Facing discrimination in Turkey, Syrian children pine for home

The horrific suicide on Oct. 3 of nine-year-old Wael al-Saud has highlighted the extent of racism suffered by Syrian asylum seekers in Turkey, as the presence of millions of refugees continues to provoke discontent among Turks.

Saud was found hanging from the gates of a cemetery in the Kartepe district of Kocaeli province in western Turkey. The child’s father said his son had been driven to take his own life by the constant exclusion and bullying from his peers.

Syrian children Ahval spoke to in Istanbul described how they faced bullying by their classmates and discrimination from teachers, leaving many desperate to return to their own country.

Recent figures by the U.S. Mercy Corps say some 6.2 million people have been forced to flee from Syria to neighbouring countries since the conflict began in 2011, and more than 3.6 million of these are registered in Turkey.

Millions of these are child refugees residing without secure access to healthcare, education or shelter. A large number of Syrian migrants interviewed in Istanbul say that they faced starvation when they first entered the country.

The Development of Social and Cultural Life Association, a platform founded in 2000 to help disadvantaged minorities, has listed in its journal the phrases most commonly used by Syrian children to describe their experiences in Turkey.

The association found a striking contrast between the children’s gratitude for the material support they had received and their distress at the poor treatment they received from “children and adults alike” in their neighbourhoods.

Teachers say their Syrian students are at a serious disadvantage to their perceived low social status, while many have also lost or been separated from their parents. Another common disadvantage is their lack of Turkish.

Syrian children and their families in Istanbul told Ahval how this plays out in their daily lives, describing deep rifts separating them from their Turkish neighbours.

Nine-year-old Amir, a pupil at a government school in Istanbul’s Esenler district, said the teacher dislikes him and the other children mock and refuse to play with him for being a foreigner.

Another young Syrian from Esenler, Asuman, said other children refused to play with her brothers, while all but one of her family’s neighbours ignores them – except to file noise complaints against them with the police.

The issue of playing on the streets is a serious business in the neighbourhood, said Esma, a girl from Damascus. “The space to play on the streets is reserved for the Turkish kids,” Esma said. “And they don’t play with us.”

Behzat was even more vocal about the bullying he had faced. “The (Turkish) children discriminate against me. They grab my ball from my hands and throw it under a car. They treat me very badly because I’m Syrian. It’s fine in the neighbourhood, in general, but the children in particular don’t accept me. The teachers and classmates treat me very badly.”

The reception has not always been cold, though. Syrian Kurdish families in particular have said they received a warm welcome from Kurdish citizens of Turkey, with whom they can often converse in their mother tongue.

“The children in my school in Pendik did not bother me at all because they were all Kurdish,” said Eymen, a young Syrian Kurd. Leaving those schoolfriends behind with her family’s move to Istanbul’s conservative Fatih district has thus been painful for him. “Even though I’m young, I’ve already understood that a person’s own country is best for them.”

Besides facing discrimination, many Syrian children in Turkey have been forced to forsake their education and work instead.

A report by the UN’s Refugee Agency (UNHCR) revealed 41 percent of young Syrian refugees who do go to school in Turkey say they are unable to make friends, while 57 percent said they felt severely obstructed in social situations by the language barrier. Seventy-one percent did not have any prior knowledge about Turkey when moving here, and 92 percent said they would like to move back to their own country.

This would be welcomed by many Turks, who see the presence of millions of Syrians as a burden on their already weak economy and as unfair competition for jobs.

Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) government has made it a policy to crackdown on undocumented migrants, and has vowed to resettle up to 3 million Syrians to a “safe zone” it plans to create in northern Syria as part of a military operation launched on Oct. 9.

Yet the plan would not reunite the Syrians with the homes they lost, instead building new settlements in a 30-km strip south of the border.

This would still be preferable for many who found themselves in dire straits after fleeing their homes.

“Our home in Aleppo was beautiful, so big, my older sister and I had a whole room to ourselves. Our siblings and I had a whole floor to ourselves,” said 14-year-old Sidra. “Our had two floors, we’d step outside and have so many friends, so many neighbours. We have nothing like this here, we live in discomfort.”

“We prefer it here because of the war over there, but as soon as the war is over, we will return. The people here are good, but one’s own nation is always better than borrowed soil,” she said.