Syrian refugees struggle to make ends meet on Turkish farms

As the civil war in their homeland rages on, many of the 3.5 million Syrian refugees living in Turkey find themselves working for low wages as seasonal farm labourers without access to schooling for their children and forced to live in tents without running water or electricity.

The citrus orchards of Çukurova, a region of Adana province in southern Turkey, has become a magnet for Syrians hoping to find work. According to official data, there are approximately 250,000 Syrians living in Adana province. It is also home to many thousands of Kurds who left their villages in the 1990s.

Depending on the time of year, workers wake at about 4 a.m., before the day starts to heat up. After a quick breakfast, they are on the road. With everything they will eat and drink throughout the day packed into plastic bags, farm workers of all ages gather at what is called the “worker stop” to wait for the trucks that will take them to the fields.

Syrian refugees make up a sizeable portion of those working as farm labourers in Adana. In the Yüreğir district of Adana, seasonal workers live in the makeshift plastic shelters. Summers in Adana reach a blistering 40 °C, and in winter people work in the cold and rain. In the tent cities, it is difficult to access clean food and water. Tent-dwellers are given a few hours of electricity each day. There is no running water, and they cook their food over small gas stoves inside the tents.

Their days begin early and continue according to the weather. For a shift that lasts two-thirds of a day, locals are paid 60 Turkish lira ($11), and refugees get 40–50 lira ($7.40–9.30).

Local workers said they got 35 Turkish lira per day 10 years ago, saying the 60 they earn now is barely enough to fill their bellies. The refugee workers told us they cannot manage on their wages, and sometimes they even have problems collecting their pay.

Hannus Elkeret and his family left Raqqa three years ago because of the war, and then made their way to Konya by way of Aleppo. He worked in Konya for a while processing watermelons, and when the watermelon season was over, Elkeret went to Adana.

Elkeret lives in the tent city with his wife and children. He works 12–13 hours a day and said he finds it difficult to feed his family on the small amount of money he earns. While Syrian refugees who have Turkish ID cards can get help from the state, those without ID cards cannot. Their temporary IDs can only get them into hospitals.

“The work is heavy,” said Elkeret. “It’s hard to buy food. There’s no water or electricity. There are at least five or six people to a tent. The children get sick in the summer heat and winter cold.”

Elkeret misses his country terribly, and his greatest desire is to return when the war is over.

Mehmet Selman was living in Kobanê, but he fell onto hard times there and moved to Turkey for work a year before the start of the war. After the war began, his mother and younger sister joined him, but their choice of work was limited.

“Since I first arrived here, I’ve been doing farm work. Our wages are lower than local workers’, but there’s nothing else I can do. In the summer, we go to Konya, Urfa, or the West of Turkey. In winter we’re in Çukurova, here in the tent city.”

Selman struggled during his first few years in Turkey. “We didn’t know anything when we came here. We didn’t speak the language and I got cheated out of a lot of money. Now I try to help new arrivals from Syria. I’ve found houses for people. I’ve helped people who want to stay in the tent city. I don’t want the same thing to happen to them.”

Selman has two children, and he is worried about their future. They do all right in the summer, but they struggle with illness in the winter. “When it rains, the water sits in the tents ... I’m hesitant to even let the children play outside. On one side there are cables, on another is a canal, then over there is a busy street. It’s really dangerous for children.”

The problems with the tent city have not gone unnoticed by civil society. One of these organisations is the Refugee and Migrant Solidarity Association, which sends volunteer nurses to help the workers. One nurse told us that in addition to infections from the unhealthy conditions, illness resulting from a lack of clean water is increasing. There is also a very serious problem with vaccinations for babies and a lack of knowledge about family planning; people cannot access any birth control.

“I lost my mother, older brother, and little sister in these tents,” Selman told us. “My children were born in these tents.” Like Hannus Elkeret, he intends to go back to Syria one day. “I’ll work a little more and save up a bit. I know peace will come to our home soon, and when that day arrives, I’ll gather up my family and return.”

Originally from Urfa, 17-year-old Gülsüm Asrak also came here to work. She has been a field labourer for years. The young girl does not go to school at the moment, but when she did go, she worked during her summer breaks. “All my peers are at school now,” she said. “I’d rather be in school than here, but I don’t have a choice.”

Along with Syrians escaping war and Turks leaving their villages to find work are teachers who could not get appointed to posts. Gurbet Özçelik received a high score on the national civil servant exam but couldn’t get a job. When Özçelik returns to the tent city after work, he teaches women to read and write, so he is still being a teacher in his own way. Thousands of teachers in similar situations are working on Adana’s fruit and vegetable farms. “The harvest changes, but one thing that doesn’t change is how hard this work is,” he said.