A different Antep…

A different Antep…

At least a third of the people on the street were talking in Arabic. There was nothing wrong, of course, with people talking in a language other than Turkish. Would anyone be surprised if, yesterday, at an Antalya hotel, most people were speaking Russian? Or, would anyone be surprised last summer if at a five-star all inclusive Kemer hotel most people were speaking German? But we were in Gaziantep. Walking down the narrow “Uzun Çarşı” of the “Paris of the East.” Shop owners are talking in Arabic. Kids in the street are yelling each other in Arabic. Waiters at the famous İmam Çağdaş Restaurant have become bilingual, Turkish and Arabic. And, like Russian, German, English spoken at five-star hotels during high touristic season, Arabic spoken in the streets of Antep was not surprising for anyone. The city where portraits of the Syrian leader was embroidered on silk carpets up until a few years ago, is now home to some 600,000 Syrians who have sought refuge here, escaping the government of their country.

I was in Antep to discuss, indeed listen to, freedom of expression and media freedom violations in the region but most interviews were quickly hijacked by a very hot subject: Syrians. Many local journalist friends were grousing about many old quarters of the city being “flooded” by the Syrian “guests,” causing rental rates to skyrocket, and posing a serious challenge to the lower income groups as Syrians offered a cheap labor alternative to employers. In a neighborhood of around 120,000 people, if some 170,000 Syrian “guests” are “hosted,” it naturally becomes very difficult to talk comfortably about “Turkish people embracing their Syrian brothers in these difficult times,” as Gaziantep Mayor Fatma Şahin, a former minister in charge of women and family affairs, likes to present the issue. Local journalists complain that the mayor, as well as the governor and other top local bureaucrats were demanding that they not write stories that might hurt the reputation of Antep. The journalists’ complaints exactly? “How cannot we write there are two governments in this country, one in Ankara, the Turkish government and the other in Antep, the government in exile of the Syrian opposition umbrella? Is there any possibility of talking about a unified Syrian opposition group that can form a government in exile? When we were trying to report that the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL) has established offices in this region where they continuously recruit people, that they are freely moving around, Ankara government and local officials were all mad at us. After the Suruç and Ankara bombings, the government and local officials all realized that there was an ISIL presence in Antep and its surrounding area, posing a serious risk to Turkish security. Now, we have a similar situation…”

My morning delicious “katmer” (crisp flaky pastry), the “simit” (a delicious local meatball kebab) I had at lunch and the “soğan ve ayva kebab” (Kebab with onions and quince) that almost killed me in the evening, all testified, however, how right UNESCO was last week in declaring Antep as an innovative city where gastronomic culture must be protected. So very right… But should we only protect the gastronomic culture of Gaziantep? Should we not protect is demographic, cultural and social peculiarities also?

The problems of Kilis, were, are and will be important not only for the people of that small Turkish border town. Huge inflows of “guests” from the neighboring country, thanks to the successful and very well planned policies of the government of the almighty president, might pose some trivial problems but why should Turks be considered with the probable impacts of the demography’s current situation? After all, was not Turkey a refugees’ country? Albanians, Serbs, Russians, Azerbaijanis, Caucasians… this list might be continued. While we lost much of our richness, including almost the entire Armenian and Greek minorities and with them, their huge contributions to the culture of Anatolia, Bulgarian Turks and other refugees brought new colors and enriched this nation. Irrespective how many local intellectuals and affected segments of the society today might complain about them, Syrians will also provide new dimensions and probably great cultural contributions to our collective culture. Could there be a positive balance in what this process brought and took away from Turkey? Probably. But even if that is so, it will take some time to really provide a definitive and clear cost-gain analysis of the Syrian civil war on Turkey and the Turkish nation.

There is the need of course to come out with well-designed and sui-generis legislation to facilitate integration of Syrian “refugees” into Turkish society: allowing legal employment of the Syrians. Perhaps, time has come as well to talk about how to give them long term residence, work permits and even Turkish citizenship. For now, however, examination-free university admittance for Syrian youth, illegal and cheap employment of Syrians and terrible official ignorance to this gross exploitation by greedy employers have become sources of tension between the low-income sections of the Turkish society and the Syrian “guests.”

Looking at this issue from Gaziantep, Mardin, Kilis or Şanlıurfa, it does not appear possible to soothe this burden on Turkey with few billion euros of “generous” assistance by the refugee-obsessed European Union… From here, the problem has economic, social, demographic and obviously growing security dimensions with immense spillover capability, and is only heading to a new and dangerous dimension.