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Since the emergence of the Syrian diaspora, Syrians have been at the center of public storms in their host countries on a number of different occasions, including festive ones such as New Year’s Eve. During the last night of 2018, a group of young Syrian men stirred Turkish public opinion after gathering in Istanbul’s famous Taksim Square by dancing and chanting loudly: “Syria! Syria!” while raising the Syrian revolutionary flag.
The video of the incident was taken by a young Turkish man, a sympathizer of Turkish right-wing nationalist parties, and was posted on Twitter with the hashtag “#ÜlkemdeSuriyeliİstemiyorum” which means “I don’t want Syrians in my country”. This hashtag has been frequently used as a rallying cry among many Turkish people angered by several incidents related to the Syrian refugees in Turkey, which tend to take place especially during public holidays.
The hashtag, which remained a top trend on Turkish Twitter for many days after the Taksim Square dancing incident, has again raised the question of the situation of Syrian refugees in Turkey. While a minority of Turkish intellectuals and public figures used the hashtag to tweet about their positive sentiments towards Syrian refugees, the overwhelming majority of tweets demonstrated hostility against Syrians with a long list of accusations including “changing the face of Turkish cities,” “chilling while Turkish soldiers are dying in Syria,” and “being the reason for the high levels of unemployment in Turkey.”
On the same night of the Syrian dancing ‘incident’ in Istanbul, a German right-wing activist posted a video of an Arabic-looking person beating up some Germans, including the person who took the video, in a train station close to the city of Cologne, without providing adequate details about the reason behind the fight.
The video taken in Germany spawned a big debate on Syrian social media platforms. The Syrian who beat the Germans posted a video on Facebook to explain that he and his German wife had an argument with them on the train, and that is what led to the fight.
Opinions on Syrian social media were divided between people who supported what the Syrian man did – considering it a ‘victory’ for his manhood – and people who found his violent behavior during the incident as disrespectful and selfish, as it might negatively impact the huge group of Syrian refugees in Germany who aim to live a peaceful and respectful life.
Legal Status and Social Behavior
According to the latest numbers, Turkey hosts 3.6 million Syrians, making Syria’s northern neighbor the host of the highest number of Syrian refugees in the world. The term refugee is not used here to refer to the legal situation of Syrians in Turkey because, contrary to the overwhelming perception, Syrians do not hold legal refugee status in Turkey. Instead, they are granted a status called “temporary protection,” which helps them to access free health care, and to have some other basic rights, such as renting an apartment or buying a phone line.
In light of the current legal status they hold in Turkey, the majority of Syrians in Turkey work illegally in factories based in the big cities for long hours, without any kind of insurance or help by integration programs that might aid them in adapting to their new life in Turkey. The 3.6 million Syrians live on the margins of Turkish society without any kind of political or cultural representation, and continue to spark heated public debates among the Turkish people each time they ‘appear’ on the surface. As previously mentioned, incidents like the dancing ‘event’ on New Year’s Eve occur during the public holidays in Turkey – the only time Syrian workers have to spend outside of their factories and shared rooms.
The Taksim video has appeared during a complicated and tense moment in Turkish political history
The Taksim video has appeared during a complicated and tense moment in Turkish political history in which we find, among other events, large numbers of Turkish soldiers in northern Syria. It is this factor that fuels the most common comment regarding the appearance of Syrians in Turkish public space: “Why they don’t go and fight in Syria?”
Moreover, the Taksim video has come in the context of a lost battle between anti-AKP forces consisting of a diverse collection of individuals, such as environmentalists, left-wing liberals, and Kurdish nationalists, and the AKP government. The battle appeared in the form of the Gezi Park demonstrations in 2013 in Taksim Square, and ended with a defeat for the anti-AKP forces to a rising Islamist hegemony.
The face of the neighborhood of Beyoğlu has changed rapidly over the past few years, moving from a liberal, artistic, and multicultural country to a commercial market visited mostly by Arab tourists, who are linked to their fellow Arab Syrians in the eyes of Turkish public. The Taksim video was not isolated from these factors.
Is there really a cultural clash?
Regarding the German-Syrian incident on New Year’s Eve, one can ask why it happened in a country where Syrian refugees have decent legal recognition granted by state institutions, and where serious policies are being made by the state to integrate Syrians and other refugees into the economic and social structure.
Looking at both incidents, it is noticeable that Syrian men are present in both celebrations, while Syrian women are completely absent from the public space in the host countries’ streets. The absence of women in public spaces is a clear reflection of the social structure in the Syrian society in which women are systematically subjected to male domination and oppression. As a result, the patriarchal component of Syrian society cannot be isolated from all the noise provoked when it comes to the issue of refugees in public spaces. It is worth noting that the wife of the Syrian man in the Cologne train incident was German, not Syrian.
Syrian refugees have fled their country while carrying all their unsolved social and cultural problems on their shoulders, and it is unreasonable to neglect such structural and social issues while discussing Syrian refugee-related problems in their host countries, especially while the overwhelming number of Syrian asylum seekers makes it more complicated to solve such complex problems without decent political and cultural representation for them.
The New Year’s Eve incident was taking place in a festive atmosphere, but Syrian refugees have been subject to violent attacks in most of their host countries including Germany, Lebanon, and Turkey. There is also no guarantee that Syrians will not be exposed to such attacks in the future, given the fragile legal status of the millions of them living abroad.
Seven years after the beginning of the refugee question, the situation of Syrians in the diaspora is still fragile to an extent that a happy and short dance made by Syrians in ‘other people’s cities’ is considered to be a danger, while the criminal powers who are responsible for the displacement of millions of Syrians from their own cities are ceaselessly dancing on the rubbles of the Syrian cities that once rebelled against the Assad regime.