Along Syria-Turkey Border, A New Battle Is On Between Islamists And Kurds

A Syrian man covers a dead Syrian army soldier with a blanket after a battle last year near Ras al Ayn, Syria
A Syrian man covers a dead Syrian army soldier with a blanket after a battle last year near Ras al Ayn, Syria
Guillaume Perrier

CEYLANPINAR – Instantly, spoons stop stirring in teacups and conversations freeze mid-sentence. A mortar has just been heard a few hundred meters from the main street of Ceylanpinar, a small Turkish town on the border with Syria. Through the window, everybody can see a cloud of black smoke rising up from Ras al-Ayn, the Syrian town that lies just across the nearby railway tracks.

"It's become too dangerous. Sometimes, bullets and mortars are hitting our houses. The al-Nusra fighters fire blindly," scowled Kurdish farmer Mehmet Demir.

He was speaking about the al Nusra Front, a Syrian Islamist rebel group with ties to al Qaeda that is fighting the Damascus regime. And here, we find out, al-Nusra is also coming up against another armed group: the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), the rebel group that has fought its own decades-long battle with Ankara, until a negotiated ceasefire was signed earlier this year.

Some 70% of Ceylanpinar's inhabitants are Kurdish, the other 30% Arabs. For more than a year, the town has been living in the face of flare-ups of violence between Kurdish militants loyal to jailed PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan and jihadists from al-Nusra.

Four Turkish civilians have been killed since July, hit by stray bullets or shells that had missed their targets. "They put old train wagons in front of the official buildings to protect them but that's about all they can do," says Demir, a sympathiser of the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), the legal Kurdish party affiliated with the long outlawed PKK.

"Do you see that house?" Demir asks, pointing to a big modern construction with walls painted in deep green. "Two shells fell on the terrace. But thankfully, they didn't explode."

Sükrü Kahraman was less lucky. This 42-year-old farmer was killed in August when a rocket struck near his farm while he was tending his cattle. Two of his sons were injured. Mehmet, 20, had an arm wounded by shrapnel. "I can't go in the fields anymore to pick up the vegetables, so they rot," he said, his voice trembling.

The window behind him was also hit by a stray bullet. "Our children can't even walk to school alone. But where else can we go? We live thanks to what we grow here," said Fehmi Karaman, Sükrü nephew.

No way out

Still, despite the danger, the school year started on Sept. 16 in three of the the town's four schools. The last one, located just opposite the border control, near the abandoned train station, remained closed.

Across the porous border in Ras al-Ayn, the fights have increased in intensity since the summer. Although it briefly controlled by the jihadists from al-Nusra, the town is now in the hands of the People's Protection Units (YPG), the armed division of the Syrian branch of the PKK and Democratic Union Party (PYD), which has reinforced its stronghold along the Turkish border.

The Islamist fighters have taken refuge in the neighboring village of Tall Half. From there, they fire on their enemies' positions. Kurdish sources claim that some 1,000 jihadists were killed, including a noted leader, emir Anas Al-Midfi. Civilians have, for the most part, left the town.

"But the door to Turkey has remained closed since the PYD has taken control of the frontier post," lamented Ismail Aslan, the mayor of Ceylanpinar. To cross over to Turkey, where these people's parents and friends are, they have no choice but to rely on smugglers.

Behind Ceylanpinar's customs building, protected by tanks, Kurdish rebels have hung their flag on the roof of an old pasta factory. Their presence worries the Turkish authorities, who fear a scenario where the Kurdish take control of territories on the border. Turkish officials met with PYD's leader Saleh Muslim in Ankara and announced on Sept. 17 that they would send humanitarian aid to Ayn al-Arab, another Kurdish enclave under siege in Syria, hoping this would bring down tensions.

Still, some locals in Ceylanpinar accuse Turkey of supporting the jihadists from al-Nusra. They are said to be coming and going freely across the border, using the vast territory of the TIGEM — the country's largest state farm — along the Syrian border where a camp with 15,000 refugees has been set up.

"I could only go there once. That was a year ago," says Mayor Aslan, denouncing the lack of transparency from the Turkish government.

Kurds refer to a photograph that was taken of a Turkish state official arm-in-arm with Islamist rebels. Ankara denies giving any support whatsoever to jihadist groups, saying it was impossible to control the entire 800-kilometer border with Syria.

On Sept. 16, three injured Kurds were brought to Ceylanpinar. "The militaries refused to let them through. After three hours, they were allowed in, but they couldn't enter the hospitals," said Nezir Atilla who helped transport the wounded. One man died of his injuries.

Idris Baluken, president of the parliamentary group of the Peace and Democracy Party, had to intervene in order for the other two to receive medical care. "We can't just stand there with our arms crossed," says an official from the Peace and Democracy Party who had come to see the wounded. "Turkey is forcing us to take part in this war."

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The Food Truck, A Sign That The White And Wealthy Are Moving In

In San Diego, California, a researcher tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun.

Balboa Park Spring Fling Food Truck festival

San Diego Food Trucks via Facebook
Pascale Joassart-Marcelli

SAN DIEGO — Everybody, it seems, welcomes the arrival of new restaurants, cafés, food trucks and farmers markets.

What could be the downside of fresh veggies, homemade empanadas and a pop-up restaurant specializing in banh mis?

But when they appear in unexpected places – think inner-city areas populated by immigrants – they're often the first salvo in a broader effort to rebrand and remake the community. As a result, these neighborhoods can quickly become unaffordable and unrecognizable to longtime residents.

An appetite for gentrification

I live in San Diego, where I teach courses on urban and food geographies and conduct research on the relationship between food and ethnicity in urban contexts.

In recent years, I started to notice a pattern playing out in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked food options. More ethnic restaurants, street vendors, community gardens and farmers markets were cropping up. These, in turn, spurred growing numbers of white, affluent and college-educated people to venture into areas they had long avoided.

This observation inspired me to write a book, titled The $16 Taco, about how food – including what's seen as "ethnic," "authentic" or "alternative" – often serves as a spearhead for gentrification.

Take City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood where successive waves of refugees from places as far away as Vietnam and Somalia have resettled. In 2016, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice) to neighborhood residents, along with tourists and visitors from other parts of the city.

Informal street vendors are casualties.

A public-private partnership called the City Heights Community Development Corporation, together with several nonprofits, launched the initiative to increase "access to healthy and culturally appropriate food" and serve as "a business incubator for local micro-entrepreneurs," including immigrants and refugees who live in the neighborhood.

On paper, this all sounds great.

But just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors – who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets – now face heightened harassment. They've become causalities in a citywide crackdown on sidewalk vending spurred by complaints from business owners and residents in more affluent areas.

This isn't just happening in San Diego. The same tensions have been playing out in rapidly gentrifying areas like Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood, Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, New York's Queens borough and East Austin, Texas.

In all of these places, because "ethnic," "authentic" and "exotic" foods are seen as cultural assets, they've become magnets for development.

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

A call for food justice

Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation.

Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure.

It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies. Small food businesses, with their relatively low cost of entry, have been a cornerstone of ethnic entrepreneurship in American cities. And initiatives like farmers markets and street fairs don't require much in the way of public investment; instead, they rely on entrepreneurs and community-based organizations to do the heavy lifting.

In City Heights, the Community Development Corporation hosted its first annual City Heights Street Food Festival in 2019 to "get people together around table and food stalls to celebrate another year of community building." Other recent events have included African Restaurant Week, Dia de Los Muertos, New Year Lunar Festival, Soul Food Fest and Brazilian Carnival, all of which rely on food and drink to attract visitors and support local businesses.

Meanwhile, initiatives such as the New Roots Community Farm and the City Heights Farmers' Market have been launched by nonprofits with philanthropic support in the name of "food justice," with the goal of reducing racial disparities in access to healthy food and empowering residents – projects that are particularly appealing to highly educated people who value diversity and democracy.

Upending an existing foodscape

In media coverage of changing foodscapes in low-income neighborhoods like City Heights, you'll rarely find any complaints.

San Diego Magazine's neighborhood guide for City Heights, for example, emphasizes its "claim to authentic international eats, along with live music venues, craft beer, coffee, and outdoor fun." It recommends several ethnic restaurants and warns readers not to be fooled by appearances.

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against the "urban food machine"

But that doesn't mean objections don't exist.

Many longtime residents and small-business owners – mostly people of color and immigrants – have, for decades, lived, worked and struggled to feed their families in these neighborhoods. To do so, they've run convenience stores, opened ethnic restaurants, sold food in parks and alleys and created spaces to grow their own food.

All represent strategies to meet community needs in a place mostly ignored by mainstream retailers.

So what happens when new competitors come to town?

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

Starting at a disadvantage

As I document in my book, these ethnic food businesses, because of a lack of financial and technical support, often struggle to compete with new enterprises that feature fresh façades, celebrity chefs, flashy marketing, bogus claims of authenticity and disproportionate media attention. Furthermore, following the arrival of more-affluent residents, existing ones find it increasingly difficult to stay.

My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. The listings I studied from 2019 often enticed potential buyers with lines like "shop at the local farmers' market," "join food truck festivals" and "participate in community food drives!"

San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44.

When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.

Going up against the urban food machine

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against what I call the "urban food machine," a play on sociologist Harvey Molotch's "urban growth machine" – a term he coined more than 50 years ago to explain how cities were being shaped by a loose coalition of powerful elites who sought to profit off urban growth.

I argue that investors and developers use food as a tool for achieving the same ends.

When their work is done, what's left is a rather insipid and tasteless neighborhood, where foodscapes become more of a marketable mishmash of cultures than an ethnic enclave that's evolved organically to meet the needs of residents. The distinctions of time and place start to blur: An "ethnic food district" in San Diego looks no different than one in Chicago or Austin.

Meanwhile, the routines and rhythms of everyday life have changed so much that longtime residents no longer feel like they belong. Their stories and culture reduced to a selling point, they're forced to either recede to the shadows or leave altogether.

It's hard to see how that's a form of inclusion or empowerment.The Conversation


Pascale Joassart-Marcelli is a Professor of Geography and Director, Urban Studies and Food Studies Programs at San Diego State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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