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Istanbul as a Space of Cultural Affinity for Syrian Refugees

“Istanbul is Safe despite Everything!”

In: Southeastern Europe
Author:
Ayhan Kaya Department of International Relations, Istanbul Bilgi University, ayhan.kaya@bilgi.edu.tr

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The research question to be answered in this paper is to what extent Istanbul provides Syrian refugees with a feeling of security and safety despite the practical difficulties of everyday life such as working conditions, exclusion, xenophobia and exploitation. The main premise of the paper is that historical, cultural and religious forms of affinity are likely to particularly attach the Sunni Muslim Arab Syrians originating from Aleppo province to Istanbul. This paper is expected to contribute to the discipline of refugee studies by shedding light on the historical elements and agency that are often neglected in such analyses. Based on the findings of a qualitative and quantitative study conducted by the Support to Life Association among Syrian refugees in Istanbul in the last quarter of 2015 and the first quarter of 2016, this article aims to delineate the strong attachment of the Syrian refugees to the city of Istanbul.

* I am grateful to the Syrian refugees who generously shared their perspectives, stories and first-hand experiences with us during the field research. I am very thankful to the members of the research team at the Support to Life Association in Istanbul, and particularly to Aysu Kıraç, Sema Genel, Hanzade Germiyanoğlu and Pınar Yüksel, who contributed to the analysis of the findings gathered during the field research.

Introduction

How do the Syrian refuges cope with the difficulties they come across in everyday life in Istanbul? This is the main research question to be answered in this article. The main premise of the article is that Syrians living in Istanbul have not only chosen the city as a refuge because of its geographical proximity to Syria, but also because of a cultural affinity stemming from a shared Ottoman past. Referring to the findings of a recent survey conducted in Istanbul in late 2015 and early 2016, the article will display to what extent Istanbul provides Syrian refugees with a comfort zone, or a space of cultural affinity, where they feel safe and secure despite the difficulties of everyday life. The structure of the article will be as follows: firstly, the methodology and the universe of the research will be briefly elaborated upon so that the reader will understand the major districts of the city of Istanbul, where most of the Syrian refugees have taken up residence. Secondly, a short literature survey will be undertaken to depict the state of refugee studies in Turkey, which appear to be missing two elements, namely a historicist perspective and reference to the agency of refugees themselves. Thirdly, the legal status and the ways in which Syrians have been framed by state actors since the early days of their arrival in Turkey will be elaborated upon to explicate the structural constraints which form the ground for their societal exclusion and exploitation on the labour market as well as in other spheres of life. Fourthly, the main part of this article will be dedicated to discussing in detail the historical, cultural, religious and societal links bridging Aleppo and Istanbul, which provide Syrian refugees with a protective shield against the traumatic experiences resulting from war and the act of resettlement. Finally, the social networks followed by Syrian refugees and the sense of security, safety, and comfort, but also the risk of exploitation attached to these networks will be explained along with testimonies from the fieldwork.

Methodology and the Universe of the Research

This work is based on the findings of a recent qualitative and quantitative study conducted in six districts of Istanbul between the last quarter of 2015 and the first quarter of 2016. Both Syrian refugees and Turkish receiving community members and organizations have been interviewed in one-on-one interviews, focus group discussions and via structured questionnaires. Six districts in Istanbul, namely Küçükçekmece, Başakşehir, Bağcılar, Fatih, Sultanbeyli and Ümraniye, have been surveyed to identify the needs and vulnerabilities of the Syrian refugee population in Istanbul. In order to identify a random sampling of the target population, in line with the requirements of statistical analysis, the districts were chosen taking into account their diverse geographic locations in Istanbul (four are located on the European and two on the Asian side of the city). These districts host the highest number of underserved Syrians in Istanbul, who often live together with other marginalized communities in the city such as Kurds, Alevis and the Roma. The needs assessment study has been carried out by the Support to Life Association (Hayata Destek Derneği) under the supervision of the author in order to collect data through a multitude of research techniques: these include in-depth interviews conducted by Syrian-origin researchers as well as senior Turkish researchers in each of the six districts with key local Turkish informants working in the host community such as local teachers, social workers, doctors, experts, and local administrators (muhtars), with a total of 200 individuals participating. These interviews included Focus Group Discussions (fgds) conducted with both Syrian refuges (male and female) and the local host community members in each district (18 fgds with Syrian refugees, 6 fgds with host community members) with a total of 136 individuals participating; and Household (hh) Surveys which were conducted by Arabic-speaking Syrian assessment officers in each district with an estimated average of 6 individuals per household, amounting to a total of 124 surveys and 744 individuals (Kaya and Kirac 2016). The quotations used in this work were taken from the focus group meetings to exemplify some of the most repeated statements and insights shared by the refugees and the local inhabitants.

The surveys and Focus Groups Discussions were conducted by Syrian researchers, who spoke Arabic, Kurdish and Turkish (if necessary). The interviewers who conducted the structured surveys were themselves either ethnically Arabic or Kurdish Syrians, or else Syrian-Palestinians. The survey questions were written in English and then translated by the Syrian staff into Arabic. The interview teams were between 20 and 30 years of age. The field officers worked in teams, generally of one male and one female officer, but if the interlocutor was not comfortable, same-sex teams were assigned on-demand. In particular, if a woman was home alone and did not want a male in her home the field supervisor would send two female officers to conduct the interviews. In-depth interviews with local stakeholders were conducted by Turkish-speaking Support to Life Association team members.

As mentioned, the research was conducted in six districts of Istanbul hosting very sizeable groups of Syrians: Fatih, Küçükçekmece, Başakşehir, Bağcılar, Sultanbeyli and Ümraniye. Fatih is a district located in the European part of Istanbul and is named after Fatih Sultan Mehmet, the Conqueror of Constantinople. Fatih contains very cosmopolitan areas like Aksaray, Fındıkzade, Çapa, and Vatan Avenue. The district hosts not only communities of Muslims from conservative backgrounds, but also many different international migrant communities, ranging from transit migrants from Sub-Saharan Africa to Syrian refugees, Central Asian Turkic migrants, Russian tourists as well as Armenians, Georgians and many other groups. It would not be an exaggeration to say that Fatih may be one of the most cosmopolitan urban spaces in the entire world. Besides its cosmopolitanism, it is also known for its extreme conservative image because of the religious community of the Çarşamba quarter within the district. Fatih also includes the historical peninsula of the city, Sultanahmet, with its historical Byzantine walls and very visible Ottoman heritage. It is this combined conservative, cosmopolitan and Ottoman heritage which seems to be attractive to many Syrian refugees coming from Aleppo, which was the third most cosmopolitan Ottoman state after Istanbul and Izmir until the early 20th century (Watenpaugh, 2005). Fatih has recently become a diasporic space of affinity for Syrian Arabs, where they have constructed a new home away from their original homeland, a “Little Syria”. 1

Küçükçekmece lies on the European shore of the Sea of Marmara, near a lagoon named Lake Küçükçekmece. This district has recently become host to colossal public housing projects around the lake, adjacent to old working-class neighbourhoods inhabited by many internally displaced Kurds originating from eastern and south-eastern parts of Turkey (Kaya and Işık 2008). These local Kurdish elements seem to have pulled Kurdish-speaking Syrian refugees to the district, following already existing ethno-cultural networks.

Başakşehir is situated in the European part of Istanbul between the two sweet water reservoirs of the city, the Büyükçekmece and Küçükçekmece lakes. This district is completely covered with large public housing complexes. Therefore, it offers a rich array of housing opportunities to the newcomers. Middle-class Syrian refugees also find it easier to be accommodated in this district because of the rich housing market. The district has a large service sector, along with the facilities of the construction business.

Bağcılar is also located in the European part of the city, near the Atatürk Airport. This neighbourhood has only been urbanized in the last three decades. Most of the houses in Bağcılar have until recently been illegally built gecekondu (shanty towns), which are now being replaced by rows of cramped apartment buildings built with minimal regulation. It is particularly in this district that many public housing constructions can be found. Bağcılar is now populated by new immigrants from the south-eastern parts of Anatolia, mostly young families, largely poor and internally displaced Kurds (idps) (ibid.). This district is also home to a vibrant youth culture, including for example rap and graffiti scenes. It is, at the same time, a conservative, Islamist and right-wing stronghold with very strong support for the ruling Justice and Development Party (jdp). Bağcılar is also home to a large amount of industry, particularly textile businesses, printing companies, tv channels, a huge wholesale market for dry goods, a large second-hand car market and many trucking and logistics companies. Like the already-present idps of Kurdish origin, Syrian refugees mostly work in the informal labour market, predominantly in textile workshops and the construction business.

Sultanbeyli is a working-class suburb on the Asian side of Istanbul. It is one of the electoral strongholds of Conservative-Islamist political parties, such as the ruling jdp. This district houses several different religious communities, also attracting Syrian refugees.

Finally, Ümraniye is one of the largest working-class districts in Istanbul. Formerly, it was a gecekondu district, hosting domestic migrants coming from eastern and south-eastern parts of Turkey until the 1990s. The textile, construction and service sectors are very present in the district, and these sectors attract Syrian refugees looking to find jobs in the informal economy.

The State of Refugee Studies in Turkey

Dawn Chatty and Philip Marfleet explain very eloquently how refugee studies was first born in the 1980s as a state-centric discipline defending, like many other disciplines, the interests of nation-states, and how it has become more critical in due course (Chatty and Marfleet 2013). There are two very essential elements that seem to be missing in refugee studies in Turkey. Firstly, scientific studies conducted in Turkey regarding the situation of Syrian refugees often contribute to their statisticalization rather than to making their social, economic and political expectations visible to the receiving society. 2 Most of the studies in Turkey either statisticalize refugees or concentrate on the host society’s perceptions of them. What is missing here is anthropological research allowing the refugees to speak for themselves. As Gadi Benezer and Roger Zetter once stated very accurately, such anthropological research could make it potentially easier for them to occupy a space within the host population as well as in the public domain (Benezer and Zetter 2014). A point of view can be offered which focuses on, aside from their trauma and sufferings, their active rather than passive stance and the resourcefulness, motivation and commitment that was needed to escape from their homelands and find sanctuary.

Furthermore, also missing in refugee studies in Turkey is a retrospective analysis of refugee experiences in the country dating back to the early ages of the Republic as well as the Ottoman Empire. This is not only the missing link in the Turkish refugee studies field, but also a missing element in refugee studies in the rest of the world. Philip Marfleet relates this problem to the limitations of nation-states: “If the territorial borders of modern states confined some people and excluded some others, nationalized intellectual agendas have largely excluded migration as a legitimate area of study” (Marfleet 2013).

Anatolia has been exposed to several different forms of refugee and migration practices throughout its history. Since the Byzantine era, Anatolia has hosted many different groups of people who found refuge there. Throughout its history, Anatolia gradually became Muslimized with the migration of predominantly Turkish and Muslim-origin populations. The Jewish migration to the Ottoman Empire after the expulsion of the Jews from Spain and Portugal in 1492 was an exception. The Muslimization of Anatolia became even more visible in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when the boundaries of the Ottoman Empire were shrinking rapidly (Erdoğan and Kaya 2015). The expulsion of Crimean and Circassian Muslims from Russia, who came to the Ottoman Empire to escape from the atrocities of the Russian Empire in the second half of the 19th century, was comparable in terms of size to the migration of Iranians, Turks, Kurds, Bosnians, Kosovars and Syrians escaping the violent conflicts in the Middle East and the Balkans starting in the early 1980s (Kaya 2005).

The first wave of refugees to come to Turkey in modern times was from Iran, following the 1979 Revolution. Other major refugee movements occurred with Kurds escaping from Iraq in 1988, being numbered at almost 60,000; and in 1991, when half a million people from Iraq found safe refuge in Turkey. In 1989, with Bulgaria’s “Revival Process”, in fact an assimilation campaign against minorities, almost 310,000 ethnic Turks sought refuge in Turkey. In the following years, during the wars in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and in Kosovo, Turkey granted asylum to 25,000 Bosnians and 18,000 Kosovars (Kirişçi and Karaca 2015). Furthermore, Turkey has been positioned on the transit route for irregular migrants from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Iraq, Iran and Pakistan since the 1990s (İçduygu 2015). Turkey is also a destination for human trafficking in the Black Sea region, with victims usually coming from Moldova, Ukraine, the Russian Federation, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. At the same time, Turkey has also been a country of destination for immigrants from Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, as these new immigrants see Turkey as a gateway to a new job and a new life and as a stepping stone to employment in the West (İçduygu 2009). Its geographical location has made Turkey a crucial country on irregular migration routes, especially for migrants trying to move to eu countries. Turkey’s position in the migration process is a unique one and it is still in the process of becoming an important site, not just for new national settlers, but also for today’s international settlers. Turkey, and especially Istanbul, has become a demographically more complicated but not yet very visible site with all these new arrivals, as well as with the arrival of other international migrants, mostly originating from European countries, especially from Germany and Russia. 3 Obviously, Turkish migration and asylum laws and policies were not able to meet the needs of these radical demographic changes resulting from global and regional transformations. Thus, migration and asylum laws and policies had to go through a substantial review process to prepare the country to come to terms with the changing conditions in the region.

Discursive Shift from Temporariness to Permanency: The Unbearable Lightness of Being a Guest

Traditionally known as emigration countries, Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan have also become settlement and transit spaces for economic and forced migrants (De Bel-Air 2006; Pérouse 2013). Syrian refugees have been considered as “guests” by the Turkish, Lebanese and Jordanian states. From the very beginning of the refugees’ plight, Syrians have been presented as if they were being “welcomed” by the host states and societies because of deep-rooted values such as “Turkish hospitality”, “Muslim fraternity”, “Arab hospitality” and “guesthood traditions” (De Bel-Air 2006; Pérouse 2013; Chatty 2013; El Abed 2014; Kirişçi 2014; Erdoğan 2015). The reason why Turkey is trying to define these Syrians as being under a different legal status than that of a refugee is because it continues to be under the geographical limitation clause of the 1951 Geneva Convention on the Protection of Refugees. Accordingly, Turkey only accepts people coming from European countries as refugees. Although geographical limitation was removed by most Convention members in the 1967 Additional Protocol of the Geneva Convention, Turkey decided to keep it, together with the Congo, Madagascar and Monaco.

Because of this, a more recent metaphor used to qualify the role that the Turkish state and pious Muslim Turks should play for Syrians in Turkey has been that of the “Ansar spirit” (“Ansar” being Arabic for “helpers”). Literally, Ansar refers to the people of Medina, who supported the Prophet Mohammad and the accompanying Muslims (Muhajirun, or “migrants”) who migrated there from Mecca, which was at the time under pagan control. The metaphor of Ansar originally points at a temporary situation, as the Muslims later returned to Mecca, after their forces recaptured the city from the pagans ( Haber7 2014). 4 Thus, the Turkish government has used a kind of Islamic symbolism to legitimize its acts regarding the resolution of the Syrian refugee crisis. The government leaders have consistently compared Turkey’s role in assisting the Syrian refugees to that of the Ansar. Framing the Syrian refugees within the discourse of Ansar and Muhajirun has elevated public and private efforts to accommodate Syrian refugees from a humanitarian responsibility to a religious and charity-based duty (Erdemir 2016), a point to which I shall return shortly.

Figure 1
Figure 1

Number of Syrian refugees living in 10 cities (1 March 2017).

Citation: Southeastern Europe 41, 3 (2017) ; 10.1163/18763332-04103003

ministry of interior. 5

The framing of the refugee reality by state actors as an act of benevolence and tolerance has also shaped public opinion in a way which has led to the exposure of some racist and xenophobic attitudes vis-a-vis refugees. Therefore, it is not a surprise that Turkish society has witnessed several lynching attempts, as well as the prevalence of stereotypes, prejudices, communal conflicts and other forms of harassment against Syrians (Gökay 2015). The massive increase in the number of refugees outside camps and the lack of adequate assistance policies toward them has aggravated a range of social problems. Refugees experience problems of adaptation in big cities and the language barrier has seriously complicated their ability to integrate into Turkish society. There are several problems Syrians have been facing in everyday life. There is now a growing concern about underage Syrian girls being forced into marriage as well as fears that a recent constitutional court ruling decriminalizing religious weddings without civil marriage will lead to a spread of polygamy involving Syrian women and girls (Kirişçi and Ferris 2015). The sight of Syrians begging in the streets is causing resentment among local people, especially in the western cities of Turkey. There have also been reports of occasional violence between refugees and the local population. In turn, this reinforces a growing public perception that Syrian refugees are associated with criminality, violence and corruption. These attitudes contrast with the observations of local authorities and security officials that criminality is surprisingly low among refugees and that Syrian community leaders are very effective in preventing crime and defusing tensions between refugees and locals (Kirisçi and Karaca 2015).

It soon became visible that framing the refugees as “guests” was not sustainable in terms of accommodating their urgent needs as well as of coming to terms with the increasing resentment among local populations vis-à-vis the refugees. Turkey first introduced a Temporary Protection Directive for the refugees in 2014, based on Articles 61 to 95 of the Law on Foreigners and International Protection, which came into force in April 2014. The directive grants almost all the social and civil rights that refugees enjoy in Western societies. 6 Accordingly, Turkey has provided Syrians with a temporary protection which consists of three elements: an open-door policy for all Syrians; no forced returns to Syria (non-refoulement); and a right to an unlimited duration of stay in Turkey.

Despite the rights granted under the Temporary Protection Directive, dating from 04 April 2014, refugees have encountered huge problems in the spheres of health, education, the labour market and housing in Turkey. 7 Due to the fact that there are no reliable and sufficient official data on the social-economic status of refugees, one cannot correctly make estimations about, for example, the number of refugee children who actually do enjoy the right to primary education, or of refugees who do have access to health care, or of those given the right to work. It is estimated that around 30–35 per cent of Syrian refugees in Turkey are school-aged children. This amounts to around 993,000 children that need to be attending school. While afad (the Turkish Disaster and Emergency Management Directorate) is providing education for children in 70 schools inside refugee camps and the Ministry of Education is offering it in approximately 75 locations outside the refugee camps, the number of children receiving education is around 300,000, compared to the half a million who need it. It is simply not feasible to accommodate such a high number of school children in the national education institutions in Turkey (Kilic and Ustun 2015).

Furthermore, even when it is logistically and practically possible, a remarkable number of Syrian refugee families cannot register their children in school as they send them to work in the informal labour market, mainly in the textile, construction and service sectors. Child labour as a coping strategy is a common practice among the Syrian refugees living in Istanbul. For instance, our study in Istanbul revealed that 26,6 per cent of the survey participants sent their school-aged children to work so that they could contribute to family income. 20,3 per cent stated that they could not afford to pay for their education, while 14,1 per cent stated that schools did not accept them because there was no space for the children at the local schools. When the interlocutors were asked about the places where they sent their children to work, half of those sending their children to work (26,6 per cent) stated that their children worked in the textile sector (clothing, shoes, etc.) while other children worked in service sector (small shops, catering, cafes, restaurants), the construction sector and the industrial sector (furniture factories, automobile factories, etc.) (Kaya and Kıraç 2016).

Soon after the implementation of the Temporary Protection regulations, which still frame the refugees as being in a state of temporariness, some discursive shifts were witnessed in the media regarding the state actors’ changing position on the permanent character of at least some of the Syrian refugees in Turkey. These discursive shifts have so far mainly emphasised the permanent nature of the issue – introduction of work permits in early 2016, incorporation of pupils into public schools, creating quotas for Syrian students in higher education institutions, granting citizenship to the Syrians and some statements from political figures such as President Erdoğan and Deputy pm Numan Kurtulmuş. 8 It has become obvious that the Turkish state is now more engaged in integrating refugees into the social, economic and political spheres of Turkish life as well as in trying to engage the local municipalities in taking responsibility for the integration of migrants and refugees. 9

A Tale of Two Cities: From Aleppo to Istanbul

There were several factors that laid the groundwork for the Syrian Civil War. Socio-political, environmental and economic elements such as unemployment, climate change, drought, water management stress and poverty can be enumerated as some of the elements elevating the risk of a civil war. The unemployment rate in Syria used to be relatively moderate compared to other countries in the Middle East; however, the youth unemployment rate was always high: the unemployment rate among youth aged between 15 and 24 stood at 26 per cent in 2002, close to the Middle Eastern average (Kabbani and Kamel 2007). What distinguished the Syrian case was that unemployment rates among young people were more than six times higher than those among adults, the highest ratio among the countries of the Middle East. This high rate of unemployment among the youth population triggered dissatisfaction against the regime of the Ba’ath Party and caused a brain drain of skilled workforce from the country. Two other important factors, which are often neglected and yet were hugely important, were climate change and droughts (Schwartz and Notini 1994; Zachariah, Mathew and Rajan 2001). Seven significant droughts occurred in Syria between 1900 and 2011, where the average rainfall dropped to one-third of the normal level (Gleick 2014). The latest one, which started in 2006, was described as the worst long-term drought and most severe set of crop failures since the beginning agricultural civilization, and caused agricultural failures, economic dislocations and population displacement. These effects are thought by some experts to have played an essential role in spurring violence in the country (Femia and Werrell 2012). During the civil war, access to clean water also deteriorated, threatening the health of the population. In 2013, unicef found that water availability in conflict-affected areas decreased to only one-fourth compared to pre-crisis levels ( unicef 2013).

A vulnerability assessment study of Syrians in Istanbul has found that around 87 per cent of Syrians in Istanbul originated from the province of Aleppo, while only a small minority of 7.2 per cent came from Damascus. Most the interlocutors interviewed (62.5 per cent) entered Turkey through the Syrian border in Kilis, a south-eastern city, while 16.7 per cent entered from Hatay, and 9.2 per cent from Gaziantep. Many of the interlocutors later followed their ethno-cultural and kinship networks, leading them to Istanbul. In conflictual situations threatening the lives of locals, migrants are tempted to flee as far as their economic, social and cultural capital permits them to. The reason why there are so many Syrians residing in the south-eastern cities of Turkey such as Gaziantep, Hatay, Kilis and Şanlıurfa is not only because of their geographical proximity to Syria, but also because of kinship relations dating back to the Ottoman era, when all those cities were administratively linked to the Aleppo province (vilayet) of the Ottoman Empire. In the same way, Assyrian Christians, Circassians and Yezidis found refuge in those cities where their kin had settled during the Ottoman Empire, such as Istanbul, Mardin and Şirnak (Korkut 2015). This is a phenomenon that Nicolas van Hear has already described elaborately in his works on diasporas (van Hear 1998). The same inclination can also be found among Kurdish idps, who have had to leave their homelands in the south-eastern parts of Turkey to go to different cities in the country, and even abroad if possible, since the mid-1990s (Kaya and Isik 2008).

With the conflict in Syria now entering its sixth year, refugees are increasingly moving inland, beyond the border provinces. The Turkish Directorate-General of Migration Management has reported that 220,000 Syrians (or 12 per cent of the entire Syrian refugee population in Turkey) were registered in Istanbul as of March 2015. By July 2015, the number had increased to over 317,000, an increase of 64 per cent, while figures reached 395,000 by March 2016, particularly as irregular migration into Europe had increased. In the second half of 2016 some estimates for the number of Syrians in Istanbul were even as high as 550,000, and these numbers are still growing as of the writing of this article. There are many reasons for families and individuals to move away from camps, and according to previous research, many chose to relocate to urban centres due to the freedom of mobility which allows them an opportunity to find networks. Additionally, urban settings potentially allow for better housing, better educational opportunities and more diverse, stable employment opportunities. Of course, the gap between the perception of urban areas and reality, especially in a major metropolitan city, cannot be denied. Nonetheless, Istanbul is the most attractive city, where Syrian refugees of all ethnic backgrounds prefer to settle in.

One of the most striking images from Aleppo relating to the war was seen on 17 August 2016, when the image of a five-year-old boy, Omran Daqneesh, was filmed and circulated by the Aleppo Media Centre, an anti-government activist group which posted a video on YouTube showing him sitting dazed and bloodied in the back of an ambulance after surviving a regime airstrike on the rebel-held Qaterji neighbourhood of Aleppo (Hunt 2016). Like the images of Ailan Kurdi’s dead body lying on the Aegean shores of Turkey in the summer of 2015, Omran immediately became another icon symbolizing the devastation and tragedy caused by the war in Syria, like all other wars. Like most Syrians residing in Turkey, Ailan was also from the province of Aleppo (Smith 2015).

Aleppo is one of the fourteen provinces of Syria. It is located in the northern part of the country, between Idlib to the west, Hama to the south and Ar-Raqqah to the east. Before the war, it was the most densely populated province in Syria, with a population of more than 4,868,000 in 2011, almost one-fourth of the total population of Syria. The province of Aleppo is territorially the fifth largest in Syria. Its capital is the city of Aleppo. The city of Aleppo was the second largest city in Syria with a population of more than 1.5 million people. It was the country’s most important centre for trade and manufacture and its central market area – souq (bazaar) – stretched out for more than 10 km in the middle of the city. The city is in ruins now and its inhabitants have scattered, mostly to Turkey. The reason why almost all the former inhabitants of the province of Aleppo have found refuge in Turkey is more complicated than its geographical proximity: there are strong historical, cultural and religious links between Aleppo and Anatolia dating back to the Ottoman Empire. A more detailed description of the history of the city traced back to the Ottomans follows:

In the early days following the end of World War i, a secular form of Pan-Arab nationalism made it possible for the inhabitants of Aleppo to live together in peace. A striking feature of Pan-Arab nationalism was that it was mainly constructed as a response to the Pan-Turkist ideology of the Ottoman elite, which had become outspoken and popular among Turkish nationalists in the late 19th century (Çati 2013). Pan-Arab nationalism was based on the secular idea that “Arab” is a non-sectarian designation and that Muslims, Christians and Jews could be equally Arab and possess the same rights to full citizenship. In this version of Arabism, Islam had no role in governance or in forming the basis of legitimate authority. It should be recalled that Islamism in the Arab world partly emerged as a reaction against the imperialist division of Ottoman Muslims into separate states and the non-sectarian, emancipatory and bourgeois dimensions of interwar liberal Arab nationalism

watenpaugh 2005; zachariah, mathew and rajan 2001

Wherever the Social Networks Take You…

Almost half of the interlocutors who were interviewed for the survey had arrived in Istanbul in the previous one or two years (46.4 per cent). On the other hand, 17.6 per cent stated that they had been in Istanbul for the last three to four years. 36 per cent of the interlocutors stated that they had only recently arrived in Istanbul. This finding indicates that there more will arrive through the same networks. There are several theories, such as push and pull theory and rational choice theory, that can be used to define the reasons and motives of migration. The network theory is probably the most applicable to the case of Syrian refugees living in Istanbul. The network theory is one of the theories that try to provide an empirical explanation of migration motives: networks which serve as strong ties between migrants and potential migrants can be regarded as one of the main reasons for migration (King 2012). These connections often become a social formation, which helps potential migrants as well as new migrants find their way in the society where the old migrants have already established their lives. There are three types of networks: family networks, labour networks and illegal migrant networks (Boyd and Nowak 2012). Labour networks are used widely, and it seems that they are also very explanatory for the Syrian refugees. Labour networks are widely used in the process of migration. Not only do they help potential migrants in obtaining information about the availability of job vacancies, but they also help new migrants settle before starting a job. However, even though appealing to labour networks might be helpful, it should be highlighted that they cannot always be trusted. During the interviews, several interlocutors stated that their jobs had been provided to them via labour networks but then turned out to have poor working conditions as well as low salaries, which were furthermore not paid on time.

Secondly, family networks provide new migrants with the feeling of hospitality, spaces of cultural affinity and a sense of familiarity, and help them preserve their culture and close ties with their families (Castles, Miller and de Haas 2013). However, according to Charles Tilly, even though networks can be beneficial, on the other hand they may also create problems for the people who do not accomplish their commitment to society (Tilly 2007). Being a member of a network comes with obligations, and if one’s obligations are not fulfilled this may cause exclusion of individuals from the networks.

The other type of networks are illegal networks, which include human trafficking and smuggling networks. As noted by Boyd and Nowak, illegal migrants try to have less ties with family or labour networks (Boyd and Nowak 2012). Accordingly, they do not engage in legal networks, but they try to find jobs through illegal connections. In this fieldwork, we have not come across such networks, at least as reported by the interlocutors.

Potential migrants and refugees tend to choose their places of migration according to the countries where they already have friends or family members or people they know, who come from their home countries. In this way, they can easily get information about the city they are planning to migrate to (King 2012). The information reduces anxiety that potential migrants tend to have before they make a decision about their destination. Networks can be regarded as one of the important factors in migrants’ location choices. Having networks eases the process of making decisions about the country of migration and renders the process of integration much faster. Therefore, having networks in the country of destination can be one of the main reasons for migration for refugees, as well as for regular migrants (ibid.). Once the first wave of migrants has settled in their new places of residence, they assist family members or friends in joining them. Accordingly, the migration process for the second wave is made easier with regard to the costs and risks. Due to having information from previous examples, the migrant has a feeling of security and protection. This is what our research team has come across very often in the field. Most of the refugees try to establish strong ties with people who have previously migrated in order to reduce their own costs and risks.

Even though one of the strongest components of the network theory can be the family networks, weak ties may also play a significant role in the migration process (Tilly 2007). Relations between refugees and potential refugees may be weak, but once they are in a foreign environment these ties become closer as they share the same language, ethnicity, culture and religion. Therefore, they develop a mutual reliance on each other. This is what we have observed in focus group meetings, where we encountered many refugees originating from different cities and neighbourhoods in Syria, and who had established closer links in their places of residence in Istanbul. These relations often turn into close friendships as the migrants try to provide information for each other, reducing costs and comforting and consoling each other in terms of relieving the pains experienced in the migration process. Most importantly, new refugees are eager to become familiar with the experiences of the people who have migrated before them. It should be highlighted that networks, as one of the significant reasons for migration, have become more evident and useful as the internet has become more accessible to society at large. Networks may also play a significant role before the act of migration. Being aware of existing networks, potential migrants are likely to walk the same path taken by other refugees, rather than taking the risk of migration without any actual information (Massey and García-Espańa 1987). Such networks have the potential of providing refugees with a shield protecting them against the detrimental effects of a difficult journey and everyday life, as well as with a sense of ethno-cultural, religious, musical, visual and linguistic affinity that gives them comfort in a new land. And thanks to the growing visibility of the internet in everyday life, refugees have been utilizing such networks to decide their routes even more (Rebmann. 2016).

Istanbul is Safe despite Everything!

Survey results have shown that the primary rationale behind moving to Istanbul is to find a job (54.8 per cent). The second most expressed reason is to follow existing social networks such as family ties, relational links and other relevant social, ethno-cultural and religious networks. The third reason for refugees to settle in Istanbul seems to be providing security and safety for their families. What is striking here is the very low percentage of Syrians who are willing to live anywhere other than Istanbul. One could argue that Syrians residing in Istanbul are rather satisfied with where they are, and they are not considering going elsewhere, such as for instance eu countries. Marwa, a 28-year-old female living in the Sultanbeyli district on the Asian side of Istanbul, expressed her feelings about Istanbul with the following words:

I feel safe here in Istanbul, and I don’t want to go back to Aleppo where we were moving from house to house due to the war. I want to stay here in Turkey, because it is like our traditions and culture, and my family is here. I don’t want to go to Europe either, because I have no one there. And I don’t want to go back to Syria at all, because I lost my husband there.

marwa, female, 28, Sultanbeyli
What attracts her to Istanbul is the cultural affinity that the city offers as well as familial links already existing there. The research, which we have conducted together with the Support to Life Association, was undertaken in districts inhabited mostly by Sunni Arabs. The staff of the Migration Unit of the Şişli Municipality in Istanbul has reported that in some parts of their districts there are several Kurdish-origin and Alevi-origin Syrians who have been searching for comfort and cultural affinity in their own already-existing social networks constructed by the Kurdish and Alevi inhabitants living mostly in Okmeydanı, one of the strongholds of left-wing oppositional groups with a working-class and ethno-class background. 10

The selection of places of residence by the Syrian refugees is made in accordance with various factors, some of which have been explained earlier. Cultural and ethno-religious affinity are the decisive elements shaping the decision regarding the selection of places of residence. The ways in which the host communities perceive the Syrian refugees is also a very important factor in shaping this decision. It is also revealed in other scientific studies that the host communities living in the border regions form their approach towards Syrians in accordance with their own ethnic, religious and political identities. For instance, there is sympathy towards the Kurds and a dislike against the Arabs in the places where Kurds constitute the majority. Kurds strongly assume that Arabs support radical groups such as al-Qaeda, isis, or al-Nusra, who are believed to be fighting against the Kurdish pyd (Democratic Union Party) and ypg (People’s Protection Units) forces in Syria. Whereas, Arabs believe that Kurds seek to divide Syria and support the pkk-affiliated parties. A large number of the Turkish citizens sympathize with Turkmens, while most of the Arab Alevis consider the Syrians entering Turkey as traitors to their own country. This is the reason why Syrians tend to move to places in Turkey where people with similar ethnic, religious or sectarian identities live (Erciyes 2016).

It was also revealed that majority of the residents in the six districts where we conducted the research have been supportive of the rhetoric of Ansar spirit reified by the government and state actors in general. The Ansar spirit has been embraced by the pious Muslim Turkish citizens who perceive the Arabs and the Arabic language they speak as sacred. The fact that the Prophet Mohammad was of Arab origin, and that the language of the Quran is Arabic makes a lot of sense for the pious Muslims in Turkey as well as in other non-Arabic Islamic regions. The members of the local communities in the six districts of Istanbul run by the municipalities of the Justice and Development Party have often referred to the cultural and religious affinity which they have practiced in everyday life with the Sunni Arabs coming from Syria. Hence, religious and linguistic similarities are not only instrumentalized by the Sunni Muslim Syrian refugees, but also by the members of the Sunni Muslim local communities who have already reified the language and the ethnicity of the Sunni Arabs (Kaya and Kirac 2016; Deniz, Çağlar, Ekinci and Hülür 2016).

This kind of cultural affinity is not only limited to the religious and linguistic levels, but also includes the gastronomic and musical tastes of both sides. The number of Syrian restaurants is rapidly increasing in Istanbul, not only in those six neighbourhoods where we conducted our research on the vulnerability of the Syrian refugees, but also in the touristic centres of the city such as Beyoğlu and Sultanahmet. These restaurants do not only attract the Arabs who feel a kind of cultural affinity with the food and beverages served there, but also the locals of Istanbul who feel a similar cultural affinity with Arabic cuisine, which has always been an essential part of the cosmopolitan Ottoman cuisine. Similarly, the number of Syrian street music bands is also increasing. Radio stations such as Al-Kol, Muftah and Alwan were established in Istanbul to broadcast not only to the Syrian Diaspora in Turkey but also to the homeland in Syria. 11 The sound of Arabic music echoing in the streets of Istanbul as well as in the Arabic radio stations constructs new bridges between the Syrian refugees and the members of the local communities who find appeal in its resemblance with popular Turkish Arabesk (or “arabesque”) music.

The history of Arabesk music in Turkey starts with the internal migration from rural spaces to urban spaces which began in the early 1960s. It is an epiphenomenon of urbanisation. The tern Arabesk is primarily associated with music, but also with film, novels and foto-roman (photo dramas with speech bubbles published in newspapers). Arabesk music is a style which utilizes Western and Oriental instruments together with an Arabic rhythm. This syncretic form of music has always borrowed some instruments and beats from traditional Turkish folk music. The presence of Arabesk music on tv was banned by the state until the early eighties. The conservative-populist government of Turgut Özal set it free in the mid-eighties. The main characteristics of Arabesk music are the fatalism, sadness and pessimism of the lyrics and rhythm. Until recently, the lyrics expressed an irrational and pessimistic reaction of people from a rural background to capitalist urban life. Recently, the composition of the lyrics has extensively changed. Instead of expressing pessimism in the urban space, lyrics tend to celebrate the beauty of the pastoral life which has been left behind. In other words, it has become a call to the people to go back to the basics. There is an extensive literature on the sociological dimensions of Arabesk music in Turkey. Martin Stokes has also shown how the fortunes of supposedly Arabic musical forms vary with the political winds. Today, arabesque music is likely to create a space of cultural affinity among the Syrians and the Turks living in the suburbs of Istanbul (Stokes 2010).

However, some locals do not seem so at ease with the Ansar spirit. Treating the Syrians as “traitors” seems to be a common phenomenon among many Turks. One of the Turkish youngsters we interviewed in the Sultanbeyli district of Istanbul expressed his dislike of the Syrian refugees settled in his neighbourhood with the following words:

Everyone around me hates the Syrians. People are curious to know why the Syrians came to Turkey. If I were them I wouldn’t leave my country. I would stay home and fight back against the enemy to protect my homeland. Syrians are cowards, that is why they left their country. They are traitors. Our country has accepted them as no one else is really accepting them. We are treating them well, but we are not getting anything good in return.

turkish youngster, male, 20, 16 November 2015, Sultanbeyli
This kind of discourse has also recently become rather popular, especially after a popular conservative pious Muslim poet, İsmet Özel, treated the Syrian refugees in the same way, as “traitors”. 12 Defining Arabs as traitors in Turkey is a rather old habit dating back to the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire in the late 19th and early 20th century. Turkish nationalists perceived the Arabs in those days as “traitors” since they believed that the Arab nationalists stabbed the Turks in the back by collaborating with the imperialist Western forces (Pope and Pope 1997). Such a stereotype is still very strong in the collective memory of Turkish citizens.
When refugees were asked about how safe they feel in Istanbul, the majority expressed feelings of safety (91.8 per cent) while only 6.8 per cent stated an uneasiness regarding safety in the city. Being away from the war zone and the everyday terrors of violence in Aleppo, coupled with cultural affinity and religious familiarity, have been reported as the main determinants of a feeling of safety and comfort for refugees in Istanbul, although women tend to feel slightly more in the extremes in terms of safety and insecurity in the city compared to Syrian men, who are in the more moderate to safe range of the spectrum. Mohammad, a 27-year-old male whom we interviewed in Ümraniye explained his reason for picking Istanbul as a place to live in the following words:

I came here two years ago, through the Turkish-Syrian border. I had to pay a lot of money to the smugglers. Turkey was my first choice, because there is better treatment here compared to other neighbouring countries in the region. And I feel safe here in Istanbul.

mohammad, male, 27, Ümraniye
Syrian refugees were also asked to report about the problems that they face in everyday life: 30.4 per cent of the interlocutors complained about unemployment, while others complained about their lack of knowledge of the Turkish language (17.4 per cent), poverty (13 per cent), exploitation (12.2 per cent), discrimination (11.3 per cent) and limited access to social services (7.8 per cent). Poverty, exploitation, exclusion and discrimination are the major problems reported by refugees. The cross-tabulations by gender indicate that women tend to feel more exposed to discrimination and racism in everyday life. Focus Group Discussions reveal that women are in a situation to negotiate more in everyday life with the members of the majority society with respect to handling relations within their neighbourhood. Women are confronted with more problems while carrying out household chores and caring for family members, such as buying groceries, undertaking the schooling of children, seeking health care and finding their way around the city. Abo Bashar, a 55-year-old male residing in Ümraniye, has drawn our attention to the difficulties of living in a city like Istanbul, though he has added that he is happy there:

I am happier here, although it’s hard. Because the treatment here is better than it is in the other countries. I am not planning to travel to any other country, but will go back to Syria one day. We wish that we had a work permit, and that the employers paid us a better salary. We don’t want to work under such conditions. We wish people here would treat us better and give us more assistance because we receive nothing. And we wish the landlords would go easy on us and take from us what the contract says they must take.

abo bashar, male, 55, Ümraniye
The will to return to Syria is still very strong, but of course it all depends on the improvement of the political situation in the homeland.

However, among the Syrians we interviewed there was a very critical group of people who expressed their unwillingness to go back to Syria under any condition. Around 20 per cent of the people interviewed expressed their unwillingness to go back home. It was later found that this group of people largely corresponded to the ones who lost loved ones in their immediate families. Hence, one could argue that at least those who have lost family members in the civil war are not willing to go back, at least for the time being, due to the traumatic experience resulting from their losses.

As far as the exploitation of refugees is concerned, it is seen in the field research that cultural affinity in the form of “the sharing of known and recognizable traits with the ones inside” may also play a negative role in everyday life. It is often revealed in migration studies that refugees and migrants are more likely to be exploited by their own kin, relatives, families as well as by those locals who have a cultural, religious and linguistic affinity with them (Danis 2007; Pessar 1999). For instance, during the research, we encountered Syrian refugees who were employed by textile workshop owners who spoke Arabic. These interlocutors explicitly complained about the exploitation they were exposed to. Healy et al. also found that much of the exploitation taking place among the Syrian refugees living in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq is not carried out by organised transnational groups, but rather involves acquaintances, neighbours and even family members (Healy, Adelby, Aiazzi, Iaria, Memişoğlu and Özden 2015). Hence, one should not forget the fact that cultural affinity has an ambivalent nature as a space of both comfort and danger. There should be more scientific studies concentrating on the correlation between cultural affinity and different patterns of exploitation taking place amongst refugees.

Conclusions

This research, which has been conducted in six different districts of Istanbul (Küçükçekmece, Başakşehir, Bağcılar, Fatih, Sultanbeyli and Ümraniye) run by mayors of the Justice and Development Party has revealed that Syrian refugees residing in these districts predominantly originate from Aleppo, which was the third most cosmopolitan city of the Ottoman Empire after Istanbul and Izmir. It has been argued that refugees follow already-existing social, ethno-cultural and religious networks, the origins of which can be traced historically. It has been stated by most of the refugees that it is this cultural and religious affinity which has made them feel rather comfortable in Istanbul. It has also been stated by most the interlocutors that the reason why they have chosen Istanbul is the feeling of security and safety that the city provides them with.

However, they also have many complaints. Exploitation on the labour market, the lack of knowledge of the Turkish language, discrimination in everyday life, lack of empathy among the locals toward their sufferings, stereotypes and prejudices generated by the locals, the lack of education facilities for their children, the lack of a proper legal status, the lack of the right to work legally, the lack of the right to health services, the lack of the right to housing, the lack of future prospects in this country, the lack of integration policies at central and local levels, the lack of social and political recognition, respect, and acceptance and the ways in which they are labelled by the central state as “guests” are some of the problems they face in everyday life. It is exactly these problems which, in the end, prompt some refugees to leave Turkey at the cost of risking their lives at the border.

Nevertheless, what came as a surprise was the very low number of refugees among those interviewed who stated their willingness to go to Europe. It was found that only 1.6 per cent of the refugees interviewed were considering leaving Istanbul to travel to eu countries. But this does not mean that the situation is the same for all the Syrians living in Turkey. With more than 500,000 Syrians in its population, Istanbul has recently become the new capital city of Syrians in Turkey, offering its refugee-origin inhabitants opportunities to feel contented with the cultural affinity that the city offers, and to disappear in crowds so that they can enjoy (relatively) accommodation facilities, employment possibilities, schooling, health services, in-kind assistance and several other services without being stigmatized. However, the comfort zones created by cultural affinity are also embedded with potential sources of danger and exploitation operated by acquaintances, neighbours and even family members of the refugees.

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1

It has become very popular recently in the media to represent diasporic spaces like Fatih, where Syrians are trying to reconstruct their new homes after the image of their original homeland. For related media coverage, see, e.g., Benjamin 2016.

3

According to the eurostat figures, there were 175,000 foreign citizens residing in Turkey, and 75,000 of them were eu citizens. The contradiction between national, European and other sources is a matter which is also acknowledged by the staff of the Turkish Statistical Institution (tüik). See http://epp.eurostat.ec.europa.eu/cache/ITY_PUBLIC/3-11072012-AP/EN/3-11072012-AP-EN.PDF (accessed on 15 September 2016).

4

For a detailed discussion on this topic see Korkut 2015.

5

dgmm Figures available at http://www.goc.gov.tr/icerik6/temporary-protection_915_1024_4748_icerik. The number of people living in the 22 refugee camps around the Turkish-Syrian border is more than 250,000.

6

For the text of the Geneva Convention and Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees see http://www.unhcr.org/3b66c2aa10.

7

For the official text of the Temporary Protection Regulation see http://www.goc.gov.tr/files/_dokuman28.pdf.

8

For news coverage of President Erdoğan’s speech on the Syrians being granted citizenship, or dual nationality, see Hurriyet Daily News 2016; for the coverage of Deputy pm Numan Kurtuluş’s speech on granting citizenship to the Syrians see Daily Sabah (11 July 2016), available at http://www.dailysabah.com/money/2016/07/11/turkish-citizenship-for-syrian-refugees-under-process-deputy-pm-kurtulmus-says.

9

Due to the lack of space in this paper, I will not go into detail about the activities undertaken by state actors, local municipalities and civil society organizations in Turkey for the integration of refugees and migrants. The International Organization of Migration (ıom) has recently been working with a group of scholars on preparing policy recommendations on the integration of migrants in collaboration with the ddgmm. Hence, one could argue that the refugee crisis has also brought about some substantial changes in the mindset of the state actors in order to prepare a solid integration policy in Turkey. Anectodal evidence shows that these attempts have increased in the aftermath of the refugee deal signed between Turkey and the eu on 18 March 2016.

10

Author’s interview with the staff of the Migration Unit of Şişli Municipality, Feriköy, Şişli, Istanbul, 28 July 2016.

12

For the speech of Ismet Özel see the following video recorded on 14 December 2015, https://twitter.com/fazzare/status/677191012738011140.

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