Syrian refugees in Turkey left behind

Sanliurfa (Turkey) (AFP) – Samira hears the same message from Turkish politicians day and night on television: Syrian refugees like her must return home. But her home near Damascus is still not safe, she said.

The 44-year-old man from Ghouta is one of hundreds of thousands of refugees in the Turkish province of Sanliurfa, which shares a long border with Syria.

The civil war in Samira’s homeland is estimated to have killed nearly half a million people and displaced millions since it began with a brutal crackdown on anti-government protests in 2011.

Turkey has fiercely opposed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, supporting rebels calling for his withdrawal and opening its doors to refugees.

But a new wave of economic turmoil, which has seen inflation soar and the value of the lira plummet, has put a strain on Turkey’s 3.7 million Syrians.

Samira said she has never felt so much pressure since she fled to Turkey in 2019.

“I don’t think about going back there, they destroyed our house. The situation is bad there,” she told AFP from her modest ground-floor apartment in the town of Sanliurfa, home to around half a million Syrian refugees. a quarter of the province’s population.

Hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees fled to Turkey’s Sanliurfa province Ozan KOSE AFP

The refugees fear being used as a scapegoat for Turkey’s troubles in the 2023 election campaign, as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan faces growing public anger over their presence.

-‘Very scared’-

The main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) has promised to send them back to Syria, while the leader of the far-right Victory Party has admitted funding a viral social media video aimed at frighten the Turks about a “silent invasion” of migrants.

Earlier this month, Erdogan said Ankara was aiming to encourage a million Syrian refugees to return to “safe areas” on the Turkish-Syrian border by building them housing and local infrastructure.

“‘Send the Syrians back, send the Syrians back!’ That’s what we hear on TV from morning to night,” Samira said, sitting on a cushion on the floor and not wanting to give her full name.

“Why don’t they like us? We’re trying to build a life here, we’re trying to stand up. Politicians use us as campaign material,” she said.

Despite pressure from opposition parties, Erdogan promised that Turkey would not turn back Syrian refugees and “throw them into the lap of murderers”.

But his assurances do not allay their fears.

Ibrahim said she lays a low profile in public to avoid trouble
Ibrahim said she lays a low profile in public to avoid trouble Ozan KOSE AFP

A few meters from Samira’s house, Umm Mohamed, 43, who runs a grocery store selling Syrian bread, favas and olives, does not understand the turnaround in society.

“We are very scared,” she said, standing behind the counter, her eyes shy under a black veil.

“We feel the pressure. As a foreigner, we have to be polite all the time.”

Syria is not an option

Mohamed’s husband left Assad’s army. “We can’t go back,” she said. “They would kill us.”

Fatima Ibrahim, in her thirties, married a Syrian refugee after fleeing to Turkey nine years ago. The economic fallout is hitting them as hard as the Turks, she said.

Her husband lost his job as a blacksmith during the Covid pandemic. Two weeks ago he found a job as a farmer in the central province of Konya, 700 kilometers (435 miles) from Sanliurfa.

“Employers pay us less, so locals are annoyed, blaming us for taking less than theirs,” she says, sitting next to her three young sons.

“Sometimes locals tell us we should go back, that we made them lose their jobs,” she said.

“Some people tell us: ‘Syria is better now, why don’t you go back? Everything is becoming so expensive because of you.’ It makes me feel so bad.”

A new wave of economic turmoil has put the Syrian population of Turkey under enormous pressure
A new wave of economic turmoil has put the Syrian population of Turkey under enormous pressure Ozan KOSE AFP

But returning to Syria is not an option for Ibrahim.

“I will never come back. Either I will stay here or I will flee to Europe. There is no third option,” she said.

‘Don’t get involved’

Ibrahim said she keeps a low profile in public to avoid trouble, keeping contact with locals to a minimum.

“I don’t visit my neighbors and they don’t visit my house. We don’t mingle,” she said.

Haifa, a 39-year-old English teacher from Aleppo, is fluent in Turkish after nine years here and avoids speaking Arabic in public to avoid attracting attention.

Haifa avoids speaking Arabic in public to avoid attracting attention
Haifa avoids speaking Arabic in public to avoid attracting attention Ozan KOSE AFP

“I want to protect myself,” she told AFP, after being exposed to verbal attacks in the street.

“Political issues affect us more than the economy,” she said.

Since 2016, the Turkish military has launched military operations in Syria, fighting outlaw Kurdish militants and Islamic State jihadists.

Haifa said: “Some say to us ‘go back to your country, you have fun while our soldiers are dying there'”.

“Do you think it’s easy to leave everything behind?” Your memories, your house, everything. You can’t even visit your mother’s or father’s grave.

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