Syrians in Turkey adapt to new life as going home seems remote
Though Turkey has become a haven for Syrian refugees, tensions are rising
Members of the Bin Ti Mohammed family, Syrian refugees who fled Aleppo, at their home in Gaziantep, Turkey. Photograph: EPA/Sedat Suna
The air at Tarboush restaurant in Istanbul is thick with Syrian Arabic. Every day, dozens of families and couples displaced by the war come for a slice of home: they’re here for the bitter hummus and tabbouleh salad, the fried aubergines and flatbread that’s uncommon elsewhere in this city.
Nizar Bitar, the manager of Tarboush, has been banished from his home in Damascus for more than three years. His criticism of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s government is fierce. “Is that a real election? The election smells like the Barada river in Damascus; you know how it smells? It stinks,” he said of last week’s poll.
With Syria’s much-criticised presidential election on June 3rd seeing Assad win more than 88 per cent of a flawed vote, and sectarian violence rooted in the unrest in Syria spilling into Iraq this week, few here say their chances of returning to Syria are improving.
More than 700,000 Syrians are recorded as refugees in Turkey. Many live in camps organised by the Turkish government and are assisted by international aid agencies.
A sizable chunk of Syria’s former middle class is here in Istanbul, where, according to one Turkish non-governmental organisation, about 300,000 Syrians now live.
Syria’s displaced have been welcomed by Turkey’s AK Party-led government and are in many cases allowed to work, receive subsidised or free medical care, and move freely around the country.
Elsewhere in the region, however, such as in south Lebanon, where support for Shia militant group and Syria regime ally Hizbullah is strong, few Syrians are seeking refuge.
Restaurant manager Bitar believes the sectarianism dominating many countries across the Levant is a lever the Syrian regime uses to rally supporters to its side, including Iran, Hizbullah and Iraqi Shia militants.
But he is also critical of his fellow Syrians. “Who from the Alawites [in Syria] stood up with the revolution in 2011?” he said, referring to Syrians that come from Assad’s religious sect.
“One or two writers or artists, but even their own families disowned them; their families still support the regime.”
The sectarian hue dominating state and society in the Levant has this week seen the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (Isis), a Sunni jihadi group largely operating out of Syria, take control of several key Iraqi cities.
For its part, Iraq’s government, led by prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shia Muslim, has long fostered sectarianism by filling key positions in the Iraqi military and government with Shia Muslims, and has sidelined Arab Sunnis in Iraq, who make up about 20 per cent of the country’s population.
Though Turkey has become something of a haven for Syrian refugees, tensions here are growing. Last month, locals in Ankara set alight an apartment complex inhabited by Syrians after a verbal dispute. Rents have exploded in sections of Istanbul, with Syrians blamed.
Worst terrorist attack
In May, Turkey commemorated the first anniversary of its worst terrorist attack – a double car bomb in Reyhanli, a town on the Turkish-Syrian border, that killed 53 people and in which Syrian involvement is suspected.
Work is scarce for those not fluent in Turkish and many Syrians spend their time watching the unfolding violence and growing sectarianism at home in Syria, Lebanon and now Iraq in front of their television screens.
By its own estimate, the Turkish government has spent €2.1 billion to assist Syrian refugees. Many Turks view the Syrian conflict as Turkey’s biggest challenge at the moment.
Even as a recent report by the state’s emergency relief agency found that more than 250,000 had returned to Syria, an International Crisis Group report says many Syrians in Turkey will stay for years, even if the war ends.
For Syrians in Istanbul slowly adapting to a new way of life, returning home remains a thought, nothing more.
Ten kilometres north of Tarboush restaurant in Istanbul’s bustling Mecidiyekoy district, Mohammad al-Dandar, a psychologist from the Syrian-Iraqi border town of Al-Bukamal, slated the Syrian regime while saying he had no plans to return home.
“During the revolution, the regime made the decision to stay in power by any means possible. ‘Assad or we burn the country’ was written on walls around Syria. That is its politics,” he said.
The Syrian regime is flush from election victory and recent territorial gains on the battlefield that have in the eyes of its supporters reinforced its position of strength.
But with Damascus unable to defeat its rebel and jihadi opponents, the latter an increasingly powerful force in the shape of Isis, the wars in Syria and Iraq are set to rumble on.