Syrian refugees hold on to life with locals’ help on Istanbul sidewalks

Syrian refugees hold on to life with locals’ help on Istanbul sidewalks

Syrian refugees hold on to life with locals’ help on Istanbul sidewalks

Refugees, including many children, are lined up in the Ragıp Gümüşpala Avenue in Istanbul's central Fatih district, where they live in unsanitary and penurious conditions. DHA Photo / Hakan Kaya

Syrian families who have fled their country due to ongoing war have found shelter on Istanbul sidewalks and parks, clutching onto life with the help of locals, but others face harsher conditions elsewhere in Turkey.

Ragıp Gümüşpala Avenue in the city’s Fatih district is one of the places in which many Syrian families live on the streets. Refugees, including many children, live in unhygienic conditions without a toilet, according to a July 17 report by the Doğan News Agency.

Istanbul Gov. Hüseyin Avni Mutlu said July 15 that new measures were being considered to deal with the rising number of Syrians living on the streets of Istanbul, which may include sending them to camps in southeastern provinces even without their consent.

The whereabouts of Syrians in the city is under strict monitoring, he said, adding that their total official number was now 67,000.

Istanbul is not the only Turkish city where a large number of Syrian refugees now reside. From the southeastern provinces near the Syrian border to the western metropolis of İzmir, over 1 million Syrians live in refugee camps or on the country’s streets.

While many Turks, like those in Fatih, help the refugees as much as they can, negative reactions have recently become more widespread in other places where “Syrian beggars,” or the cheap labor force provided by the refugees, have irked locals.

Elsewhere in Turkey, the situation is even more complicated. In the southern province of Adana, a suburb called Mirzaçelebi is now known as “Aleppo” because of the large number of Syrian refugees who have opened shops there. A group of knife and baton-wielding assailants attacked them on July 14, saying they did not want Syrians.

‘Economic reasons, not an identity clash’

Hürriyet has learned that the group did not consist of local shopkeepers who were infuriated by the increasing competition due to the Syrians’ trade activities in the neighborhood, unlike initial local media reports. Instead, the assailants were a group of unemployed, racketeering youth who were trying to intimidate the Syrians.

Syrian refugees hold on to life with locals’ help on Istanbul sidewalks
“They started to collect 50-100 Turkish Liras as protection money from each Syrian shopkeeper last week,” a Syrian told Hürriyet, complaining that the police were acting slowly despite receiving death threats.

However, local shopkeepers have also voiced their discomfort. “I pay my taxes. The state cuts 15 percent of my pension because I’m still working after my retirement. But Syrians don’t pay anything to the state. They should also share the burden the state loaded on my shoulders,” 60-year-old grocer Hasan Yüzgeç said.

Almost 20,000 Syrians are employed in the agriculture, construction and textile sectors in the province as unregistered workers, according to Adana Gov. Mustafa Büyük. “The problem in Mirzaçelebi is rooted in economic reasons, not in an identity clash,” he added. A Syrian can work for a weekly salary of 50 liras, while a Turkish counterpart would cost three times as much to an employer.

Ekrem Ağa, who was a lawyer in “the Syrian Aleppo” for 12 years, is now a grocer in the “the Turkish Aleppo.” In his small, worn-out shop, he earns around 20 liras a day selling coffee, spice and tobacco that he imports from his war-torn home country.

“Local children pelt my shop with stones every evening. ‘We don’t want Syrians, go away,’ they shout. We had three houses and five cars in Syria, now we don’t have anything. Where should we go? If the Syrian radicals see these tight [Western-style] trousers I wear, they could slit my throat,” Ağa said, stressing that their future was “unclear.”

Despite Ankara's repeated calls for the international community to send more aid for Syrian refugees in Turkey, total international aid remains under $250 million. Turkey, on the other hand, has spent over $3.5 billion for Syrian refugees so far, according to U.N. statistics.