GAZIANTEP — The lives of Adnan, Yasmin, Ajib and Muhammed, Syrian refugees settled in Turkey, was already a long, long hardship. When the coronavirus arrived, hardship turned into devastation.

While refugees in Lebanon and Syria are housed and fed in camps, the millions of Syrian refugees in Turkey are integrated within major cities and suburbs, and must find work. These families — which rarely have fewer than four children — live on a single daily salary, usually in the construction, agriculture or small businesses sectors. With COVID-19, these opportunities have become scarce, plunging entire families into destitution.

Since arriving in 2015, Adnan, a 35-year-old construction worker from Aleppo, has never been able to find the stability needed to build a better future for his family of five. When the lockdown began last year, even the part-time work dried up in Gaziantep, a city that has swelled to 450,000 new inhabitants since the start of the war in Syria.

"I would like to work in a big workshop or a factory, to get a permanent job. But it's very difficult," he said. Few Turkish companies apply for a work permit or pay insurance for Syrian refugees. It is more attractive for them to pay an undeclared half salary.

These extreme conditions have pushed Syrian families to send their children to work. This is the case of Yasmine's two boys, both minors and part of a six-person family living in one room. They describe themselves as being in a state of "great poverty." Employed in small shops, the children earn 80 Turkish lira ($9.16) per week at best.

Eight out of 10 households have had at least one family member put out of work because of COVID

Without financial assistance, a large majority of the four million Syrians in Turkey would simply not have the means to survive. Of the six billion euros promised to Turkey in 2016 for keeping and managing refugees on its soil, 40% is spent on humanitarian aid. Criticized for making Europe bend to the whim of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan — who can open his borders at any time — this pact, sealed in the midst of the migration crisis, has finally proven itself useful. Discussions to renew the funds are currently underway.

Bülent Öztürk of the Turkish Red Crescent, one of the 20 or so NGOs funded by the European Union to provide support to the vulnerable, says that eight out of 10 households have had at least one family member put out of work because of COVID. "The debt of families has doubled," says Öztürk.

The EU's flagship program, set up in 2016, takes the form of a credit card, the Kizilaykart, granted to more than 300,000 households, or about 1.63 million Syrians. "This is the largest humanitarian program ever set up by Europe," says a representative of the European Commission.

The card is credited with with the equivalent of $18 per family member each month, with a quarterly "bonus" for larger families. The Kizilaykart is a modest boost, but it allows the family to meet its basic needs: rent, food and clothing. As a result of the severe devaluation of the Turkish currency in recent months, the refugees received an extra 1,000 Turkish liras (about $115), during the pandemic.

A social event hosted by the Zenobia Syrian Women's Association intended to support Syrian women refugees in Turkey and their families — Photo: Muhammed Ibrahim Ali/IMAGESLIVE/ZUMA

In the most blatant cases of poverty, NGOs take out their checkbooks and pay the family's rent for a few months. They also provide food vouchers and distribute carpets and clothes. However, the general feeling among the beneficiaries is one of insecurity: "We are very dependent on the NGOs whose aid can be interrupted overnight and we don't know what the future will bring," says Emina. "It's been 10 years since we arrived, and our situation has not changed at all. I don't see how it could change."

Refugees, many of whom do not speak Turkish, also visit NGO offices for help with hospital appointments and administrative assistance with registration procedures required for access to education and free health care. At the Danish Refugee Council, legal support is provided to help courageous couples build a case for an unlikely transfer to a European or North American country. In the wake of COVID-19, many requests concern school enrollment or re-enrollment. Many of these families were unable to send their children to the online school the government had set up.

Access to education, made compulsory in 2016 by President Erdogan, is still out of reach for nearly one in two of these children. "About 400,000 children — more than half of the young refugees — are out of school. Some have never set foot in one," says Iren Wall, an American who works with refugees in the city of Sanliurfa in southeast Turkey.

Convinced the only chance of integration for these Syrian children is through education, Wall and her team of teachers are working to give the 2,600 enrolled students a three-month rehabilitation period and upgrading sessions. In one of the rooms of what looks like a small community school, educators teach Syrian, Kurdish and Iranian children to regain their self-esteem, an appetite for learning and the basics of the Turkish language.

The Turkish government has gradually realized that the refugees will not go back home

To encourage families to send their children to school rather than to work, the EU is financing a vast humanitarian program deployed by UNICEF. It gives these households an income of 15 Turkish liras per week per child if they attend school regularly. More than 700,000 children remain covered by this program until the start of 2022.

Those who have returned to school, have progressed at lightning speed. The youngest speak Turkish and some are even forgetting Arabic. "The Turkish government has gradually realized that the refugees will not go back home," says a European official.

In some cities, such as Gaziantep, refugees now account for up to 30% of the population. In Kilis, near the border, their number has exceeded that of Turkish natives. Yet it is not the new arrivals from Syria that are making the statistics soar, but a high birth rate. Every year, 100,000 children are born into these refugee families.

Despite their eagerness to reach Europe or even Australia, these kinds of statistics are making it increasingly clear that the future of Syrian refugees lies in Turkey, no matter how difficult their slow integration may be.

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