Was Syrian teenager Eymen our brother?

On Sept. 13, 16-year-old Syrian refugee Eymen Hammami who was working in a bakery in the northern province of Samsun was stabbed to death in an apparently racially motivated attack. “We are brothers, don’t do this,” the boy’s brother Ibrahim told the assailants, to no avail.

Ibrahim told daily Evrensel that they had been standing by the side of the road when four men in a black car started cursing at them. “Syrians, get the f… out of this country,” Ibrahim recalled the men as saying. The men left, to return with some 15 of their friends. Two of them had knives. The rest happened very fast.

“I saw a patrol car pass by. By the time I got them and came back, my brother was bloodied and it was too late,” Ibrahim said. “I want my brother’s killers to face justice. Eymen is a brother to all of you, think of him that way.”

Let’s come back to whether people of this country feel like Eymen is their brother. First, here are some numbers on Syrian refugees in Turkey:

Turkey is the country that hosts the largest number of Syrian refugees. According to 2019 data from the Interior Ministry’s Migration Directorate, there are 3,571,031 Syrians living in Turkey. It is estimated that the real number is closer to four million.

The term “refugee” is used only in the colloquial sense with regards to Syrians in Turkey, as the country ratified the 1951 Geneva Convention on the Status of Refugees with a geographic limitation reservation. As it currently stands, only citizens of Council of Europe member states can be refugees in Turkey. Everybody else - like Syrians - are waiting to be placed in a third country by the UNHCR, under temporary protection status.

Very few Syrians in Turkey live in camps. The latest figures show that there are 62,596 refugees in seven temporary accommodation centres in five provinces, and these centres are slowly being phased out. Almost all refugees, 98.25 percent of them to be exact, live in villages and cities.

Istanbul is the province with the largest Syrian population, with 474,679 people. Southeastern border province Gaziantep comes second with 454,181 people – 22 percent of its population. The highest density of Syrian refugees is in neighbouring Kilis, with Syrians making up 80.61 percent of the province’s population.

Syrians have been living in Turkey for almost 10 years, but because of their status, both they and Turks think the situation is temporary, which delays integration and waves the Sword of Damocles, deportation, above their heads at all times.

With every downturn of the economy, as unemployment continues to rise, Syrians find themselves in the crosshairs.

The “Syrians are taking our jobs” rhetoric peaks in times of crisis. Even in the provinces with the highest concentration, locals and Syrians try to uphold their separate communities. In my most recent visit to Gaziantep in January, I saw that the isolation would only break when it was necessary, like in hospitals or at schools. That’s also where problems start.

I remember talking with a friend a while back. Out of nowhere, he told me that refugees were responsible for the hike in his water bill - after all, the government would not have to raise the price if they were not spending all our money on Syrians. I explained at length, that Syrians were not where the government spent our money, and the money spent on them did not in fact come out of the Turkish budget, but it didn’t work.

One thing this chat reminded me of was the prevalence of false information about Syrians, spread on occasion by politicians themselves.

Some politicians say Syrian business owners don’t pay taxes, others say Syrians get into universities without qualifying exams, or that Syrians are paid state-sponsored salaries. 

The reality is, bar a very small group who managed to bring their money over, Syrians provide the cheap, undocumented labour in the country, because they don’t have work permits under the temporary protection status. Only 30,000 Syrians have permission to work in Turkey, while some 1.4 million of them are in the workforce - one way or the other.

Syrian children, many born in Turkey, still have issues accessing education. There are many among them who don’t speak Turkish, so they end up leaving school to become child labourers.

The economic crisis has hit Syrians hard as well. I have yet to see poverty matching that of the Syrian Doms (Romani speaking Syrians) living in the Nizip Camp in Gaziantep. They live in tents put up by a charity, with no water or power. They sell scrap metals to get by. It’s somehow easier to blame our water bill on them. There is no risk to holding them to account - but there is also no conscience or courage in doing so.

The Hammamis came to Turkey nine years ago. Eymen had five brothers. They all worked at the same bakery, for 50 liras a day. That currently comes to $6.52.

As Eymen’s funeral took place thousands of miles from his home, the country he lived in had “Syrians to Syria” trending on social media. The leader of the supposedly social democrat main opposition party was giving speeches to that effect.

Dearest Ismail, brother of my brother;

You are wrong. This country does not see us as brothers or sisters.