Gaziantep, Turkey – Located just an hour’s drive from the Syrian border, the Turkish city of Gaziantep has become a massive intake point for refugees fleeing Syria’s civil war, now into its sixth year.
Its proximity to the conflict has also made Gaziantep a target for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS), with the group blamed for an attack on a wedding party that killed more than 50 people last month. The city, meanwhile, has been under a heightened state of security for the past week, contributing to increased tensions on the streets.
Gaziantep Mayor Fatma Sahin spoke with Al Jazeera about the refugee influx and the challenges of maintaining security in a border city.
Al Jazeera: How have the past five years reshaped Gaziantep?
Fatma Sahin: When the revolution in Syria began, we tried to support the Syrian people, to protect their lands and their country from separation. As with every war, it affected the neighbouring countries and cities: Antakya, Gaziantep, Urfa and other cities and provinces. The population of Gaziantep increased by 20 percent very quickly. We weren’t aware it would happen so quickly, so we were not prepared, but we quickly started to prepare.
When I became mayor, there were just 3,000 Syrian children in Turkish schools here, and now there are 70,000. We are working very closely with the ministry to help get the 30,000 who have been left out, into the schools. There are 350,000 Syrians living in Gaziantep, 50,000 inside the camps and the rest outside of the camps.
When we realised this crisis would not be over any time soon, we thought about long-term and middle-term projects. Half of the Syrians are children, and the biggest issue was education. We were aware that if we did not fix this problem, a generation would be lost.
Al Jazeera: Amid this influx, tensions have periodically flared up between Turkish and Syrian residents of Gaziantep, with disputes over issues such as the economic impacts of the refugee crisis. What is being done to address this?
Sahin: Some citizens may be worried about their jobs, the economic struggles, the financial situation, because it has affected some businesses. The Syrian community established 700 factories here in Gaziantep alone. They have engineers and workers. They are part of 40 industrial areas in Turkey in general.
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. We are similar, but we also have differences. It’s not something bad – our differences are good.
The government is also protecting Turkish and Syrian workers; 10 percent of spaces in Turkish factories must be given to Syrian workers. With that, we are protecting our Turkish workers, and in the meantime giving Syrians an opportunity to be part of the workforce.
Al Jazeera: Over the past week, the city has been under a heightened security alert, with reports of several planned attacks – and this is nothing new in Gaziantep. How has the city been grappling with such tensions, and would you describe Gaziantep today as safe?
Sahin: In our area we have a very clear civil war. We are trying to protect the Syrian lands, but in the meantime we are dealing with many terrorist organisations inside Syria, and we are a target of those organisations.
We are working hard to integrate Syrians. They are teachers and engineers and doctors. We want them to be a part of this community in the long term.
We are trying to manage the city’s security in the meantime. The people are aware that we are dealing with all of these things. They are happy about our decision to make a safe zone inside Syria so that they can go back. Jarablus is the perfect example of offering the Syrians safe zones so that they can go back, and some have gone back already.
Gaziantep is as safe as Germany and the US. Terrorism is a problem everywhere, and Gaziantep is a part of this world.
Al Jazeera: With no end in sight to the war in Syria, what is the outlook for Gaziantep and the long-term vision? Has Syria’s war changed the city forever?
Sahin: The government is working to integrate Syrians into the Turkish economy. Our first three priorities are health, education and security, so we are working hard to integrate Syrians. They are teachers and engineers and doctors. We want them to be a part of this community in the long term.
Gaziantep is a city that is always receiving immigrants; if not from Syria, then IDPs [internally displaced people] from southeastern Turkey. For 30 or 40 years, Gaziantep has successfully used this type of movement to benefit its economy. It’s always been a growing city.
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