Life Between Hope and Despair in Turkey’s Syria Town

The 2.5 million Syrian refugees in Turkey now face a new set of challenges—unemployment, poverty, and discrimination—all while hoping to return home one day
By Emel Akan
Emel Akan
Emel Akan
Emel Akan is White House economic policy reporter in Washington, D.C. Previously she worked in the financial sector as an investment banker at JPMorgan and as a consultant at PwC. She graduated with a master’s degree in business administration from Georgetown University.
January 12, 2016 Updated: January 2, 2017

MERSIN, Turkey—”I don’t like Syrian food, I like Turkish food,” said Abd-Almajed, a 6-year-old Syrian boy with a cheeky smile. He seems to have adjusted well to his new life in Turkey.

He and his family fled to Turkey in 2012 after their house in Idlib, Syria, was hit by an airstrike that killed his father and sister. His mother and older brother who survived the incident were seriously injured and hospitalized for two months.

Abd-Almajed, who was 2 at the time, was miraculously rescued without injury thanks to a spoon in his hand.

“It was 7 in the morning,” said his mother Ahdaab (last name withheld for security reasons). “I was preparing breakfast for the kids. We heard the sound of government warplanes flying over the town. Shortly afterward, they started dropping bombs.” 

Their entire house collapsed when it was struck by a bomb. They were trapped under the ruins for a few hours until a rescue team arrived. 

“When the rescue team was searching, they heard a strange noise. It was coming from Abd-Almajed who was banging the spoon on a piece of metal under the ruins. That’s how they found him and his mother,” explained his grandmother, who was living in Aleppo at the time. She also managed to escape to Turkey with other family members.

After Ahdaab recovered, they fled to Mersin, a coastal city in Turkey. Mother and son now live with the grandmother and six other relatives in a small house in a poor district of Mersin.

“I speak Turkish and Arabic,” said Abd-Almajed proudly. He goes to a Turkish school in his neighborhood. “I love my school and friends,” he said.

A classroom at Mezitli temporary education center offers an Arabic-language curriculum, Mersin, Turkey, on Dec. 23, 2015. (Emel Akan/Epoch Times)
A classroom at Mezitli temporary education center in Mersin, Turkey, offers an Arabic language curriculum, on Dec. 23, 2015. (Emel Akan/Epoch Times)

While Abd-Almajed is resilient, his mother Ahdaab and other relatives are still suffering the trauma of war.

“When I lay my head on the pillow every night, I hear the loud whistling sound of the missiles. Then I see the house collapsing. Every night, again and again,” said Ahdaab with tears in her eyes.

Although the family feels safe in Turkey, they face another challenge—poverty.

“Everyone in this house is depressed. We have lost weight,” said Ahdaab.

Her brother who lives with them looks after the whole family. He is a university graduate and earns 800 Turkish lira ($275) per month. They spend $185 on rent and bills. “My sisters and my other brother have also been looking for jobs. But they are struggling,” said Ahdaab.

Loss of Hope and Increasing Poverty

It is very difficult for a Syrian to find a job in Turkey. The Turkish government is unwilling to give Syrians legal refugee status, which is a main reason many leave for Europe. 

“After five years, Syrian refugees in Turkey—80 percent of whom live outside the camps—have exhausted their resources. They are prohibited from working legally, so those who do work illegally are exploited and underpaid, increasing social tensions between the refugees and their hosts,” said a September 2015 Human Rights Watch report.

Turkey is home to 2.5 million Syrians and has become the biggest refugee hosting country in the world, according to the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR). The country has been fairly generous to Syrian refugees, spending $7.6 billion since the beginning of the civil war in 2011. It has also established a temporary protection regime for the refugees and built 25 camps currently hosting about 250,000 people.

The European Union provided Turkey with funding to support its large refugee population. In a bid to prevent the refugees from flooding into Europe, Turkey’s minister for European Affairs announced on Jan. 11 that Turkey plans to offer Syrian refugees work permits.

The majority of refugees are outside the camps and spread across the country living in large cities. Mersin, located on the east Mediterranean coast, is one of the most popular hubs for Syrian refugees. Roughly 350,000 refugees live in Mersin, which is a significant number for a city of only 1 million people.

“It is a very nice city and I like the weather here. It is like Florida,” said Maher Nasher Alneam, a Syrian shop owner in Mersin. Maher also holds a U.S. passport but prefers to live in Mersin to be closer to his country and family.

Mersin, a city on the Mediterranean coast of southern Turkey on Jan. 5, 2015. It is an important hub for Syrian refugees. (Hatice Atmaca/Epoch Times)
Mersin, a city on the Mediterranean coast of southern Turkey on Jan. 5, 2015. It is an important hub for Syrian refugees. (Hatice Atmaca/Epoch Times)

He wants to go back to Syria when the war ends. “I am hopeful. If there is no hope, there is no life,” he said.

The city also serves as a gateway to Europe. Many Syrians come to Mersin as a launch point to make the illicit and treacherous boat journey across the Mediterranean in the hopes of reaching Europe to start a new life.  

According to the UNHCR, more than 1 million refugees from the Middle East and Africa arrived on European shores in 2015—80 percent arrived in Greece via Turkey.

Most Syrians who fled to Europe have a high level of education (86 percent secondary or university education level), according to UNHCR. And most refugees wish to seek asylum in Germany due to better employment and education opportunities.

“All my friends from school are in Europe now. It is very strange. They went there by boat,” said Shadi Mustafa Al Ahmad, a 30-year-old Syrian living in Mersin. Shadi and his twin brother Hadi studied electrical engineering in Damascus.

“Believe me, there are so many rich and educated Syrians going to Europe by boat. They take the risk,” said Shadi. The human traffickers have approached the brothers, as well.

“Since we are young they are surprised to see us. They ask why we are still in Turkey. And they offer us help to flee to Europe. Even our real estate agent offered help. However we don’t want to be illegal immigrants. It is too risky,” said Shadi.

The brothers worked in the music business in Lebanon after graduation. Due to increasing antagonism toward Syrian refugees in Lebanon, they moved to Mersin in 2014.

They both got jobs working illegally in a cafe as waiters. They were overworked, underpaid, and recently got fired.

“We were working 12 hours at nights from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. We were paid 35 liras [$12] per day. We were like robots doing the same thing every night. We were exhausted,” said Shadi.

He and his brother would like to stay in Mersin but they do not know how long they can survive without jobs. They are hopeful things will turn around soon. “I always dream of myself going back after the war and rebuilding Syria with my friends,” said Shadi.

Women and Children Hit Hardest

Life is even harder for Syrian women, especially for widows. They are trapped in a world of poverty, loneliness, and fear, states a U.N. report.

Syrian women are extremely worried about how they will live and support their families alone in a foreign country. Women are vulnerable to harassment. And some women have even turned to prostitution in desperation. 

“We observe an increase in criminal activities such as murder, kidnapping, and most importantly prostitution among Syrian refugees in Mersin,” said journalist Huseyin Kar from IHA news agency, who covers Syrian refugees and public security in Mersin.  

Poverty has also forced women to choose between sending their children to school or out to work.

“Syrian women come from a traditional and conservative society. It is an insult for a woman to work. So women do not have business or social lives. Naturally children are sent out to work,” said Arzu Kaymak, a public administration postgraduate student at Mersin University who conducted research on Syrian refugees. 

Syrian children are selling water on the streets, begging, or collecting trash. Some work in textile factories, which is against the law.

Shops in Mezitli, a district that has turned into Mersin's "Little Syria" especially for middle class and rich Syrian families, Mersin, Turkey, on Dec. 23, 2015. (Emel Akan/Epoch Times)
Shops in Mezitli, a district that has turned into Mersin’s Little Syria especially for middle-class and rich Syrian families, Mersin, Turkey, on Dec. 23, 2015. (Emel Akan/Epoch Times)

The vast majority of Syrian children in Turkey live outside of refugee camps. And only about 25 percent of them went to school in 2014-2015, according to Human Rights Watch.

Turkey has taken several positive steps by lifting legal barriers to Syrian children’s access to formal education. It also began to accredit a parallel system of temporary education centers that offer an Arabic language curriculum. There are 11 temporary education centers in Mersin.

Epoch Times visited one of the education centers in Mezitli, a district that has turned into Mersin’s Little Syria especially for middle-class and rich Syrian families. The education center in Mezitli can accommodate 1,300 students.

Students can learn Arabic, Turkish, and English and the curriculum is approved by the Education Ministry of the Syrian Interim Government, a Cabinet of Syrian opposition authorities in exile in Turkey. 

“Syrian children are surprisingly more resilient compared to adults. They seem to have moved on,” said Nupelda Akaslan, a Turkish teacher who teaches Turkish language at the Mezitli education center. 

The Syrian teachers are having a harder time. “One Syrian teacher had a nervous breakdown today, which is a common thing here. She cried and collapsed. They need compassion,” said Akaslan. Both Turkish and Syrian teachers at the education center get along well, she said. 

The school’s president Suat Gunes created a Facebook page to promote the center, which has received messages of support from the local community. Graduates of education centers are allowed to go to Turkish universities. UNICEF pays the salaries of Syrian teachers.

There are also many well-established charity organizations helping Syrian refugees in Mersin. Syrian Social Gathering is one of them. It was founded by a few Syrian businessmen to support the education of Syrian children.

“We register Syrian refugees, visit them regularly, collect data, and introduce our services. We try to help poor families and make sure their children have access to education,” said Mohammad Zein, chairman of Syrian Social Gathering.

Yet despite the efforts of the Turkish government and NGOs education still isn’t reaching 75 percent of Syrian refugee children. 

“Although Turkish schools are free of charge, some families are so poor and helpless that they don’t even know how to register their children to schools. Besides, some children are households’ primary breadwinners so they have to work,” said Arzu Kaymak.

Challenges Delivering Health Care

Syrian Social Gathering and Turkish authorities have also established medical centers for Syrian refugees. These medical centers hire both Turkish and Syrian doctors.

“The medical centers are very vital, but they are not adequate,” said Dr. Ful Ugurhan, president of the Doctors’ Association of Mersin.

Most Syrian refugees still have to go to local hospitals. “There is no referral by family physician in our health care system. So people can go to hospitals without referral, which results in chaos in hospitals. With the influx of Syrian refugees, congestion has worsened,” said Ugurhan.

“A Turkish doctor now handles on average 200 patients per day in the hospitals,” she said.

Dr. Ful Ugurhan, president of the Doctors' Association of Mersin, Turkey, on Dec. 24, 2015. (Emel Akan/Epoch Times)
Dr. Ful Ugurhan, president of the Doctors’ Association of Mersin, Turkey, on Dec. 24, 2015. (Emel Akan/Epoch Times)

Syrian doctors and dentists in Turkey have illegally opened their own clinics at home to treat Syrian refugees. They promote their services through Facebook.

“We receive notices about these illegal practices, but we cannot control them. This situation poses serious health risks,” said Ugurhan.

Syrian refugees who have chronic diseases suffer the most. They cannot explain their problems to Turkish doctors; they cannot get medicine without prescriptions. “It is very difficult for our citizens to understand our medical system, let alone Syrian refugees. Communication is the biggest barrier,” said Ugurhan.

She recently visited the Syrian refugees living in tin shacks in Adanalioglu, a village outside of Mersin. More than a thousand refugees have settled there to work on the farms as temporary laborers. “Health conditions are even worse there,” she said. Although the government has conducted health screening and vaccination, she is concerned dire living conditions could lead to epidemic diseases.

Sanitation is the biggest issue, particularly since most refugees refuse to use mobile toilets and instead dig holes. Children continue to be born into these terrible conditions, said Ugurhan. 

‘All We Need is Respect’

“All we need is respect. Please respect Syrians,” said Shadi’s twin brother Hadi. 

“In our workplace they used to call me ‘Hey Arab.’ I have a name and they know it. This is an insult,” said Hadi. He said he avoids speaking Arabic in public places out of fear of humiliation.  

Hadeel Samra, a Syrian student at Mersin University, complained about the same problem. “There are both good and bad people like in every society. For example, on public transportation, some locals look down on me when they realize I’m Syrian,” she said.

With the influx of Syrian refugees, real estate prices in Mersin have doubled. There have been spikes in unemployment levels as well. Syrians can work for lower wages and without social benefits.

The Mersin Mayor Burhanettin Kocamaz announced unemployment in Mersin increased by 20 percent in October 2015. Local people feel threatened by the increasing number of Syrians.

All these issues trigger social tensions between the refugees and the local population. In addition, Turkish people still hesitate to go to Syrian shops and restaurants.

“Syrian refugees feel unwelcomed. They need sympathy. Therefore sometimes you can see them walking in groups and distributing flowers to local people on the streets,” said Kaymak, the postgraduate student who has studied the refugee situation.

“Turkey is not experienced in handling millions of refugees. We could have handled the refugee crisis better. Despite all difficulties, our society is still compassionate toward Syrians,” said Dr. Ugurhan. “At the moment, both locals and Syrians live peacefully without hurting each other. But locals are afraid Syrians will stay forever.”

It will take years to reconstruct the war-torn country. Therefore experts believe most Syrian refugees will stay in Turkey even after the war finally ends. “Local people will then start to question and that’s when the real problems will arise,” said Ugurhan.

Emel Akan
Emel Akan is White House economic policy reporter in Washington, D.C. Previously she worked in the financial sector as an investment banker at JPMorgan and as a consultant at PwC. She graduated with a master’s degree in business administration from Georgetown University.