Syria refugees un­set­tled in Turkey

They fear deep­en­ing po­lit­i­cal di­vi­sions in their host coun­try will put them in danger.

Los Angeles Times - - THE WORLD - By Shashank Ben­gali

IS­TAN­BUL, Turkey — The night of last year’s at­tempted coup in Turkey, Alaa Khaldi con­sid­ered pack­ing his bags.

The 31-year-old Syr­ian refugee from Damascus, who fled to Turkey in 2015, was wor­ried that Turk­ish Pres­i­dent Re­cep Tayyip Er­do­gan would fall. Er­do­gan’s Is­lamist govern­ment has opened Turkey’s doors to more than 3 mil­lion Syr­i­ans flee­ing the civil war in their coun­try, and Khaldi thought a new govern­ment might roll up the welcome mat.

“The main party is with us,” Khaldi said, re­fer­ring to Er­do­gan’s Jus­tice and De­vel­op­ment Party. “What hap­pens af­ter them, we don’t know.”

Er­do­gan sur­vived the at­tempted coup on July 15, 2016, and has amassed more power, im­pos­ing a seem­ingly in­def­i­nite state of emer­gency and deeply po­lar­iz­ing Turk­ish so­ci­ety. But Syr­i­ans liv­ing in Is­tan­bul worry that the widen­ing po­lit­i­cal di­vi­sions will put them at risk, par­tic­u­larly as their num­bers con­tinue to grow while Europe blocks refugees from en­ter­ing through Turkey.

“If the regime changes, we would def­i­nitely be at risk,” said Khaldi, who works at a soft­ware com­pany in cen­tral Is­tan­bul’s Fatih dis­trict, a densely pop­u­lated neigh­bor­hood with a large Syr­ian pop­u­la­tion.

Er­do­gan has cast Turkey’s ac­cep­tance of the refugees as a benev­o­lent project to­ward fel­low Mus­lims — and par­tic­u­larly Syria, which shares a his­tory with Turkey as both were un­der the rule of the Ot­toman Em­pire un­til 1922.

While Europe has tried to stop the flow of refugees and some Euro­pean coun­tries have been openly hos­tile to ar­rivals, Turkey has ab­sorbed the in­flux with rel­a­tively lit­tle un­rest. The vast ma­jor­ity of Syr­i­ans who work do so un­der the ta­ble, but Er­do­gan has of­fered a limited num­ber of work per­mits that could raise Syr­i­ans’ wages, and even f loated the idea last year of of­fer­ing Syr­i­ans the chance to ap­ply for Turk­ish cit­i­zen­ship.

That trig­gered a back­lash among many Turks, even Er­do­gan’s sup­port­ers. His an­nounce­ment came amid a smat­ter­ing of news re­ports al­leg­ing the in­volve­ment of Syr­i­ans in var­i­ous crimes, and soon the hash­tag, “I don’t want Syr­i­ans in my coun­try,” was trending on Turk­ish so­cial me­dia.

Er­do­gan’s po­lit­i­cal op­po­nents — who cas­ti­gate him as an in­creas­ingly au­thor­i­tar­ian fig­ure who has im­pris­oned tens of thou­sands since the failed coup — have also voiced con­cern about the large Syr­ian pres­ence.

Ke­mal Kil­ic­daroglu, who has emerged as per­haps the most in­flu­en­tial op­po­si­tion fig­ure af­ter lead­ing a mas­sive antigov­ern­ment demon­stra­tion in July, has called for a na­tional ref­er­en­dum on the Syr­ian cit­i­zen­ship ques­tion and said a grow­ing Syr­ian pop­u­la­tion would make it dif­fi­cult to iden­tify sus­pected mil­i­tants among them.

Er­do­gan has not changed his pol­icy, say­ing in a speech in late July that any­one who brought up sto­ries of Syr­i­ans caus­ing un­rest in Turkey was in ef­fect a ter­ror­ist.

About 300,000 Syr­ian refugees live in 26 camps run by the Turk­ish govern­ment, with the vast ma­jor­ity of the over­all pop­u­la­tion clus­ter­ing in cities like Is­tan­bul, Ankara, Izmir and Gaziantep, near the Syr­ian bor­der.

Syr­i­ans ac­count for 3.6% of Turkey’s pop­u­la­tion, and their pres­ence is ob­vi­ous in ar­eas like Fatih, where Syr­ian sweet shops and fast­food joints line the side­walks and signs on store­fronts are printed in Ara­bic script.

Such neigh­bor­hoods are un­de­ni­ably signs of Is­tan­bul’s cos­mopoli­tanism, but ex­perts also say there are un­der­ly­ing ten­sion and misun­der­stand­ings, par­tic­u­larly be­cause most Syr­i­ans don’t speak Turk­ish.

“In the be­gin­ning, the idea of a com­mon civ­i­liza­tion re­ally smoothed things over, but in the long run we’re see­ing these Syr­ian ghet­tos de­velop, es­pe­cially in ma­jor cities,” said Se­lim Koru, an an­a­lyst at the Eco­nomic Pol­icy Re­search Foun­da­tion of Turkey.

“Peo­ple in Syr­ian ghet­tos are go­ing to be re­sis­tant to learn­ing Turk­ish, ad­just­ing to Turk­ish cul­ture and tra­di­tions. So in the medium to long run, that could present some prob­lems,” Koru said.

At a small gro­cery store in Fatih, a 37-year-old shop­keeper from Damascus, who gave his name only as Ki­nan, said re­cently that nearly all his cus­tomers were Syr­ian. Turks prob­a­bly wouldn’t pa­tron­ize his store if they knew he was Syr­ian, he said.

“They ac­cept us, but they don’t re­ally like us,” he said.

Ki­nan, a med­i­cal en­gi­neer who fled Damascus in early 2016, lives in an apart­ment in Fatih with five other Syr­ian refugees. Since clashes broke out in May be­tween Turks and South Asian mi­grants in an­other part of the city, Ki­nan said, he is care­ful when he rides pub­lic tran­sit not to speak Ara­bic.

“Day af­ter day it will be­come worse for us — this is my fear,” said Ki­nan, who works to send money to his wife and son in Damascus. “On so­cial me­dia, you see sto­ries of Syr­i­ans be­ing at­tacked, even killed in Turkey. They feel we are tak­ing their jobs. They will be­come less ac­cept­ing of us.”

At a Syr­ian chicken res­tau­rant along Fatih’s main drag, Has­san Sakka, 15, from the Syr­ian city of Aleppo showed a scar on his ear from a fight he’d had that week with a Turk­ish neigh­bor who he said had tried to shake him down for money. The neigh­bor’s rea­son­ing, Has­san said, was that he didn’t have a job while Has­san and his cousin did.

“The re­la­tion­ship be­tween Syr­i­ans and Turk­ish peo­ple is just about work. There is no friendly re­la­tion­ship,” said Has­san’s cousin, Haytham Mah­moud.

The 26-year-old works in a fac­tory as­sem­bling boxes for about $350 a month along­side a dozen other men, all Syr­i­ans, to send money to his par­ents and two sis­ters in Aleppo.

“There is no friendly re­la­tion­ship,” Mah­moud said. “Here we just eat, sleep and work. Any of us would love to go back to Syria.”

shashank.ben­gali @la­times.com

‘On so­cial me­dia, you see sto­ries of Syr­i­ans be­ing at­tacked, even killed in Turkey. They feel we are tak­ing their jobs.’ — Ki­nan, shop­keepe r who gave only one name

Bu­lent Kilic AFP/Getty Images

A SYR­IAN refugee ar­rives at the Bab al Salam bor­der cross­ing into Turkey last year. The ris­ing refugee pop­u­la­tion is draw­ing a back­lash.

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