‘They hate us’: Earthquake tests ties between Syrian refugees and Turkish hosts

Umm Anwar has fled Syria to start a new life in the southern Turkish city of Gaziantep. When the run-down apartment building she now calls home began shaking uncontrollably on Monday morning, she was thrown back into her former life.

“I felt like I was under the bombs in Syria again,” said the mother-of-two, who used a pseudonym to protect her family, who lived in the government-held city of Aleppo. “As if death had returned for me.”

The severe earthquake that shook southeastern Turkey and northern Syria on Monday was a tragedy for everyone affected. But for the nearly 4 million Syrian refugees from Turkey who have fled civil war in their homeland, the grief was compounded by the familiar feeling that their hopes for a safe place to call home have once again been dashed were.

“I have lost everything – for the second time,” said Umm Anwar. “I’m not sure I have the strength to start my life over again.”

Turkey has taken in more Syrian refugees than any other country, giving them protection, allowing them to work, and giving them access to health care and education. Turkey says it has spent more than $40 billion to house the newcomers.

Ali Mohammad in a refugee camp in Harran on the outskirts of Sanliurfa
Ali Mohammad in a refugee camp in Harran on the outskirts of Sanliurfa. Behind him is a tent he is erecting for 10 Syrian families who turned up at his camp with nowhere else to go © Raya Jalabi/FT

But the quake came at a time of rising public hostility towards Syrians in Turkey, exacerbated by a cost of living crisis. It also comes ahead of the general election slated for May, which experts say will further politicize their plight. The refugees now fear they will lose out in the allocation of resources as Ankara faces the daunting task of rebuilding.

“All political parties have made unrealistic promises to play on the emotions of the constituency and reap votes by blaming Syrians for many sufferings,” said Omar Kadkoy, an expert on migration at the Ankara-based think tank Tepav.

“There are even some politicians who saw an opportunity for populism in the aftermath of the earthquake. This will fuel nativism and further hamper the scarce social cohesion between Turks and Syrians.”

Umm Anwar and her children, whose homes are unsafe, are staying with friends, but other refugees have not been so fortunate. A family of 10 living in a neighboring and now collapsed apartment block sheltered under a plastic sheet, burning corn husks and plastic bags for warmth in the bitter cold.

The scene is repeated in the poorest corners of a city that felt the full force of the quake just 40 miles from the epicenter. Bonfires are lit on almost every street, sad faces flicker in the light. Days after the severe earthquake, displaced people crowded the roadsides, slept in cars or sought shelter in overcrowded mosques.

Map showing the location and intensity of the 7.8 magnitude earthquake between Turkey and Syria

The almost 500,000 Syrians in Gaziantep make up more than a fifth of the city’s population. They came to escape the brutal war that broke out in 2011 and have struggled to rebuild their lives while grappling with the scars of the conflict. For many it should be a stop on the way to a new life in Europe. That dream died after Turkey struck a deal with the EU to cut half the flow of “irregular” migrants to Europe, where governments were alarmed by the number of refugees fleeing the war in Syria.

Instead, they stayed in their new home amid mounting anti-Syrian sentiment. But for most Syrian refugees, life in Turkey is better than in Lebanon or Jordan, two other countries that have taken in people fleeing the war but have mostly denied them the right to work or integrate into society.

Nour lost his parents’ house when their building collapsed in central Gaziantep. But dozens of his Turkish neighbors, who have been watching for their own missing relatives throughout the week, were by his side as he received the dreaded news that his brother, sister-in-law and six-month-old nephew were found under the rubble.

“We share the same excruciating pain,” he said, “we are all brothers in grief.”

Many of the Turks hit by the quake managed to escape to the safety of family or friends in towns further north. But the majority of Syrians in Turkey – without money, cars or a network to fall back on – have nowhere to go.

Abu Alwaleed has been living in a small van with more than a dozen family members since Monday. He has ventured back into his damaged apartment, but his children are scared. “My son is afraid to go back inside. He keeps screaming ‘I don’t want to die’.”

The 35-year-old is trying to raise the money to get his family out of the earthquake zone, but is quoted $750 for the 700-mile car journey to Istanbul – an unimaginable sum for those who hand in hand mouth live.

Rescuers carry a man on a stretcher
Rescue workers in the Turkish city of Hatay carry a Syrian migrant to safety © Burak Kara/Getty Images

Mona Mahmoud, another Syrian from Gaziantep, found temporary shelter with a friend outside of the city. “I just ran out of the house with the clothes on my back — I have nothing,” she said. “I have no idea where I’m going or what I’m going to do,” she added, wiping away tears with the loose end of her gray headscarf.

She has not returned to her building in town, but neighbors have told her major cracks have appeared at the base. “Even if I could find another apartment, I couldn’t afford the rent. Everything is so expensive for us here.”

Most Syrian refugees would recognize such sentiments. Layal Khleif told how she and others were sheltering in a mosque in Akçakale, a border town about 200 kilometers from Gaziantep, when a group came in and threw them out. “They said the mosque must give priority to the Turks,” she said.

“It’s always the same: they hate us. They raise our rents, don’t give us a residence card and don’t even let us into their shops.”

The turbulent events of the last few days even made them wonder if it was time to pack their bags and return to Syria.

“If the Turks don’t want me, I might just have to go back. My house was bombed out during the war, but at least I know people. So my family doesn’t starve.”

https://www.ft.com/content/fffc2928-df29-43ed-ab88-bef0fa9df81d ‘They hate us’: Earthquake tests ties between Syrian refugees and Turkish hosts

Adam Bradshaw

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