ISTANBUL (WOMENSENEWS)– Turkey’s policies toward Syrian refugees may be generous, but that doesn’t mean Fatma Muhammed feels welcome. “People feed dogs and cats but not people,” she said. “If I were a cat they would favor me a slice of bread.”
Muhammed, a refugee from the violent crisis in neighboring Syria, arrived in Istanbul a month ago, with her sister Delal, 26, and her three children. She sleeps with her family in mosques and parks in Aksaray, the neighborhood in Istanbul that hosts immigrants from all over the world.
She has gotten into fistfights with Turkish city workers because she was selling tissues illegally. “In one incident, my daughter was selling tissues and a municipal official held my daughter’s hand and took everything. Then, my daughter started to cry and I said ‘please don’t do this.’ But he pushed me, punched me in the face and in return, I hit him back.”
Since the outset of the conflict in March 2011, approximately 2.24 million women and children have fled the civil war in Syria.
Some Syrian women have found a safe haven in Istanbul where they can find work or start businesses. Around 300,000 Syrians are estimated to have found housing, according to a recent report conducted by Kemal Kirisci of Brookings of the Brookings Institution.
However, the tide of Syrians displaced to Turkey is rising and many women are living in deplorable conditions without money, jobs or, in most cases, places to stay. They are trapped in a legal limbo. As official “guests” in Turkey, many of them are not eligible for working permits. Women trained as pharmacists, lawyers, architectural engineers and office managers have no way of finding comparable employment.
U.N. fieldworkers have found that similar work-related restrictions in other host countries–Jordan, Lebanon and Egypt–along with family caretaking demands prevent many Syrian women from becoming self-reliant.
Women without a male head of household can be particularly at risk.
“Syrian women are facing the same difficulties in Turkey, including early marriages, abuse and even prostitution,” said an Istanbul-based official of the International Organization for Migration’s Syria Emergency Response Team, in an e-mail. Sexual violence, trafficking as well as low school enrollment and forced child labor are all becoming a grim reality, said the same official, who requested anonymity for security reasons.
Turkey–the largest, most stable state bordering Syria–has been committed since October 2011to keeping an open door to refugees fleeing Syria. Now it has a historic number of newcomers and a generous policy of temporary protections and humanitarian assistance. Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said last month that he had spent $3.5 billion providing food, shelter and education but had received just $150 million in assistance from other countries.
Regardless if Syrian refugees are registered, Turkish policy holds that all of them in the 11 Turkish provinces bordering Syria are entitled to the same access to health services as Turkish citizens. Practical enforcement of that, however, is patchy.
Hüseyin Muhammed Kullu is the muthar, or elected civilian representative of Aksaray, the neighborhood where Fatma Muhammed and so many other Syrian refugees live.
Hüseyin said he supports the government’s policy on Syrian refugees. “Turkey can’t close the borders to Syrians because we’re coming from the Ottoman Empire and it is in our tradition to use high moral codes even if you’re Muslim or not,” he said in an interview conducted with the help of a translator. “When I noticed that the Syrian people came to my home or to my office here, there were too many little children dressed very poorly. They did not have any food and I could not sleep during the day and the night. I started to cry because it can be the same in our country and we have to have empathy for those people because who knows what will happen in the future.”
He said he often shares Iftar, an evening meal that breaks the fast during the Ramadan, with refugees and his wife and has never heard about any crimes and violence perpetrated by Syrian refugees in his district.
Hüseyin’s hospitable attitude, however, is not widespread. Eighty six percent of 1,515 people surveyed want the influx of Syrian refugees to stop, finds a poll conducted in November 2013.
‘Turkey Was Not Prepared’
“There are no employment opportunities for people who are speaking Arabic here,” said Ozgul Kaptan, a volunteer with KADAV, a foundation based in Istanbul promoting women’s solidarity. She spoke in her office in Istanbul in an interview conducted with the aid of a translator. “Turkey was not prepared and ready for this large Syrian immigration. Local residents started to think that Syrian immigrants might steal their jobs because they are working with very cheap wages.”
Eren Gurber, a tavern owner in Istanbul, agreed. “Because of the immigrants, there is a cheap employment and because of that, there is an unemployment problem in Turkey,” he said during an interview conducted via a translator.
A 57-year-old Syrian refugee spoke with Women’s eNews while sitting on a thin dirty mattress on the floor with her four daughters and 11-year-old old son Mohamed in an apartment in Geni? yoku?, a poverty-stricken neighborhood of Taksim. She asked not to be named because she is here illegally. To help the family survive, her children sell water bottles in Taksim Square, the famous modern city center of Istanbul.
Turkish authorities cannot register her and her family or place them in refugee camps because she does not have a passport or any other form of identification, so a year ago, after Syria’s revolution against President Bashar al-Assad turned into a vicious conflict, Habir came to believe the situation was too dangerous for her family.
Around 64 percent of Syrian refugees (over 300 000 people) are registered as living outside of the 22 Turkey’s official refugee camps in 2013. This is expected to surpass a million by the end of the year, finds a May 2014 report by Kirisci of Brookings.
Habir’s sister lives next door with her disabled husband and her three children. In Istanbul, two or three Syrian displaced families commonly live together in the same small apartment. Almost 60 percent of the refugees who are not living in camps live with at least seven people in each housing unit, according to the Prime Ministry’s Disaster and Emergency Management Directorate (AFAD).
“In Syria, we suffered from continuous power and water cuts,” she said, “At night, we were hiding in the mountains from terrorist groups coming to our house and we were only able to go back home in daylight.”
Aside from a few common Arabic words, Habir’s family does not speak Turkish. And like many in her situation, she is from a low-income rural area with low literacy rates; all of which leaves her with few tools for navigating in a big foreign city.