International Dossier. Syria through the eyes of refugees

EL UNIVERSAL traveled to the Middle East to register the largest refugee crisis since World War II, which amounts to 8.7 million in 2016, according to the UN
Feature photography by Cristopher Rogel Blanquet / EL UNIVERSAL
Gaziantep, Turkey
Emiliano Limia and Cristopher Rogel Blanquet
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Driven by curiosity, Ayse approaches us in the street and invites us to her place to meet her family. She lives with her five children in Tepebaşı, an old neighborhood in Gaziantep, Turkey, just 43 miles of the Syrian border with a large Syrian refugee population.

Bashar al-Assad air crafts released bombs over my place, we lost everything” says shaken Ayse in the face of the memories that took her to seek refuge in Turkey. Her family is from Syrian-Turkmen descent and speak Arabic, while communicating in Turkish among themselves. Ayse is first reluctant to being photographed with her children, once she is absolutely sure that we do not work for the Turkish T.V. she consents to the photos.

Rochi is the most outgoing of Ayse’s children. She is quickly fascinated by the camera and insists in being explained how it works. “When the air-crafts bombed Aleppo, we left for Turkey. I saw bombs falling in the city, dead people in the streets and saw our house being destroyed.” says Rochi, only five years old at the time, who was old enough to remember the beginning of the worst humanitarian crisis after World War II. Around her, the rest of the children look at us in surprise while the adults in the room glance at us with distrust.

From tourism route to a city for asylum-seekers

Gaziantep has been acknowledged for its history and cuisine by the UNESCO and is one of the oldest and most populated cities in Turkey with almost 2 million residents. One can hardly picture Gaziantep’s residents crossing the border with Syria to go weekend- shopping in Aleppo only six years ago. Today, around 350,000 Syrians, mostly coming from Aleppo, live in Gaziantep. This is the story of Ayse, who invites us to visit some of her relatives, staring with Rochi’s aunt.

After a few minutes the initial conversation turns into denunciation, instead of having them answer to our questions, the women seem eager to denounce their overwhelming situation: a lack of assistance from Turkish authorities, their inability to arrange for proper immigration papers with a refugee status and thus their lack of access to several basic services such as health, education or having the children attend school and receive medical treatment at a hospital. They show us documents and pictures of their time in Aleppo, some reveal their wounded relatives, while others show those who passed away in Syria. They all reach a point where they beg for help. These women do not beg for money. What they wish the most is to be supported for the processing of proper immigration papers that enable them to obtain legal residence in Turkey.

Forced immigration caused by the Syrian war has made life difficult in Gaziantep, simply because about 200,000 Syrian refugees live outside the established refugee camps resulting in shortages of the health and educations systems as well as a shortfall in tourism income. The latter imposing new pressure in the community such as the surge in leasing and child labor, among others.

Additionally, the Turkish legislation establishes that the Syrina labor force can not exceed 10% of an employer’s workforce, which makes it difficult for refugees to find a steady job and to live from casual employment and charity, instead.

“I’m glad to be away from war, but life is really hard in here”, says Salem, who greets us in his clandestine sewing workshop. Salem and his brother in-law are the only adults working there, together with six children (his sons and nephews), who were evacuated from Aleppo four years ago and settled in Gaziantep along with ten other Syrian families.

The fact that most Syrian refugees do not speak Turkish seriously hinders their possibilities of getting a steady job and thus results in humiliation living conditions the rely solely on charity, while most of them had a dignifying job back in Syria. This is the case of Mehmet, who arrived to Gaziantep five years ago with his entire family of five. His son, Elif, had to undergo seven surgeries due to congenital malformations. Mehmet’s family goes by through the worst living conditions we could witness: living without light or water in an abandoned construction site. However, they offers us tea and cigarettes, which is basically everything they own.

After six years of humanitarian crisis and a future difficult to foresee, most Syrian refugees still long to go back to their towns and villages once the Syrian civil war comes to an end.

They all unanimously agree in one thing, Al-Assad’s regime is to blame.

A covenant of shame

The EU-Turkey Refugee Deal came into force on March 20th, 2016. The deal engaged Ankara to receive all illegal immigrants coming from the European Union (EU) and to become a transit zone for immigrants conforming to the legal proceeding required for immigration.

In exchange, the EU committed to finance the operation with € 3,000m, for Turkey to provide proper refugee assistance with a possible renewal for the same amount in 2018, a traveling provision for Turkish citizens to the EU without visa requirements and the speeding-up of the accession of Turkey to the EU.

The truth is that the EU has declared that only €676m were provided to Turkey to provide for Syrian refugees in 2016. The fact that the € 3,000m haven’t fully reached Turkey is only making life tougher for Syrian refugees in the transcontinental country.


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