Syrian Refugees: Families Facing Years in Turkey
Last winter, I traveled to Gaziantep, Turkey to photograph Syrian refugees living in the city. Recently, I returned to Gaziantep to see how the families are doing. Only an hour from the Syrian border, Gaziantep has been under tremendous pressure from hundreds of thousands of new refugees. The number of refugees fleeing the war in Syria has created the biggest global refugee crisis since World War II.
Last year, the Turkish government had registered about one million refugees. Today, the number of refugees in Turkey is 2.5 million.
Overall, the conditions of the refugees have not improved, but they have stabilized. Most of the children I spoke with last year were eager to go to school. None were able to. Most kids over the age of 11 are now working in formal but illegal jobs that pay no more than 50 cents to $1 an hour. The older children are employed in factories. Younger children work in shops.
Child labor is exacerbated by their parents’ inability to work legally in Turkey. In a destructive cycle, as more children enter the work force, it becomes harder for adults to find jobs. Many of the women I visited had small sewing jobs last year, but this year, they couldn’t find work.
All of the women I visited had babies in the last year. The babies are not considered Turkish citizens. Last year, Syrian refugees were legally identified as “guests.” This year, the families have registered with the Turkish government for “temporary foreign” identity cards, which they are required to renew after one year.
Photos on the left are from December 2014, photos on the right are from January 2016.
Feride, age 3, was an underdeveloped baby with chronic illness. Her mom says she has made a full recovery. In the photo on the left, Feride is drinking tea with sugar, a common substitute for food among Syrian refugees. Even at her young age, in the right-hand photo, Feride chooses to smile without showing her teeth because they are totally decayed and black.
Feride’s namesake is her grandmother, who was born and raised in Turkey but does not hold Turkish citizenship. Feride (senior) is considered “stateless.” She spent her life in circular migration from the former Soviet Union (now Georgia and Abkhazia) to Turkey and Syria. Many Syrian refugees, particularly those from Aleppo or northern Syria, are comfortable in Turkey because migration in the region has gone on for centuries.
“Gaziantep is just like Aleppo,” she told me. “Except in Aleppo, there is a war. Everyone we know is here.”
Feride’s sister, Fatima, is now 12 years old and posed this year with her headscarf. She works outside the home in a shop in Gaziantep for 45 cents an hour. “I can’t wait to buy a cell phone,” she told me.
Fatima and her brother support the family with their incomes. Her brother works in a factory, making pants.
Seven people live in their two room apartment. They share a rough “kitchen” and a bathroom with their extended family, in total, 14 people.
Haloud, age 11, is Fatima and Feride’s cousin. She works in the house and helps take care of her new baby cousin. She does not go to school, which is a huge disappointment to her.
Haloud’s father is still in Syria and will not come to Turkey. Occasionally, she is able to speak with him by phone.
“Do you think I look prettier this year? Or last year?” she asked with a smile.
This family of 9 lives together in an apartment with two rooms and a kitchen. In the picture on the right (L to R): Amira, 17; Yusuf, 11; Leyla holds Mehmet, 3 months old; Ahmad, 4; Asma, 13; and Mustafa, 16. This year, the family welcomed a new baby. They sold the couch when the baby came.
Nura, 21, is pictured in red in the photo on the left but declined to be photographed this year. She still lives at home. Together, Mustafa and Nura are the breadwinners for this family. They work in a factory, six days a week for about nine hours each day. Mustafa earns about $1 per hour. Nura earns about 75 cents.
The girls told me boys come around a lot but their father is very protective and none of them are allowed in. Nura says she has a lot of interest from young men who want to get married. But because her income supports the family, it is unlikely that her parents will let her move away to start her own family.
The two younger girls don’t work outside of the home. They don’t go to school, either. The family left Syria three years ago and none of the children have been to school since then. Only Nura and Mustafa are able to read.
Of the girls, only Nura wears a headscarf outside of the house. Amira (in pink in the right photo) is old enough to wear the hijab, but she has declined to do so. She told me she doesn’t want to because “I’m Kurdish, not Arab.”
Last year, Asma, age 13, was extremely determined to go to school. She is exceptionally bright. Unfortunately, the family just couldn’t make it happen. The school told her there were fees to take the bus. Later, they told her the bus had no room.
She does not work outside of the house. “My mom doesn’t want us to,” she said, speaking about herself and her sister, Amira.
She doesn’t do much all day except watch television. She is very bored. Like other Syrian refugee children who have been out of school a long time, she no longer remembers how to read.
From another Syrian family, Muhammed, 16, is pictured with his brothers. He works in a factory making jeans like the ones he wears in the right hand photograph. He had the same job last year.
This year, I encountered Muhammed on the street with a group of his friends and hardly recognized him. His mother laughed, “He is like a man now, I know.”
He helps support his family. His younger brother also works in the factory. The family totals eleven people, who live together in two rooms.
Muhammed Nur is Muhammed’s younger brother. He is 13 years old and works two days on, two days off in a factory making pants.
He makes about $1 per hour. He would like to work more days, but the factory manager staggers the employee hours to give more people a chance to work.
Mustafa, age 5, is one of Muhammed Nur’s younger brothers. Last year, he was just a toddler. This year, he is on the move all the time and less easily entertained.
There are no toys in the house. He watches cartoons all day.
Marya, age 6, is growing up in another neighborhood in Gaziantep. She spends everyday begging in the streets. Her mom says she earns about 5 Turkish Lira (or $1.70) each day.
“But the police don’t like it,” her mother says.
Police have been cracking down on begging children over the past year. Locals have been troubled by the thousands of unsupervised children in Gaziantep streets. I found Marya begging in the same spot as last year. She is a very spirited little girl but seemed generally more subdued and less happy than she was a year ago. Her family dresses her as a boy, which she seems to prefer.
Ahmad, 7, is Marya’s brother. He is often on the streets with Marya, but he prefers playing over begging and is less determined to make money. He plays with rocks and broken things he finds on the ground.
Ahmad’s father works as a mason in Istanbul and travels back to Gaziantep each month to visit the family and bring money. Last year, I photographed his cousin and his aunt, but they have since moved to Ankara.
His family was living in an abandoned building last year. Now, they have a small room nearby.