Istanbul, Turkey – “I spent all my life waiting and dreaming of this moment of change,” said Yassin al-Haj Saleh, one of Syria’s most prominent writers and political dissidents. “So, when the moment came, I could not leave the country.”
Saleh, who had been imprisoned for 16 years under Hafez al-Assad’s regime, was forced to go into hiding from Bashar al-Assad’s forces following the uprising against his rule in 2011. Saleh later escaped to rebel-controlled areas in Syria, but was then forced to hide from armed groups. “After two years, I felt I was being suffocated,” he recalled.
Just over nine months ago, Saleh decided he could no longer remain in Syria and left the country for the first time in his life. He joined the growing Syrian diaspora in Turkey, which is now estimated to number close to one million people.
In Turkey, Syrian refugees are frequently marginalised, Saleh said, but he hoped that opening a Syrian cultural centre in Istanbul – called Hamisch (“margin” in Arabic) – could foster better understanding between the two communities. “I think Syrians want to build their lives here, but want to return to their country at the first opportunity,” he said.
The first significant movement of Syrian refugees into Turkey began in April 2011. In October that same year, the Turkish government established an ‘open-door’ policy towards Syrian refugees.
But the influx of displaced Syrians since then has caused rising tensions with locals, and several attacks on refugees have been reported in recent weeks. On July 14, a group of masked assailants, wielding knives and batons, threatened Syrian refugee shopkeepers in Adana. Similar attacks have taken place in Istanbul and Ankara, among other major cities.
Senay Ozden, a co-founder of the Hamisch centre, said that the problems can be attributed to a lack of contact between the two communities. “There is not really any relation at the social level,” Ozden said.
Earlier this week, a group of 15 Turkish civil society groups issued a statement urging the government to protect Syrian refugees in Turkey. “We have to look for ways for a harmonious coexistence between Syrians living under very difficult circumstances and citizens of Turkey. The state has a responsibility to prevent attacks against Syrians,” said Metin Corabatir, deputy director of the Center for Immigration and Asylum Studies.
The United Nations’ refugee agency (UNHCR) estimates that nearly 790,000 Syrians are registered as refugees in Turkey, but the total number of Syrians sits closer to one million. Only about 220,000 live in government-run refugee camps, while the remainder live in Turkish cities, villages and towns.
Most of them don’t have proper accommodation, they don’t have enough money to get food, and they can’t get employment.
Syrian refugees in Turkey are provided with accommodation, education, health-care and shopping vouchers in the refugee camps. Yet these camps tend to be located far from urban areas, and many Syrians feel trapped, isolated or under pressure. Many have moved to cities, even though they receive less support from the government there than in the camps.
Mazlumder, a Turkish human rights organisation, reported that more than 200,000 Syrian refugees were living in Istanbul alone. Ahmet Faruk Unsal, the group’s president, said that life is harsh for many Syrians living in Turkey’s major cities and some of them end up begging on the streets. “Most of them don’t have proper accommodation, they don’t have enough money to get food, and they can’t get employment,” he said.
Omer Kaya volunteers as the general coordinator of the Platform. He said that beyond emergency relief, education is one of the biggest issues facing Syrian refugees in Istanbul.
“In Istanbul and Turkey, there are many Syrian schools but there are still not enough,” Kaya said, explaining that the Platform plans to open a school for around 500 Syrian students, but the scale of the issue is daunting. UNICEF has estimated that 74 percent of school-age Syrian children outside of the camps do not attend school.
Turkish labour laws make it difficult for Syrian refugees to work legally and, while this means that Syrian refugees are at increased risk of exploitation, the growing number entering the informal jobs market is forcing down wages for the rest of the population. In some areas, an influx of Syrians has caused rents to soar, causing antipathy.
In a recent report for the Brookings Institution, Kemal Kirisci warned that “the public in Turkey is growing weary of the Syrian refugees and increasingly sees them as a burden“. Kirisci called on the Turkish government to embark on a comprehensive needs assessment to better inform Syrians about their rights and how to access services, and to “prepare the public for the reality that Syrian refugees are likely to be in Turkey for a while to come”.
At the Hamisch centre, which is currently operating on a small scale and has limited funds, co-founders Saleh and Ozden said they hoped to inculcate a sense of inclusion among Syrian refugees in Turkish society.
So far, Hamisch has hosted a range of film screenings, talks and seminars. When they hosted a talk about the book Diaries of an Unfinished Revolution, organisers were encouraged when over 100 people – a mix of Syrians and Turks – turned up.
“Our aim is to have creative activities; lectures, arts, cinema, music and literature that reflect more libertarian values related to our struggle,” Saleh said. “Culture can be a weapon in the struggle.”