Gaziantep, Turkey – On a wall inside the Qasr al-Omaraq cafe near Gaziantep University, the Aleppo Today news channel plays on a large television screen.
Sipping tea and occasionally glancing at the news feed, cafe owner Ali Yousef recalls fleeing less than two years earlier from Manbij, a Syrian city just an hour’s drive east of Aleppo. Branded as a Kurdish “collaborator” by fighters with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group, who seized his restaurant in Manbij, the 47-year-old sought refuge across the border in Turkey.
Upon arrival in Gaziantep, Yousef followed what he knew, launching a cafe that catered to both Turkish and Syrian customers. Although his experience has been largely positive, a ribbon of tension continues to flutter between the two communities, he says.
“Syrian cars have special licence plates. Some Turks will see these plates and harass them because they don’t want them here, just because they’re Syrian. There is also harassment on social media,” Yousef tells Al Jazeera, noting that while some Turks accuse Syrians of harming the economy, he believes their presence has been a net positive.
“When I arrived in Gaziantep, [the Syrian presence] had already changed the city,” he says. “The price of housing skyrocketed and the economy has benefited. Syrians take taxis everywhere, so taxi drivers are benefiting. Syrians are hard workers and will work wherever we go.”
Renowned for its rich history and unique cuisine, Gazientep is one of Turkey’s oldest cities and among its most populous, home to nearly two million people. Originally named Antep, the city adopted the prefix Gazi (meaning “veteran”) in the 1920s to commemorate those who fought against the French during the Turkish independence war.
In the aftermath of a devastating blast at a Gaziantep wedding party in August, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim harkened back to that battle, pledging that the city would show the same spirit in its response to the ongoing ISIL threat: “Our grief is great, but be sure our unity and togetherness will defeat all these diabolic attacks,” he said.
Today, Gaziantep is a city in flux, affected deeply by the events continuing to unfold across the border in Syria. The flow of Syrian refugees has swelled its population by nearly a quarter, with approximately 350,000 people seeking shelter in Gaziantep. The price of rented accommodation has skyrocketed, while competition for jobs has fuelled tensions between Turkish and Syrian residents, occasionally leading to violence.
In places such as the Turkmenler Caddesi neighbourhood, where many Syrian refugees are now living, it is an uneasy coexistence.
“Before the Syrians came, I was renting a house for 200 or 300 Turkish liras [$66-$100]. Now, if I want to rent it’s up to 600 liras,” Nadim Dogan, a 42-year-old Turkish convenience shop owner, told Al Jazeera.
Standing behind a red countertop stacked with rows of gum and candy, Dogan said that the new-found economic challenges have fostered significant resentment among Turks. Some business owners now prefer to hire Arabic speakers who are better able to cater to the large and growing Syrian community, he said, while in other cases, Syrians have been undercutting the prices of goods in Turkish stores by selling items more cheaply through their own informal shops.
In sectors including education, livelihoods and health, both the host community and refugees need more help.
“I charge one lira [for a pack of gum]; they charge a half-lira,” he said.
In a small pharmacy across the street, Turkish worker Ahmed Geng was also critical of the Syrian influx, alleging that it has made the city less safe.
“Before they came, it was not crowded like this … There have been many changes,” Geng, 32, told Al Jazeera.
“It has become dangerous. We can’t leave our homes because of the threat of bombs in some neighbourhoods. [I believe] the government should find a safe place for the Syrians and take them to live there.”
In fact, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has announced plans to create a “safe zone” for Syrians along a swath of northern Syria. Significant progress towards that goal was made last month, when rebels backed by coalition forces pushed ISIL (also known as ISIS) out of the strategic Syrian town of Jarablus.
But Ahmad Primo, an independent Syrian journalist and activist who has been living in Gaziantep for more than two years, described comments such as Geng’s as unfair, citing no causative link between the influx of refugees and increased violence in the region. Refugees simply want to survive, he noted – and violence among armed groups has negatively affected both communities.
“Terror attacks inside Turkey are not just harming Turks. They are harming Syrians even more. There have been at least five Syrian activists or journalists killed in Gaziantep recently. They have been targeted by ISIS,” Primo told Al Jazeera, noting that Kurdish rebels seeking self-determination have also destabilised the country’s southeast.
“Syrians should not be blamed for this.”
Many Syrians believe they have been made scapegoats for ISIL’s actions after the group, taking advantage of Gaziantep’s proximity to the Syrian border, reportedly established a transportation network in the city, including “guesthouses” for new recruits.
ISIL has been linked to two major bombings in Gaziantep this year, including the August wedding attack and an earlier bombing at a local police station. Locals say that they have grown used to living under a near-constant state of heightened security: In the span of one week last month, a warning was issued about a “terror cell” plotting to target western businesses in Gaziantep; AK Party facilities were reportedly cleared out in the face of a threat; and the Sanko Park mall was evacuated after a suspected explosive device was found.
They are considered as a population which will return to their homes. But it is now the sixth year of the crisis. They cannot see their future.
“Turkey failed, from the beginning of the Syrian crisis, to separate the armed elements from refugees,” Metin Corabatir, president of the Ankara-based Research Centre on Asylum and Migration, told Al Jazeera. “Many wounded fighters, not necessarily ISIS members, received medical treatment and went back to Syria. There was a general fear among the population about the existence and influence of ISIS.”
Gaziantep Mayor Fatma Sahin acknowledged in an interview with Al Jazeera that the city was initially unprepared for the massive refugee influx, but since then, substantial efforts have been made to tighten security and integrate Syrians into the community.
“We do have programmes, including a quota system, so that 10 percent of schools can be filled by Syrians. This helps us to bring them together to know each other … The government is also protecting Turkish and Syrian workers; 10 percent of spaces in Turkish factories must be given to Syrian workers,” Sahin said.
Corabatir cited other successes over the past five years, noting that in the long-term, “there are social interactions which will have positive cultural impacts. Gaziantep University started to open departments with an Arabic curriculum. These and similar developments bring the Arab and Turkish cultures closer to each other.”
Throughout Turkey, there are nearly three million Syrian refugees, with the country hosting the largest number of refugees anywhere in the world last year, noted Selin Unal, a spokeswoman for the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, in Turkey.
Syrians in Turkey have been given “temporary protection” by the government, which legalises their stay and enables them to benefit from assistance, medical care and access to education and jobs, Unal told Al Jazeera.
“Given that some 90 percent of the Syrian refugee population lives outside of the camps alongside the host community, support for the host communities is imperative, as in some cases, refugees outnumber the host population, putting pressure on local resources,” she said. “In sectors including education, livelihoods and health, both the host community and refugees need more help.”
Back inside Qasr al-Omaraq, Yousef says that he will soon be looking to sell his cafe business and return to Manbij, which was liberated from ISIL in August. He lost three relatives during the course of the conflict, but his old restaurant is now back in his family’s hands.
“Life is less expensive [in Syria],” he says, noting that a kilo of yogurt costs three time as much in Gaziantep as in Manbij, and electricity six times as much. “I want to go back.”
Yousef is not alone. Many Syrians remain intent on returning to their home towns and villages once safety is restored – and whenever Syria’s civil war reaches its end, Gaziantep is sure to face another major demographic and cultural shift.
In the meantime, Corabatir says that the city’s attempts at refugee accommodation have yielded mixed results. While the problems plaguing Syrians both in the city and in refugee camps – including child labour, forced marriages and human trafficking – are overwhelming, Corabatir believes that the biggest challenge lies in their “temporary” status.
“They are considered as a population which will return to their homes. But it is now the sixth year of the crisis. They cannot see their future,” he said, noting that in the absence of an official integration scheme, “the Syrian refugees have tried hard and suffered a lot to survive in the city … They have contributed to the economy of the city, but they remain in the margins of society.”
Follow Megan O’Toole on Twitter: @megan_otoole