How Turkey’s Gaziantep handled the refugee wave - Guardian

A massive influx of Syrian refugees has in recent years increased the population of Gaziantep, a sprawling industrial city near Turkey’s border with Syria, by nearly a third, even as the city has remained a model of tolerance, the Guardian reported.

Turkey hosts some 3.6 million Syrian refugees, including about 560,000 in Istanbul, a city of 15 million people. Gaziantep, Turkey’s sixth largest city, had a pre-Syrian war population of about 1.5 million. But it has welcomed 500,000 refugees from across the border, nearly as many as the country’s financial and cultural capital.

“Before the war there were lots of close relationships between people here in southeast Turkey and Syria,” Azhar Alazzawi, head of the World Food Programme in the city, told the Guardian. “So in general people here call them guests, not refugees. The culture is similar, so is the religion.”

The newcomers have put a strain on housing, water, public transport and healthcare, even as locals have done all they can to help, according to Önder Yalçın, head of the city’s migration office.

“We made a public appeal for help and people brought food, blankets, clothes, cooking stoves, all sorts of things,” Yalçın told the Guardian. “People took the most vulnerable, such as mothers with young babies, into their homes.”

As the government sought to integrate the refugees, employers took advantage of the new arrivals to push down wages, and tensions emerged over access to aid and drinking water, according to the Guardian. Mayor Fatma Sahin established a migration management department to ensure Turks and migrants received equal benefits.

Yalçin explained to aid groups that they had to either help needy Turkish citizens living alongside Syrian refugees, or leave. Aid groups like the International Office for Migration soon began working with the city on programmes like the Ensar Community Centre, where computing, cooking and dancing courses are offered in Turkish and Arabic, according to the Guardian.

Yalçin says the next challenge is education and putting young people to work. As of next year, all Syrian schoolchildren will be integrated into the Turkish school system, though their parents are likely to struggle with Turkish, and thus with finding good jobs, for some time.

“We need to teach people to fish and not just give them fish,” Oben Çoban, Save the Children’s director of programmes in Turkey, told the Guardian.

What has set Gaziantep apart from other cities is that it did not wait for funding from Ankara or the West, but instead accepted that the migrants were there to stay and began working to integrate them, said the Guardian.

“The city has really done a good job and there haven’t been any big problems,” Yakzan Shishakly of the Maram Foundation, a refugee aid group, told the Guardian. “When the economy slows down, I fear there will be conflict.”

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