MERSIN, Turkey — The parallels between this port town in southern Turkey and Florida, the primary destination for American snowbirds, are remarkable. Nicknamed “Pearl of the Mediterranean,” Mersin offers a gentler pace of life. Pastel-colored apartment buildings sweep along the oceanfront, with a suite of open-air malls and restaurants. Below slinking palm trees, the elderly can be seen taking their morning constitutionals along the country’s longest shoreline, equipped with benches, exercise stations, tennis courts and the occasional decommissioned fighter jet. Notably budget-friendly and safe compared to cities like Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir, Mersin seems to have everything besides Florida’s golf courses. Its climate and atmosphere have made it an ideal home for thousands of Syrian pensioners living out their fixed-income days.
In many ways, the retirees of Mersin complicate the prevailing Western narrative of Syria in the past decade, dominated by war and “bad” refugees who are young, male and Muslim. The majority are middle-class: Many hold Turkish passports, derive financial support from their children living nearby or elsewhere in the diaspora, and some even travel back to Syria to handle personal or professional affairs. Unlike many Syrians who feel forced to work in big cities, their only option for employment, this slice of society can afford to decide where to stay. As Faruk, a Syrian shop keeper, said matter-of-factly, “Old people stay here because they have money and are waiting for God to take them to paradise.” In short, they choose to remain in Mersin.
As of January, the United Nations puts the number of Syrians 60 and older under temporary refugee protection at close to 125,000 in Turkey, a little over 3 percent of Syrians nationwide. However, that figure does not include tens of thousands more who have been naturalized or hold residency, likely putting the population of seniors at easily more than 5 percent of the total. The thousands of Syrian elderly in Mersin put their number there far above average.
The story of these seniors offers poignant lessons. Many feel they are the ones who have suffered most from the Syrian conflict. In their eyes, an entire life built in Syria vanished overnight with not enough time, now late in life, to build a new one elsewhere. Their experiences frame ageing in a larger global context, increasingly forgotten amid rapid socioeconomic disruption. They are not only refugees from a certain place but a reflection of our time as well.
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Mersin was shaped by various waves of migration over many decades. When the US Civil War largely halted cotton imports from the American South, European manufacturers looked elsewhere. Along with India and Egypt, the large fertile Cukurova plain outside Mersin became an important alternative for cotton cultivation, attracting skilled agricultural workers from what is now Syria. Levantine commercial families later settled around the harbor to join in the export of the cash crop, transforming Mersin into a major trade center. Their arrival explains the city’s indigenous Arabic-speaking minority today.
A century and a half later, the outbreak of the Syrian conflict led to another wave of migration from the same area. The more recent movement boosted the number in Mersin to more than 270,000 Syrians who now call the city home.
Mezitli municipality, on the western edge of Mersin proper, contains the ruins of the ancient Greek city of Soli. In modern times, it became a site of citrus orchards and summer homes until Mersin grew to the west, urbanizing Mezitli to become a middle-class enclave initially for Turkish senior citizens, predominantly retirees from the public sector. Today, it is the heart of the Syrian retiree community.
Citron trees line Viransehir Street, Mezitli’s main avenue. It is known colloquially as “Syrian Street.” Unlike Istanbul’s “Little Damascus” neighborhood, Arabic shop signs are limited. Syrians here are settled and know where to go.
“No. Not Lado, Mado… Madoo!” Ghazwan, a retired lawyer originally from Idlib, shouted to his friend on the phone as I got into his car, instructing him to meet us at one of the ubiquitous Turkish cafes. Ghazwan had convened a group of fellow matured Syrian transplants to meet after the weekly Friday prayers.
Inside the café, Abdul Karim, flush with pure white hair, explained his decision to move to the city five years ago. “I liked what I saw from the Syrians here” he said. “They tend to be more educated than Syrian society in other Turkish cities.”
“And did I mention the weather?” Abul Karim, previously an engineer from Homs in western Syria, added. “It completely escapes the winter.” He enjoys sitting by the sea with his friends and has taken up teaching calligraphy and playing chess.
“We are not old. We are young,” Ghazwan’s wife Fatima, a former teacher, said. She first visited Mersin as a Syrian tourist in the early 2000s. “I always liked it here. The people, the weather.” Once war reached her in Aleppo, she and her husband decided to return and settle for now, pending changes back in Syria. During the sticky summer months, Fatima’s friends become sunbirds and emigrate to the nearby summer resort town of Gozne, along the southern slopes of the Taurus mountains. “You know, the humidity is hard on the body for us,” she said, closing her eyes and clenching her fists for effect.
For many retirees, Mersin matches their cultural, social and religious tastes. “Here is an extension of where I am from. Same weather, same behavior,” Mahir, a retired accountant from the coastal city Jableh in Latakia province —part of a large contingent in Mersin originally from the area, which is situated along Syria’s Mediterranean shore.
Before their country’s conflict broke out, Mersin had served as a nearby meeting point for Syrians and family members living abroad who wished to keep away from the country’s politics. The city’s food—including the culinary specialty, tantuni, or julienne-cut beef stir-fried in cotton oil—passes their tough culinary standards, which appear to be becoming stricter with time. (In ways big and small, including food, cotton provides a through-line across centuries.)
But the Syrian geriatric community in Mersin is diverse—Syrians I spoke with came from Latakia, Damascus, Aleppo, Homs, Hama and beyond—and social life here functions differently than it did in Syria, where migrants describe keeping to their own towns and families. “The Syrian regime tried to keep Syrians from different sects and sides separate from one another,” Mahir said. “Being from Latakia [today dominated by President Bashar al-Assad’s Alawite sect] always made me suspicious to Syrians from elsewhere.” Although late in life, Mahir now has friends from all over Syria in Mersin. “We are finally starting to get to know one another,” he concluded, donning his tan bucket hat to protect his head from the emerging sun.
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In the western municipality of Mezitli, I watched seniors amble around the many parks or gab with one another before or after daily prayers. On display was a full spectrum of religious dynamics—from those who pray five times a day to a couple in a rush to stock up on wine before prices rose ahead of the New Year’s festivities.
“Mersin provides the best life for the best price for Syrians. Here I’ll spend my golden years,” Hossein, a self-described failed clothing shop owner from Damascus, said. “It’s a city of retirement for Syrians. The colder a place is, the more expensive things cost.” Hossein is currently rereading the Stephen King thriller novel Misery, much of which takes place during a snowstorm. The setting is not lost on him as he looks out onto the sunny shoreline. He says he walks each morning along the Mediterranean Sea. “Sometimes twice a day when my wife is giving me problems,” he added, sticking his tongue out.
Although their economic class provides some social protection, the retirees aren’t immune to a rising wave of xenophobia against Syrians in Turkey, however. One elder recounted being accosted by a Turkish woman while sitting outside at a café enjoying her afternoon coffee: “She screamed at me, ‘You are Syrian? How can you sit here and have a coffee while we suffer because of you?’” One imagines that, to the Turkish woman, this woman and her cup of coffee did not fit the archetype of Syrians fleeing war. In the absence of education and understanding of the many reasons behind Syrians coming to Turkey, misinformation and prejudice fill the void.
In my conversations with dozens of older Syrians in Mersin, they expressed nostalgia for a Syria gone but not forgotten. “Recently, I can’t stop watching videos on YouTube of Midhat Basha,” Hossein said of the oldest souk in Damascus, where he peddled clothes for decades. One 80-something senior poignantly explained to me that Mersin is a good place to wait until the fighting stops, and he can still return to Syria.
Over and over, I heard concerns among pensioners about being perceived as burdens, with diminishing worth to society. Traditionally, Syrian culture views elders as keepers of social order. “The heart of an old man is the size of humanity,” goes one Syrian idiom. “Those who do not first consult the elderly will never find their way,” goes another.
“A person’s worth is attached to their work,” Hossein said. “The war cost us everything, and now we still pay the price.” Abdul Karim added, “Now we don’t make money, so we have lost our influence.” He admitted that his son now makes many of the family decisions.
Listening to these relatively economically privileged Syrians in Mersin, I noticed a curious paradox: Unlike poorer Syrians who are forced to compete for jobs and interact with Turks in the workplace, these aging transplants have little to no interaction with Turks, and thus their language isolation is especially pronounced. No one I spoke to admitted feeling he or she could make meaningful connections in Turkish.
During emergencies like war, the needs of the elderly—already a vulnerable group requiring high levels of assistance and social services—only grow. For this reason, old people are afforded special protections during hostilities under international humanitarian law, including the Geneva Conventions. Throughout the Syrian conflict, the United Nations and other aid actors have understandably prioritized at-risk groups, namely women and youth, for protection and assistance. However, they have seemed to miss the dangers faced by ageing refugees simultaneously reeling from conflict, language barriers, ageism, and chronic conditions such as arthritis, diabetes and high blood pressure, not to mention the untreated trauma of war and displacement.
In many respects, all generations of Syrian exiles feel they are the ones to have suffered most. For all parents have lost, children can point out that at least they had lived part of their lives with a semblance of normalcy. So go competing narratives of victimhood, obscuring the painful truth that war has exploded an entire nation and all its people.
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The senior Syrians of the Mezitli municipality are far from the whole story.
To help me understand the links between Mersin’s geography and socioeconomic dynamics, Bediz, an urban sociologist, drew a map of the city on a napkin. As one moves east from far-west Mezitli, she explained, it becomes poorer. Here lives the other half of Mersin’s Syrian community.
In the shadows of the sun-kissed Mediterranean coast, Fasih Kayabali street is now better-known as “Syrian Street.” Instead of citrus trees, the narrow road is lined with a dizzying number of electrical wires and waterlogged with puddles. Here, the hardships of older Syrians contrast starkly with those seen in Mezitli. Unlike the retiree community members who choose to remain, the elderly here are too poor to leave.
Upon my entering Shadia’s street-level apartment, there was commotion. Something was wrong with the power. As she sat in the dark, Shadia’s grey locks poked out from under her headscarf. She didn’t have much to say about what brought her to Mersin. At present, she was having issues with her Emergency Social Safety Net debit card (a result of the biggest humanitarian program in the history of the European Union), which normally tops up each month. She had not received her family’s deposit this time and was trying to understand why.
Shadia has no time for leisure pursuits. Until recently, she, her children and grandchildren had gotten by largely thanks to a below-market rate apartment (approximately 400 Turkish lira per month, less than a seafood dinner a few kilometers away), but relocated after developers notified them that the building would be torn down to make way for a glossy new complex. This new apartment’s rent was double in price, with clear problems with utilities. “I’m dying slowly, slowly,” she confided before getting up to begin preparing lunch.
Those in humanitarian aid often pay lip service to seniors, but no international or national NGOs could point to a project that targets Mersin’s considerably large population of exposed, elderly Syrians. The programs in Mersin that initially assisted mature Syrians have largely gone, an official at a United Nations agency who requested anonymity explained. “Now international donors only care about livelihood programs for Syrian youth to find jobs,” he said. Participation in those programs is limited to people aged 40 and under, per the preference of participating private companies, freezing out Syrians like Shadia from support finding adequate employment.
Aid agencies invoke age and gender distinctions to prioritize whom they deem most vulnerable or who can garner sympathy when requesting donations, often a reflection of requesting organizations’ national cultural politics or values. In eastern Mersin, under-prioritized by formal aid avenues, the old-timers’ main lifelines come from occasional alms from wealthy retirees in Mezitli, money sent by extended family, support from mosques and endowments, and other piecemeal help that does not guarantee basic needs, let alone escaping poverty. Shadia feels she is forever doomed to dependency.
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Now in its 11th year of conflict, Syria exists beyond its borders. The elderly in Mersin may have left the country, but Syria has not left them. Their experiences are parables for different notions of community. They show how Syria’s complex dynamics—class, social, cultural— take new form in new geographies, and how even the most privileged of Syrian elders face isolation, exclusion and a deeply fractured sense of self.
I met snowy-haired Abdul Halim at a leafy café just off Syria Street in Mezitli. Originally a teacher from Damascus, he directed an Arabic-language private school in Mersin for three years until Turkey’s Education Ministry closed thousands of private schools in 2016, including his. He tells me he is at peace with the decision, thinking it will help Syrian students better adjust to succeeding in this country.
After a pause, Abdul Halim offered a dark joke: “Still, Mersin is wonderful except for all the Turks.” Over tea, I saw how this elder preferred younger company, perhaps a holdover from his time as an educator; how he playfully ignored all social rules and treated every topic that came up as a debate: the pronunciation of the spice mix za’atar, the real meaning behind every song playing on the café’s loudspeakers.
But more than anyone else I met in Mersin, Abdul Halim seemed happy, even youthful. When asked about his waning savings, he quipped with a smirk, “No more work. So why not get a second wife? It’s a good financial decision. Just don’t tell my wife.” (Turkey abolished polygamy a century ago.)
His son, Amer, visiting from Istanbul, joined us but left the table several times to receive phone calls, worried about a big deal gone awry at his car rental agency. While Amer slouched, pulling at his hair, souring into his flashing phone, his father sat with head back, listening to the great Egyptian diva Oum Kalthoum sing “Am I Going to Meet You Tomorrow?” Her voice crooned over the speaker:
If it isn’t for you, I would not care
for the passing of those who come and those who go
I live for a tomorrow filled with dreams of our meeting
Abdul Halim appeared to show his real age as he listened more intently. “Life is sweet, no?” he murmured peacefully. As the elderly everywhere see diminishing returns to their income, status and health in the twilight of their lives, he at least was enjoying his final days in the sun.
 The pensionable age in Syria is 60 for men and 55 for women in the public sector. Workers in physically demanding or dangerous jobs can retire after 15 years of pension fund contributions.
Top photo: Mersin draws parallels with the official state of American snowbirds, Florida, thanks to its its gentle pace of life and palm tree-lined streets