Should we assimilate or integrate the Syrians?

Should we assimilate or integrate the Syrians?

When President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said the inevitable and stated that there are plans to grant Turkish citizenship to some Syrian refugees, a significant number of our self-grown racists emerged. But we have not seen them all yet. 

Our racists don’t want the Syrians. So what are we going to do with them? Are we going to send them to war and death? Are we going to shut them off in concentration camps? Are we going to push them into the sea? Are we going to put them into buses and leave them at the Greek and Bulgarian borders? 

Turkey has refugee camps that are praised by the entire world. I have visited two of them. These camps are OK as temporary shelters. If there is a natural disaster, victims can be accommodated in such camps for a while before returning home. In our camps for Syrians, they have been living there for years. 

Do you ever think about how these people spend their days? There are tens of thousands of people bored, without jobs, having just escaped a major trauma. 

These camps are supposed to be temporary. When they become permanent, it is inevitable that problems will arise. 

Similarly, many Syrian refugees have children who were born in our country. Many have small children who ran away together with them. Nobody knows the exact number, but there are said to be 700,000 Syrians of school age in Turkey. 

I cannot forget the image of a mother and her two small sons living next to a garbage container in Istanbul’s Etiler neighborhood. Begging and living on the streets cannot be the only choice of that family. 

It is time to face the inevitable: A substantial portion of the Syrian refugees here will end up staying in our country. They will live with us and share the same fate as us. The question is this: Are we going to integrate them into our society, or are we going to try to assimilate them? 

We have tried assimilation with our Kurdish and Alevi citizens for many years. We should have learnt from our own Kurds and Alevis that assimilation is not a good thing and it only causes bigger troubles. So we should try to integrate, not assimilate, the around 3 million Arabic-speaking people living among us. 

Can we do this by stripping them of their rights to learn their mother tongue, or to speak it in their daily lives, or to use it in their contacts with the state and local administrations? I don’t think we can. So if we grant these natural rights to the Syrians, how can we continue to deny them to the Kurds? Indeed, we constantly demand those rights, at the highest level, for Turkish-origin people living in the West. 

Since we cannot teach Turkish to 3 million people overnight, how are we going to accommodate their Arabic education into our “Law on Unification of Education”? If we can accommodate Arabs, then why should we not also accommodate the Kurds and the Alevis? 

Considering the racist reaction attending the citizenship debate, it seems that a very tough life and very tough social relations await Syrians in Turkey - even if they do become citizens. The stance of the state and other government institutions is very important in this. Are those institutions impartial among our existing citizens? In hiring, will Syrians be discriminated against? Of course they will. They might even have difficulty finding a home to rent. 

More important than anything else, how are we going to manage this homegrown racism? Will we be able to condemn it altogether? Are we able to stay away from racism? 

I believe Turkey is entering the most interesting period in its history of social progress.