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For Istanbul’s Syrians, a time of hoping and hiding

‘Authorities are slowly making it harder by making new rules for refugees.’

Photo of the outside of a restaurant in Istanbul. John Beck/TNH
A worker relaxes outside a restaurant during a quiet period in Istanbul's Fatih district.

When Syrian refugees first arrived in Istanbul almost eight years ago, many made for Fatih, a district of historic mosques and concrete apartment blocks that has seen decades of migration. Tens of thousands more followed.

There, they worked and saved and set up businesses until the main boulevards glowed with the neon Arabic signage of shops and restaurants selling tastes of home – Damascus coffee, Aleppo spices, syrupy desserts. Fatih became both somewhere to live and somewhere Syrian residents from elsewhere would come to gossip, eat, and stock up.

On a recent day, though, the streets were quiet. “A month ago there would be no time for talking,” grumbled Abu Firas, the owner of a small, recently opened eatery. “Now look at it.”

It was lunchtime, but only a single family sat in the corner, finishing a platter of kebabs. With nothing else to do, the staff gazed at silent music videos on a wall-mounted flat-screen television or smoked cigarettes outside.

The customers, Abu Firas explained, were all hiding. And when his employees are not in the restaurant, they are too, he said.

Today, 20 August, marks an Interior Ministry-imposed deadline for all Syrians without the Istanbul-issued identity cards required to live and work in the city to leave. The ministry, as well as the city governor – appointed by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) – has said anyone apprehended after that will be held and sent to other provinces.

“A month ago there would be no time for talking, now look at it.”

Detentions have already begun. Every two or three days over the past month, Abu Firas said, police officers conducted security sweeps in the area, looking for Syrians with the wrong documents – or no documents at all – to load onto buses headed out of the city or straight to the border.

This leaves most of the restaurant employees at risk, and, like Abu Firas, they all asked to be referred to by pseudonyms or their first names alone.

Hussein, the skinny young waiter, only has only his Syrian passport and no Turkish identification at all.

Hamid, the grey-haired manager, had his application denied when he tried to renew his Turkish ID, known as a temporary protection permit.

The permit of Mahmoud, the chef, was issued in the border province of Hatay along with the rest of his family’s, which means he is authorised to live only there.

When there’s an alarm – usually spread through a WhatsApp group set up by the managers of local restaurants – the employees scatter, making for a nearby abandoned building, the local mosque, or backstreets too narrow for buses. Sometimes, the customers flee with them.

After work, often around midnight, they go straight home. It’s a short walk for most of them, but they keep their gaze 50 metres ahead and escape routes in mind, careful not to be too conspicuous, too loud, or too obviously Arab. There they stay, even on days off, fearing the checkpoints that have appeared around public transport stations and on main roads.

One of the kitchen staff who lives further away told of taking a shared taxi instead of the metro, spending the entire journey watching the road, ready to jump out.

“Our struggle [in Turkey] used to be to survive and live and start businesses,” Hamid said. “Now, it’s avoiding the police.”

For the foreseeable future, this is how life will be, for them and many other Syrians.

There are 547,000 Syrians registered in Istanbul, but the city’s new mayor, Ekrem Imamoğlu, has suggested the real figure is likely closer to one million; many registered in border provinces make their way north in hope of work.

Süleyman Soylu, Turkey’s interior minister, said in July that around 1,000 unregistered Syrians had been detained in Istanbul. He denied any had been deported.

According to Human Rights Watch, though, hundreds of Syrians have already been coerced into signing repatriation forms and deported to parts of Syria still wracked by conflict, in contravention of international law. Some were sent to Idlib province – the country’s last rebel stronghold, which is subject to intense Syrian government and Russian bombardment that local monitoring groups say has killed more than 800 civilians since late April.

Requests to the interior ministry for comment went unanswered by the time of publication.

‘Go back to your country’

It was not always like this. In 2011 and 2012, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his ruling AKP welcomed Syrian “guests”.

Turkey now shelters around 3.6 million Syrian refugees, more than any other country. Authorities initially allowed many to travel and find work in the informal sector, while police officers would often overlook expired travel permits or IDs.

“I used to just show them my passport and there was no problem,” remembered Hussein, who arrived in 2015.

But as Turkey’s once strong economy slowed and inflation rose, Syrians became a target, accused by nationalists of taking Turkish jobs, filling places in schools, and using medical services.

A Turkish estate agent in Fatih, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was critical of the government, was sympathetic towards Syrians but said he understood public anger. “Erdogan used the Arabs [for political ends], and now he’s kicking them out,” he said. “There are more Turkish people without jobs, and maybe a Turkish worker will ask for 4,000 lira but a Syrian will take 1,500.”

In recent months, mobs have burnt down Syrian shops in Istanbul and refugees have reported an increase in targeted attacks.

In campaigning for mayoral elections earlier this year, both Imamoğlu and his AKP rival said the city was being overwhelmed by Syrians. Another opposition candidate, Ilay Aksoy, hung posters reading, “I won’t surrender Fatih to Syrians”.

The restaurant staff all told The New Humanitarian they had felt the shift in attitude.

When Abu Firas first arrived in Istanbul, his landlord was welcoming. The two men visited each other’s homes, met each other’s families, and wished each other a cheerful good morning when they passed on their way to work.

“Authorities are slowly making it harder by making new rules for refugees, putting pressure on them so that they choose to go home.”

A month and a half ago, he said, that changed: the landlord wouldn’t even acknowledge him. Abu Firas confronted him and asked what was wrong.

“It’s enough,” the man told him. “Now you have to go back to your country.”

Hamid, the restaurant manager, said he had been getting calls from people using private numbers and claiming to be police officers and demanding bribes; a Turkish woman stopped him on the street recently and told him to go home and stop taking government money.

One million returns?

In a small park by Fatih metro station, clusters of men and women sat smoking, enjoying the sun. Arabic was still the most common language, but the accents were Algerian, Egyptian, or Moroccan. Two young Egyptians said their Syrian neighbours won’t go outside anymore. Some, they said, have taken to sleeping in the factories where they work.

Loui al-Osman, a 23-year-old Syrian construction worker registered in Istanbul, sat alone. “I have so many friends without permits, and now they go out to work and home without doing anything else at all,” he said, adding that conditions were so difficult, and work so rare, that some had given up on life in Turkey.

“Authorities are slowly making it harder by making new rules for refugees, putting pressure on them so that they choose to go home,” he explained.

Almost 80,000 Syrians returned to their country in the first half of 2019, the state-owned Anadolu Agency news service reported last month. Erdogan has said the number will reach one million after Turkey establishes what it calls a “safe zone” in northeastern Syria, through a military operation against the Kurdish-dominated forces there.

Others are still willing to risk the journey from Syria to Turkey. Usayd, 22, recently arrived from Idlib and found work a street away from Abu Firas’s restaurant.

His first attempt to reach Istanbul involved lying with four others for hours in the freezing water of a drainage pipe under the border wall, before emerging into the torchlight of Turkish guards, who he says beat them and cut them with knives.

He was sent back across the border and tried again two weeks later. He said Turkey offers his only chance to make enough money to help his wife and family – including a daughter he has not yet met – flee Syria. He married young, he said, because of his three brothers: one was killed in the fighting, one lost a leg, and another is in a government-operated jail.

Abu Firas and his staff see few other options than hoping and hiding, although they all expect the restaurant to be closed down or go out of business.

“If I go back to Hatay, what am I going to do?,” Mahmoud, the chef, asked. “We would start from nothing.”

Hussein, younger than the others, worried that being sent back to Idlib would sentence him to forced recruitment by one of the extremist groups in the province.

“They’re like ISIS; I’m not like them,” he said. “I don’t even know how to hold a gun.”

(TOP PHOTO: A worker relaxes outside a restaurant during a quiet period in Istanbul's Fatih district.)


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