What happened to the Syrian refugees who got stuck in Turkey?

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Guardian, March 17, 2021, Bethan McKernan in Istanbul & Hussein Akoush in Gaziantep

Gaziantep, in southern Turkey, is home to about half a million Syrian refugees, many of whom had hoped to make it Europe.

The first to arrive at Gaziantep’s Irani Bazaar are the bakers, lighting their saj grills before the sun comes up to make Syrian flatbread for the day’s customers. The smell of sesame and fresh unleavened bread fills the neighbourhood in the Anatolian city by the time the street’s other traders arrive to open their shops.

When the bakery doors open at 7am, a nearby restaurant owner stops by to pick up the huge round sheets for traditional Syrian breakfast: dipped in za’atar and olive oil, or served alongside beans, falafel, fatteh and hummus. Shopkeepers along the length of the street take bites in between sips of Turkish tea, Nescafé or thick Arabic coffee as they prepare for the work ahead.

As the rest of the city wakes up, the sound of Arabic is everywhere, competing with the noise of Gaziantep’s traffic. Despite the name, Irani bazaar isn’t Iranian: it’s the heart of the city’s Syrian community.

“The street has changed in many ways. We picked Irani bazaar and the neighbourhoods around, originally, because the rent was cheap. Most of the shop owners are Syrians now. It’s the major centre for us,” said 52-year-old Alaa al-Dein Shasho, who recently gave up his grocery shop on the street to start an air conditioning business like the one he had at home in Aleppo.

“The market reminds us of Syria, but specifically the markets of Aleppo,” said Lubna Helli, who owns Lazord restaurant, a few streets away. “When you go there, everybody speaks Arabic, most of the shopkeepers are from Aleppo and it’s full of Syrian people. It is like home.”

“Our chicken, legumes, vegetables, spices, they all come from Irani bazaar.”

Gaziantep is closer to Aleppo – just 60 miles away – than any Turkish city, and the two ancient trading posts share many cultural and historical ties. But for most of the Syrian community here, Aleppo now might as well be another planet.

When Syrians fled their country to escape the horrors of the now 10-year-old war, it gave Europe its biggest refugee crisis since the Holocaust. About one million Syrians have since settled on the continent, the majority in Germany, Sweden, Austria and the Netherlands. To prevent a repeat, the EU struck a deal with Turkey the following year: in exchange for €6bn (£5.1bn) in aid, Ankara agreed to stop refugees and migrants making the deadly crossing over the Mediterranean and the long walk through eastern Europe. Syrians and others who have made it over the sea to Greece since the deal are now mostly held in camps.

As a result, Turkey is far and away the world’s biggest refugee host nation, with 3.7 million registered Syrians already, and a population that keeps growing – about 500,000 Syrian children have been born here since the crisis began.

Gaziantep is the centre of this new reality for both Syrians and Turks. The city hosts about half a million Syrians, while Istanbul has a similar number. The newcomers have been absorbed into a metropolis already home to 17 million people, compared with Gaziantep’s pre-war population of 1.5 million.

Life is still far from easy for Syrians in Turkey, but it is better than Jordan or Lebanon, where refugees are mostly denied the right to work or integrate into society, and hundreds of thousands still live in camps.

For President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government in Ankara, the influx of Syrians – at least 110,000 of whom have already obtained Turkish citizenship – represents a promising new bloc of potential voters.

The Gaziantep authorities in particular have been praised for their efforts in helping the two communities integrate, soothing worries about rising rents, stagnating wages and extra pressure on city infrastructure and creating “a model of tolerance and pragmatism”.

But not everyone thought they would end up here. Ahmad al-Taweel, a graphic designer from Damascus, fled to Turkey in 2013. He wanted to make a new life in Belgium, attempting to cross the Mediterranean from Izmir on the Aegean coast five times before giving up and settling in Gaziantep.

“I was desperate to go to Europe. After a year of trying in Turkey I thought I wouldn’t be able to find work or finish my studies here. But the boat sank three times. Once the coastguards sank it on purpose. After failing so many times I had to give up. I thought I was going to die if I kept trying,” the 32-year-old said.

“I am happy in Turkey now. I learned the language, I have a decent income, I got married recently to a Turkish woman. I’ve built myself a good life.

“The refugees who have got stuck in camps in Greece and other places in dire humanitarian conditions, the thousands of people who have drowned … The refugee crisis changed my opinion about European governments, to be honest. I was disappointed to see their real face, which is ugly.”

Many are not as lucky as Taweel. A million Syrians in Turkey work without proper permits, leaving them vulnerable to extortion by employers. About 40% of children remain out of school, and 64% of urban Syrian households live close to or below the poverty line, the Brookings Institution said, which risks the creation of “an isolated and alienated underclass”.

Turkey’s economic downturn in 2018 led to a backlash against Syrians which culminated in an illegal deportation campaign the following summer. Tens of thousands of people attempted the journey to Europe once again in early 2020 after Erdoğan said Turkey would no longer block their passage in an attempt to pressure the EU.

Ankara’s plans to eventually resettle refugees in “safe zones” it has wrested from border areas in Syria previously under Kurdish control have been widely viewed as attempts at demographic engineering.

While Bashar al-Assad is still in control in Damascus however, going home remains unimaginable for the vast majority of the 5.6 million people who fled.

“I would love to go back to Syria, but it’s impossible now,” said Helli, the restaurant owner.

“I already began my business here; my children are in Turkish school. Maybe I might expand my restaurant with one in Istanbul. My life is here now,” the 43-year-old added.

For Azam al-Ahmad, Europe still beckons. The 29-year-old was forced to drop out of his law degree when the revolution began. He has worked long hours in textile factories in Gaziantep since, earning less than his Turkish colleagues, and with no medical insurance, to support his young family.

“The plan was always Europe, to join my brothers in Germany. I have had to save up, and my wife sold her jewellery, to pay smugglers for the journey. If I get caught, I could lose my protection status or get deported … But it’s still worth it.”

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