''Little Syria'' in Reyhanli, Southern Turkey
The city of Reyhanli situated on the southern border of Turkey currently represents a haven for numerous refugees from Syria. Some of them have already started to build a new life there, developing creative business projects. Impressions by Gaia Anderson
A barren room with a socket to plug a shaver in is as good a location as any for 13-year old Ahmed to run his barber business. He's one of the thousands of Syrians living in Reyhanli, a city on the Turkish side of the border. The local population of about 62,000 will soon be outnumbered by the Syrian refugees. Many of them are opening small shops, often replicas of what they had back home.
Up until November, Anas Abdul Jawad alternated between working in the family's bakery in Idlib and fighting against the Syrian army. But that all changed when pro-government gangs showed up demanding that the daily bread production be handed over to them. They opened fire on patrons and workers, injuring three. He says he's glad that he can support his family from the relative safety of Turkey.
"Little Syria" in Reyhanlı has created tensions with the local population by increasing competition with shopkeepers and forcing rent increases. Ahmed Abdo Zacharia had to move his rotisserie across the street after a big hike in the rent. A minor price to pay considering what he and his family escaped from in Syria. His Golden Chicken joint in Idlib was destroyed by the local militia.
The Zacharia family reopened the Golden Chicken in Reyhanli in January. The menu is the same as in Idlib: two types of chicken are served with hand-cut french fries, pickle salad and garlic sauce. Ahmed's brother, Abdulgani, says "the food here reminds the locals of their grandmother's cooking," when Reyhanli was annexed by French-controlled Syria for close to two decades between the World Wars.
Local businessmen have seized upon this new scenario. Reyhanli-born Yasin Sakin recently opened Dafne Tatli, a sweets shop in the heart of "Little Syria." His offer caters to the taste of both the locals and Syrians. His staff include Syrians who taught him how to prepare Arab specialties. Despite his optimism, Yasin thinks that this type of business cannot last for more than five years.
Reyhanli resident Ahmed Kaboğa has a different take on how businesses can thrive. After opening a Turkish soup and breakfast eatery, he soon realized that if he gave the Syrians the food they wanted, business would increase. Shortly afterwards two brothers from Idlib became his partners, broadening the offer to Syrian specialities. Kaboğa may expand his business to other parts of Turkey.
Investing in the future was not top of Abdullah Bitar's agenda. For Abdullah, an army defector, the main purpose of opening a business was to support his family. Anything that will provide a bit of income, from mobile phones, money exchange, taxi service and electrical supplies will do. The family's ambition is to return to their hometown in Latakia province where they ran a furniture showroom.
Further up the road, some distance from the heart of "Little Syria," Mahmoud runs a falafel sandwich stall. In broken English, he says he doesn't want to return to Syria after the conflict ends. After saving up for over 10 years, Mahmoud returned to his hometown in Idlib to marry his fiancée and raise a family. They bought a house together, but when fighting broke out they lost everything.
Zahide Kandi runs a lingerie shop in Reyhanli. She says Syrian shopkeepers have a harder time obtaining a fair rent. Her neighbor had a shop that sold Syrian revolution paraphernalia but had to quit business and move his family into the shop premise because he couldn't afford two rents. "They don't even have a kitchen", she says, "at least I am independent and can keep investing in what I do."
Ali Ateek has taken running a business in Turkey a step further than just providing for his family. Ali recycled his skills as a car dealer to run a broker firm in Reyhanli, buying goods like chicken meat, cooking gas and medicines in Turkey and reselling them in Syria. The income is reinvested in basic supplies that are distributed to Internally Displaced People's camps in the Idlib province.
The border stretch between the provinces of Idlib in Syria and Hatay in Turkey, where Reyhanli is located, has united and divided the populations throughout history. The Syrian conflict is a new challenge to the initial spirit of brotherhood among the locals and refugees. The quest to find an equilibrium seems to be left entirely up to the good will of its protagonists.