Gaziantep and Syrian refugees

Gaziantep and Syrian refugees

After a number of years, I went to Gaziantep for a number of reasons and saw just how much the face of the city has changed.

I was in Gaziantep this past weekend for the official inauguration of the culinary education center established to protect Gaziantep’s famous culinary culture. It is an important step for Gaziantep’s candidacy to become a UNESCO world city of gastronomy.

With its economic dynamism, Gaziantep ranks near the top of the Anatolian tigers, finishing 2013 with a new record in exports at $6.5 billion. However, it has been under a heavy burden these past months due to refugees fleeing Syria.

There are conflicting figures as to the number of Syrian refugees who have changed the look of the city. There are 200,000 Syrian refugees in the city, with 40,000 in camps and 160,000 of them in the city center, according to Asım Güzelbey, the city’s mayor from the Justice and Development Party (AKP).

The number provided by our colleagues and nongovernmental organizations is much above that, around 500,000. This is really a heavy burden for a city with a population of just 1.45 million.

Nearly all agree that not only the city’s outlook but its economy is also in the midst of an important transformation due to the refugees.

The prices of real estate properties both for rent and for sale have increased in an incredible way.

Another point underlined by Güzelbey is about employment: Despite a huge labor shortage, big companies active in the textile, goods, plastic and chemical industry cannot hire Syrian refugees as they have no work permit. But small companies that work informally can hire Syrian refuges for very low wages.

Güzelbey did not put forward his candidacy for the March 30 polls, choosing to cede his place to former Family Minister Fatma Şahin.

“If I were to be a candidate again, I would absolutely not focus on new projects in my electoral campaign. I would only work to attract the attention to the problems of the Syrians,” he said.

A big danger is awaiting the city, according to Güzelbey. Even Gov. Veysel Dalmaz, who was appointed to coordinate the solution to the problems of Syrian refugees in Gaziantep, Şanlıurfa, Kilis and Hatay, has difficulty informing the government about the problems, according to Güzelbey.

“Syrian refugees” rank number one in the city’s problems, according to the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) candidate, Akif Ekici. Working in the paint industry, Ekici is one of those who initiated trade between Gaziantep and Syria, which reached unbelievable dimensions before the war.

“Some 60,000 Syrians used to come to Gaziantep for shopping, heath services and tourism before the war. Syria was in those days a good opening for the shopkeepers in Gaziantep,” he said. Needless to say, the shopkeepers have been seriously harmed by the Syrian crisis.

Yet what’s more important in Gaziantep is the human tragedy that is unfolding in the city. Children begging for money at every street corner is just the visible part of that tragedy.

Some 2,000 Syrian children have received education in schools opened by the municipality, according to information provided by Güzelbey. But a big majority has been deprived of the right to an education, and we heard of stories of 20 Syrian refugees sharing either a small apartment or a garage. Even if it is an Anatolian tiger, it seems to me that it will be difficult for the city to solve this human tragedy.