Trapped in Turkey, Syrians find lifelines off the beaten path

With more Syrians choosing to, or forced to, stay in Turkey, an already overburdened state bureaucracy is trying to accommodate a burgeoning urban refugee population.

Photo courtesy of ASAM
Syrian refugee children take part in a workshop at a UN-funded services center of the Association for Solidarity with Asylum Seekers and Migrants (ASAM), an NGO in Istanbul, Turkey. Some 450,000 Syrian refugees are now registered in the city, Turkey's largest.

From the heart of this sprawling megacity to its overflowing distant suburbs, Syrians are finding lifelines in hole-in-the-wall service centers as they seek a way to Europe – or are forced to stop, exhausted often out of cash and out of hope.

Turkey has largely kept an open-door policy during the 5-year Syrian war, hosting 2.7 million Syrian refugees so far, and a handful of Turkish nongovernmental organizations have stepped in to help as the influx has grown.

Syrians constituted the bulk of the million refugees who made it to Europe last year by sea, risking their lives in perilous boat crossings from Turkey to Greek islands. But many others have preferred to wait out the war – or start new lives – closer to home, in Turkey’s more familiar culture.

But over the years of war, the expectations of Syrians arriving in Istanbul have changed, even as the Turkish bureaucracy has endeavored – often imperfectly and slowly – to grapple with the new realities of such a large arriving population.

The challenges to the bureaucracy have been made even more acute as Turkey and the European Union begin to implement a March deal in which Turkey halts the flow of migrants to Europe, in exchange for an additional 3 billion euros ($3.35 billion) in aid. Obtaining free medical care or spots in schools, for example, though required by new Turkish laws, can be a daily battle for some 450,000 Syrians now officially registered in Istanbul.

Such issues are being put under the spotlight during the UN’s first World Humanitarian Summit, hosted in Istanbul this week.

“Most [Syrians] come to Istanbul to find a job, or if they have a security problem, Istanbul is a place to hide because it is so big,” says Gizem Demirci Al Kadah, head of the Istanbul office of the Association for Solidarity with Asylum Seekers and Migrants (ASAM), whose work with Syrians is funded by the UN.

When Syrian refugees first began to arrive years ago they assumed it was for a short stay, but now “hope of going back is getting less each day,” says Ms. Al Khadah, whose coffee mug reads “Refugees Welcome.”

That means NGOs are also adjusting their services, to ensure that Syrians and women especially have the tools to get by, from food shopping to knowing their rights under Turkish law.

Connecting to Turkey

The ASAM office, for example, is tucked away in the mixed Tarlabaşi neighborhood, favored for decades by Kurdish and other immigrant groups. It caters to Syrians with Turkish courses and children’s care, and has conducted nearly 80,000 social-legal counseling sessions and nearly 36,000 more for primary health. ASAM is opening a third Istanbul office, to deal with child-protection issues.

The growth in needs mirrors Al Kadah’s own experience. When she started with ASAM in 2010, she and an interpreter together were the entire Istanbul “office,” and 18,000 refugees were seeking asylum nationwide, few of them Syrians.

“Now we have 18,000 in just one district in Istanbul,” she says.

Across town in Istanbul’s conservative Esenler district, which is packed with textile and clothes factories – and therefore relatively easy jobs – the Human Resource Development Foundation (HRDF) provides 30 different workshops a week, donations of clothes, a lawyer, and psychologists for counseling.

“This center has become like a connection to Turkey” for the refugees, says Sema Merve İş, an HRDF outreach officer. “To really help and empower refugees, they need language, computer, and other skills,” she says, noting that many new Syrian arrivals are often too overwhelmed and afraid even to step beyond their front door.  “We have become a means for them to come outside.”

Making rights a reality

On a recent afternoon, 15 Syrian women in headscarves crowded around a table of a handicraft workshop, while their children played nearby in a supervised nursery or took Turkish classes.

From the street it is hardly recognizable; just a white door and tiny plaque. But this is where Syrians take a number in a first-floor reception room, and have learned how to connect with Turkey and with each other, says Ms. İş.

Since the HRDF opened in January 2015, with funding from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, its database has expanded to more than 7,000 files, each one of families of five or more. Some 1,000 people come through the door each week; 60 each day are newcomers.

Housing is a problem in Istanbul, where rents are high, and Syrians face discrimination from Turkish landlords. Only six pharmacies in Istanbul provide free medicine.

“On paper, Syrians have some rights. But in reality they are not implemented properly,” says İş. Last year she accompanied Syrian refugees to some hospitals. Even though she carried printed copies of Turkish legislation in her hand, officials often told her they had not yet received official notice of benefits. Today more hospitals have “Syria desks” for refugee use.

Refugees also find solidarity here. In one case, two Syrian women found that they were living in different apartments in the same building. They have since moved in together, so that one can babysit their children while the other works.

“This is a very small thing, but a very important thing,” says İş. Other Syrian women have overcome chronic depression and a fear of going out, eventually signing up for six weekly workshops so they can daily meet with fellow Syrians.

Laws are catching up

Turkish law has been catching up, with Syrian refugees now legally able to receive health, resident, and education support. But in practice, that openness is not accepted everywhere, even as anti-refugee sentiment grows and the Turkey-EU refugee deal is implemented.

“The open-door policy was a really good step, but the reality is that Turkey didn’t have the capacity to host so many and was not so good with them,” says one Turkish aid worker who asked not to be named. He is critical of the EU-Turkey deal, joining a host of human rights groups and the UN, which have decried it as illegal because its provisions are seen as violating due process for asylum seekers.

In recent weeks, tens of thousands have been stranded on the Syrian side of the border and prevented by the Turkish Army from crossing, aid agencies say, as the self-declared Islamic State attacks their tent camps.

“The 3 billion euros should be for building capacity for refugees to have better lives,” says the aid worker. “But we can imagine the greater percentage of this money is just for cutting this [refugee] flow and security, detention centers and police. If you want to collaborate with refugees, you need education and hospitals.”

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