ISTANBUL – “It was a mistake to come to Turkey. In Syria they could have killed us, but at least it was our country,” said Mohamed Sheih, a Syrian refugee.
Sheih is one of the 3.6 million Syrian refugees who have been in Turkey since 2011 and who are witnessing a swelling animosity in Istanbul, both from the authorities and from certain sectors of the local population.
Although it may not seem like it, Sheih’s life in this city is a success story: he owns a supermarket in a satellite neighborhood where tens of thousands of Syrians live.
In some of the suburb’s streets, practically all businesses bear Arabic names.
But a new set of rules requires all stores be labeled in Turkish and stipulates that Arabic must not take up more than 25 percent of signage.
The measure, ordered in July by the Turkish Interior Ministry, represents a shift in attitude towards Syrian refugees, formerly considered “welcome guests.”
And it is not only the government, headed by the Islamist AKP party, which until now had treated Syrians as “brothers in faith” that has changed its position, with attacks against Syrians and their property in Istanbul on the rise.
The last one occurred in June in Ikitelli, a quiet neighborhood one hour from the city center.
“At three in the morning they began to break stores, without any provocation,” Hassan, a 23-year-old computer science student, recalled.
“The police launched tear gas but then more people came, and the police had no capacity to intervene.
“They broke the windows of our store, even if they didn’t steal. I hid in a relative’s house; if they had seen me, they would have beaten me,” he added.
A police statement attributed this attack to “incitement on social media networks” and to an allegation accusing a Syrian boy of assaulting a Turkish teenager, a recurrent motive behind other attacks in recent years.
It was false.
The girl’s family confirmed that it was only a “misunderstanding with no physical contact.”
But the damage was already done: overturned cars, destroyed motorcycles, vandalized signs, shattered glass and a deeply damaged society.
“They also broke my shop window,” Umm Ahmet, a woman from Aleppo who runs “Lingerie Lily” a small textile shop on the same street, told EFE.
“I was locked up at home; the children were scared, crying.
“The next day we didn’t open the store, nobody went to work.
“Then, little by little everything went back to normal,” Ahmet added.
“Why?” She pondered.
“We have come here to work with the sweat of our forehead and eat our bread honestly.
“My son is a carpenter: he goes from home to work and from work to home, he never messes with anyone,” she decried.
“Where do they want us to go? We did not come to sightsee. I studied nursing; I have been taking care of the wounded during the Aleppo bombings, I have seen so many people die, destroyed by shrapnel,” Ahmet continued.
It is not clear who organizes the street attacks targeting Syrians.
Comparisons with the Istanbul “pogroms” of other times against Armenians and Greeks have already been made.
Mohamed Garzun, owner of a cleaning products business in Esenyurt, arrived in Turkey four years ago, via Lebanon.
“Then, Turkey was the only country that allowed Syrians to enter, they made it easy for us, there was a special appreciation for the Syrian citizen,” he said.
“But then, especially this year, there was pressure.
“Perhaps a bad person gave the whole Syrian community a bad name.
“There are Turks who see a Syrian acting badly and think that all Syrians are bad people,” Garzun mused.
Not far from his shop, a Turkish neighbor does not hide his opinion.
“The Syrians? They are all cowards. They should have stayed to fight in their country instead of fleeing.”
850,000 SYRIANS IN ISTANBUL
The hard lives of Istanbul’s Syrians have been dampened yet again.
In July, the Turkish government ordered all unregistered Syrians in Istanbul to leave the city.
They have until August 20.
According to the Interior Ministry, there are 547,000 Syrian refugees in Istanbul, 3.6% of the city’s population, which exceeds 15 million inhabitants.
In fact, there are more.
“There are about 300,000 (Syrians) registered in other provinces, but they have come to Istanbul to look for work, which brings the total to about 850,000,” political scientist Murat Erdogan told EFE.
Turkey does not recognize Syrians as refugees under the international definition, but grants them “temporary protection.”
It issues cards that entitle them to stay indefinitely, free access to health services and, in case of not having income, modest state payments.
Only 87,000 Syrians, 2.4% of the total, live in the prefabricated house camps that the government established in the first year of the Syrian war.
The rest live like any Turkish citizen, paying rent.
Many come to Istanbul because it is a business center, as do the Turks themselves because in other regions work is scarce.
Now, many will have to leave.
Salih, from Aleppo, has been in Turkey for three years but is registered in the neighboring province of Bursa.
“I had a job in Istanbul, but it’s over,” the Syrian lamented.
“I was fired. Now I am forced to return to Bursa, and there is no work there.”
Ziyad, a Syrian in his fifties is registered in Istanbul but is unemployed.
“It’s a great injustice: they came to work, they had their business and now they have to go,” Ziyad complained.
Moving to another province was never legal for refugees, but it didn’t seem to matter to anyone.
Now, the Police perform daily raids and demand anyone speaking Arabic in Istanbul to show them their cards.
If you are registered in another province, you are reminded of the deadline of August 20.
The Istanbul Governorate takes people who are not registered on the system to a temporary detention center to issue a card for them, the office said.
However, Human Rights Watch claims to have testimonies of refugees who have been deported to Syria after they were forced to sign a “voluntary” return statement.
Ramazan Seçilmis, spokesman for the Turkish Migration Directorate, denied this.
“All returns have been voluntary.”
The total number of returnees amounts to 337,000 people, a number that Murat Erdogan, a political scientist, does not believe.
“It will be that they have added all the registered departures.
“In reality, only about 55,000 Syrians have returned from Turkey to Syria to recover their life there,” he explained.
SYRIANS BOUND TO A LIFE OF POVERTY
The latest acts of vandalism in Ikitelli have been, for many Syrians, the final straw.
“They have been leaving the neighborhood for some time,” Hassan, a young Syrian, told Efe.
“Every day three or four buses leave.
“They either go to other provinces or go to Syria.
“Those who had a job, no longer have it, those who had stores have closed them,” Umm Ahmet added.
“After the attacks, many of my neighbors sold off everything, any leftover stock, locked up and left; some have even returned to Syria,” Ali said.
With no neighbors, shopkeepers have no clients.
“If I used to sell 200 loaves a day, now I sell 70,” Ziyad lamented whilst perched among merchandise labeled largely in Arabic.
“The Turks do not buy our products, they do not even know what they are.
“The expulsion affects the entire community, and has left us without an income,” the shopkeeper concluded.
Moving Syrians around the country “does not solve anything,” Murat Erdogan decried.
“It is the wrong policy. It is intended to take care of the demographic balance in Istanbul, but if a large number of Syrians now arrive in Sanliurfa, where there is no work, the balance will break there and problems may arise,” Erdogan said.
“It is a political measure,” he added in reference to municipal elections of March and June in Istanbul won by the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) which put an end to 25 years of Islamist governments in the city.
“The discontent of the population with the presence of the Syrians influenced the vote and measures are being taken to react,” Erdogan concluded.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s speeches highlighting the enormous help that Turkey provides to Syrian refugees spread the feeling that the government treats the Syrians better than the citizens themselves.
In their election campaign, the CHP made certain attempts to exploit this discontent. But the expulsion order and the change of the posters have not left the offices of the new Social Democratic mayor, Ekrem Imamoglu, but come from the Ministry of Interior.
“The government changed its policy because it believes it has lost votes because of the Syrians,” Turkish analyst Hürrem Sönmez said in a conversation with Efe.
“The bad thing is that the CHP and even the left agree,” Sönmez added.
In the rich neighborhoods of Istanbul where there is a lot of Saudi or Kuwaiti tourism, there is no lack of Arabic signs: “The problem is not the Arabs, but poor Arabs.”
Few Turks defend the Syrians.
There are hardly any critics of the August 20 deadline.
“They are our neighbors, we should take more care of them. It is a matter of humanity,” said Dilial, one of the few people who participated in a protest rally in the conservative Faith neighborhood called by an Islamist charitable organization.
Despite the large numbers of police surrounding the protest, a group of ultra-nationalists attempts to disrupt the demonstration.
The police intervened and detained several passionate nationalists.
They even had to escort the protesters at the end of the event.
Another peaceful demonstration took place in the liberal neighborhood of Kadiköy, called by unions and Marxist groups.
Under slogans such as “A world without borders,” “no to racism” and “we want to live together” in Turkish, English and Arabic a few hundred young people congregate, all of them Turkish.
Those who are not protesting anywhere are the Syrians.
They all agree on the same phrase: “We want to return to Syria, better today than tomorrow.”
But his country is still at war.