It had been less than five minutes since arriving for a job interview in Sanliurfa, a Turkish city less than 40 miles from the Syrian border, when Ismail realized he had lost his most valued possession. Desperately sifting through the items in his bag, he could not find his Syrian passport. Without it, he knew he would not get the job, or any other one, for that matter. “When I had my passport, it was worthless,” Ismail lamented, the unmistakable weight of despair overwhelming his usually jovial demeanor as he sank deeper into his chair. “But without it, I do not exist.”
Ismail’s story, lived daily by the almost two million Syrians seeking refuge in Turkey, is one of constant instability. He, as all the Syrians in interviewed for this article, asked that their full names not be used out of fear for their own safety and that of their loved ones. Leaving Turkey for one of only a handful of countries that allow Syrians to enter without a visa is wrought with bureaucratic hurdles. Staying in Turkey without a residence permit renders one illegal within three months. Acquiring a visa to travel to any other country is nearly impossible. While many Syrians have escaped the physical horrors of their country’s civil war, they remain stuck in a peculiar diplomatic, professional and emotional purgatory.
In many ways, Turkey has most readily provided Syrians, from all strata of society, with an opportunity to resume a sense of normalcy in their lives. Syrian engineers, agronomists and medical professionals are able to use their expertise to give back to their host country by working in one of the several non-governmental and international organizations that are based in Turkey and provide humanitarian assistance across the border. Others, with considerably lower levels of education, are hired in restaurants or as day laborers where employers can get away with paying lower wages. Even so, compared to the policies of most Gulf countries — Kuwait has banned entry for Syrians altogether – Syrians in Turkey are able to find work and send their children to schools. Refugee camps along the Turkey-Syria border, where more than 217,000 Syrians in Turkey reside, are considered to provide “better living conditions compared to those in other countries.”
But for the vast majority of Syrians, more than 80 percent of whom live in Turkish cities, the feeling of being unsettled is seemingly perpetual. Many Syrians in Turkey do not possess a residence permit, which places them in a diplomatic limbo that underscores their “otherness” compared to their Turkish neighbors. As one Syrian aid worker living in Turkey, who declined to give his name out of concerns for his safety, put it, “you are in a closed circle with no way out.” For most, the language barrier is immediate and further embeds a sense that they don’t belong. The psychological effect of this paradox, of feeling isolated amid crowded urban areas, weighs heavily on daily interactions.
Syrians often report being treated with disdain — at best, as guests who must eventually depart or, worse, as intruders who should be expelled immediately. Below the surface of the daily live-and-let-live miracles of Turkey’s support for Syrians as they attempt to restart their lives, one can sense the growing hostility from host communities toward the large Syrian populations living among them. Earlier this year, Turkish parents protested a school’s decision to provide afternoon classes to Syrian children; “Different culture, Different language, Different faith,” they chanted. Even among Syrians in Turkey, the war has caused religious, ethnic and political identities to become further entrenched, divisions to be even more enunciated and the future for most to become further pixelated.
I recently met Amjad, a Syrian who had just arrived in Turkey. He had deserted the Syrian army, in which he was forced to serve three years. The Assad government continues to implement mandatory conscription for all males, and the only way to avoid enlisting is to flee the country, which leads to the harassment of family members by the regime, or pay a substantial bribe, which is beyond the capacity of most.
While recalling his story, Amjad’s exasperation and despair were clear. He was stationed on the frontlines in the northeastern city of Hassake when Islamic State attacked it in mid-June. The assault displaced hundreds of thousands and unleashed the militant group’s well-documented brutality toward captured Syrian soldiers. After three years of performing what he called his “duty,” he considered the attack on Hassake and the ensuing chaos the final straw. He abandoned the army and made his way across the border into Turkey.
“To my friends in the army, I am a coward who left when I was most needed,” Amjad muttered, his voice lacking in confidence from the whirlwind he had just been through — from making sense of finding himself suddenly away from war and in a plush café, smoky from cigarettes and nargile. “And to friends who joined the revolution and resistance,” he continued, “I am forever the person who supported the apparatus that has destroyed our country.” He jeopardized his family, who would perhaps have to pay for his desertion. But he knew he couldn’t stay any longer. Amjad’s story is the story of millions of others, in Turkey and Jordan and Lebanon and Iraq, who have lost their compass and are trying to piece together a new one in a foreign land.
The promise of freedom and greater opportunity continues to burn brightly in the minds of Syrians in Turkey. Their hope, seemingly unattainable for the medium to long term in their homeland, means the road to many continues further west, into Europe. This path is wrought with challenges, both financial and diplomatic. It often involves bribing countless middlemen using one’s entire life savings, taking huge risks, often traveling long distances by foot, hiding in the trunks of cars and always requiring a great deal of luck.
Still, many are holding out near the Turkey-Syria border for the opportunity to visit relatives, or to ensure that houses and offices that have been locked up for months remain intact. Many yet are hopeful they will be able to return to their homes in Aleppo, Idlib, Hama and Homs. While only a few are optimistic about the future, if and when the dust settles, they retain pride in and patriotism for their country and remain resistant. When I asked a Syrian friend of mine if he would like to move to the United States or Europe, his response was emphatic: “We were born in Syria, we started the revolution in Syria and we will die in Syria.”
Shashank Iyer, a graduate student at Yale University, works on issues related to forced migration and population resettlement. He is currently working on a program providing humanitarian assistance in Syria.