Syrian Refugees in Turkey: The Human Reality

This comment is a continuation of the YIRA Winter 2016 International Trip Group’s Istanbul, Ankara, and Izmir, Turkey Trip Summary.

Eight days into the Turkey research trip that ten Yalies and I were on, I found myself in one of Ankara’s best hospitals. There had been a swine flu outbreak in the country’s capital, and, displaying several symptoms, I was waiting in an emergency room for a diagnosis and treatment. Not fluent in Turkish, I remained invalid in the reception area while the Turkish trip organizer spoke to administration. Suddenly, he turned around from his conversation with the receptionist and declared they’d treat me.

“Why’d they finally let us in?” I asked.

“When I told them you weren’t Syrian, they agreed to see you immediately.”

The purpose of the trip was to study the various dimensions of the Syrian refugee crisis, broadly but also specifically in Turkey. Since the onset of the Syrian civil war in 2011, Turkey has absorbed nearly three million refugees – an astonishing number– more than any other country in the Middle East or otherwise. Turkey’s response towards the refugees has primarily been one of a state of emergency. The numerous policies Turkey has implemented, the shifts in national attitudes, and even the reasons for Turkey’s acceptance of such a large number of refugees, have all been ones of immediate and necessary action that sadly overlook the human nuances of the crisis. No one expected the Syrian civil war to persist for as long as it has. It is indubitable that had Turkey, or any host country, realized the long-term ramifications of accepting refugees, their actions would have been much different.

Nonetheless, Turkey remains the one country affected most by the refugee crisis, and the one country that seems to be doing everything it possibly can to arrive at a humane, feasible and sustainable solution. On paper, Turkey is doing the best it can to resolve an impossibly difficult situation. Over two dozen government agencies work to address the material and emotional needs of the refugees. Other government and non-government programs exist to teach refugees Turkish with the hopes of integrating them into the broader society (while they remain in Turkey). All public Turkish hospitals and medical centers provide free healthcare for the refugees. The government works with international organizations in the country to aide in refugee population integration and trauma rehabilitation; even so, the on-the-ground situation provides a much darker picture than does the on-paper reality. The recipients of all of Turkey’s assistance programs – from the education to the free medical care – are refugees registered as such with the government. Unfortunately, over 700,000 refugees remain unregistered. Even though Turkey has constructed some of the world’s best refugee camps (I recognize the irony of this statement – as though refugee camps can be rated), only approximately 30 percent of the three million refugees in Turkey reside in those camps. Many have moved to the country’s urban centers – Istanbul, Ankara, and Izmir are some examples– hoping for a life that is more ordinary over one that is permanently in a temporary camp.

In the many meetings spent discussing Syrian refugees with leading Turkish politicians, academics, journalists, directors of NGOs, UN agencies, and, perhaps most importantly, some of the refugees themselves, it became clear that the intractable nature of the situation prevented any easy solutions. Many of the decisions made discounted the human lives that they affected. Every number that contributed to the statistics published in research journals and international news sites overlooked that that number represents a person. Only when policy-makers accounted for the refugees as people, with preferences and dislikes and complex individual circumstances – would more sustainable results become realized. In this article, I will identify a few instances in which ignoring the (often capricious) human component of the refugee crisis has rendered implementations and programs ineffective.

One of the most direct examples of an on-paper solution floundering in efficacy is that of the refugee camps. I mentioned previously that a mere 30 percent of refugees reside in the camps built especially for their use. Why? Merve Ay, a doctor with the International Doctors Association in Istanbul, provided a clear answer. Like everyone else, Syrians adapt and respond to their circumstances. The realization that Syrians will remain in Turkey much longer than the short sojourn they had envisioned compels them to criticize their state of being. For a temporary residence, Turkey’s state-of-the-art refugee camps are welcome respite. For permanent displacement, however, those same camps become detention centers. And so the refugees – over a million of them – left. And those roughly 600,000 who stayed complain. The women have nothing to do in the camps but idol away their time, the men can’t work, the kids can’t learn. You can’t create a society in a camp, even if five years seems like an eternity to have done so. Longer-term housing plans for the refugees must be considered and implemented in Turkey and everywhere else.

Another area in which the lived experience of Syrians is sadly overlooked in policy-related decision-making is that of the native national attitudes towards Arabs in general, and Syrians in particular. Syrian children are afforded the opportunity to directly enroll in the public Turkish educational system. When done at a young age, the Syrian child is likely to acquire fluency in Turkish seamlessly and to adjust to life in Turkish society. Nevertheless, most Syrian children –regardless of their age – do not find enrollment in Turkish schools with a majority-Turkish student population as easy as educational specialists predict it should be. I was surprised to learn that the cause of this assimilation difficulty was not language acquisition or even resistance to adopting a new culture and its norms. Rather, as numerous Syrian educators in one of only three governmentally-funded and recognized all-Syrian schools told me, deeply inculcated prejudicial attitudes towards Arabs (and by extension Syrians) permeated the culture of the Turkish educational system and its constituents – teachers and students alike. Imagine the alienation a Syrian child in a Turkish classroom feels when in history class, the students are taught that Arabs were traitors of the Turkish Ottoman Empire. If that statement has no effect, then surely the classroom conversation that ensues about the historical roots of current Arab political realities must. I questioned the Syrian first grade teacher who first informed me of this experience. She gestured towards the thirty children with us in the room and said that half of them had once been in Turkish schools. “How will a Syrian child integrate into a society that teaches a natural distaste towards Arabs and a wariness to grant them the rights they previously robbed themselves of?” I couldn’t answer her. Surely, though, this is simply rectified: why not update the textbooks or train teachers to interpret the text differently to better meet the needs of refugee students?

One of the most poignant and, dare I say, informative moments on the trip was when we visited a Syrian refugee family in their Istanbul residence. The family consisted of an elderly father and mother, their three grown male children, one five-year-old boy, and an eighteen-year-old mail-order-bride that spent the entirety of our visit hiding from us – the guests. Though the story the family told of their flight from Syria and eventual refuge in Turkey was harrowing, it wasn’t until I talked to the eighteen-year-old girl (after accidentally glimpsing her) that the importance of accounting for human factors and conditions when considering this crisis really resonated with me. It was easy to see from only meeting with this family that there is a very long way to go before Syrian refugees can even begin to integrate into the broader Turkish society. The one million refugees living in Turkey’s major cities aren’t meeting their Turkish neighbors. They aren’t working legally, and are therefore being exploited (though I should note that on January 15th, 2016 Turkish officials announced that a limited number of work permits would begin to be issued.) They are insulated from Turkish life by language, culture, and history. Even their problems are not well understood by Turkish researchers and NGOs. Consider the problem of child marriage in Syrian refugee communities. Sitting across from the eighteen-year-old wife of a forty year-old, I was talking to what many view as a number that contributes to a statistic. But hearing her perspective, how if she had stayed in Syria and had not gotten married she would have been quickly and easily swept up into the sex trade, weakened the significance of the statistic so-often-used by outsiders to look down upon the Syrian refugee community. Yes, Syrian refugees are marrying off their daughters at young ages and in unconventional ways, but many do so because it is the lesser of two evils. As the girl told me herself: “I’d rather be married to a man I consented to, however old, than to be with many men against my will.” An honest examination of the predicaments that face the Syrian refugee community furthers understanding and paves the path to more efficacious solutions.

To return to my experience in the Turkish hospital, another example of the disconnect between on-paper-facts or solutions and real-world implementation is revealed. Though registered refugees are afforded free medical care, hospitals are short-staffed on translators that allow Turkish-speaking doctors to communicate with their Arabic-speaking patients. Subsequently, patients that don’t speak Turkish, like me, are assumed to be Syrian and left waiting for hours. This isn’t true of every hospital in Turkey, but it holds for most. Despite the fact that translators are depicted as amply staffed in all medical care centers – in fact it’s a legal requirement to have a translator on staff – this is not the reality.

Finally, speaking to Ibrahim Kalin, Turkish President Erdogan’s Chief Policy Advisor, illuminated perhaps the most tenuous aspect of providing for the integration of Syrian refugees in Turkey. Turkey isn’t doing everything it possibly can to make itself the permanent home of its Syrian refugees because doing so divorces the refugees from the notion that Syria is where home can be permanent. And thus the tragedy that doing everything in one’s power to integrate the refugees means giving up any hope of return to Syria. Syrians in Turkey must remain refugees, distinct from their Turkish citizen counterparts, because to do otherwise would be to erode the possibility of return. And so the necessary evil of alienating them from mainstream Turkish society – their education different, their customs and values – preserves their Syrian identity even though it fossilizes their refugee status. It is then no surprise that they are denied asylum status, prohibited from applying for resident cards, and barred membership to the elite group of foreign nationals who can one day hope for Turkish citizenship. Fixated on Syria – their home – while firmly rooted in Turkey, the refugees’ situation remains an impossible one.



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