Gaziantep, Turkey — Hatim al-Abdullah, a dual Syrian-Turkish citizen, voted for the first time in Turkey’s elections in May, which returned longtime leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan for a five-year presidential term.
“I voted for Erdogan also to protect my family,” al-Abdullah, 25, told Al Jazeera in Gaziantep in southeastern Turkey, in the hope that his parents and three siblings will have a future in their adoptive home.
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Al-Abdullah, originally from Palmyra, was the only one in his family eligible to vote, as he was naturalised three years ago, because of his achievements in sports and education. As a martial arts champion and a student of engineering at the University of Gaziantep, he was selected for the citizenship process.
His family is with him in Gaziantep, living under “temporary protection status”, which means they are legally protected from refoulement even though they entered illegally. They have legal residency and access to basic services such as healthcare and education, but have travel limitations and can only move within the province they are assigned to.
According to the United Nations refugee agency, the vast majority of refugees in Turkey – 3.6 million – are Syrians living under temporary protection. About 200,000 have been granted Turkish citizenship since the Syrian war broke out in 2011, according to government figures.
Although al-Abdullah was barely a teenager when he came to Turkey in 2015, he said the family felt that they were well received at first, as Syrians and Turks in the southeast share a similar culture and traditions. The situation gradually deteriorated because of a widening economic crisis that saw soaring inflation and a collapse of Turkey’s currency, which in turn contributed to an increasing anti-migrant sentiment among the Turkish public.
“Some Turkish people I know told me that Erdogan won because of our votes. But Syrians’ votes are only 0.2 percent and Erdogan won with a 4-percent difference,” he said, adding that some of his friends who also gained citizenship were too afraid to leave home during the election period because of increasing harassment and racist attacks, so they didn’t vote.
“At least [under Erdogan] I feel like I can be involved in Turkish politics like a Turk, not just as a Syrian. Many of us feel we are an integral part of this country because we grew up mainly here and don’t remember much about Syria,” said al-Abdullah.
“We are like our Turkish counterparts: We are useful to the economy and are here to stay, not to create problems.”
The day after the run-off there was a palpable sense of relief on the streets of Inonu Caddesi, Gaziantep’s Syrian-majority neighbourhood that is full of shops with Turkish and Arabic signs.
“I’m relieved, but just in theory,” said Mustafa Kara Ali, a photographer from Idlib who moved to Turkey in 2018 with his wife and two young daughters, in front of the shop where he usually buys Syrian desserts.
Many of the half a million Syrians in Gaziantep – located in the heart of the southeastern region heavily impacted by the February 6 earthquakes – were relieved when Erdogan won here by 62.7 percent of votes despite initial concerns that he would lose because of the mismanaged and slow response to the disaster. Most of the Syrian population in Turkey live along its southern border, closer to their homeland.
“For me and my family, [his victory] is more ‘comfortable’ because his opponent based his election campaign on racism towards us refugees, which is certainly unsettling,” Kara Ali, 37, said.
Kara Ali is under temporary protection. Syrians like him closely followed the elections, whose outcome will have a critical impact on their future. Their presence in the country was at the core of the campaigns, especially ahead of the second round, with both candidates speaking about the status of refugees.
Ahead of the run-off, Erdogan’s challenger Kemal Kilicdaroglu appeared on posters in many cities that read, ‘Syrians Will Go’, and accused them of threatening national security. The xenophobic rhetoric heard first in the aftermath of the earthquakes, then during the election campaigns, made Syrians feel like their time in Turkey would soon come to a close, and left them more afraid, according to Khaled al-Dimashqi, a 32-year-old humanitarian worker with temporary protection in Gaziantep.
“I was living under great psychological pressure due to the increase in hate speech and the rise of racism against Syrians,” al-Dimashqi said in Sakulta, a popular coffee shop in Gaziantep where Syrians often meet.
“All our conversations and meetings as Syrians centred around the elections. We talked about our unknown future after the elections and our fear of how society would treat us in the aftermath,” he added. Al-Dimashqi, originally from Damascus, moved to Gaziantep in 2016 by illegally crossing the border.
Although he couldn’t vote, he followed closely the campaign, hoping fellow Syrians who hold Turkish citizenship would back Erdogan.
Despite the temporary sigh of relief, most Syrians remain cautious.
On the campaign trail, Erdogan promised that one million Syrians would be “voluntarily returned” to their country, as he plans on normalising relations with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. While it isn’t clear if or when this would happen, Syrians with temporary protection such as al-Dimashqi worry that they’ll have to face other kinds of pressure, such as new paperwork to remain legal, or increases in rents and bills.
“On a personal level, my biggest concern is whether I will be able to move to live in another country,” al-Dimashqi said. “I feel insecure and fear the unknown.”