With heavy hearts, Syrians in Turkey pursue new lives
Some are coping, others struggling, but Syrian refugees in Turkey say they dare not follow their dreams and return home while President Bashar al-Assad remains in power.
Of the 5.6 million people who have fled Syria's conflict, more than 3.6 million have settled in neighbouring Turkey. Their arrival since Syria's descent into bloody war that began a decade ago has profoundly changed the makeup of southern Turkish border provinces such as Gaziantep and Hatay.
According to official figures, Gaziantep is now home to 450,000 Syrians, making up a fifth of its population. Most have come from Aleppo, the obliterated Syrian city just an hour's drive south.
"I want to return to Syria and am trying to get Turkish citizenship at the same time, because as long as Assad is in power, our return is out of the question," Ismail Abtini, 42, says.
He runs a grill restaurant with his family on one of the main thoroughfares in the city of Gaziantep, after fleeing Aleppo in 2013 with his parents, siblings, wife and children to "avoid the barrel bombs dropping on our neighbourhood".
One of his brothers was killed in the government assault.
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
Lives left behind
Abtini acknowledges that his business is booming, as two roasters rotate whole chickens and a spit is laden with meat for takeaway shawarma. But, he adds, back home, "we left behind businesses, houses and large farms" – something to return to should Assad ever be ousted.
On this stretch of Gaziantep's Inonu Avenue, better known as the Iranian Bazaar, most of the shops are run by Syrians – although storefront signs are spelled out in Turkish, as required by law.
"We fled the Assad regime, and if someone suddenly told us that Assad has fallen, you wouldn't find a single Syrian in Turkey," says Zakaria al-Sabbagh, a 23-year-old dried fruit vendor. "But if the regime stays put, there is no hope" of going back, adds fellow trader Khader al-Houssein, 41. "I love my children too much to put them through what I went through."
In a small barbershop, Mohammad Abu Al-Nar, 28, and his customers debate Syria's fate and their possible futures.
"If I return now, I will be jailed and no one will hear from me again," the barber says, as he takes his scissors to a Syrian customer's mop of hair. "Especially since I am an army deserter. And there are many others like me in Turkey."
"A beautiful country"
While the traders on Inonu Avenue are cobbling together new lives, others are only just hanging on.
Zeina Alawi, who lost her husband in a bombing in 2014, lives with her four daughters and two sons in a squalid flat not far from the city centre. Deprived of odd jobs by the pandemic, she depends on good Samaritans to help feed her family and pay the equivalent of 50 euros a month for an apartment furnished with two mattresses, a striped sofa and a charcoal furnace.
With no prospects of return in sight, she remembers Syria with fondness.
"I tell the children that Syria is a beautiful country where we lived in a house and were happy, where we didn't have to suffer the kind of work that we have to do here," Alawi says. "But God has decided otherwise."
"Maybe one day"
Ahd Al-Wali, a grocer and confidante of many of the neighbourhood's Syrian families, grabbed her son and fled Aleppo in 2014, a year after her husband, an opposition fighter, was killed by regime forces.
"How could I go back there?" the 39-year-old asks in her small storefront, where she runs a tab for most of her poor Syrian customers. "Can you imagine walking down the street, seeing his (Assad's) portrait hanging amid all the destruction that he himself caused, not to mention the women and children he has killed?" she says. "Of course not."
Some graffiti written on a wall near the grocery shop echoes the thoughts of many Syrians in this Gaziantep neighbourhood about a possible return home.
"Maybe one day," it reads. (AFP)