ISTANBUL — Recent developments may make it appear that the decade-long Syrian conflict is winding down.
The government’s regional isolation seems to be coming to an end. A US-brokered deal has provided for shipments of Egyptian natural gas to stave off Lebanon’s collapse via a pipeline that runs through Syria. On the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in September, Syrian and Egyptian diplomats met for the first time in a decade. And late last month, Jordan and Syria reopened their commercial border crossing in hopes of boosting their wheezing economies. All the while, Russian and Syrian warplanes are pounding town after town in territory outside their control. The war that became about everything, the President Bashar al-Assad regime would like you to know, is ending. Equal parts of the tired, binary slogan used by Assad’s militias appear to have come true: “Assad or no one. Assad or we burn the country.”
That hardly means anything approaching normal life is about to resume. Ten years after the conflict began, more than half of Syria’s pre-war population is living in exile. The movement of people constitutes the largest displacement since World War II. Even if the fighting does indeed end, given the scale of exodus, can the conflict really be resolved?
The prospect that Syrians outside Syria would return once the fighting stops seems less and less likely. A recent survey found that although a majority feels their return is essential for their country’s recovery, they don’t feel it safe to go back yet.
No country has taken in more Syrians than Turkey, with nearly 4 million now living here. Istanbul is home to the largest number today, with over 530,000. In late 2020, polls showed that the overwhelming majority of Turks want Syrians to leave, but as the war drags on, many of those Syrians are digging in. At the same time, the Syrian government does not see repatriating its citizens as a priority. And even if Syrians did want to return, would they be welcome? An October Human Rights Watch report offers sobering findings on whether it is safe to return: those who do come back face death, kidnap and abuse at the hands of the state.
Needless to say, remaining in Turkey raises many questions, even for those who have landed on both feet. Istanbul’s Fatih district—historically known as Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine empire—was one of the first areas where Syrians settled here a decade ago, and Syrian merchants have developed a bustling area of businesses. But as their ability to leverage their skills and capital has given them relative prosperity in their new environs, they also run the risk of drawing ire from other residents of their new home.
For the next two years, I will look into the experiences of Syrian communities living in urban areas in Syria’s neighboring countries to try to understand developments and issues connected to migration and identity. More broadly, I intend to look at how the vague Western concept of assimilation and integration occurs—or doesn’t—when people flee to communities near their home country. I also intend to explore how these ideals differ by the group that holds power in the country or community.
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“You can find them everywhere,” a man gadding about the bijou café in which I was having a coffee told me my first morning in Istanbul. “Syrians are everywhere here, except in government and taxis.” His shirt’s color matched the bouquet of daisies on the table and his coffee cup undulated along with the fractal floor tiles. The sun began to warm the quiet street outside. (Looking around, I didn’t notice any Syrians in the café.)
Still, he had a point. Upon leaving the café in this bohemian enclave, I walked to the nearest Turkcell shop, Turkey’s main carrier, to pick up a SIM card. The shop was crowded and windowless, with rows of bright ambient ceiling lights. I stared patiently into the bright lights. When I learned the employee assigned to assist me was Syrian, we switched to Arabic. After some pleasant banter about his interest in Bitcoin and his dream to see Las Vegas, I ambled down a hill with SIM card in hand to a barber shop to erase the fledgling beard I had earned while on a series of flights over the past few days between Los Angeles, Houston, New Orleans and Istanbul.
The sparse, sterile shop’s only decorations were a small television and a photo of a grinning toddler. A steady stream of people walked about outside. The barber, an old man, who turned out to be the photographed boy’s grandfather, had deep wrinkles and wore a blue knitted cap. He pulled out a razor the size of my hand and told me in Syrian Arabic to relax. I obliged my host.
The Fatih municipality is the heart of Istanbul’s old city with over 8,500 years of history. Flanked by the waterways of the Golden Horn, Bosporus and the Sea of Marmara, the peninsula contains the key sites visitors from all over the world come to see. Mimar Sinan, the famous Ottoman-era architect, placed a green marble stone in Fatih to forever mark it as the city center.
However, Fatih has changed in the intermediate years. The district now has approximately 81,000 Syrians registered there, according to 2020 figures. That is second only to Esenyurt, another district far to the west. But Fatih’s central location and commercial importance has placed it in the middle of the country’s debate over Syrian migration. As many Syrians try to hunker down to avoid exacerbating anti-refugee sentiments, Fatih’s neighborhoods provide the most visible representation of the exiled community in Istanbul. The district remains a temple of commerce. Its touchstones are the Syrian-run shops and merchants who run them. You can find anything in the markets from Damascene sweets to Aleppan soaps to crystal-swathed wedding dresses, so that’s where I began.
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On hearing my reason for moving to Istanbul, a young professional Istanbulite outside of a kinetic bar flooded in electric blue neon lights quipped, “You are too late! That is old news.” As he took another pull from his lager, I thought to myself: This is precisely the problem. Turkey may have handled the Syrian refugee crisis better than any other country in terms of emergency care, but popular sentiments echoed by the barfly appear to miss the mark: Syrians don’t appear to be going anywhere, and there could be more preparation for the “harmonization” of Syrians, as the Turkish government refers to their approach for encouraging Syrians to live in harmony with Turks while retaining their cultural identity.
Turkey granted temporary protection to Syrians in 2014. However, the policy did not envision long-term stays. The oversized registration papers given to Syrians under temporary protection symbolizes the disconnect. “Have they seen a pants pocket before?” one Damascene joked with me. “How can I fit this in and walk with it? Now I definitely can’t leave.”
The first question I wanted to understand was why and how Syrians organized themselves here in Fatih. I learned that the district’s commercial clusters provide a relatively easy area to access, and that the majority of the shopkeepers in what’s now known as Küçük Suriye, or Little Syria, are originally from the Damascus governorate. They hail from the middle-class merchant class. Several said they left because their businesses had suffered from the shrinking economy and kinked supply chains, especially those situated outside Damascus’s city center.
Many of these Damascenes who established themselves in Fatih have a higher socioeconomic status than Syrians elsewhere in Istanbul and Turkey more widely. They arrived by plane at the now-shuttered Ataturk airport less than 10 miles away, and were attracted to the district’s centrality, its relatively affordable rents and neighborhood’s commercial nature. “There were already lots of businesses and shops,” one shopkeeper, Mohammad, who lives on the second floor, said. Fatih being a major destination for Arab tourists meant that they also had access to a captive Arabic market, untapped by Turkish competition.
The resources the shopkeepers were able to bring to Istanbul may help explain their relative stability, enabling the construction of social bridges. Establishing a business can instill greater confidence, needless to say, and capital affords additional rights in Turkey.
Continuing to move plastic jars of loose hibiscus tea to a top shelf, Mohammad pointed to a Turkish coworker who sat in the back of the shop. “He caters to the Turkish customers, and I take care of the rest,” he said. The interaction was one of the few I saw between Syrians and Turks in the area, possibly underscoring the value of commerce and class in cultivating harmonious, or at least agreeable, relationships.
Down the road, at Sham market, the storefront of a company that produces and exports foodstuffs as far as Kuwait, as I later learned, a bright-eyed employee named Amir handed me a bit of salty white mozzarella cheese made in-house. Chewing, I asked, “Do many Turks shop here?”
“Of course!” Amir replied in a loud voice, but then, unprompted, changed his answer. “Well, not so many. They complain that our cheese is too salty. But they definitely love our [pita] bread.”
Outside, a Turkish woman held a small plastic bag stuffed with flatbread from the shop. Sham market seems to provide a hub for limited, but important, sharing and interaction. And these Syrian merchants have many more dealings with Turks than those Syrian migrants working long hours in factories far away.
Across the street, a man with an earnest, sweet disposition named Jawad shaved meat from a shawarma spit at a busy sandwich shop. He said Turks have “our same culture,” and insisted on hand-feeding me a juicy piece before continuing. “I knew about Fatih when I was back in Damascus,” he said. “The Prophet Mohammad mentions it.” His reference was to the prophecy that Constantinople would one day be conquered by a great commander. That man, Sultan Mehmed, took the name Fatih in 1453, an honorific meaning “conqueror” in Arabic.
Known for its religious conservatism, the area is dominated by the imposing and impressive Fatih mosque complex down the road. “It reminds me of the mosque in the old city of Damascus,” Jawad said of the Umayyad Mosque, built during the period Damascus was the capital of the Islamic Caliphate, becoming Islam’s fourth-holiest site. Both the Fatih and Umayyad mosques were constructed on the sites of former churches, with the site in Fatih being the burial ground of Roman Emperor Constantine prior to the construction of the mosque.
The greater area has a long history of migration, with Fatih receiving wave after wave. The Ottoman Empire—which included what is now Syria for centuries—created a refugee commission in 1857 and supported migrants with free plots of land, farming tools, financial aid and temporary exemption from taxes and military service. During the Greco-Turkish war of 1897, Abdul Hamid II, the last sultan of the Ottoman Empire, directed the construction in Damascus of one of the first housing complexes made for forced migrants coming from Crete. The Muhajirin, or migrant, quarter in Damascus is named for them. A portion of both Turks and Syrians alike are grandchildren of muhajirs who once received direct aid from the state.
Migration has picked up pace in the 20th century, both from Turkey’s interior and external movement from everywhere from Afghanistan to Somalia. But although the country has a successful history of integrating past Turkic and non-Turkic Muslim populations, the size and speed of Syrian migration appears to show the limitations of the Turkish melting pot.
The idea that Turks and Syrians have a common culture isn’t shared by the majority of the liberal Turks I have met so far in Istanbul, who seem to know Syrians more in the abstract than from experience. They’re also proud of the reforms that changed and differentiated Turkey as it rose from the ashes of the defeated Ottoman Empire following World War I.
“Sure we share a religion,” a Turkish academic at Koc University told me, “but we don’t share a language.” If language determines culture above all else, as many believe, Turkish language is the bedrock of modern Turkish society. The new republic replaced Arabic script with Latin letters in 1928. The transformed language helped join diverse populations after the Ottoman collapse. Thus the proliferation of commercial signs in Arabic in Fatih and elsewhere feels to some like an invasion of Arabization. Many Turks I spoke to point to the Syrians coming Istanbul to show the country is sliding back to pre-republic times.
Some Turkish Kurds in Istanbul—the city with the world’s largest Kurdish population—question the pervasive Arabic signs even as their own Kurdish language has been legally restricted in business, education and municipal services. One Kurd sipping tea outside his shop saw a double standard: Kurds are citizens but not allowed to freely use their own language in their own stores, while Syrian “guests,” the term used for the refugees in Turkey, are permitted to use Arabic freely.
During a highly contested mayoral campaign in Fatih in 2019, the candidate Ilay Aksoy of the nationalist, secularist Good Party hung up an election banner: “I will not cede Fatih to the Syrians.” That poured fire onto Turkey’s ongoing culture wars: “Refugees adapt to the country they come from,” the candidate said in an interview during the lead-up to the elections. “The country they are in does not adapt to them.”
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Anti-refugee sentiment is on the rise, as elsewhere in the world. A young doctor, who identified himself as a White Turk, told me outside a bar that all the Arabic signs made her uncomfortable. When I pointed to all the signs in English within our vicinity, and commented on the proliferation of Russian signage, she said that didn’t bother her in the same way.
A Turkish college philosophy student sitting in front of the sole non-Syrian café in Malta Bazaar, now known as “Syria market,” told me Syrians will look for stores with Arabic signs and only shop there, feeding into the trope that they are creating their own insulated economy. However, other factors may be at play, including Syrian customers’ interest in purchasing specific or familiar products, or the belief they would be able to better express themselves in a Syrian-run shop. “The Syrians come and take our jobs and money,” he said, a reference to the public services provided under temporary protection. He failed to mention that a Turkey-European Union agreement reached in 2016 funds such public services.
Still, according to this student’s logic, Syrians here are in a dilemma: They can be either victims dependent on the state or scolded for contributing to a self-reliant system that doesn’t benefit the wider economy. Although the Syrian merchants I met appear to feel more secure than Syrians from other walks of life—thanks to their feelings of a common link, mainly through religion, with their Turkish neighbors, and their success establishing businesses—their prosperity is also a source of tension.
After the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) lost the 2019 local elections in Fatih, the Interior Ministry responded by decreeing that all storefronts must be brought into line with existing rules. Regulations stipulate that 75 percent or more of signage must be in Turkish. An operation began that summer to enforce compliance, but over two years later, the majority of the Syrian-run shops I visited do not appear to follow the 3:1 ratio.
The spotlight on Fatih remains, however. Earlier this year, the Directorate General of Migration Management restricted issuing residence permits for foreigners in Fatih, likely an attempt to help ease the rising tensions among local Turks. Anti-refugee sentiments, especially directed at Syrians, have still been making national and international headlines. In August, an angry mob wrecked Syrian businesses and homes in Ankara in response to the deadly stabbing of a Turkish teenager. In September, a woman and her son were attacked by neighbors in their Istanbul apartment not far away from Little Syria. In October, a crowd of Turks burned down Syrian homes and businesses in Izmir after a local Turkish teenager was stabbed to death.
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When I visited Mohammad, the shopkeeper, a second time, I waited as he answered queries from customers and passers-by alike: Where can I park my car? Where’s the Syrian bakery? What’s the name of a good doctor?
“I’m like the local mukhtar,” a term for a village chief that dates back to Ottoman times, Mohammad said teasingly with his arms folded and his large hands resting on his even larger stomach. “I just want to make sure everyone can get what he needs.”
I asked how he felt about the situation in Fatih. “Thank God,” he replied. “Everything is fine with us here. Not like in other areas.” That was a possible reference to one of the many recent high-profile attacks in the cities of Ankara, Istanbul and Izmir. I prodded a bit, asking about the situation back in Syria. His bright, jolly demeanor dimmed. “Let us not discuss,” he said. “We live here now, and we are making a good life.”
I prodded a little more. Would he ever return to Syria? And poof… all the light disappeared from him and the shop’s atmosphere. He said nothing, but I knew the conversation was over.
1 In 2014, the “Foreigners under Temporary Protection” regulation granted refugees free access to public services such as education and health care. It did not include a vision for long-term integration; no one in Turkey foresaw the duration and severity of Syria’s humanitarian crisis.
2 Turkey, which has signed the United Nations 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol, maintains a reservation to provide international protection only to refugees from Europe.
3 A term used to describe an urban class that embraces secular, Republican values. They revere the country’s founder Kemal Ataturk, who sought to purge Turkey of its Ottoman legacy.