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For Syrians, Turkey Can Be a Station, or Home

Turkey–I can’t help but smile when the plane lands in Istanbul.

I have a layover before heading south to Gaziantep, and one of the first things I always do is go to my favorite Syrian restaurant in Taksim. You can get a decently sized fresh juice there for less than $2, and the ritual reminds me of my family’s favorite juice shop in Damascus, Abu Abdo.

I recognize no one when I walk in. Coming in every day for juice last year had led to a friendship of sorts with the staff, and jokes at my expense as “the orange and carrot juice girl.” Even though I already know the answer, I ask one of the cooks, where are the guys?

“Europe.”

For some of the 2 million Syrians here Turkey has become home. For others it is a station, by choice or by circumstance.

Dispersed throughout Turkish cities and villages, the Syrian presence here is tangible. Syrian musicians sing Arabic folk songs on Istanbul’s massive Istiklal Street, Syrian restaurants slip into the multicultural food scene, and Syrian children sell flowers and napkins by tourist sites and metro stops.

Photograph by Hiba Dlewati
Photograph by Hiba Dlewati

The winding road from the airport is lined with signs reading the names of Gaziantep’s eleven sister cities. A sign of Aleppo, Syria, stands as a reminder of the war-torn city only 97 kilometers south, and a time when the two cities shared more than a conflict-ridden border. An industrial city, Gaziantep was mostly known for its cuisine and exports of textiles, carpets, pistachios and olive products.

Now home to more than 200,000 Syrians, the city has also become an ad hoc hub for activists, journalists and international aid organizations. Referred to half jokingly as “Gaziantep the Resistance,” the city is indeed home to activists and organizations dedicated to defying both the Assad regime and ISIS, whilst struggling to make a life for themselves in exile.

Many Syrians here had initially fled to Lebanon or Jordan.  Although Turkey has yet to give Syrians official refugee status or work permits, it still offers more opportunity for Syrians to work than in other neighboring countries, especially in the NGO and nonprofit sectors. However, issues like poverty, child labor and exploitation continue here as well.

(left to right) Abdo, 15, and Mohammad, 14 play in the snow after work. They are both from Aleppo, and work for a tailor in the old Gaziantep market. They both dropped out of school to support their families. "I can read! I even went to school here. But then things got hard at home," Mohammad said. Photograph by Hiba Dlewati
(left to right) Abdo, 15, and Mohammad, 14 play in the snow after work. They are both from Aleppo, and work for a tailor in the old Gaziantep market. They both dropped out of school to support their families. Photograph by Hiba Dlewati
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“I can read! I even went to school here. But then things got hard at home,” Mohammad said. Photograph by Hiba Dlewati

Turkish words slip into conversation with the Arabic, a reminder of the time passing by. In Gaziantep’s cafes, you can hear aid workers discussing projects and budgets over coffee and cigarettes. Activists do not stop checking their phones for news from inside Syria; sometimes it seems they have only crossed the border physically. For some, being across the border does not protect them from being targets, with death threats still reaching their inboxes and phones, and three Syrian activists assassinated in Turkey recently.

Although most of those who were Europe-bound left in the summer and early autumn, some have made the trip in the past month, and others tentatively consider it. Like their presence, their absence is also tangible, leaving voids at work, the activist community, and the close-knit diaspora family.

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An exclusive film screening of “Little Ghandi” in Gaziantep, hosted by Baytnasyria, a platform supporting Syrian civil society. The documentary is about the life of nonviolent activist Ghiyath Matar, who was killed under torture in a Syrian regime prison. Photograph by Hiba Dlewati

Turkey is where I least feel out of place, despite the language barrier and the ever-elusive and bureaucratic residency process. Walking past Taksim Square to watch the New Years fireworks with Syrian friends, we laughed when we heard almost as much Arabic singing in the street as Turkish. For now, this is home.

Hiba Dlewati is a Syrian American journalist and writer moving throughout Jordan, Turkey and Sweden to document and narrate the stories of the Syrian diaspora. Twitter: @Hiba_Dlewati