‘They hate us’: quake tests ties between Syrian refugees and Turkish hosts

Umm Anwar fled Syria for a new life in the southern Turkish city of Gaziantep. When, early last Monday, the rundown apartment block she now calls home began to shake uncontrollably, she found herself jolted back to her previous life.

“I felt like I was back in Syria under the bombs,” said the mother of two, who used a pseudonym to protect family living in the government-held city of Aleppo. “Like death had returned for me.”

The huge quake that struck south-eastern Turkey and northern Syria on Monday was a tragedy for all those affected. But for Turkey’s nearly 4mn Syrian refugees, who fled civil war in their homeland, the grief was compounded by the familiar sense that their hopes for a safe place to call home had been dashed once again.

“I’ve lost everything — for the second time,” said Umm Anwar. “I’m not sure I have the strength to start my life all over again.”

Turkey welcomed more Syrian refugees than any other country, giving them shelter, allowing them to work and providing access to healthcare and education. Turkey says it has spent more than $40bn accommodating the new arrivals.

But the quake struck at a time of worsening public hostility towards Syrians in Turkey, exacerbated by a cost of living crisis. It also comes ahead of a general election set for May that experts say will further politicise their plight. The refugees now fear they will lose out in the allocation of resources as Ankara faces the massive task of reconstruction.

“All political parties made unrealistic promises to play on the emotions of the constituency and harvest votes by blaming many woes on Syrians,” said Omar Kadkoy, an expert on migration at the Ankara-based think-tank Tepav.

“There are even a few politicians who saw in the aftermath of the earthquake an opportunity for populism. This will fan nativism and further hamper the thinly stretched social cohesion between Turks and Syrians.”

Umm Anwar and her children, whose home is unsafe, are staying with friends, but other refugees have not been so fortunate. A family of 10 who lived in a neighbouring and now-collapsed apartment block shelter under a plastic tarpaulin, burning corn husks and plastic bags for heat in the bitter cold.

The scene is replicated across the poorest pockets of a city that, only 40 miles from the epicentre, felt the full force of the quake. Bonfires spark on nearly every street, faces lined with grief flickering in the light. Days after the huge quake, the displaced huddle on roadsides, sleep in cars or shelter in overcrowded mosques.

The nearly 500,000 Syrians in Gaziantep make up more than a fifth of the city’s population. They came to escape the brutal war that erupted in 2011, and have painstakingly rebuilt their lives while grappling with the scars of conflict. For many, it was to be a stop on the way to a new life in Europe. That dream died after Turkey struck a deal with the EU to half the flow of “irregular” migrants into Europe, where governments were alarmed by the number of refugees fleeing Syria’s war.

Instead they stayed, amid rising anti-Syrian sentiment in their new home. Yet for most Syrian refugees, life is better in Turkey than Lebanon or Jordan, two other countries that took in people fleeing the war but which have mostly denied them the right to work or integrate into society.

Nour lost his parents’ home when their building collapsed in central Gaziantep. But dozens of his Turkish neighbours, who had kept vigil for their own missing relatives all week, were by his side when he received the dreaded news that his brother, sister-in-law and six-month old nephew were found under the rubble.

“We share the same excruciating pain,” he said, “we are all brothers in grief.”

Many of the Turks caught up in the quake managed to flee to the safety of family or friends in cities further north. But the majority of Syrians in Turkey — without money, cars or a network to call upon — have nowhere to go.

Abu Alwaleed has since Monday been living out of a small van with more than a dozen family members. He has ventured back to his damaged apartment, but his children are scared. “My son’s terrified of going back indoors. He keeps screaming ‘I don’t want to die’.”

The 35-year-old is trying to find the money to get his family out of the quake zone but he is being quoted $750 to make the 700 mile journey by car to Istanbul — an unimaginable sum for those living hand-to-mouth.

Mona Mahmoud, another of Gaziantep’s Syrians, found temporary shelter with a friend outside the city. “I ran out of my house with just the clothes on my back — I have nothing,” she said. “I’ve no idea where I’m going to go or what I’m going to do,” she added, wiping away tears with the loose end of her grey hijab.

She has not been back to her building in the city, but neighbours have told her that large cracks have appeared at its base. “Even if I could find another place, I couldn’t afford the rent. Everything is so expensive for us here.”

Most of the Syrian refugees would recognise such sentiments. Layal Khleif recounted how she and others were sheltering in a mosque in Akçakale, a border town about 125 miles from Gaziantep, when a group came in and threw them out. “They said the mosque had to prioritise Turks,” she said.

“It’s always the same story: they hate us. They raise our rents, won’t give us residency cards and won’t even let us into their shops.”

The tumultuous events of the past few days have even left her asking whether it was time to pack her bags and return home to Syria.

“If the Turks don’t want me, maybe I’ll just have to go back. My house was bombed out during the war but at least there’s people I know. So my family won’t starve.”

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