For Syrian refugees in Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and elsewhere, their plight is similar. Rape, sexual harassment at work and on the streets, homelessness, racism, and job exploitation are regular occurrences.
In Turkey, where the number of Syrian refugees recently exceeded a million, local outrage and intolerance are growing. Anti-Syrian demonstrations, previously in border towns and cities, reached Istanbul, where hundreds of Turkish residents, armed with machetes and sticks, attacked Syrian refugees, properties and businesses. Five Syrian women were injured.
According to local media, the clashes erupted after young Syrian men harassed a Turkish girl. A similar sexual harassment case against a Turkish child resulted in clashes in Hatay, near the border with Syria.
Refugees offer a conflicting account. They say Turkish landlords and employers often harass Syrian women. Hassan Abu Kenan, a Syrian residing in Gaziantep, refers to the case of a Syrian woman who stabbed her Turkish landlord during an attempted rape. The border city, home to the largest number of refugees (10% of the population), witnessed anti-Syrian demonstrations after the fatal stabbing.
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Suleyman Akgunes, an Istanbul resident and government supporter, accuses opposition groups of staging the protests to stir problems for the ruling AKP party, which has been advocating an open-border policy, spending nearly $1.5 billion to accommodate refugee needs.
“Most of the demonstrations are organized by local opposition parties. They want to say [to the government and public], ‘all these problems are because of you’,” he said. Those who mistreat Syrian refugees are usually opposition supporters, said Akgunes, as their presence has been associated with AKP policies.
Karabekir Akkoyunlu, a Turkish academic, rejects the notion that anti-Syrian protests are politically motivated, as there are underlying socioeconomic and cultural tensions. “Syrians are foreigners, Arabs and destitute, while their massive influx has triggered nationalistic sentiments, especially in border cities [such as Gaziantep], where they came in large numbers,” he said.
“Turks don’t tend to think very highly of Arabs,” partly being the latter’s rulers under the Ottoman empire, he added. Furthermore, “there’s the wider political picture. Every Syrian refugee represents the mess Turkey has gotten into with intervention in Syria. There’s a consequent tendency to associate every Syrian refugee with jihadists, often wrongly.”
Akgunes acknowledges that the rising number of refugees requires a different government response, as many have become increasingly visible on the streets, begging to make ends meet. “Now you can see [Syrian refugees] in all corners” in Istanbul. He thinks refugees should be “in a special place,” not necessarily a camp, “but some kind of small village where the government can provide them with better living conditions.”
Syrian refugee boys stroll at a refugee camp in Nizip in Gaziantep province, near the Turkish-Syrian border. (Reuters)
The government has resorted to relocating refugees from major cities to border camps. Refugees’ increasing numbers have raised rent prices, angering locals, said Akgunes. Syrians too say they are suffering from rising rent.
Nivin Dalati, from Zabadani - a Damascus countryside town bombarded daily by regime forces - left her house to Istanbul to secure a school for her daughters. Turkish landlords are avoiding Syrians, she says. After finding a flat, a neighbor in the building objected.
“I left Zabadani not because of bombardment, to which we became accustomed, but to find my daughters a school, and to avoid the dangerous chaos and crossing the humiliating checkpoints daily,” she said.
Dalati tried convincing the neighbor, a lady, hoping that she, as a woman, would understand her circumstances, but “she was very cruel.” Dalati hurried out of the building crying. When she finally found a helpful estate agent, who “even offered to pay some of the deposit,” it turned out “he was looking for a mistress.”
Turkey, home to Syrian opposition groups and NGOs, had been preferable to many Syrians compared with Lebanon and Jordan. “Turks were initially very positive towards them, and there were many times when I’d see random people going over to refugees sleeping rough in parks, with their hands full of food they’d bought from a nearby oven, or chocolates for the kids,” said Iason Athanasiadis, a Greek journalist residing in Turkey.
He recalls the positive impression Turkish refugee camps left on Western humanitarian workers and their Syrian residents, “called by many of them five-star hotels.” However, in light of recent clashes, “this is clearly not the case anymore,” Athanasiadis said.
Dalati is packing to return with her daughters to Zabadani.
“Misfortune in our country is more honorable than being here.”