The smell of Arabic sweets and coffee filled the air as groups of people passed by the various shops. The calls in Arabic by the men behind their small fruit stalls echoed throughout the streets of Istanbul’s “Little Damascus” neighborhood.
Many of those living in the area are refugees from Syria who fled their homes after the start of the civil war and are now trying to start new lives in Turkey. However, while they may have escaped the war in Syria, they are now facing a new threat – discrimination.
Discrimination of Syrians by Turks has been steadily increasing over the last four to five years, according to Kurdish journalist Rabia Chetin.
“In recent times hatred and discrimination against Syrians, especially young people and children, has increased,” she told Al Arabiya English. “In January, a Syrian student rescued a woman who was buried in the Elazig earthquake. When this was posted on social media, they [Turks] reacted to that too.”
In the comments to the social media posts, some praised the student, Mahmoud, for what he did while others posted comments questioning why he was in Turkey and not another Arab country, or asked why he wasn’t saving people in Idlib if he can do it in Turkey.
At the start of the Syrian Civil War, Turkey allowed Syrians to come into the country and live in camps along the border. But that welcome quickly turned to disdain, and Syrians now have to take care to avoid running into problems.
Ahmad, who spoke with Al Arabiya English on the condition of anonymity, came from Damascus to study at a Turkish university. While he says that he lives a good life in Turkey, he admitted that he is worried about the possibility of getting deported.
“You can’t really live comfortably,” he explained. “If you don’t act like this [staying out of any trouble] because any problem has a threat of deportation, and it’s really hard to deal with that because even back in Syria, you’ll face issues with the government.”
Mohammad, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity, came from Homs three years ago and is constantly working in order to pay for his family’s visas to come to Turkey. He currently sells fruits and makes around 2,000 to 3,000 Turkish lira ($273 to $409), but he needs around $3,000 to pay for the visas.
“While I’m working, I am doing it illegally because you need an actual shop to sell your produce,” he told Al-Arabiya English. “So if I get caught, I can either get detained or they let me go, it really depends on the mood and personality of the officer.”
“It’s all a matter of luck,” he added. “If you get caught by an officer that hates Syrians and he might send you away from Istanbul and back to the state you’re registered in Turkey or deported back to Syria.”
However, Mohammad explained that it was unlikely that anyone would be deported right now with the COVID-19 pandemic.
Mohammad also recalled an incident where some Turkish men were standing outside of a wedding hall with Syrian women inside. Some of the local Syrian men asked them to leave and they did after a small fight broke out, but only to return with around 30 others.
“They went and got 30 other men, destroyed many Syrian shops because of this which doesn’t make sense because if you’re angry with one person why take it out on us,” he asked. “People who are just trying to make a living. Just because this isn’t our country, we should have our shops destroyed?”
“We are here in Turkey minding our business and just working to pay the bills,” he said. “And we stand our ground no matter what.”
Ahmad has also had incidents where one of his friends stole something from him and he could not go to the police for fear of the friend making a false claim that he was harassing her and getting him in trouble.
“I had to drop the whole thing in fear of her going to the police and telling them ‘he’s threatening me’ or causing her issues if I kept persisting,” he recalled. “Considering she’s Turkish and I’m Syrian, so, of course, they will prioritize her word against mine, and I wanted to avoid that.”
Rumors fly, lead to assault
The discrimination does not always take the form of direct threats and fights, however, and can sometimes start as false rumors that ultimately lead to attacks on the Syrian community.
“When a sexual assault took place against a local child in Adana last year the lie that the perpetrator was Syrian was circulated,” Chetin said. “Due to this lie, Syrians’ homes and workplaces were looted in Adana. It was later revealed that the perpetrator was not Syrian.”
Rumors and hate speech often spread through social media, specifically Facebook and Twitter. Some of these rumors include the belief that Syrian refugees who acquire Turkish citizenship paid for it and the Turkish government gives money to refugees, despite the government and refugees denying this.
Chetin explained that “false information about Syrians receiving money from the Turkish state, false information about Syrians being given citizenship and lies that Syrian youth can pass to universities without an examination is frequently circulated, especially on social media. This situation increases discrimination against Syrian refugees.”
In addition to spreading false information and attacking Syrian businesses, children are also bullied and this can have serious consequences.
“A 9-year-old Syrian boy committed suicide after being discriminated against by his friends at school last year,” Chetin recalled. “Lack of communication between children can also cause refugee children to experience difficult situations.”
Refugees used as political tool
Discrimination toward Syrians tends to rise during elections as politicians will often use the refugees as a tool to gain more support, with politicians calling for their deportation, saying they do not fit in Turkish society.
“After the Istanbul elections last year many Turks gave right-wing support to the transfer and deportation of Syrians in metropolitan cities to other cities and increased the language of hatred towards Syrians on social media,” Chetin said.
Mohammad expressed concern about upcoming elections, fearing it will bring some problems to the refugee community.
“The only worry with the upcoming elections is that the opposition might use Syrians,” he said. “And they’d open up our files and start playing the ‘we have a lot of refugees excuse’ as a way to pressure [voters]. We’re always a pressure tactic by governments, no matter where we go.”