Syrian refugees of religious minorities face integration difficulties
Enab Baladi – Khaled al-Jeratli
Ayham, 21, began his search for a job in Istanbul, like thousands of Syrians, but his lack of mastery of the Turkish language prompted him to narrow his search to Syrian shops and workshops only.
Ayham, of Salamiyah city in the eastern countryside of Hama, was confronted with questions of the same significance by some employers, according to what he told Enab Baladi.
“Are you Sunni or Alawite?” Perhaps the interpretation of this question is related to his dialect or his place of birth.
Ayham, who comes from a Sunni family in Salamiyah city, which is famous for being one of the areas that include a group of religious minorities like the Ismaili sect (an offshoot of Shiite Islam), added that cases of him being informed that there was no suitable work for him after the employer knew that he was from Salamiyah, were repeated during different periods of time.
With his repeated attempts to convince many employers that he is from a Sunni family, he said, last year, he found someone to believe his story, as the owner of a large shop in the Esenyurt district of Istanbul was convinced that he was a Sunni, but was shocked when the Shiite employer, originally from al-Hasakah governorate, refused to hire him.
Ayham works today in a clothing factory run by a Syrian, originally from Aleppo city; which is what he wanted to point out that the Syrian community is not all of one color, but there are some cases in which he and others have suffered.
According to sociologist Dr. Talal al-Mustafa, the state of rejection or skepticism is the result of a policy followed by the Syrian regime, which “tried to defend itself in a sectarian manner, dividing society into classes and groups on a religious and sectarian basis,” which appeared after the outbreak of the revolution in 2011.
A large segment of the Syrian refugees, members of religious minorities, who left Syria to escape the Syrian regime, suffer from difficulty in integrating into the Syrian refugee community, in addition to the difficulty of integrating into the Turkish host community, as is the case with Syrians in general, according to individuals interviewed by Enab Baladi.
Sectarianism made by al-Assad regime
Many members of religious minorities residing in Turkey or asylum countries, in general, fear revenge against them, even verbally, on the pretext that they are loyal to the Syrian regime, especially in Turkey, which is full of Sunni opposition supporters, including former opposition fighters and their families, according to what some of them told Enab Baladi.
Hussein, 31, a pseudonym for social and security reasons, originally from the countryside of Latakia, the hometown of Bashar al-Assad, says that this feeling has become an “involuntary defensive stance” when talking to his fellow Syrians abroad, especially since his clear coastal accent exposes him even if he tries to hide it.
Hussein attributed this fear to the stereotyped image that the Syrian regime and its Alawite sect beneficiaries formed of their people, which prompted him to leave Syria in 2012 and head to Turkey.
Although Hussein did not present himself, during his interview with Enab Baladi, as siding with one of the parties to the conflict in Syria or as having a political opinion, he considered that this profiling is based on political, not religious opinion, as this profiling did not exist in Syria previously, despite the sectarian and religious diversity that was and still exists.
However, Hussein’s opinion is not considered a definitive rule in a country where the religious minority controls all its security aspects, and the rest of society’s members and cadres from different sects have been harnessed to establish the rule of a particular family, as is the case with the Alawite sect, according to research studies.
An analysis study by the Omran Center for Strategic Studies, issued in March 2020, indicates that the deepening of the sectarian division in Syria began in the 1970s, against the background of the conflict between the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood movement and the Syrian regime, which reached its climax after 1982.
At that time, former Syrian President Hafez al-Assad’s dependence on his relatives and members of his sect increased, and thus the emergence of the Alawite nature of the regime, as there were no less than 31 officers appointed by al-Assad in top positions in the Syrian army (in the period from 1970 to 1997). About 61.3 percent of the Alawites are in the army command, including eight officers from Hafez al-Assad’s clan and four from his wife’s clan.
The statistical analysis indicates that this policy “is still followed even after five decades where the Alawites control 100 percent of the 40 most important leadership positions in the Syrian army, in addition to Bashar al-Assad retaining the leadership of quality units within the people of the town of Qardaha, al-Assad’s stronghold, or of those who belong to his clan or the clan of his uncles.”
All opponents are “terrorists”
Since 2011, there have been many incidents that showed a kind of intolerance for refugees from certain religious minorities.
The sociologist, al-Mustafa, says that the matter has been noticed in the Syrian opposition institutions, which have repeatedly refused to employ a number of members of the Alawites sect, but the same applies to others who are not minorities.
However, the first responsible for this policy is the Syrian regime, according to al-Mustafa, as it worked to consolidate it in Syrian society, and it was a policy that had a far-reaching impact.
As an example of the Syrian regime’s intentional creation of a sectarian rift within society, the former detainee Hameed al-Abdullah, of Salamiyah city, told Enab Baladi that during his detention in the National Defense center in Salamiyah, he witnessed the torture of young men from the Syrian Sunni majority in front of detainees of other minorities.
The regime’s promotion of the idea that its opponents are terrorists or militants cemented this perception for a large part of the minority.
In sum, many members of religious minorities have come to view the regime’s opponents, who reside in northwestern Syria, or its locals, as members of the Islamic State group and terrorists, according to comments made by regime loyalists, which Enab Baladi monitored on social media during different periods of time.
Religious hostility or misjudgment?
Al-Abdullah was one of those who chanted alongside the famous late revolutionary vocalist Abdel Basset al-Sarout in al-Khalidiya neighborhood in Homs city in one of the major demonstrations that the neighborhood witnessed. He told Enab Baladi that what happened in the demonstration practically negates the hypothesis of religious hostility among the public of the Syrian revolution.
Al-Abdullah recalled his trip to the al-Khalidiya neighborhood, noting that the goal was to stand next to the late activist Fadwa Suleiman and al-Sarout, to show the true image of the Syrian opposition community, which the regime tried hard to distort.
However, the siege imposed by the regime forces on al-Bayada neighborhood, where Fadwa was at the time, prevented her from reaching the demonstration in al-Khalidiya neighborhood on 29 December 2012.
Sociologist Talal al-Mustafa stood at this type of stereotype during his interview with Enab Baladi, as he believes that the position based on the participation of members of minorities in the Syrian revolution is somewhat normal.
Al-Mustafa said it is necessary to take into account that the appearance of minorities in the demonstrations, even in small numbers, is normal because minorities are basically few in number in comparison with the large numbers of demonstrators, who are mostly from the Sunni sect, the mainstay of the country.
The members of minorities who participated in the revolutionary movement in Syria joined it based on their being Syrians, not members of religious or national minorities, al-Mustafa added.
Isolation promoted by community
With the failure of Hussein, originally from Latakia, during his first years in Turkey, to form social relations with his fellow Syrians, as he put it, he tried to engage in Turkish society, which was not interested in having relations with refugees, as he considered that the host society recognizes the presence of refugees in the country, but does not pay attention to the social divisions within the refugee community.
With the repetition of these unsuccessful attempts, Hussein moved to the state of Hatay, in which the Alawites constitute the majority of the population, perhaps where “the hostility of refugees will be less severe,” according to what he said, but the area’s community dealing with him was limited to being a Syrian refugee, not to the basis of the religious relationship that binds its adherents.
Hussein’s view, however, is contradicted by other testimonies, according to which the Alawite community has not been very receptive to Syrian refugees.
A poll published by Al-Quds Al-Arabi newspaper in 2018 showed that the Syrians who live in the Alawite neighborhoods constitute “only 1 percent of the total number of Syrians in Antakya city in the Hatay region.”
The Turkish government’s position does not distinguish between refugees, although there are dangers to refugees from minorities in the event of their deportation, which may amount to liquidation and killing by the Syrian regime or the opposition, as the legal treatment does not differ for everyone regardless of their nationalities and sects.
Turkey has previously deported a Syrian refugee from the city of Salamiyah towards northern Syria, which is controlled by factions classified on international terrorist lists, despite his legal status in the country, without taking into account any security risks that may surround him.
Local news networks and Arab media outlets circulated at the time the news that Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (the de-facto ruler of Idlib region) had arrested Somer Abzo, who is considered one of the “most dangerous regime loyalists in Turkey,” after the Turkish authorities deported him to Syrian territory, as a result of his violation of the Turkish asylum laws.
Although Abzo entered Turkey during the early years of the outbreak of the Syrian revolution, the images of his brother performing compulsory military service in the regime forces made the local authorities consider him as a “thug” for al-Assad.
After a short period of Abzo’s arrest, he was released after several mediations with Tahrir al-Sham, like others, while some were killed because they were members of Syrian religious minorities, such as Mohammed Fattoum, Ali al-Jarf, and others.
In an investigation by Reuters published in 2013 about Syrian minorities in Turkey, Zeynal Odabas, the head of the Pir Sultan Abdal Cemevi hosting the refugees, said Turkey should consider the diversity of Syria’s population and set up separate camps for different groups.
Mustafa Aydoğdu, then Turkey’s Disaster and Emergency Management Directorate (AFAD) ’s spokesperson, said, “We do the best we can within the rules of a state of law,” adding that there were Alawites living in the camps and that there had been no reports of disputes.
The agency does not register refugees by their religious affiliation in the camps, he said.
Traveling outside Turkey
One piece of advice that members of religious minorities received from Syrian refugees in Turkey is why not apply to European consulates or embassies that may grant you asylum, which is not that easy in fact.
Among the embassies that continued to receive e-asylum requests from Syrian refugees was the French embassy, but the criteria that it applies are still unknown to applicants, especially from this category of Syrians.
Many Syrians in Turkey consider that members of religious minorities may receive greater facilities from a European country, as they are more threatened than others.
However, those refugees interviewed by Enab Baladi said the exact opposite, as most of them submitted applications to the French embassy more than once and did not receive any response until the moment of writing this report, despite the passage of years since the submission.
The evaluation of the testimonies of those interviewed by Enab Baladi is not a conclusive judgment, as many Syrians who are not members of minorities have had their asylum requests rejected in France and other EU countries.
The issue remains within the sovereign rights of those countries and their security considerations or their policies in receiving refugees and their numbers.
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