Attacks against Syrians in Turkey raise fears of escalation
Ahmad Yassine was working in his barbershop in Istanbul's working-class district of Kucukcekmece when he saw an angry crowd gather. Then they attacked his business and others owned by Syrians.
"They threw stones, the window was completely shattered. There was three of us inside, we were scared," the young man who fled from Aleppo six years ago told journalists. "We were not able to leave before midnight, one in the morning," he added.
The most recent violence against Syrians in Kucukcekmece 10 days ago has raised fears of an escalation in an already volatile climate. Xenophobic language has been unleashed, particularly during the campaigns for local elections.
Turkey is home to the largest number of refugees in the world, having welcomed over 3.5 million Syrians – including 500,000 in Istanbul – who were forced to flee their country. But this welcome, which Ankara hoped would be temporary, has been extended as the economic situation in Turkey has significantly worsened.
Syrians forge new lives in Istanbul
More than half a million refugees of Syrian origin currently live in Istanbul, carving out a niche for themselves in a new country under often difficult conditions. Initiatives such as "Small Projects Istanbul" help them in their search for housing, health care and school education. By Marian Brehmer
The province of Istanbul is the main destination of the approximately 3.6 million Syrians who have sought refuge in Turkey – ahead of the border provinces of Sanliurfa and Gaziantep
Syrians live in Istanbul mainly in the suburbs on the European side of the city, partly in ghetto-like districts, where whole rows of houses are inhabited by Syrians. The "Malta Bazaar" in Fatih is now known as "Little Damascus" due to its numerous Syrian shops
Many Syrians earn their living as day labourers for lack of a work permit. Numerous garbage collectors on the streets of the Bosphorus metropolis, who re-sell the plastic they collect at a price per kilo, come from Syria
"Small Projects Istanbul" is an NGO that has been supporting Syrian families for six years in areas such as housing, health care and school education. Small Projects Istanbul operates a community centre in the Capa district of Fatih, which is now used by around 200 Syrian families in the surrounding area
One of the core projects is the "Women's Empowerment Project", which organises weekly handicraft courses for Syrian housewives. The workshops in sewing, embroidery, crocheting, textile dyeing or macrame are aimed at women with different skills. One of the products they make are earrings in all colours and shapes
Wafa works in t-shirt production and is co-founder of the specially created product brand "Muhra", which is based on the conviction that each of the women has untapped talents. For Wafa, who lost her husband in Syria, the project brings not only a regular income but above all an increase in self-confidence
"I no longer feel only responsible for my family, but for the whole group and for the quality of our products," says Wafa, letting the scissors slide through the fabric. "My children are proud of the t-shirts I produce"
The finished t-shirts are printed with positive messages and motifs from the Arab culture. For those involved, this creative work helps them process the loss of their homeland
"It is important to us that the women put all the skills they learn here to good use later in their everyday lives," says U.S. social worker Lauren Simcic, who has lived in Turkey since 2015 and now co-ordinates the women's programme
And so the hosts' hospitality has been put to the test.
A study by Istanbul's Kadir Has University last week showed that the share of Turks unhappy with the presence of Syrians rose from 54.5 percent in 2017 to 67.7 percent in 2019.
Turks and Syrians live together in an often precarious situation. The violence began in Kucukcekmece because of a rumour – denied by police – that a young Syrian boy had verbally harassed a young girl. The aftermath of the violence is still visible: shop windows have been patched up temporarily with tape and signs hang from their wires.
Mohammad Amari, a 27-year-old Syrian who fled Damascus seven months ago, discovered the day after that the bakery where he worked had been ransacked.
"They broke the shop window using stones and bats," he said.
While the incident in Kucukcekmece is not isolated, there has never been violence of this magnitude, according to residents. Police had to use tear gas grenades and water cannon to disperse the crowd.
Although he is Turkish, Esat Sevim's restaurant was also vandalised. His crime? Employing Syrians.
"If one finds a dead cat in the street, there will be someone who says that a Syrian killed it," he said. "We must stop scapegoating them."
With the economy slowing down, double-digit inflation and high unemployment, Syrians are often targeted.
Even if he does not condone the violence, Murat, a worker who lives in Kucukcekmece, wants Syrians to return home because "our youth cannot find work anymore".
Politicians have also been accused of heightening tensions during the local election campaigns, before the March 31 vote and the re-run Istanbul mayoral election on 23 June. The newly elected Istanbul mayor from the secular opposition party, Ekrem Imamoglu, was criticised for focussing on the number of shop signs in Arabic in some districts.
"This is Turkey, this is Istanbul," he said last week. During the campaign, the hostility towards Syrians came to a head-on social media, with the hashtag, #SyriansGetOut.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government – who welcomed Syrians in the name of "Muslim solidarity" – now seeks to take a tougher line after accusations of softness. Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu on Saturday said no more Syrians would be able to register as residents in Istanbul.
And the Istanbul governor's office last week ordered 700 Syrian traders to remove their signs in Arabic and replace them with the Turkish language.
But most Turks with whom journalists spoke in Kucukcekmece sought to downplay the recent incidents and called for solidarity.
Ahmet, a Turkish fruit and vegetable seller in the area where the shops were attacked, stepped in to protect a Syrian-owned shop by posing as the owner during the violence.
"If they don't want Syrians, let them set up a petition and go see our president. But it is useless to cause destruction and to vandalise," he said.
Given the current climate and the recent violence however, Yassine fears things will get worse.
"This time, they only attacked with stones," he said. "But who knows if one day they will not attack me with weapons?" (AFP)