Who bridges the gap between the Turks and Syrian refugees?

Galata market, one of the places where Syrians gather in Istanbul - 6 November 2021 (Enab Baladi-Omran Okasha)

Who bridges the gap between the Turks and Syrian refugees?

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Hussam al-Mahmoud|Zeinab Masri|Jana al-Issa

Social instability is growing among Syrian refugees in Turkey as a result of the successive waves of anti-Syrian sentiment and discriminatory discourses. Forms of xenophobic and racist discourses, which are always under the surface waiting to rise, have been fueled by Turkey’s economic woes and social issues. 

In addition, the media’s hate speech and racist rhetoric towards Syrian refugees have also fanned the flames of racial tension without providing anything that promotes peace and security in the region. 

Since the outbreak of the Syrian uprising in March 2011, roughly four million Syrians have sought refuge in Turkey. This has created a small Syrian society within Turkish society. In other words, the refugees’ tendency to cluster with fellow nationals has resulted in ghetto-like segregation, where Syrians have forged entire communities separate from Turks, limiting mutual interaction. 

In this in-depth article, Enab Baladi interviewed a group of journalists, experts and those working on Syrian refugee issues in Turkey to discuss the factors that created a gap between the Syrian refugees and the Turkish people.

Enab Baladi highlighted the role of the media in escalating racism discourse and discussed methods to reach solutions that would bridge the societal gap between two social components living parallel in one country.

Syrians in Turkey: What causes Syrian isolation?

The widening gap between the Syrian and Turkish communities can be traced to hate speech and racist rhetoric towards Syrian refugees used by some politicians. This speech finds an easy way into the media outlets and social media platforms. The second is the absence of the rule of law represented by the Turkish government, Human rights activist Taha al-Ghazi told Enab Baladi.

The Fatih Mosque in the center of Istanbul - 6 November 2021 (Enab Baladi / Omran Okasha)

The Fatih Mosque in the center of Istanbul – 6 November 2021 (Enab Baladi / Omran Okasha)

Over the previous years, these two reasons created a societal situation that caused the Syrians to be closed off as a refugee community to themselves, which led to their isolation. Syrians face difficulties to adapting to the Turkish culture, in addition to several factors, most notably:

The Language barrier

Al-Ghazi added that Syrian refugees face challenges with the Turkish language. Lack of language skills has alienated the Syrians from the Turks. Several Syrian refugees have not learned the Turkish language yet, because deteriorating living conditions pose an obstacle to learning. Plus, they do not have time since they have to work to make a living and meet their needs.  

Turks do not know much about Syrians and their culture

Activist Taha al-Ghazi pointed out that the Turkish people are not familiar with the culture of Syrian refugees, which contributes to the widening gap between Turkish and Syrian people. The Turkish people know almost nothing about Syrian society and its culture. Besides, some groups of Turkish society deal condescendingly with the Syrians in some aspects of social, health and educational life.

Economic downturn

The existing divide between Turkish and Syrian communities in Turkey cannot be traced to one factor, according to Mehmet Öz, a social researcher at Mardin Artuklu University. However, the economic deterioration and Turkish opposition’s political discourses and their resonance on social media deepen this divide. 

Turks’ reluctance to integrate

Speaking with Enab Baladi, researcher Mehmet Öz said his field studies show that Syrians can easily adapt to Turkish society. However, the Turks do not seem to welcome the idea of integration with Syrian refugees. A large part of them hopes all the Syrians will eventually return to their home country. 

He added that social harmony and integration must be performed by both sides: Turks and Syrians. Integration is not one-dimensional, and there should be a Turkish-Syrian mutual adaptation. Thus, in addition to the steps taken to integrate Syrian refugees in Turkey, the Turks also need to be prepared for this integration. Therefore, different programs must be implemented as early and thoroughly as possible to have a successful integration. 

Turkish people must be aware of the fact that the Syrian refugees are not a major determinant in increasing prices of rent and foodstuffs, according to Öz.

They should also prevent the spread of fake news and stop making false allegations against Syrian refugees. Public awareness campaigns should be conducted about the issue of Syrian refugees’ existence in Turkey and their culture.

Political discourse

Nihal Kayali, a Turkish sociologist at the University of California, Los Angeles in the United States of America, believes that much of the tension between the Turks and the Syrians is driven by the domestic political discourse in Turkey, where the Syrians are used as a political bargaining chip.

 This political situation contradicts the basic importance of the shared humanity and the many similarities between Syrians and Turks, Kayali told Enab Baladi, pointing to the fact that nationalism, which is widely spread in Turkey, is also a problem.

“In many societies, not just Turkey, when the economic situation deteriorates and citizens face difficulties in finding jobs, people start blaming immigrants and refugees,” Kayali said. 

Absence of strategies to integrate Syrian refugees into Turkey 

The general coordinator of Kırkayak Kültür Migration and Cultural Studies Centre in the state of Gaziantep, Kemal Vural Tarlan, believes that one of the reasons behind the gap between the Syrian and Turkish societies is that Turkey does not have a good social integration strategy because the Syrian refugees and the Turkish host society are culturally different.

Temporary-protection status as an obstacle 

Speaking with Enab Baladi, Kemal Tarlan said that the temporary-protection status under which Syrian refugees are in Turkey is one reason that deepens the gap between the two societies.

While the Syrians have been told, for ten years, that they are guests and that their presence in Turkey is temporary, the Turks are told that the Syrians won’t stay for long and they will eventually return to Syria.

This reduces the points of voluntary contact between the two societies (The Turkish people and Syrian refugees do not try to get closer to each other voluntarily). They actually live together but in parallel. Put another way; they do not interact socially. 

Two peoples of different cultures

Tarlan believes that it is wrong to think that Syrians and Turks are culturally close to each other, especially when conducting integration projects.

The Turks and the Syrians are culturally different, speak different languages and have different customs. Even though they have a very long history, they separated about 100 years ago, and serious and deep borders appeared between them, Tarlan believes. 

The two communities do not necessarily need to resemble each other. But, they only need to learn how to live with each other. This is not a clear path for Syrians, who are currently under “temporary protection status,” granted by the Turkish government. This is because it is a temporary status, not a permanent one, according to Tarlan. 

Lack of integration projects 

Tarlan explained that most of the projects carried out by civil society organizations, charities and government institutions in Turkey are futile because of the lack of social interaction strategy and related skills. They do not bring the Syrian and Turkish communities closer together.

In addition, most of the projects directed at Syrians tackle the subjects of “temporary protection” and “humanitarian assistance.”

Besides, in these projects, Syrians are always shown as victims and “poor.” Only a few projects address integration and social harmonization. Nonetheless, most of these projects seemingly are not ineffective. 

Tarlan also pointed out that only some institutions are aware of the significance of programs that are centered on projects of social integration, while the remaining institutions target only Syrians, not Turks. This is “dangerous” because it pulls Syrians back and makes them self-sufficient.

Syrian journalist: The Syrian media is negligent

Turkish journalist: The ball is in the Syrians’ court

The media outlets, which target a specific audience, influence public opinion. Through their content, they promote the audience’s ideas and orientations in various fields or make them aware of facts that they may not realize in light of their lack of knowledge of the various opinions on an issue.

Some Turkish opposition media outlets, triggered by several political factors and issues, are apparently biased; they have been using hate speech and discriminatory discourse against the Syrian refugees for several years. 

Turkish media seem to be biased regarding the issues of Syrian refugees in Turkey. This has contributed to the widening of the gap between the Syrian and Turkish communities in Turkey.

On the other hand, the Syrian media outlets do not make efforts to bridge this gap; they are supposed to highlight the positive contributions and impacts Syrians have on Turkey. This could influence the opinions of some Turks towards them positively. 

A report issued by Hepimiz Göçmeniz, an anti-racism platform towards refugees in Turkey, referred to the “the anti-Syrian sentiment and discriminatory discourse used by some Turkish media outlets.”

The report explained the behaviour of these media outlets; some media outlets intend to write the headline of a particular news article, which includes various topics, on the front page, using these keywords: “The Turkish Ministry of the Interior clarifies the numbers of Syrians in Turkey.”

The report added that the same news article highlights the number of Syrian refugees in Turkey,” to explain in the next paragraph the issue of “terrorism” and at the end, the article provides details about the spread of the coronavirus infection in the country.

 Hepimiz Göçmeniz considered that the content of the previous news article will give a picture of “the most important problems that Turkish society wants to get rid of, especially the Syrian refugees.”

Media coverage is associated with political changes

Turkish writer and journalist Celal Demir said that the gap between the Syrian and Turkish communities on Turkish soil exists for many reasons. First, he said that what the media presents is a “reflection of people’s thinking in reality, as they are the ones who feed the media materials.”

Demir told Enab Baladi that some Turkish media outlets deliberately report numerous anti-refugee news with exaggeration “just to get people’s attention.”

Demir indicated that all Turkish media outlets, whether those loyal to or opposed to the ruling party, have a platform to reach out to their audience. He affirmed the news coverage and programs are based on the ideas of those in charge of them.

Journalist Celal Demir added that the various Turkish or Syrian media outlets do not have the same content, ideas, or audience. He pointed out that these media outlets cannot be neutral, no matter how hard they try, because they are driven by surrounding circumstances and certain policies.”

Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression (SCM) documented the motives that led to the escalation of hate speech by Turks towards Syrian refugees. 

In the 2-Dec 2020 report, the SCM discusses the status of Syrian refugees in Turkey; initially, they were more than welcomed, and now there are calls for Syrian refugees to go home.

The report attributed the change in Turkish policy vis-à-vis the Syrian refugees to the economic troubles and cultural and social differences. Syrian refugees are presented as the major causes of the recent dire economic conditions and lack of job opportunities. This attitude can be seen anywhere in the world towards refugees.

According to a survey done by the Turkish Studies Center at the University of Kadir Has– the percentage of the Turkish rejection of Syrian refugees reached 67 percent in 2019 after it was around 57 percent in 2016. 

“The ball is in the Syrians’ court”

ُEnab Baladi asked Celal Demir a group of questions, which are as follows: Why don’t the Turkish media broadcast media programs, addressed to Turkish people and geared to clarify the real reasons for the presence of Syrian refugees in Turkey?

Why don’t they stop circulating fake news that claims Syrian refugees have been looked after with the taxes Turkish citizens pay? Why do not they talk about the contributions of many Syrian business owners in supporting the Turkish economy? 

The writer and the Turkish journalist said, “The ball is in the Syrians’ court.”

Demir added that this should be one of the priorities of the Syrian media in Turkey, pointing out that his country did not prevent the establishment of Syrian media platforms on its territory.

The Syrian media outlets “must improve the quality of their content to attract the Turks.” It is possible that they could be a point of contact between the Syrians and the Turks, Turkish journalist Celal Demir said.

Demir believes that Turkish-speaking journalists’ presence will help convey a good image of the Syrians to the Turkish people. These journalists should be careful with the topics they choose when addressing the Turkish audience. These topics must attract their interest to know more details, which they may not know if the Syrian media did not shed light on them.

 Syrian journalist Nidal Maalouf emphasized that the Syrian media in Turkey has failed to play an effective role in helping the Syrian refugees integrate with the Turks and directing their discourse to the Turkish people with topics that might promote integration between the two communities.

Maalouf told Enab Baladi that the Syrian media’s failure resulted from the absence of funding as a main factor on the one hand and to the absence of an actual institution due to the absence of the state on the other.

Maalouf explained that the media outlets could play an effective role in solving the problems of the Syrian refugees in Turkey; however, this needs a state that creates professional press institutions and journalists who can write qualitative articles—of course, these articles require significant experience and training. Apparently, the current media institutions lack the above-mentioned essential elements to help ensure a smooth integration. 

Journalist Nidal Maalouf pointed out that the lack of funding is the main factor in the Syrian media’s lack of orientation to Turkish society.

First: Strengthening public awareness

Syrian journalist Nidal Maalouf believes that the central role of the Syrian media is to help the Syrians better integrate with the Turkish people.

Maalouf said that the media outlets should raise Syrian refugees’ awareness of the Turkish community’s regulations and cultural traditions. The media outlets should provide Syrian refugees with more information and details about the basic laws they should follow during their presence in Turkey. If Syrian refugees are well versed in the language and culture of Turkey, this will shield them from troubles and violations. Knowingly one little mistake could impact the whole community. 

Maalouf said the next step the Syrian media outlets should take to ensure the sustainable integration of Syrians in Turkey—” if they have financial and other capabilities,” is to be in contact with Turkish press institutions to produce a discourse in a direction different from what is produced by the media that incite racism.

The discourse that developed for the Turkish people must be produced in accordance with specific priorities that help them accept the presence of Syrian refugees in their community.

In addition, some influential Syrian personalities should show up on the screens of Turkish channels to deliver their speech to the Turkish people in balance.  

Individual initiatives trying to bridge the gap

Many Syrians residing in Turkey, each within their field of competence and position, are trying to clarify the image that might support the idea of integration as a whole.

These Syrians have a sense of responsibility toward their actions and roles, which may change some Turks’xenophobic attitudes targeting Syrians. 

Khaled Abdo, a journalism student at a Turkish university, posts on his official social media accounts many news headlines and political commentaries in Turkish, directed to his Syrian and Turkish followers.

Khaled Abdo told Enab Baladi, “It is very necessary” for Syrian media outlets to undertake collective initiative in order to bridge the gap between the Turks and the Syrians in light of exaggerated articles on Turkish social media feeds that affect the lives of Syrians in Turkey.

Abdo believes that should this kind of initiative aimed at integrating Syrian refugees in Turkey be taken earlier, it would lead to better results. Their influence at present is limited. 

The Syrian media outlets’ collective initiatives need to hire several Turkish journalists who could monitor “wrong” issues circulated by Turkish people and uncover details to reveal the truth hidden between lines. And “it’s kind of easy for a media organization to do that,” Abdo said.  

“Perceptions of Syrian Refugees”

Last June, the Foundation for Social, Economic and Political Research in Turkey conducted a study titled “Perceptions of and Attitudes towards Syrian Refugees in Istanbul,” intending to improve social relations between Turks and Syrians.

In an opinion poll conducted on 2,284 Turkish people residing in Istanbul, the study showed that most define Syrian refugees as an “economic burden.” They also believe that Syrian refugees receive privileged treatment compared to Turkish citizens.

Most respondents also think that “Syrians are not paying taxes, using electricity and water free of charge, and receiving salaries from the state.”

According to the study, Turkish citizens living in Istanbul have “limited social contact” with the refugees. The majority avoid building social relations with them, even though there are many Syrians in the state.  

The study indicated that most of those who refuse to establish social relations with the Syrians are supporters of the Republican People’s Party and the Iyi Party opposing the ruling Justice and Development Party in the country.

Syrians at the Fatih Mosque in Istanbul (Enab Baladi / Omran Okasha)

Syrians at the Fatih Mosque in Istanbul (Enab Baladi / Omran Okasha)

 

How do we bridge the gap between the two communities?

  According to human rights activist Taha al-Ghazi, both Syrian refugees and Turkish people(the host country’s people) are responsible for bridging the gap between their communities.

Al-Ghazi said that the social integration programs launched by the Directorate General of Migration Management are still insufficient because they only target Syrian refugees without addressing Turkish society.

Al-Ghazi asked: “How can Syrians integrate with groups of Turkish society that do not accept their presence in the first place?” holding the Turkish Directorate General of Migration Management and the Ministry of Interior responsible for this divide between the two communities. 

At the same time,al-Ghazi stressed the need to initiate social integration projects targeting the Syrian refugee and Turkish community alike.

Thus, according to activist Taha al-Ghazi, seminars and joint projects are to be conducted at the level of neighborhoods, regions, or states to bring points of view closer between the Turks and Syrians.

Existing actions 

Al-Ghazi works with a group of Syrian activists to bring the Syrian-Turkish viewpoints closer and curb the escalating hate speech against Syrian refugees through a series of meetings with Turkish political figures.

The idea of holding these meetings between Syrian activists and Turkish officials came up two years ago. There was a conference held at Medipol University in Istanbul, to which all Turkish human rights organizations, civil society organizations and a part of Syrian civil society organizations were invited. During the conference, a central committee was formed for a gathering called “Sığınmacılar Hakları Platformu.”

At the end of the conference, on 10 September 2020, the assembled parties came out with a document. This document stressed that the Syrian refugee community should open up through formations, groups and bodies to all spectrums of Turkish society, politically, socially and culturally.

These meetings stopped only during the outbreak of the coronavirus infection, al-Ghazi said.

In October 2021, a meeting took place between a group of Syrian activists and many Turkish human rights defenders and political personalities, most notably the leader of the Turkish opposition and the head of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu. 

Al-Ghazi explained that the Syrian side underlined the imperative of establishing a charter in which all Turkish parties pledge to neutralize Syrian refugees from any internal political conflicts or disputes or not to use them for the purpose of political gains such as consolidating the electorate.   

He believes that these meetings can reduce racism and hate speech, stressing that it is not really healthy for Syrian refugees to “stay in their shells.” Besides, Syrians, granted Turkish citizenship, must have an effective presence and role through their communication with the parties.

Increasing integration projects

Nihal Kayali, a Turkish researcher in sociology at the University of California in the United States of America, thinks it is essential that government institutions and civil society organizations facilitate social integration between Turks and Syrians. But she also notes that, in reality, the majority of people do not take part in these projects and their activities. 

That’s why Kayali believes that integration is most effectively forged in existing institutions that bring Syrians and Turks together, such as schools and workplaces. At these institutions, especially in schools, efforts must be constantly made to promote mutual respect and human dignity.

Teachers, for example, should be trained on how to develop this mutual respect among students. NGOs can help implement such programs, according to Kayali. 

Kayali also hopes that schools can help overcome tensions as younger generations grow together.

Kayali said that there are many similarities between the Turkish and Syrian peoples. However, it is not helpful to think of Turks and Syriansas as two homogeneous or opposing groups.

“It is not useful to categorize Syrian and Turkish people with varied skills, education levels, languages and religious practices into simple cultural groups. We should be able to accept common humanity while recognizing differences.”

Finding effective strategies

The integration of Syrians into Turkish society is a problematic concept, said the general coordinator of Kırkayak Kültür Migration and Cultural Studies Centre in Gaziantep, Kemal Vural Tarlan. This means that small groups integrate into larger societies.

This is the reason for the failure of global integration policies. Apparently, there is a need for a social integration strategy that depends on what the Syrians are going to offer changes, and what the Turkish people are going to change as well, and what both can learn from coexistence, Tarlan said. 

The strategy must also include:

  • Improving the living conditions of Syrians.
  • Granting them work permits.
  • Letting them pursue the future they imagine for themselves.
  • Obtaining the rights available to all people in Turkey.
  • Ensuring rapid access for all children to education. 

Benefit from global experiences

Based on the experience at Kırkayak Kültür Migration and Cultural Studies Centre, Tarlan added that Turkey must learn from the shortcomings of global experiences regarding the issue of bridging the gap between the Syrian refugees and host communities, such as benefiting from the experiences in Germany and Canada that depend on multicultural projects centered on coexistence.

He stressed the need to work on the common points of contact between the two peoples because they live with each other in parallel. Syrian refugees and Turks have reached a point where they do not need each other with the accelerating conditions of life and the spread of advanced technology.

Syrian shopkeepers in Turkey secure job opportunities for 100,000 people (Gaziantep Pusula)

Syrian shopkeepers in Turkey secure job opportunities for 100,000 people (Gaziantep Pusula)

Racist attitudes and racial discrimination threaten unpredicted influence on victims.

The racist-oriented attitudes could be held by someone against another, or be triggered by an individual or a group, due to several factors. These attitudes can be translated into conflicts or public outrage on the ground. 

These explosive incidents could have long been ignored or highlighted by media outlets favoring a specific side.

Judy al-Masri, a student preparing to study at a Turkish university, expressed her deep concerns as a Syrian refugee living in Turkey for several years over the rising wave of racism against refugees.

The 19-year-old woman expressed her fears that the Turkish opposition would use the Syrian refugees for domestic politics in Turkey; some Turkish parties could use Syrian refugees as an instrument for promoting their electoral campaigns.

Judy fears that she will be forced to move to a new country and start from scratch again one day out of the blue. She stressed that she does not carry fear or hatred towards the Turkish people in her heart and mind. In addition, she is trying to create a positive image of the Syrian refugee community, which may not be seen by a large section of the Turkish community. 

Hussam al-Hourani, 30 years, pointed out that some state officials in Turkey are not being cooperative with Syrian clients who got Turkish citizenship. 

Hussam, an employee in a Turkish investment company, stressed that the lack of Turkish language proficiency creates a communication gap between the Syrian clients and Turkish officials. Some Turkish officials do not even respond to the requests of Syrian clients, or they try to hamper their transactions. This situation worsens with the Syrian clients, who are granted Turkish citizenship and do not speak Turkish fluently. Put another way, if you get Turkish nationality and your Turkish language is not very good, this does not mean that you will be protected from racism. 

Hussam pointed out that he feels safe when wandering out in the streets of Turkey, especially since he is committed to Turkish laws and social norms. 

Yet, he is unwilling to interact with Turkish citizens, only if there is an urgent need, for fear of falling victim to racist incidents. 

Hussam said that the Syrian refugees, including those who obtain exceptional Turkish citizenship, fear threatening statements of deportation continuously released by the Turkish opposition because they have no place to go.   

Hussam also pointed to the importance of mastering the host community’s language because this will help combat racism. Learning the host community’s language will help the refugees discuss their ideas and topics in a civilized manner without aggravating racism. However, sometimes ignoring those who utter racist remarks or behave in a racist way can be the best solution to avoid big problems that can be hard to predict or handle. 

Regarding the psychological thoughts and implications that cast a shadow on the lives of victims of racist attitudes, the psychiatrist Amer al-Ghadban, holder of a Ph.D. in educational psychology, distinguishes between two types of behavior. The first type has to do with acceptance, trust, positivity, the absence of everyday Syrian refugees’ contact, and a lack of communication between the two communities.

The second type is reflected in the lack of trust and the emergence of racist behaviors. People are racist when they are nervous, and thus once a person from a different group shows up the general atmosphere changes. 

Al-Ghadban explained, in an interview with Enab Baladi, that the transition from a state of acceptance to non-acceptance or racism sometimes happens at a rapid pace, especially when the media encourages racist behaviors and influences their audience’s opinions on racism and amplify their supremacy against a certain group. 

However, this does not mean that the audience accept all these racist remarks and ideas. Yet, when one of the audience faces difficulties in dealing with a group different from his, he might tend to support racism and demonization of the other. He might make judgments and choices about racism that he is used to rejecting. 

This is what happens with the general public, according to al-Ghadban, who points to the speed of the transition between the two states: Acceptance and non-acceptance, as a result of reactions that may not come from a complete racist trend.

Perhaps the person is not racist, but he is repeating the racist speech he heard. This means that racist actions and speeches may not express real racism. Therefore, it is necessary to take this into account when responding to such acts.

Al-Ghadban stressed that there are many traumatic physiological and psychological impacts of racism and discrimination on people; one of the most important is an emotional upheaval. 

The person caught up in an emotional upheaval might have been treated differently or unfairly because of his race. For example, he might get abused, bullied, or pressured. Upheaval can generate various emotions: isolation, low mood, feeling tearful, anxiety disorders, insecurity, anger, etc.   

Therefore, many families resort to reducing their social relations to protect their members. Additionally, they return to changing the place of work, residence, or their children’s schools. In other words, they choose to isolate themselves instead of integrating with the host community and learning its culture. 

Successful integration, however, depends on the willingness of immigrants and refugees to learn the language of the host country, its nature and culture. 

Al-Ghadban suggests that to bridge the gap between the host community (Turkey)and Syrian refugees, Turkey should successfully absorb refugees and promote this concept in the political and media discourses. Besides, people should be able to express themselves freely and without fear of reprisal.

He also stressed the role and responsibility of dignitaries, traditional leaders, and media institutions to provide necessary efforts to protect society and the existing social situation governed by racial threats that could topple the stability of a region and perhaps an entire country.

It is noteworthy that media outlets can make a fuss out of one adverse event and create a racist atmosphere. But, eliminating the effects of racial discrimination will require greater efforts and more than one discourse.

 

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