Turkey

Deep Meaning, Cheap Labor: How Syrian Refugees Are Changing Turkey

The number of Syrian refugees in Turkey has reached 900,000. They are our new poor. How we treat them is the great test of a new democracy.

A young Syrian refugee walks in Istanbul's Tarbalasi district
A young Syrian refugee walks in Istanbul's Tarbalasi district
Ali Topuz

ISTANBULEz birci me. Zaroken min bircine... The woman looks all shriveled in her burqa. Her face almost touches the sidewalk. Her hands are shaking. “I am hungry. My children are hungry.”

What she then repeats in Arabic must also be the same. They are our new neighbors. The new poor of the city, of our country. The new hungry, begging in the streets in Turkish, Kurdish and Arabic.

We do not know how many of them are here. It is said that 100,000 are in Istanbul alone. Fuat Oktay, President of the Prime Ministry Disaster and Emergency Management Presidency (AFAD), said last week that the total number of Syrians in Turkey has now topped 900,000, including 224,000 in various refugee camps.

The costs: $2.5 billion. But let us not deal with the money. We do not exactly know how many tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of them are on the streets of which cities. Does anybody really want to know? How much do we care if the poor are always someone else.

They are at the every corner of Istanbul: on the side of the roads, on the stairs, in the doorways, under the bridges; wearing tattered clothes long deprived of color, looking at people passing by as if staring into nothingness. They are not beggars even though they sometimes beg for things. Their voices are so low, they can barely be heard. It is obvious that they have not begged before. They are in between the weight of the nightmare they fell into and the threats of hunger and lack of a future for their children.

The barefoot children who try to get a few pennies from the cars stuck in traffic all winter long. They are a ghost nation. The new members of the ghost nation.

Burning tents

It was reported by Idris Emen that a "tent city" was formed on the side of the road in the Bayrampasa District of Istanbul. They were about one hundred Turkmen families. There was no water. There was disease. They were trying nonetheless to hold onto something in an empty tent at the side of a road. What happened after the story was published? The municipal police is vigilant. They evacuated the people. They burned the tents, just like they did in the so-called legal torching during the Gezi protests. They will soon be remembered in history as tent burners.

Of course, the city cannot allow such things. One cannot set up a tent anywhere they want. That is true. But what happened after? These are people of war. They are our new fellow townspeople. It means that the war is among us now, since the people of war are among us. So, we are at war. The war in Syria opened a gate to a parallel world within our daily life. Here we are, not at the Syrian border but along the European coast of Istanbul, watching homeless shadows of Syrians all around.

The brave ones constantly try to change locations, go to new places, but it is bad for them wherever they go. Two weeks ago eight dead bodies, of which one was a minor, were found in Edirne. They were dead during winter. It was a short story in the news. Nobody went deeper. This is what happens, we told ourselves, to refugees of war.

The exclusionist machine at work

Insults and both openly and secret racism against the Syrians are all around, in the newspapers and on social media. They are considered the criminals of the future. You see headlines such as “the threat of Syrian beggars.” Warnings about that they will take away jobs.

Last week, an old man jumped (or maybe fell) to the sea from the Galata Bridge at the Golden Horn in Istanbul. There were plenty of people around, but only one person jumped after him and managed to keep the old man afloat until authorities arrived. The one who jumped was a kid who came from Syria and found a job as a waiter here.

Of course, even though he jumps while others watch, changes nothing. "Damn Syrians' are to be subjected to every insult, every evil from the border towns to the metropolises. Such events will not be recognized by anybody.

A history of "migration"

These experiences have a history. A domestic history. A tragic history.

The last big migration was a domestic one. Millions of people lost their homes after 1984 due to Turkey's war over the Kurdish issue. The Kurds migrated to towns and cities hastily, desperately and disorderly. The numbers are again uncertain; numbers between two million and four million were pronounced. The poverty created by this migration was not even considered as poverty of a people. Instead, we witnessed racist propaganda rising against their presence sold as the "justified nationalist reaction" of the Turks.

The current Syrian migration shares similarities to that experience: a population compelled to do heavy and dirty work for cheap. The ones who receive aid are in the minority. Apart from the official aid, there is an invisible hand which tries to carry some of the burden due to reasons regarding ethnicity, religion or affinity; that is it. The rest spread out everywhere as the invisible members of the ghost nation. The insults and xenophobia inevitably follow.

War has winners and losers. Those sleeping in the streets are the losers. They are the ones who were chased away. They also seem to have been losers in the place from where they arrived. A small number of organizations and people try to help the innocents to survive.

Most, however, are indifferent. Isn't that a form of war profiteering? Is it not the indifference of recognizing our new fellow townspeople as "spoils of war"?

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