Exodus to Europe? For most Syrian refugees, Turkey is their reality.

For some of the more than 2 million Syrian refugees in Turkey, Europe is just a bridge too far. For others, staying put is the better choice, despite the challenges.

Scott Peterson/Getty Images
Syrian refugee Abu Ahmed holds up his Syrian family registration card, after being scammed by human traffickers and failing to cross illegally by boat to Greece from the western Turkish coastal town of Izmir, and returning to Gaziantep, Turkey, on October 6, 2015.

The first failure was hard enough. Abu Ahmed took his Syrian refugee family on a costly, 17-hour bus ride across Turkey – only to be stopped by Turkish police at the Greek border with crowds of would-be immigrants to Europe.

The human traffickers who said they could help were thieves, the family believed, so they returned to this city near Syria, safe but with spirits low and cash supplies dwindling – and still desperate for emergency medical care for two sons.

But it was the second failure that broke Abu Ahmed’s heart and is forcing his family to remain among the more than 2 million Syrian refugees still eking out a living in Turkey, left behind by the mass exodus to Europe.

Refugee purgatory in Turkey may be better than dodging bullets, government barrel bombs, and jihadists in Syria. But for many, life in Turkey is an uncertain existence marked by severe want, second-class status, and constant humiliation, and a lack of options that the United Nations and relief agencies are struggling to remedy.

Despite the mass migration of some 550,000 souls to Europe this year – the region's largest refugee movement since World War II, with 70 percent of them Syrians, according to the UN – overall refugee numbers in Turkey still grow month after month.

Not to be defeated by his first failure, Abu Ahmed, a stocky carpenter with graying, short-cropped hair and seven children, made a last solo bid to cross to Europe by boat this past week. He left Gaziantep with all his family’s hope, and all the rest of their cash – $1,000 from a local donor.

In Izmir, where most rubber boats launch from Turkey to make the six-mile journey to the Greek island of Lesbos, he struck a deal with traffickers. He and two Syrian men he met along the way paid $800 each for the illegal crossing, and before departure were treated to a fine breakfast in a safe house.

He knew it was dangerous, but Abu Ahmed never got to risk the water. The traffickers sent the men to a beach meeting point, then disappeared; they had rented the safe house just for one day, to scam the Syrians.

“I am ashamed in front of my children, because they had great hope I would get to Europe and call them,” says Abu Ahmed, tears coming to his eyes. Two sons have acute kidney problems, and costs are too high for treatment in Turkey.

His hands shake as he shows his family’s last remaining cash, just 230 Turkish Lira – less than $80 – and the worn family and medical records, still in a clear plastic bag, knotted to defend them from the sea.

And Abu Ahmed can no longer speak as he unzips his small backpack of hope, which held such promise just two days earlier. He lifts out a folded innertube – meant for a car, but bought for less than $7 to save the life of a drowning refugee – and a small, disposable hand pump.

“It’s very difficult to go back to Syria,” he says when he regains his composure. “But living in Turkey is like living in hell, because housing is so expensive, and I barely get paid when I work.”

Most Syrians want to stay

In a world awash with a human tide of refugees fleeing conflict from Libya to Afghanistan, Turkey hosts more than any other nation and says it has spent $7.6 billion to care for them. Turkey’s 23 refugee camps hold about 260,000 people; the remaining 87 percent live in local communities. 

Speaking at the UN on Sept 30, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said Turkey would create space for 400,000 more schoolchildren. UN statistics show only 250,000 out of 600,000 displaced school-age children now have access to education. "Our doors will remain open. And our hearts will remain open," Mr. Davutoglu said. 

But Turkey has also clamped down on its borders, and a pending new law will require travel permission between cities. Despite the challenges, only a minority of Syrians want to continue to Europe, says Selin Unal, a spokesperson for the UN's refugee agency. For most of those exiting to Europe often, Turkey is simply a transit point.

But UN funding shortages mean that only the “most vulnerable of the vulnerable” in Turkey can be cared for, says Ms. Unal. The UN has only received 40 percent of $4.5 billion requested for the regional crisis. Of this, only 30 percent of the $625 million requested for Turkey had been pledged as of Sept. 30. 

Poverty frays nerves

Besides grappling with friends and family lost to the war, Syrian refugees in Turkey have to feed and house themselves in an unfamiliar land where life can be expensive.

Grandmother Samira lost her husband to a bullet in the street – from the rebels or regime, nobody knows – and her daughter’s husband, a fighter with the Islamist Ahrar al-Shams rebel faction, died in battle. The remaining family of eight, including four babies, now pays $67 a month to live in two small rooms here. Three mattresses were a gift from the barber who employs the son. There is a small refrigerator and TV, and endless stress.

“We don’t have anything,” says Samira, who is completely covered in black, including gloves, except for her face. Europe is not an option, she says, because they are too religious, and could not imagine life without hearing the daily call to prayer from the mosque.

“The big reason behind all the bad feeling in the house is lack of money, the poverty. We became so nervous and angry,” says Samira, whose son pays the rent and utility bills from his job as a barber.

They came to Turkey via an underground tunnel more than 1-1/2 years ago, then returned to Syria to register a newborn baby this spring, only to find that their Aleppo home had been looted of everything, including the faucets. Getting back to Turkey meant paying a smuggler for a dangerous night walk after Turkish border guards first forced them away at gunpoint.

Now they are staying put in Turkey. “We are waiting for God’s mercy,” says Samira. “We just pray to God to finish this war.”

Working to make ends meet

Tired of waiting for such prayers to be realized, Abdulkadir – a former second-year fine arts student from Aleppo with designer glasses, a thick beard, and a ponytail – is heading to Turkey's largest city, Istanbul. He has been in and out of Gaziantep, working in restaurants, but says he gets paid less than Turks for working more.

“More than 80 percent of Syrians who work in Turkey don’t have work permission, so they are taken advantage of,” says Abdulkadir, who only gave his first name. His peak salary was $300 a month. But in another job that paid $230 month, his wage was cut because of some broken glasses. It now pays $83 a month, plus cigarettes.

The UN funds relief organizations to provide legal counseling, language and vocational training, and even cash to improve the lives of refugees living outside the camps. 

Abdulkadir has never been to such a center, and is working too much to go. He spends 80 percent of his money on rent and is often in debt. He sold his computer two months ago for $300, and his shoes are badly worn.

For now, he intends to stay in Istanbul, where friends have promised him a place to stay for free while hunts for work.

“This is not my dream to go to Europe; that is a last choice, only if the situation is getting worse and worse,” says Abdulkadir. His previous roommates left for Germany and Sweden, each with $3,000 from parents.

Adbulkadir’s bus leaves in less than an hour, for a 17-hour journey. He has the equivalent of $50 in his pocket, and the bus fare is $30, leaving him just $20 to start his new life, still in Turkey.

He asks, before leaving: “Do you want to buy my glasses?”

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