Syrians in Turkey hit back at harmful stereotypes

The presence of millions of Syrians in Turkey is a subject of heated debate, and in a country where most would prefer to see them sent home, their behaviour and lifestyle has come under intense scrutiny.

People in Turkey face their own problems from political instability to economic issues, and many see the Syrians – whose numbers are believed to far exceed the 3.6 million that are officially registered – as an unfair drain on the country’s resources.

There is also a bitterness that many Turks feel towards the Syrians that have been there for far longer than the economic crisis sparked last year.

In fact, Turkey’s military operation into northeast Syria launched earlier this month aiming to create a buffer zone, where Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan plans to resettle millions of Turkey’s Syrian refugees, is receiving a great deal of domestic support.

Over 80 per cent of Turks want to send back the 3.5 million Syrian refugees in Turkey. 

Since they began arriving in 2011, Syrians have faced a barrage of criticism for everything from smoking hookahs in parks, going to beaches, the number of children they have and the make-up Syrian women wear. Seeing Syrians out in the city living ordinary lives and having fun appears to trigger an angry reaction from many people.

“I asked someone the address of a seafood restaurant, and they complained that we were eating fish after running away from the war. So, shall we not eat fish either, because we have escaped the war?” said a Syrian refugee in the southeastern Hatay province said. “They are annoyed with us for having fun here, but this is our culture.”

The province, which juts into Syria along the Mediterranean coast, is a good example of the kind of demographic shock many areas in Turkey have undergone since the beginning of the Syrian conflict in 2011. It is home to 437,000 Syrians, more than a quarter of the total population.

These migrants have become part of the economy in Turkey, where they are employed in often low-paid jobs in poor working conditions.

But Syrian refugees have also been exploited by the country’s leadership, with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan using the threat that he would “open the floodgates” allowing migrants to enter Europe as a means of leverage in dealings with Turkey’s neighbours.

Meanwhile, the Syrians must continue life in a country where attitudes toward them are increasingly hostile.

According to a survey conducted by pollster Metropoll in August, 75 percent of Turkey’s population disapproves of the government’s Syrian refugee policies. More than one-third of people want the refugees to return home even if the war continues there, Medyascope reported.

While upper-class Syrians tend to favour life in big cities such as Istanbul, most of those living in the province of Hatay have settled together in districts such as Reyhanlı, Saraykent and Aksaray, setting up businesses and bringing their culture with them.

Yasin Akgül-AFP

Hairdressing, women’s clothing, cosmetics, hookah cafes and shops selling hookah supplies, and fast food shops are among the most common businesses run by Syrians.    

Syrians “do not quit two things; these are hookah and cosmetics,” said one new arrival in Turkey who set up shop in Hatay. “They come to my cafe to smoke hookah and drink coffee.”

This is a reminder for many of their lives back home, where he said people had a relaxed lifestyle and there was a strong entertainment culture.

But the hookah has become part of the stereotype of Syrians in Turkey, where an image of refugees relaxing with the water pipes while living off state funds is held up by many Turks and spread on social media posts.

Many of the claims about money provided to Syrians by the Turkish state have been debunked, and hookahs are simply a part of their culture.

“We are a fun-loving people,” said Ahmad Abyad, a refugee who lost his pharmaceutical plant and own coffee and hookah house in Syria when the conflict forced him to flee the country.

“We are not a strict society like other Arab communities. Everyone has the right to live as they please. We used to live much better in Syria, and life was cheaper than Turkey,” he said.

Abyad said he and others had left Syria with a heavy heart, and had expected to return in a matter of months. The war prevented that.

Having accepted that he would be unable to return home for a long time, Abyad set up a plastics plant in the southeastern province of Gaziantep.

The criticism Syrians face from Turks for their recreational activities is one of the aspects of life in the new country that has bewildered Abyad.

“We had a very active social life and did not learn to have fun in Turkey. It is our way of life,” he said.