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The Turkey Diaries, Part I

Reem Alsalem is the public information officer for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), based in Beirut. Earlier this month, she traveled to the Turkish-Syrian border to work with urban refugees and others living outside of designated refugee camps. As she worked, Alsalem agreed to keep a diary for us, recording what she saw.

Written by Reem Alsalem Published on Read time Approx. 9 minutes

June 2, 2013

Flying into Gaziantep airport and making our way to the hotel, I was truly surprised by the town. Somehow I had imagined it would be much smaller and less developed. It turns out that “Antep” [in southeastern Turkey] is home to 1.5 million people. It also used to be a twin city to Aleppo, with trade and economic ties stretching centuries back.

We checked in, and walked around a bit in the town. Thinking the demonstrations were over with our departure from Istanbul, we were stunned to find ourselves face to face with another group of people gathered in a park. One man was yelling something in a loudspeaker, while others were cheering, some of them with the essential gear in their hand: gas masks and flags. I expect danger in Syria, not in Turkey. We walked at a faster pace back to the hotel.

June 3

Our day starts with a meeting at the UNHCR office in Gaziantep. UNHCR, which has been present since 1960 in Turkey, never had a presence in this province until recently, with the onset of the Syria refugee crisis. Turkey has 19 refugee camps spread over nine provinces. They host 200,000 Syrian refugees, and 33,600 of those are in Gaziantep province. An additional 10,604 are believed to live outside of the camp.

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Out of all the UNHCR Syria operations I visited, Turkey’s is perhaps the most unusual. It’s in large part because Turkey took charge of assisting refugees, mounting an impressive response in which more than 400,000 Syrians were admitted into its territories. Half of those live in camps that are, by any standards, some of the best UNHCR has known. The rest live outside the camps in nearby cities and towns. Little is known about the conditions of Syrian refugees that live outside of the camps. They’ve seemingly been able to manage with their savings, or with the support they have gotten from Turkish charity organizations.

But two years into the conflict, while goodwill still exists among Turkey’s NGOs and civil society, there is no doubt that resources are not as plentiful as before, and fatigue is setting in. Finding work in Turkey has also become more of a challenge, making it difficult to find a place whose rent refugees can afford. Refugees in urban areas have continued to struggle silently to make ends meet. But it seems that they have reached a breaking point, unable to carry on.

Turkey must have known this, because the government recently began the new practice of registering the out-of-camp refugees that are spread across its cities. At a minimum, registration will allow refugees access to health services. UNHCR will be funding 10 of these registration sites. Yet it is clear that access to health services alone will not be sufficient to keep the most vulnerable of Turkey’s Syrian refugee population afloat.

*

At the UNHCR Office in Gaziantep, we are met by our colleagues, a team of national and international staff. We get to “crash” one of their daily morning meetings, which helps me understand the context they work in and the issues they grapple with.

“While it would be important to see the camps and get a feel for them, it is really the population outside the camps that I would like to see,” I say. “We know they have a tough life, but so far we know very little of them.” This has been partly because it has been difficult to establish meaningful contact.

Last week, some colleagues came across a border restaurant that belongs to a Syrian, where one conversation led to another with the owner and then the customers – most of whom were Syrians.

So, following our intuition, we decide that for today, the urban registration center and the restaurant could be my photographer Elena’s and my starting point to try and establish contact with Gaziantep’s urban refugees.

Getting into the Coordination Center (another term for Registration Center) turns out to be different from what I had imagined. The number of people crowding in front of it is certainly smaller than what I had seen in Lebanon and even Egypt. This is probably because urban profiling and this center are relatively new processes. Despite the small numbers, you can feel the tension. People look visibly agitated.

We enter and present ourselves to the manager. “Here, we register around 600-700 people a day,” he tells us. “The vast majority come from Aleppo.” Then while going over some basic data, a fight erupts at the door. A Syrian refugee, frustrated at having had to wait for hours without being able to get in, tries to force his way in. From there, the situation spirals out of control. A fistfight between the refugee and security ensues, but is fast put down by additional security that is called in.

Fearing that things may turn ugly, we start to make our way out. But the situation is quickly diffused. They’re used to this here. Not wanting to completely leave just yet, we hang around the entrance for a while. I then notice a young man in his late teens smoking a cigarette. In the midst of all the noise around us, he’s visibly calm and relaxed. I strike up a conversation with him, to see if he can give us any leads on where Syrian refugees may be concentrated.

Abdel Malik, as he is called, gives us the number of a Syrian friend of his, Amin, who he says might be able to help. He himself would be happy to accompany us, but would only be able to do so in the afternoon, once he has registered. After several attempts, he’s hopeful he will be able to do so today.

As we head to our car, my attention is drawn to a group of people – it looks like several families – who are standing apart from everyone on the other side of the street and staring at the center. I make a detour and walk towards them. They are Palestinians from Syria, they tell me. Apparently they had already registered, but they’ve come to get their cards. I am surprised and relieved to hear that Turkey registers Palestinian refugees like these without problems. It’s commendable, given that some other countries in the region have not been as generous.

We then proceeded to the restaurant that my colleagues had been to the week before. It’s not long before we are immersed in a long conversation with Omar, the Syrian owner. I am captivated by his personal story and his eloquence. This is a man who was extremely well off in Aleppo, having owned two big cloth factories with hundreds of workers. In the middle of last year, government forces occupied one while the opposition occupied another – a rather symbolic example of how civilians get caught in the middle of the conflict, in this case quite literally. He lost his income, as work in both came to a standstill.

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But Omar, like most Syrians I have come to know, tried to stay in Syria. He joined other residents in his town to try and find housing for the tens of thousands of Syrians that poured into Aleppo from other cities. They were housed in the 12 student dorms of the University of Aleppo. He continued doing so until the day the university and its student housing was shelled. This, he says, was the most painful day for him since the beginning of the conflict. Hundreds of people, many of whom he knew, died. It was also the day he realized he had to leave Syria.

I ask him why he chose Antep. “Well, it’s simple,” he says. “It was the closest, safest place to Aleppo. Plus in many ways there are a lot of things in it that remind me of my city.” Once here, Omar tried hard to get into the same line of work he had in Aleppo. Unfortunately, establishing a business in Turkey if you are a Syrian refugee is difficult, even though he had brought a substantial sum of money with him. He therefore redirected his efforts to focus on a less ambitious project: a restaurant.

No less interesting is Omar’s cook, whose story is a harsh reminder of how difficult the lives of Syrian refugees in urban areas can be. Samer, who is in his 70s, used to own a restaurant in Aleppo. He came here 20 days ago, with 24 other members of his family, after both his house and his restaurant were damaged in the fighting. Samer, who initially is hesitant to speak to us, takes us around to the backyard of the restaurant to show us where he’s been sleeping. Out in the air, on the ground, there is nothing but a prayer mat, a couple of clothes items hanging from a broken old door, and a mattress. “I had no choice,” he tells us, since the two rooms that he’d managed to find for reasonable rent are currently occupied by the 24 other family members.

We also speak to another woman, who works as a second cook. She is a widow from Aleppo, alone tonight in Antep with three of her children. The two others remain with her mother, as she does not have enough money to bring them all over. She recounts her horror in trying to find an affordable place to rent. Having come four months ago, she’s already moved three times. Since Syrian refugees started arriving in this city, rent prices are skyrocketing. Sometimes, landlords will ask for months of rent in advance. She says that had Omar not given her a job several days ago, she would have found herself on the street.

Concern about being able to afford rent is perhaps the primary concern for urban refugees. It’s safe to say that it comes even ahead of the worry for food or education, as it strikes at the heart of their feeling dignified, secure and protected.

*

By then it was time to call Amin, the young Syrian with whom Abdel Malik put us in contact. He takes us to a building where 54 single young men are living all together, crammed into five or six rundown rooms. Of those, we meet with only four, since the rest are out either at work or on a mission to find work. These men – between 19 and 25 — are all from Aleppo. All have spent time with opposition groups and decided they’d had enough of the conflict in Syria and came to Turkey. They are all disillusioned. “We will have a second Vietnam in Syria,” one predicts. They feel let down by everyone, and cannot see any light at the end of the tunnel. For the next hour, we listen to their description of Aleppo, which paints a picture of a ghost town – no work, no electricity, no water. Basic things have become expensive beyond description.  Bread now costs more than 10 times what it used to.

While they certainly have found safety in Turkey for which they are grateful, surviving here is difficult. The tide started turning with the May bombings in Reyhanli. Since then, mistrust towards Syrians has been felt in some corners. Other Turks have had one or two bad experiences with Syrians, so they paint everyone with the same brush. “We want the Turks to know that we are good people, and that if one makes a mistake it does not mean we are all responsible,” says Amin. He asks us to convey this to the Turkish public.

Our next stop takes us to a school that was launched by 24 Syrian teachers, also refugees, in October 2012. The school runs classes from first to sixth grade, and literacy classes for adults. It is one example of urban Syrian refugees trying to help themselves and others – often with the support of Turkish authorities. In this case, the municipality of Gaziantep supplied uniforms, made transportation available to the children that live far away, and is also paying the salaries for the teachers.

*

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By now, Abdel Malik is free to assist us. He takes us to a rundown building in a popular area of Gaziantep. We descend to the basement, two stores below the ground. At the entrance we are met by a very strong smell of excretion, sweat and dirt. As we go down into the basement, it is almost pitch black. The air is so stuffy we can hardly breathe. As we walk inside, we get to two rooms next to each other. In them, a dozen men and young boys are sitting at sewing machines. A few dirty mattresses are spread on the floor. Murad, a man in his 40s, comes to greet us and welcomes us to his shop. Murad is a tailor from Aleppo who fled seven months ago to Gaziantep. Not having any money, he left his wife and children in a border town with Turkey. Even though the place where he lives and works seem appalling, Murad surprises us with his statement that he considers himself lucky. He managed to find a Syrian merchant who hired him as the head tailor, and they’ve managed to legalize this humble business. He says it now employs Syrians and Turks alike.

(This piece represents Alsalem’s views and not those of her employer.)

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