War in Syria: Meet Turkey’s New Guests
Reporting from Gaziantep, Turkey.
Marya looked me in the eye and told me her mom was dead.
“Ölmüş,” she said, without a wisp of deceit. Then she tucked her hands under her chin, closed her eyes and feigned death. When I met her mom, a few minutes later, Marya shrugged.
Her sister laughed, “You told her our mom was dead?”
In truth, Marya’s mother is very much alive, but since the family left Syria, they’re desperate enough to say anything. It’s not far-fetched. Since 2011, nearly 200,000 people have been killed in Syria’s civil war. The fighting forced three million people, like Marya, to flee their homes and find safety.
“And where do you sleep?” I ask Marya. She is only five years old, but every inch of it.
“Right here,” she says.
Turkey is now home to 1.6 million Syrian refugees. One quarter of them live in this city, Gaziantep, about 60 miles from the border. Marya points to a patch of grass next to the road. She explains how each night she combs away the trash and curls up alone to fall asleep. She is very compelling. She has an earnest face. She looks like she’s running for Congress.
Everyone has a job
Actually, Marya lives with her mom in an abandoned room nearby. Marya is trying to play me and I can’t hold it against her. Among refugees, everyone needs a job to make ends meet, even the kids. Marya’s job is to conjure up compassion.
The World Food Program identifies begging as a “negative coping strategy” for families who are “food insecure.” Other negative coping strategies include buying food on credit, skipping meals, or parents forsaking their own dinner so their kids can eat.
Marya and her siblings aren’t starving; they just aren’t sure where their next meal will come from.
Turkey has designated Syrian refugees as temporary guests, which gives them the right to be here, but prohibits them from working. 90% have received no aid at all. Gaziantep has some industry, but few factory owners will take the risk to hire illegally. Discrimination is high and most refugees work on the black market. They collect trash, do odd jobs or work in small shops. Many earn money like Marya, on the streets, and locals are tired of begging children and their parents.
I watch as a local man tries to “shoo” Marya away, then kicks one of the other kids in her gang. Marya is relentless.
She ducks, she dodges, then she’s at it again.
Gaziantep is one of the oldest cities in the world. From here, the Euphrates river flows to Syria and then Iraq. It is the northernmost part of the Fertile Crescent, history’s “cradle of civilization.” The city is so old that every few years they build a new road and discover national treasures they forgot about. It is continuously under construction. Look closely in this city and there are walls inside of walls inside of walls. It’s easy to find a crawl space to call home.
Marya’s “house” is a construction site. Like many others, she lives on the edge of a renovation that never was. Marya’s neighbor, Yusef, shares a concrete room and a yard. For rent, his family pays 100 Turkish Lira per month, about $45. Yusef is 11 years old and the primary the wage-earner in his family. He collects plastic bottles for money.
Yusef introduces me to his neighbor Ahmet. Then Ahmet introduces me to his neighbor, Mohammed. Mohammed introduces me to everyone. I meet Khaled, Emira, Nura, Asma. Then Maryam, Mehmet, Feride and Fatima. The kids collect bottles, pick up pieces of paper, work in factories, sew sequins on sweaters. They are impossibly industrious, even when, like Marya, their job is to beg.
No signs of leaving
Room after room in this shabby corner of the city is rented by Syrian refugees. They have pillows, carpets and blankets to cover the ground. Most have a small stove for heat and cooking. Everyone has a television. Cooking pots. Tea pot. After that, the list runs thin. They have each other.
Locals say that since the refugee influx, rents have increased and job opportunities declined. In August, anti-refugee clashes erupted after a Syrian man allegedly stabbed and killed his Turkish landlord.
Like the Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda, or the Serbs and Croats in Bosnia, Turkey is home to long-standing tensions between ethnic and linguistic groups. When the Ottoman Empire ended in the 1910’s, and Turkey became its own country, boundaries were drawn and fates determined. Today, the word Turkish in the Turkish language is defined much in the way that Japan defines being Japanese, with a clear ethnic and linguistic ideal in mind.
One of the reasons people in Gaziantep don’t like the refugees is that they speak Arabic and various dialects of the Kurdish people. Marya has learned Turkish as a matter of survival. In public, she is careful to speak to her brother and sister in Turkish, as well. The language barrier is more challenging for older refugees.
Marya’s neighbor, Feride, is 62 years old and lives with her 11 children and grandchildren in a half-finished apartment. Only 2% of the refugees are older than 60.
“What will you do when the war is over?” I ask her. “Will you go home?” I’d like to know if her family is, in fact, temporary.
“Let’s have some tea,” she says, inviting me to stay. I’m surprised when she answers in Turkish, instead of Arabic.
As it turns out, Feride is Turkish. Which is to say, she was born in Turkey and grew up in Turkey. Her father was born in Russia and her mother was born in Syria. Feride’s family was part of a pattern that experts identify as “circular migration.” Her parents moved in and out of Turkey for work. Some countries, like the United States, can be called immigration countries. Others, like Mexico, are emigration countries. Turkey is a bit of both. People come and go.
But unlike the United States, or European Union, workers in this part of the world cannot circulate legally between states. Many of Syria’s refugees have been here before, for various reasons. Although technically refugees, they resemble migrant workers.
Feride has no papers or record of her birth, and her mother tongue was Arabic. For those reasons, Feride says she is Syrian, despite being born and raised in Turkey. Lately, she is from Aleppo, where her house was destroyed by a bomb. She is, oddly, a refugee in the country where she was born.
“Everyone I know is already here,” she says. She has her granddaughter on her lap, drinking tea out of a bottle.
Life was difficult in Syria too she says, and she contends that their standard of living here is bad, though not much worse.
“There’s one thing you need to understand.” She speaks carefully.
“This place is just like Aleppo. Except in Aleppo, there’s a war.”