: “You have to be ruled by them if you go to the camps. It’s like a prison.”

The refugee camp no longer provides a suitable environment for Syrian refugees. Consequently, this triggers a movement away from the camp to a non-camp/urban environment. “Turkey’s Syria Refugee Crisis”, as one journalist put it, is now to be found outside the refugee camps and in cities such as Turkey’s capital, Ankara, or cities even farther away from the Syrian border, such as Istanbul and Bursa. The narrative of the crisis has transformed: what was once encapsulated within the boundaries of a refugee camp now spills over into Turkey’s urban landscape. When ‘the Syrian other’ is contained within the boundaries of a refugee camp the population seems manageable, but the increasing visibility of Syrians in these cities challenges traditional narratives of the Syrian refugee, and forces reporters to reassess the nature of Turkey’s Syrian crisis.

Whereas in the earlier stages of the war in Syria, refugees existed somewhere far away in the public imaginary, today, they exist everywhere. Syrian refugees cease to be a figure that Turks can watch on their television sets. They now participate in the same social space as Turkish citizens living in western metropolitan cities. Unfortuntely, this increasing tangibility adds to their vulnerability.

But the presence of Syrians in Turkish cities is never only about the presence of a refugee, as Asli Ikizoglu Erensu’s recent article explained. Syrian refugees transform into vulnerable subjects as they gain representation within the eyes of the others—such as the locals, media or the Turkish state. The ongoing turmoil in the region adds further to the negative signifiers ascribed to Syrian refugees. Sectarian violence and its brutal forms of demonstration by ISIS, such as holding hostage over eighty Turkish citizens in the city of Mosul, as well as killing Turkmens in Northern Iraq agitate the Turkish public. In such an environment, Syrian refugees take on responsibility for a dysfunctional state, and similar to the role of Muslims in the United States after 9/11, take the blame for events happening beyond their control—such as the 2013 bombings of Reyhanli, which took the lives of 52. The bombings in Reyhanli placed a huge burden on the tolerance of the Turkish public in 2013. The fear is that a year later, the same public, which is now more weary of an unending war may react in a very different manner. Unfortunately, the Turkish Prime Minister’s comments following the Reyhanli attacks served to further exacerbate the sectarian rift that underlines the bulk of problems in the region today.

In Bursa, those I spoke with were aware of the impact of war and violence. However, they were at least as wary of the increasing presence of refugees in their neighbourhoods. Local narratives are full of this ambivalence. Each story started with empathy: “Zavallı insanlar” [Poor souls]. “Allah yardımcıları olsun” [May God help them]. That they left Syria due to a war which has thus far taken the lives of over 160,000 softens many hearts. Nevertheless, Syrians are strangers whose prolonged stay in Turkey’s urban landscape is now becoming problematic for the locals who share the same space as them. The Syrians in the city who rent apartments, find employment, go to the mosque, visit the shopping mall, or simply ask for sadaka by selling tissues and cleaning car windows in traffic light are too close by to ignore. 

About the author

Oguz Alyanak, a McDonnell International Scholars Academy scholar, is pursuing his PhD in sociocultural anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis. He previously served as the Managing Editor of the Istanbul-based journal, Turkish Policy Quarterly.


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