Syrian refugees’ journey from Jordan to Germany

This is a translation from French (fisrt published on Lajeh Blog) by Richard Dickinson, INIST-CNRS translator.

Translation published:

This field report is part of a project of doctoral research into the networks and dynamics of Syrian exile to Jordan. This research is based on longitudinal monitoring of an ordinary group of refugees from Deir Mqaren – a village in the Rif Dimashq Governorate – and its aim is to analyze and understand the population’s “diasporization” process. Another of its objectives is to show how cross-border trade circulation initiated by the men of Deir Mqaren during the Ottoman era has influenced the migratory paths taken by all the families of the village since 2011. From the 1990s up to the conflict in Syria, the main source of revenues of the inhabitants of Deir Mqaren came from the sale of foodstuffs (dried fruits, nuts and “traditional” sweet products) that the merchants of the village bought in Damascus to sell on in Lebanon and Jordan. However in 2011, the increase of fighting in Syria considerably perturbed this trade which had been based on fluid, unhindered circulation between Deir Mqaren and the surrounding countries. From the start of 2012 onwards, this situation led a growing number of such traders to move permanently to the towns they had previously only visited to sell their merchandise so that they could work there on a permanent basis. In the following months, the regime’s increasing bombing in the Deir Mqaren area led their wives and children to join them but after a temporary stay in Lebanon and Jordan many families preferred to continue their journey to more distant destinations, particularly Germany.

Thanks to communication tools like Whatsapp and Facebook, I managed to stay in contact with some of the refugees I met during my surveys in Jordan in 2014 and 2015. In July 2016, I went to Dortmund in Germany where a family from Deir Mqaren lives. I had kept in touch with them since our first meeting in Amman two years earlier and used participant observation methods to find out about their new daily lives, particularly their representations and habits in their home area. The main ambition of this article is above all to allow my hosts to express themselves. Their stories published in this article are not supposed to be representative of the situation of all Syrian refugees in Germany. The idea is instead to shed new light on the installation of a population from a rural area in an urban environment – a subject which has been covered little in studies of Syrian refugees until now.

How Syrian exile from the Middle East to Germany is structured

At the start of the summer of 2014, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) estimated that around 3 million Syrians had left their home country to find refuge abroad, mainly in Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and Iraq. During the same period, signs of stalemate in the Syrian conflict were multiplying particularly following the arrival of new players in the situations such as the “Islamic State organization” with their strong media presence. The Syrian regime has continued dropping its barrels of TNT on the civilian population thus increasing the total number of refugees heading for neighbouring States since 2011. Faced with this population influx and their fear of the Jihadi threat, in June 2014 Jordan decided to close and increase surveillance of its border with Syria (Ababsa, 2015). From then on, only a few dozen Syrians a day have been allowed to enter the country. This blocked situation quickly led to the appearance of two camps built for and by the refugees in the no man’s land between the two countries near the border posts of Hadalat and Rukban1 (HRW, 2016).

By autumn 2014, there were 600,000 Syrian refugees on Jordanian territory2 mostly with precarious jobs in the informal economy sector. The government decided to harden its position in response to the discontent of part of the Jordanian population who complained about the increased negative effects they considered the refugees were having on the housing, jobs and services markets. Police checks on Syrians living and/or working in the country without official authorization had been carried out for several months and these were reinforced. This led to more and more refugees being forced to go back to the Zaatari and Azraq camps or, worse, even back to Syria. During the same period and following a significant reduction in aid funding for refugees paid to international organizations by overseas governments, several families lost the aid they had been receiving from the World Food Programme (WFP) in the form of food vouchers. Many Syrians found themselves plunged into a context of difficult living conditions in Jordan (Doraï, 2015) combined with an increasingly dangerous situation in Syria and therefore chose to go into exile again to try to reach destinations offering more favourable future prospects (Rey, 2015).

The rare beneficiaries of reinstallation procedures coordinated by the UNHCR managed to follow official immigration pathways but the overwhelming majority of refugees were forced to pass through “illegal” channels. Thus by the end of 2014 there had been a considerable increase in the number of departures for Europe. Migratory channels from Jordan were added to routes run by networks of “people smugglers” with well practiced methods. Some of the migrants attempt the dangerous Mediterranean from Libya3 and try to get to the Italian coasts before travelling towards Northern Europe. Paradoxically the “Balkans route” is more expensive for migrants than crossing the Mediterranean and also attracts a growing number of migrants trying to get to Europe. Information circulates rapidly within the networks with the telephone numbers of “reliable” people smugglers being exchanged between relations and friends and in just a few months, as demand increased so the price of the journey from Turkey to Greece dropped considerably. Germany quickly became the favoured destination for the overwhelming majority of Syrians attempting to take refuge in Europe and the route through Central Europe was seen as the best way to get there. The relative openness of European borders at the end of the summer of 2015 meant that it only took around ten days for Syrians to get to Western Europe from the Middle East.

In the summer of 2015, several hundred thousand asylum seekers were trying to get across the border into Germany and barely a year later around 600,000 Syrian refugees were said to have been accepted as refugees in the country. But what happened next for these Syrians once they had arrived in Germany? How do they choose where to settle? What are the conditions for their access to jobs and housing? What is it like for them to be so far away from their own culture, families and friends in the Middle East, elsewhere in Germany or in the rest of the world?

Figure 1: Map of the route taken by Yasmin and her children between their home village and their current home in Germany

Figure 1: Map of the route taken by Yasmin and her children between their home village and their current home in Germany

The system to divide refugees up over German territory

Yasmin4, Faysal and their 4 children (three boys and one girl) have been living in Dortmund since February 2016. Yasmin was the first to leave Jordan – at the end of April 2015 – with her two youngest sons and Faatine, one of her closest friends and her neighbour in Deir Mqaren. Faatine, Yasmin and her two sons took a flight to Istanbul where they met Yasmin’s brother who had just arrived from Beirut with one of his friends who was also from Deir Mqaren. Once in Turkey, the group was housed for a night by a person from the village who had been living in Istanbul since 2011 and who had become in charge of putting Syrians hoping to go to Europe with Turkish people smugglers. The closure of European borders had led to them being refused entrance to Germany several times by the Macedonian authorities. They had also had to suffer extortion by the people smugglers who had escorted – and sometimes imprisoned – them on part of the journey. A month and a half after leaving Istanbul, Yasmin and her family entered German territory at the town of Passau where they spent a few days in a “temporary reception centre” before being sent to a “preliminary reception centre for asylum seekers” in the small Bavarian town of Dingolfing.

Yasmin’s husband Faysal, and their two elder children joined the rest of the family in September 2015 after having saved up enough money to pay to cross the Aegean Sea and then travel to Germany. They used the same people smugglers and route as Yasmin but the European borders were slightly more open by then (Heller & Pezzani, 2016) so their journey “only” took seven days. When they arrived in Germany, they first stayed for a fortnight in a “temporary reception centre” in the suburbs of Munich before joining their family in Dingolfing where several friends and family members from Deir Mqaren had settled after leaving Syria, Jordan and Lebanon using the same people smugglers and route.

According to Fouad Hamdan who was in charge of “citizens’ participation” at the central coordination unit for refugees in Hamburg, when refugees arrive at Germany’s borders they are systematically directed to “temporary reception centres for asylum seekers”. Today, the system works fairly well but in 2015, particularly between August and December when the country was faced with a particularly large influx of migrants, a Hamburg town hall civil servant admitted that things had often be improvised and rushed. However, according to the legal procedure, refugees were to spend around 5 days in these centres which were often made up of canvas tents like the refugee camps run by the UNHCR in Southern hemisphere country. Refugees are first given a medical check-up. If they are in good enough health they are sent to an information point where details of the procedure they need to follow are given to them. This stage enables German civil servants to record a first account of the refugees’ stories including their reasons for leaving their countries. They are then given a ticket with a number before other team members take their fingerprints and photo. Next they receive a certificate that they have been registered along with a card with a chip containing their personal information and the place they are to be subsequently housed. After this they are sent to a “preliminary reception centre” – like the one in Dingolfing – where they are looked after and given three meals a day. Refugees stay in such centres for a period of 3 to 6 months until the results of their asylum application come through. A residence permit for 2 or 3 years is systematically given to Syrians seeking asylum in Germany. However, according to Mr. Hamdan5, in reality when refugees get a 2 or 3 year residence permit, this is valid for 5 years because if they request an extra 2 years the permit is automatically renewed as long as they have “behaved well since arriving “. Fouad Hamdan also explained that: “The first period of 3 years corresponds to a training phase aimed at helping refugees to fully integrate into German society. So during these first three years, the refugees learn the language and receive training to learn a profession or attain German standards in professions they worked in at home (…) After three years, they (refugees who have done all the necessary training) will be ready to work quasi-autonomously. Thus the two extra years given to refugees are seen as a minimum return on the investment for German companies and the State. At the end of these five years, the State will take stock of each refugee’s will to be integrated. Let’s stay with the case of Syrians. If after 5 years they are still unable to speak German, if their work is not deemed profitable for society and if the war in Syria is over then they will be told to pack their bags and go home while wishing them good luck for the future!”.
After having obtained their 3-year residence permit, refugees are directed to accommodation where they will generally stay for the next five years. From then on, they no longer have much of a say on where they are to live and only nuclear families – along with certain dependent people – are ever put in the same accommodation or even the same town. For example, it was out of the question for people from Deir Mqaren to all be together in Germany as a whole on community criteria. The first place they live on a long-term basis is determined by the “Königsteiner Schlüssel 6, a complex distribution system created in 1949 whose aim is to fairly calculate how refugees are spread out over the whole territory. This was therefore the “key” factor which determined the rest of Faysal’s family’s move to Germany. At the end of February 2016, Caritas – the organization in charge of helping refugees find housing if they so request – informed them that a house was available near Dortmund in the Eving neighbourhood. A few days later, having packed their bags and said goodbye to their friends who were staying in Dingolfing, they left for Dortmund on a high-speed train …

Finding a place in a new society, a long and difficult process

– getting a new home ready

When they arrived in their new accommodation, Faysal and Yasmin decided to renovate it. To do this, they asked for help from Faysal’s former business partners who were still in Jordan7 who lent them part of the 5,000 euros required to renovate and furnish their new accommodation. Although the house was relatively dilapidated, the couple were delighted at how big it was. It was in a small building made up of several apartments some of which had been divided into three-story terraced houses.

Figure 2: The buildings and neighbourhood street Containing Faysal's family house in Eving (Dortmund, Germany).

Figure 2: The buildings and neighbourhood street
Containing Faysal’s family house in Eving (Dortmund, Germany).

Each of these houses has three large bedrooms, a kitchen, a bathroom on each floor, a basement cellar and a little 50-square-metre back garden. The neighbourhood is made up of around ten such buildings with worn walls. Most are inhabited by Eastern European migrants and Kurdish or Iraqi refugees. Indeed, Faysal did not particularly like this situation of social segregation which he found a real handicap to his integration into German society. One of his main concerns was learning the language. “It’s very difficult to discover a new country and learn a new language when you’re 40 with four children! It’s easier for children because they’re young and learn really quickly at school. But for us, it’s different. We have to learn everything all over again – a new way of life and language – and staying here not working surrounded by people who don’t speak German isn’t going to help me improve my situation. (…) Some of our Iraqi neighbours came to Germany nearly 20 years ago and still can’t speak more than about 10 words in German which often prevents them finding work.”

Figure 3: Faysal and Yasmin's youngest son in the family garden in Eving.

Figure 3: Faysal and Yasmin’s youngest son in the family garden in Eving.

– Daily shopping

Faysal’s daily movements seem strongly influenced by not speaking much German. He systematically goes to the same places, particularly in the Nordmarkt area which is halfway between Eving and Dortmund town centre. The family never goes to this area and Faysal says he has nothing much to do there. The day after my arrival, Faysal and I went to the market in what he calls the Arab quarter, namely Nordmarkt. He goes there regularly to buy things because he can find all the right products to make Syrian meals. It is a “working class neighbourhood” with a large Arab migrant population (mainly from the Maghreb and Lebanon) living alongside Polish, Portuguese, Turkish and Romani immigrants. There is an outdoor market every Tuesday morning on a big square in the neighbourhood.

Figure 4: Nordmarkt market (Dortmund, Germany).

Figure 4: Nordmarkt market (Dortmund,  Germany).

Most of the stall holders speak Turkish or German with a few words in Arabic which means Faysal can speak with them more easily. When we got to the market, the stall holders were all shutting up shop and Faysal couldn’t find the stall where he usually shopped. He told me that usually he bought from stall holders who he could speak with in his native language to negotiate prices and find out where the products come from. On other days of the week, he does most of his shopping in a Turkish supermarket which is also in the Nordmarkt area. Although he prefers shopping at the market where it is generally cheaper, in this shop he regularly buys damaged fruit and vegetables which he negotiates a price for along with Syrian-Lebanese groceries which he cannot find in other supermarkets (tins of hummus, Ful medames (Fava beans), dried pumpkin seeds, pomegranate molasse, etc.). This means that he hardly ever goes to German shops apart from when he needs building materials and D.I.Y. tools. If that is the case, his 14-year-old son who already speaks good German accompanies him to shops in the retail area between Eving and Nordmarkt to interpret.

– Getting a job

One specific feature of the national system for job access for refugees is that it is directly linked to their ability to speak German. In the context of this, the “job centre” (Bundesagentur für Arbeit) which Faysal spoke to me so often about during my stay was a key place in the refugees’ “integration” process because they found information about job offers or German language training centres there. Also this organization managed the payment of any benefits they were entitled to.

Figure 5: The Job Centre in Dortmund where Faysal went several times a week, hoping to find a well-paid job.

Figure 5: The Job Centre in Dortmund where Faysal went several times a week, hoping to find a well-paid job.

The German State pays the rent and other charges (except electricity which refugees have to pay themselves) including local public transport costs. Also a monthly allowance of 400€ per adult and around 200 euros per child8 is paid to cover the rest of their spending (food, electricity, any travel outside the city, etc.). In fact, these benefits are exactly the same as those paid to an unemployed German national who does not have the right to unemployment benefit. Refugees who have recently arrived have the right to work9 but getting a job depends directly on their level of German with those who do not speak good enough German only getting access to work which is so low paid that it less than the benefits they qualify for. Also when refugees are paid a salary, their benefits are cut to the equivalent of the remuneration paid by their employers to the “job centre”. This procedure is therefore highly frustrating for them. Fouad Hamdan, the Hamburg civil servant mentioned earlier, states that refugees “generally find if very hard to understand how the system works. They have been repeatedly told that they can only get an interesting job if they speak German well enough but they find it really hard to accept. (…) You can only get a job if you can speak German. Of course they would like to do a job which doesn’t require qualifications and nothing is stopping them except that these jobs are badly paid and the State will take the equivalent of their monthly benefits back off their salaries. But again most of them won’t accept this and don’t see the need to work if the State is going to take part of their wages to pay for things they have a right to without working”. To come back to Faysal’s case, although he goes to the “job centre” several times a week hoping to find work, as long as he can’t speak German, he has very little chance of finding a job which will earn him more than he gets in benefits from the German government. This is a situation which he finds very hard to accept. Faysal says: “I worked for two weeks on a building site since I came to Germany. It was really difficult and tiring. I worked over 8 hours a day and at the end of the month, the job centre took the equivalent of my wages to pay the rent on the house. So it looks like people work for free in Europe, is that right? (…) I realize that in Europe, you have to pay takes all the time and you end up with nothing left at the end of the month. Now I live in Germany, I realize that life really was for free (“balash”) in Syria”.

– Future prospects …

Despite the family’s daily difficulties in Germany, Faysal and Yasmin remain extremely grateful to German society for the welcome they have received since they arrived. They are particularly appreciative of the attention and respect shown them by local civil servants. Faysal: “When I go to the job centre, the people who work there are always very responsive to my requests, there are always employees who speak Arabic and everyone is always very courteous with me. It’s the same with the women who teach the children German – they’re lovely and always smiling! When I arrived in Munich with the children, the Germans took us in their arms to welcome us. Even the police respects us here! They are there to ensure our safety not to cause us problems which is totally the opposite to the situation in Syria or Jordan. When we were trying to escape from a war, the Jordanians didn’t even want to let us in and when they did they welcomed us by hitting us with sticks! So even if life is difficult for us here, at least we have rights we didn’t have at home”.

When asked whether they would like to go back to Deir Mqaren if the situation got better in Syria, Faysal and Yasmin both said that this would require Bachar Al Assad and his clan to be no longer in power. Faysal: “The situation in the village has become about normal again now but we still don’t want to go back. Before I can go back to Deir Mqaren, Bachar needs to go and we need another government in power. Because if the war stops but there’s still the same regime, we still wouldn’t be safe in Syria and there would be nothing to stop me having problems or being arrested when I arrive back in the country. But the thing I want the most now is to be able to go back to the village. You for example, although you travel a lot and you spend time in Jordan, your country is France. How much time would you accept to live abroad without seeing your country? 6 months? One, two, maybe three years? And then what? Even if you end up finding your place in another country, nowhere can ever replace where you come from!”.

Field report, July 2016

David Lagarde

Featured image: The Flower Salesman – Dortmund Germany by Magicman678 under Creative Commons BY license.

This is a translation from French by Richard Dickinson, INIST-CNRS translator.

Cite this article: « Syrian refugees’ journey from Jordan to Germany », by David Lagarde in Anthology.

  1. Currently, over 70,000 Syrians are blocked at the north-east border of Jordan. Human Rights Watch regularly denounces the Jordanian authorities’ refusal to allow NGOs to provide humanitarian aid to this population who are kept in inhuman and degrading living conditions because Jordan refuses them access to its territory. []
  2. This is the number of Syrian refugees registered by the UNHCR. []
  3. Until January 2015, Algeria did not demand visas for Syrian nationals. This meant they could land at Algiers airport where the people smugglers met them to take them to Libya, the departure point for the crossing to the Italian coast after a short transit via Tunisia. []
  4. All the first names of Syrians mentioned in the text have been changed. []
  5. This interview was carried out entirely in French. The words used in this transcription have therefore been translated from French to English, unlike the extracts from interviews with Yasmin and Faysal. []
  6. Literally “the Königstein key” For more information on how this system works please consult the article in Le Monde from September 2015 entitled “En Allemagne, la clé de Königstein permet de repartir les refugiés”. []
  7. Faysal used to work in the import-export sector between Jordan and Syria before the conflict began. His main activity was supplying nuts, dried fruits and sweet products to Jordanian wholesalers. Part of the travelling salesmen from Deir Mqaren used to regularly go to Jordan to sell these types of products in the country’s different Governorate. He also used to export other types of merchandise to Jordan, particularly textiles. []
  8. This amount varies slightly according to the age of the children. []
  9. To be exact, asylum seekers can only work after waiting three months following their arrival in the country (Bundesagentur für Arbeit). []

Islamic NGOs assistance to Syrian refugees in Jordan and Gulf donors support

Dr. Myriam Ababsa

Geographer, consultant

Institut français du Proche-Orient.

This text was prepared for IDRC LCPS workshop “Launching a Homegrown Development Agenda to address the Syrian Refugee Crisis”, Beirut, 4th and 5th May 2016. Lebanese Center for Policy Studies.

The Syrian crisis has been a turning point in the history of humanitarian enterprise in terms of the increasing role assumed by Arab donors. Not only did Arab funding increase considerably, but the Gulf States have taken a leading role in organising fundraising events for the response. This assistance is not easy to estimate, as Gulf donors are active through their own state organizations, but also non-governmental organizations and royal non-profit organizations. In 2013, Gulf donor and Gulf NGO contributions to the Syrian crisis totalled US$ 910.3 million. A third of this amount was distributed in Jordan, US$ 166.9 million, by Gulf States and US$ 139.8 million by Gulf Humanitarian Organisations (UNHCR 2015, Gulf Report).

Humanitarian assistance is part of a donor foreign policy and should be studied in the wider frame of geopolitical considerations concerning the Syrian crisis (Binder, Meier, Steers 2010). Jordan is opened to Gulf donors, as they are guarantors of its political stability. In May 2011, King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz of Saudi Arabia invited Jordan and Morocco to join the Gulf Cooperation Council. The following month, he gave US$ 400 million of financial assistance to the Government of Jordan (GoJ). In the context of the Arab spring, Saudi Arabia gave a US$ 1 billion grant to help the GoJ to cope with its financial needs in July 2011.

Gulf organizations provide major financial support to Islamic charities. In 2013, they have provided US$ 139.8 million in humanitarian assistance to Syrian refugees in Jordan. This assistance was implemented in coordination with 80 local branches of well-established Islamic charities (60 belonging to the Islamic Charity Centre and 20 to Al Kitab wa Al Sunna). The royal NGOs (Jordan Hashemite Charity Organisation (JHCO), Jordan River Foundation (JRF), Jordan Hashemite Fund for Human Development (JOHUD) and Noor Hussein Foundation (NHF)) were responsible for channelling only 10 % of Gulf assistance. On a local level, Gulf assistance is visible and felt by the population, both Jordanian and Syrian refugees. Jordanian citizens have expressed their generosity by sheltering and feeding the refugees, and by giving religious alms (zakat), collected at the level of the mosques and by Islamic NGOs. Gulf donors assistance is highly visible in the two camps of Zaatari and Azraq, with hundred of caravans labelled in the name of each donor, and even more in the Emirati Red Crescent camp of Mrajeeb Al Fhood, opened in April 2013 East of Zarqa. But with the multiplicity of donors and their major absence of UN coordination procedures, it is not easy to have a clear picture of the magnitude of their assistance.

The question of Islamic charities in Jordan has been studied by several scholars, among whom Jeanine Clark (2004), Egbert Harmsen (2008), Sarah Hasselbarth (2014). They have shown the difficulty to draw a line between humanitarian and charitable activities, and how Islamic charities are reluctant to include humanitarian concepts viewed as western, in regard with Islamic principles used over centuries. Western donors and UN agencies are keen to coordinate their assistance with these very active NGOs. But they are concerned by the way they determine the beneficiaries, including categories such as martyrs families, combatants’ families and orphans defined under 15 years old. Another sensitive issue deals with the religious classes offered by those charities, with salafi content.

  1. The increasing role of Gulf State and NGOs humanitarian assistance

Humanitarianism is no longer a “Western dominated enterprise” (Holmes 2007). Arab donors are increasingly active, not only in the Middle East and greater Asia, but all around the world. Since the 1960s Gulf donor assistance has developed official development assistance programs, facilitated by the oil boom and rising incomes. Humanitarian activities were first organized through the Red Crescent societies, and after 1963 by the Saudi Red Crescent.

Humanitarian activities increased significantly after 11 September 2001 when Gulf donors were invited to become actors in the global fight against terrorism. H.H Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum (Vice-President, Prime Minister of United Arab Emirates, and Ruler of Dubai) established the first International Humanitarian City and has organized regular Dubai International Humanitarian and Development (DIHAD) conferences since 2004. The Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC), second only to the United Nations in size as an inter-governmental organization, created its own humanitarian affairs department in 2008. The OIC is the only Arab based organisation to have registered to the Good Humanitarian Donorship initiative (GHD) set up in 2003 in Stockholm. GHD is a forum set to discuss and agree on best practices and principles for giving aid.

Due to the fact that Arab states prefer to develop bilateral relations, neither the Gulf Cooperation Council nor the Arab League has its own humanitarian agency. These organizations intentionally avoid joining multilateral institutions such as OECD DAC in the hope of exercising authority over their assistance policies as well as receiving maximum visibility via bilateral support (Al-Yahya, Fustier 2011). As host of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, Saudi Arabia played a prominent role in humanitarian assistance in the Middle East until 2013. In 2008, it gave a record contribution of US$ 500 million to the World Food Programme, partly in order to solve the food crisis in Syria.

Most of Gulf countries humanitarian assistance is going to Islamic states (Syrian, Jordan, Lebanon, Occupied Palestinian Territories, Yemen, Bangladesh). In 2008, the Government of the UAE established the Office for the Coordination of Foreign Aid (OCFA) by Cabinet Decree, in order to build capacity within the UAE aid sector. The United Arab Emirates is very active through the Emirati Red Crescent Society. It is supporting Arab and Islamic countries, but also Asian country as migrants from Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Indonesia and Philippines form 85 % of its population.

With a total amount of US$ 11 billion pledged for 2016-2017, the February 2016 Supporting Syria and the Region Conference was the largest in the history of the United Nations. The former record was hit by the January 2014 Appeal during the Kuwait II conference with US$ 2.4 billion. By May 2014, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates fulfilled their pledges of US$ 300 million and US$ 60 million respectively (plus US$ 11.6 million outside the appeal), Qatar gave US$ 11.2 million and Saudi Arabia 17.9 million. Aside from this multilateral assistance, bilateral programmes are also being conducted for development and humanitarian purposes in Syrian-refugee host countries (Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt), which are not included in the pledges made.

Saudi Arabia and Kuwait are alternatively according the years, the major Gulf donor for humanitarian activities. Since the beginning of the Syrian crisis, each has given historic contribution to the UN agencies. The State of Kuwait hosted two international pledging conferences in 2013 and 2014. It gave US$ 325,057,835 in 2013 to SHARP and RRP programs. In 2014 and in 2015, Kuwait has pledge US$ 500 m. Saudi Arabia gave more than US$ 780 m to UN agencies since 2011, including $100 million during the 4th International Conference of Donors, held in London, on Feb. 2016, not counting the assistance given by its state owned organisations and NGOs.

The OCHA Financial Tracking Service monitors pledges and donations to the international UN and humanitarian agencies. According to OCHA, US$ 831.9 million were given by four Gulf States (Kuwait US$ 393 m, Saudi Arabia US$ 88,7 m, United Arab Emirates US$ 17.3, Qatar US$ 22.5 m) in 2015. Kuwait has largely contributed with 400 million in 2015. Saudi Arabia was active through the Saudi National Campaign for Supporting Brothers in Syria. Qatar is extremely active too through bilateral donations, through the State owned Qatar Charity, and also through the Sheikh Thani Bin Abdullah Foundation for Humanitarian Services (RAF), a salafi charity. The United Arab Emirates pledged 100 million, but gave 22,5 million in a bilateral manner, 36,6 million through the United Arab Emirates Red Crescent Society, and also through NGOs such as Human Appeal International (HAI), with 9,2 million. This is without counting the assistance given to Jordanian Islamic NGOs, only partly reported.

Gulf donors conduct regular coordination meetings with Jordanian implementing NGOs. However the UN and international NGOs know little about these organizations. Only a few UN organizations, such as UNICEF, World Food Programme (WFP) and World Health Organisation (WHO) have experience with local Arab NGOs. Since the first Syria drought crisis in 2008, several coordination mechanisms have been established between the UN and Arab donors. In September 2012, the Arab Humanitarian Portal (ArabHum) was launched during the third annual Conference of Effective Partnership and Information Sharing for Better Humanitarian Action organized by OCHA and the International Islamic Charitable Organization (IICO). In January 2014, Jordan hosted the first humanitarian action conference in the Arab region, organized by The Humanitarian Forum (THF), the Humanitarian Policy Group (HPG) at the Overseas Development Institute, UN OCHA, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and the Jordan Hashemite Charity Organization (JHCO). UNHCR has organized two coordination workshops for Gulf donors and Jordanian NGOs on 17th April 2014 and in May 2014 at the regional level. Arab donors have been invited to the 4th Humanitarian Conference to be held in May 2016 in Istanbul, and all the material is already available in Arabic and English.

As well as state- and NGO-humanitarian assistance, private Gulf donors are active in Jordan. Thousands of Syrians are living in the Gulf, the majority of whom reside in Saudi Arabia. They form an active lobby on behalf of Syrians and Syrian refugees in all the Middle East. They advocate the practice of Islamic charity (zaqat), and more specifically sadaqa (generosity). However their activities are difficult to monitor. The governments of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia are trying to promote the generosity of their citizens through telethons, and are even asking them to stop supporting some local NGOs that might have non-humanitarian agendas.

  1. Islamic assistance on the ground: the role of Jordanian Islamic NGOs

The first assistance provided to Syrian refugees in 2011 and 2012 was channelled through the local Islamic charities present in every village. This assistance was provided through the zaqat committees controlled by the mosques (Hasselbarth 2014, p. 8). Zakat committees are genuine community-based organisations, able to identify and distribute assistance to the most needy, Syrians but also Jordanians. Islam requires Muslims to give 2.5% of their wealth and assets to low-income families each year for zakat (mandatory alms). Muslims can give more than the mandatory 2.5% on a voluntary basis as sadaqa (charity). This money is to be given to either low-income families, orphans or to fund the construction of mosques, waqf (religious endowment). The popular perception of zakat is that it requires one to give to low-income families in the form of direct assistance, not in micro loans.

According to the Home Visit report (UNHCR 2014), 52% of Syrian refugee income comes from humanitarian assistance and charitable donations; 27% from work; 13% from family and friends; and 8% from remittances.

Jordan counts four major Islamic NGOs: the Islamic Center Charity Society (al markaz al islami, al-Kitab wa al Sunna, Takaful and al-Ruhama Beinahum. The two first were operative since several decades in Jordan, contrary to the two last that were created starting from the Syrian crisis. They have all considerably expanded their activities, thanks to the Gulf funding they have received.

The Islamic Centre Charity Society was founded in 1963 in Palestine and is the charity branch of the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan. It was active throughout the country until April 2015, managing a network of fifty schools, two major hospitals (Islamic Hospital in Amman and in Aqaba) and 20 medical centres (one in each Palestinian camp and in all the major cities). It states that it has 1 billion JD of assets in the country, and their workforce consists of 5,000 volunteers. Since April 2015, the centre is facing major challenges as the Government has decided to split the Muslim Brotherhood.

In 2011, the budget of the Islamic Centre was 60 million JD, of which 25 million JD was allocated to social action, a considerable amount when compared to the 80 million JD budget of the Ministry of Social Development. In 2012, the Islamic Centre provided support to 29,730 Syrian refugee families, including cash assistance programmes valuing US$ 15.9 million. In 2013, they doubled their number of beneficiaries to 72, 557 families, focusing in particular on cash assistance. In addition to this, from 2012 to 2013 they carried out important health activities and successfully treated 2,522 injured Syrian refugees in their two hospitals.

The Islamic Centre has announced a US$ 20 million programme for Syrian refugees for 2014. They will receive financial support from the Saudi National Campaign and from the International Islamic Charitable Society (IICO), based in Kuwait.

Al Kitab wa Al Sunna is the most active Islamic NGO in Jordan with regard to the provision of assistance to Syrian refugees. They state that they have a budget of US$ 50 million in order to support Syrian refugees over two years. Their implementing agency is Nida al Kheir (the Call for Good). Founded in 1992, Al Kitab wa Al Sunna is registered with the Ministry of Social Development. Al Kitab wa Al Sunna provides support only to UNHCR registered refugees. In 2013, their database included 350,000 Syrian refugees, comprising 45,817 families. A third were registered in Amman, near their headquarters (Hay Nazal); a third in the Irbid governorate (21% in Irbid and 13% in Ramtha); 13% in Mafraq; 6% in Zarqa; and 5% in Jerash). Since the beginning of the Syrian crisis, it has expanded considerably, on account of the assistance it has received from Saudi Arabia (37%) and Qatar (37%)[1].

Founded in Ramtha in 2010 by a group of conservative Islamists, Takaful is an active NGO located on the Syrian border. In 2013, its budget was JD 4.7 million (US$ 7 million) and it provided cash assistance to 5,000 Syrian families, most of whom are from Dara’a. Takaful prides itself in being the most transparent Islamic NGO on account of its communication both in Arabic and English, with a bilingual website. It receives funding from two major Kuwaiti NGOs: International Islamic Charitable Society (IICO) and Islah Social Society.

Al Ruhama Beinahum is a Jordanian NGO receiving support from Saudi Arabia. It claims to give cash assistance to 15 000 Syrian families in Jordan.

Gulf donors prefer to provide assistance by donating tangible items that include their own branding, such as caravans, clothes and other NFIs, rather than cash, despite cash being the assistance in most demand by both refugees and other international organisations.

The main sector of assistance provided by Gulf donors and Jordanian NGOs is shelter, followed by food assistance, health services, cash, education, NFIs and orphan care. Shelter includes the distribution of caravans as well as the establishment of the Emirati Camp. Food assistance has been a complicated issue, as many Gulf donors have wanted to provide food to the refugees for religious reasons and to empty their national food stocks. However food items are required to meet international standards, (such as only canned (no raw) meat), and some food supplies have ended up being blocked in warehouses.

Gulf donors and local NGOs are able to fill the gap in the procedural UN structure because of their flexibility and ability to reach underserved urban and rural areas. But some concerns emerged regarding their charitable activities.

  1. Toward a new humanitarianism?

Islamic humanitarianism questions the universality of the humanitarian principles of neutrality, humanity, impartiality and independence, but also basic human rights definitions. This is the case for women’s empowerment for instance (that should not be considered as “removing the hijab, destroying the family institution and throwing religion out of the window”, as an Arab aid worker put it (Irin 2011). Children’s rights are also challenged by early marriage and the definition of orphans. And assistance is given to combatants’ families and « martyrs » families, of specific political background (those fighting against the Syrian regime for instance).

In Jordan, women’s rights and children rights organisation managed to give a soft interpretation to the Shari’a in its application to family and personal law (Ottoman code 1859 (Al Mejelle). But while receiving Gulf funding, these charities might apply a more conservative interpretation of the Sharia. According to Shari’a law, an orphaned child is considered an orphan until he reaches 14 years of age. Most of Islamic NGOs consider a child who lost his father as an orphan, even though he still has his mother. Al Kitab wa Al Sunna applies this definition, but also has further educational programmes for adolescents who have lost one or both of their parents and are unable to afford education. In total, 1,500 orphans benefit from this programme. When the kids turn 15, boys are directed to technical schools and are pushed to the job market, while young girls have to be married in the coming years. Several buildings are rented to host families of widows with orphans.

These Islamic NGOs have develop their own database, criteria and humanitarian definitions, that are not always compatible with international humanitarian ones, especially for the orphans (children under 15 years old) and the martyrs families. Some are paying the refugees to attend Islamic classes with conservative, salafi content. Each Islamic NGO has its one vulnerability criteria, and each monitors its own database. Among those criteria, to be the widow or children of a “martyr” (shahid, shuhada), is major. Basically a martyr is any Syrian dead fighting against Assad regime. Of course, this is not clearly stated. Most of agency are asking for a death certificate, with 34% of household headed by single women, they want to be sure about the status of the women.

Each NGO created a database, using UNHCR asylum seeker card number for the Syrians registered, and copies of Syrian ID’s for those who did not register. The Islamic Centre Charity Society ICCS claims having a database of 72,557 Syrian refugee families. Al Kitab wa Al Sunna provides support only to UNHCR registered refugees. In 2013, their database included 45,817 Syrian refugees families, or 350,000 refugees (UNHCR Gulf Report 2015).

The confidentiality of these databases is not always protected and some private donors can have access to personal data, such as name of young girls and phone numbers. This is a real protection issue, some private donors asking to rescue Syrian girls by marrying them. Some of these wedding are only for a short period of time and refugees and their children have to reintegrate UNHCR beneficiaries databases.

Al Kitab wa Al Sunna has created a service card system with ICCS and Takaful in order to help them coordinate assistance and ensure that there is no duplication in this assistance in the city of Ramtha. This system is integrated into a computer database administrated by Al Kitab wa Al Sunna. But in practice, they do not coordinate properly in the rest of the country, and assistance is most of the time duplicated.

These Islamic NGOs are conducting proselyte activities in the form of Quran classes for children and women. In order to attract refugees to attend this class, cash payment is provided. Al Kitab wa Al Sunna offers some cultural activities, such as Qur’anic educational classes, a form of proselytism, especially for the former rural Syrian refugees. In order to ensure that there is high attendance, they pay the refugees up to 200 JD per week class. This is a major issue, as those classes are not simple islamic classes, but follow a salafi curriculum (Hasselbarth 2014). As underlined by Hasselbarth, Kitab wa Sunna and Islamic Center Charity hire their personnel independently from the Ministry of Waqf and manage to organize their own teaching activities without proper content control.


Al-Yahya Khalid, Fustier Nathalie, 2011, “Saudi Arabia as a Humanitarian Donor: High Potential, Little Institutionalization”, Global Public Policy Institute Research Paper Series No. 14, Berlin, 35 p.

Binder Andrea, Meier Claudia, Steets Julia, 2010, “Humanitarian Assitance: Truly Universal? A mapping study of non-Western donors”, Global Public Policy Institute Research Paper Series No. 12, Berlin, 40 p.

Cotterrell Lin, Harmer Adele, 2005, “Diversity in donorship: the changing landscape of official humanitarian aid. Aid donorship in the Gulf States”, Humanitarian Policy Group Background Paper, Overseas Development Institute, London, 40 p.

Hasselbarth, Sarah, 2014, “Islamic Charities in the Syrian Context in Jordan and Lebanon”, Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, 44 p.

Holmes, John, 2007, “Humanitarian action: a Western-dominated enterprise in need of change”, Forced Migration Review, Issue 29, December 2007, 2 p.

UNHCR, 2015, Gulf donors and NGOs Assistance to Syrian Refugees in Jordan, prepared by M. Ababsa and M. Muhsen,

The Locals, the Syrians and the 15 July Coup Attempt in Gaziantep

By H. Pınar Şenoğuz

Article re-published with the permission of HarekAct blog


The photos are courtesy of the author and cannot not be reproduced without permission

photo-1-billboard-woman_s%cc%a7enog%cc%86uzPhoto 1 – Syrian woman in front of a billboard reading “We are the nation! We shall not allow the wasting of Turkey by the coup and terror”

Turkish politics is full of surprises with intriguing conclusions – or perhaps we cannot talk about endings yet – and diverse social impact among its adherents. The 15 July coup attempt and the ‘resistance of Turkish people’ hailed by the national media, for instance, was such an extraordinary event as the anthropologist Lisa Malkki would coin (Malkki, 1997). Malkki directed our attention to the singular, exceptional and extraordinary events which could be formative instances in the lives of refugees. For her, turning his/her anthropological gaze away from the routine, the everyday and the ordinary is essential to capture the atypical and transitory circumstances. I believe the coup attempt was one of such conjunctures that produced ‘unexpected but consequential groupings’ (Malkki, 1997: 93) among the resident populations in Turkey. Here, I do not only refer to the Turkish nationals but also to the Syrian population overcrowding in the urban slums and even outnumbering the nationals in some border towns.

Naturally, the demonstrations in Gaziantep were concerted efforts of the political party in power, the AKP, just like the other cities. The coup attempt took place on the night of the 15 July with military troupes and tanks appearing in the streets and low flying planes, notably with the most iconic image of the blocked Bosphorus Bridge. The live Facetime speech of President Erdoğan calling the Turkish people to the squares to stop the coup attempt triggered ordinary citizens to get out of their homes and go on the streets. In Gaziantep, the event caused the occupation of the major urban square – true to its name, the Square of Democracy – during the nights to watch over the democracy as elsewhere in the country. Flocks gathered in the meeting points in order to march to their destinations by chanting nationalist slogans and shouting “Allah is great”. The public transportation was rendered for free for the initial days and was then used to transport cheerful citizens in the evenings to the square from the neighbourhoods and back, prompting more people to join the demonstrations.

My observations are related to the post-coup demonstrations after the failed attempt, which lasted nearly a month in Gaziantep – the Turkish city bordering with Syria –, and its impact on the Syrian refugees. As Malkki reminds us (1997), the atypical circumstances in which people’s movements are dictated by the events are destined to be dealt with in the news and by journalists. Not surprisingly, the Syrians facing a potential civil war and chaos with the coup attempt in Turkey have been covered by the international newspapers.1 What impact does a military – though abortive – attempt have on the Syrians living in Gaziantep? What is the sociological significance of their reactions? My observations stem from a monthly fieldwork which I started in the late spring but which, after being interrupted, I could resume only recently.2 Here, I will sketch out the Syrian reactions in Gaziantep. I will discuss them with reference to the genealogy of migration in the city.

I carried out the fieldwork to explore how the encounters and interactions between the local and Syrian communities have been shaped in the post-conflict situation in the urban outskirts of Gaziantep. As a reminder: the riots against Syrian refugees broke out in the mid-August 2014 after the alleged murder of a Turkish landlord by his Syrian tenant in Gaziantep, a city which is dominated by the trope of hospitality towards Syrians. The events sparked or unleashed the hatred against Syrians among the locals in the urban outskirts and led to the lynching of Syrians by nationalist youth groups, vandalizing their homes, shops and cars. The enraged youth carrying Turkish flags continued for several days to terrorize the Syrians on the street, and lots of wounded ended up in hospitals. As the hatred turned into an anti-Syrian protest, following the eviction of Syrian refugees from the urban settlements in Hatay (September 2012) and the anti-Syrian protest in Kahramanmaraş (July 2014), the police forces evicted the Syrian dwellings marked by unhealthy and insecure living conditions. Presently, Gaziantep is a city of nearly two million people sheltering 350,000 Syrian refugees in the city – including 33,000 in the camps.

The tumultuous situation also pointed out how fragile the co-presence of various migrant communities in the outskirts of Gaziantep was. I visited the outskirt neighbourhoods in a district close to the location where the murder of the Turkish landlord sparked the assault on the Syrians. These are the areas of working class people, mostly migrants from villages and neighbouring cities who have moved to Gaziantep out of economic motives since the 1950s, but who have also forcibly migrated allegedly for supporting the Kurdish liberation movement PKK (Partiya Karkeran Kurdistan) in the 1990s. I chose six zones to elaborate the post-conflict situation among neighbourhoods: Ünaldı, Karayılan-Türkmenler, Vatan, Çıksorut, Cinderesi and Düztepe.3 They accommodated various ethno-religious communities, namely Kurds, Turkish, Arabs, sedentary Roma (abdal people), and Zazas with Sunni or Alevi identities.

The Turkish-Syrian border is characterized in the Turkish scholarly debate as place of authentic multiculturalism, in the case of Hatay (Doğruel, 2013) and cosmopolitanism based on multiple and controversial ways of remembering and forgetting the Armenian genocide of 1915, in the case of Mardin (Biner, 2010), the two other cities bordering Syria. It is true that the local states at the border presently tend to emphasize on the multiculturality of their cities. These cities use to harbour the ethno-religious diversity, which is partly remnant from the Ottoman past. This region constituted the inland frontier of the Empire with the Bedouin lands where the rebellious and exiled Arabic, Kurdish and Turcoman tribes were resettled. According to the historian Seda Altuğ, however, the Turkish-Syrian border is rather characterized by the ethnic hostility and religious sectarianism, which was created by the very birth of the nation-state and the nationalization in the late Ottoman and early Republican period (Altuğ, 2002). On the other hand, Zeynep Özgen points out that, in contemporary Turkey, the maintenance of ethnic boundaries in the public sphere is discouraged and their reproduction is confined to the private sphere, as in the case of Antakya (Özgen, 2015). I suggest that this is what renders the ethno-religious diversity fragile and easily slipping into conflict. Similarly, the city of Gaziantep use to harbour the uneasy balance among different ethno-religious communities, which could be easily unsettled by acts of violence according to local intellectuals.4

One should read the anti-Syrian sentiments and conflict between the locals and refugees against this backdrop. I suggest that the trope of multiculturalism and hospitality in the case of Syrians at the border conceals the workings of everyday violence among these communities. Therefore, one should focus on the capitalistic, patriarchal and paternalistic power relations that draw boundaries between and across them, as well as the silent and oblique tactics that seek to transgress these boundaries. I argue that the July 15 coup attempt reveals an instance where one can observe these tactics played off by the refugees in their participation in the post-coup demonstrations.

The Migrant Other in Gaziantep

The immigration to Gaziantep from the nearby villages and cities has been problematized by the elite for the last two decades, especially with reference to the ‘migrants coming from the east’, residing in the slum areas of the city with high levels of unemployment and a lack of infrastructural investments (Yüksel, 2014). The migrants settled in the outskirts of the city and catered the needs of the manufacturing sector, large and small, scattered within and around the neighbourhoods. The city, an export giant in the region, used to produce mainly textile, food, chemicals and plastic products in five organized industrial zones -the largest in the country. Also it had a prospering subsidiary industry before the Syrian war. The local industry took advantage of the abundant labour force that had migrated to the city, working long hours, low-paid and uninsured, especially in the deregulated industrial sites like the Small Industrial Site (Küçük Sanayi Sitesi), Ünaldı-Şehreküstü region, Nizip Street and the Footwear Producers’ Site (Ayakkabıcılar Sitesi) and in the small workshops of the outsourced garment and shoe industry. A 2005 Survey estimated that 81% of the population in the slum areas lacked adequate health service (Adaman&Ardıç, 2008). These neighborhoods were matched in the public imagery with images of poverty, crime and substance use among youth. Hence, the elite embraced a paradoxical coupling of the city as the locus of cultural diversity and as a place of degradation due to the incoming migrants, by drawing a boundary between the autochthone and the migrant.

photo-2-women-in-garment-factory_s%cc%a7enog%cc%86uzPhoto 2 – Syrian women working in a garment factory

Although the immigration to Gaziantep was stated as problematic by the elite, the city had never been a final destination but rather a stop-over in the chain migration to bigger cities. According to Turkstat, the net migration rate remained very low, with the highest ratio of 4.2% between 1995 and 2000 when the ongoing war between the Turkish army and the PKK guerrilla in the South-Eastern region culminated in its dirtiest phase. The migrants moved to the city through established social networks and mainly from the rural side or contiguous towns of Şanlıurfa, Kilis, Adıyaman, Kahramanmaraş, Osmaniye and Hatay. Besides, the city also pulled lesser but notable migration from other cities in Southeastern (Siirt, Mardin, Şırnak, Diyarbakır, Batman, Bitlis), Eastern (Malatya, Van, Elazığ, Muş, Sivas) and Central (Konya, Kayseri) Anatolia as well as from the Mediterranean Region (Adana, Mersin). In the last decade, the pattern of migration was rendered predominantly cyclical: low-income families tending to move seasonally to Gaziantep or other larger cities, back and forth, including the conflict-driven migration. For instance, the migration statistics indicate that the Van earthquake in 2011, rocket strikes in Kilis during the first half of 2016 and the military sieges in the Kurdish towns of Cizre and Sur pushed the families to hold on to their kinship relations in Gaziantep and provisionally immigrate to the city.5

Interestingly, the city did not only attract lower-class peasant or urban families, but also migrant entrepreneurs that wanted to stay away from the conflict environment of the war (Yüksel, 2014). The pro-business environment and strong political connections with the center pulled the investors to the city, which turned into an Anatolian Tiger in the mid-1990s, promoted by state incentives and a growing manufacturing sector exporting to the Middle Eastern countries. A collaborative environment emphasizing the collective interests of business encouraged a stronger sense of belonging among the migrant entrepreneurs and marginalized the Kurdish identity of the working-class migrants, spatially enclosing them to the outskirts.6 Although the elite adopted a cosmopolitan discourse, it singled out the particularity of Gaziantep as the safe haven for business in the midst of (PKK) terror and thus planted localism in its heart (Yücebaş, 2016; also Yüksel, 2014). Presently, this local identity governs the city from the center to the outskirts and prompts the old migrants to assume an autochthonous identity, reclaim the city space and xenophobically exclude the Syrian incomers.

The attacks on the Syrian refugees and the tumultuous situation had soon dissipated, but I observed that the repugnance among the locals was still in place after two years. In the Karayılan-Türkmenler and Ünaldı region where the Syrians’ dwellings were excessively attacked, the small shops run by the Syrian refugees within the neighbourhood alleys are barely left, except for a few groceries and tailor shops. In the Karayılan-Türkmenler region, a mukhtar7 told me how he guided the police forces when the locals rioted against the Syrians and the latter were evicted from the shops they had rented. According to the mukhtar, the Syrian tenants in the shops had sneaked into the midst of locals by gradually and mischievously occupying more space on the sidewalks and, thus, on the street life of the neighbourhood. Apparently, the hot summer nights did not allow the tenants, mostly male bachelors, to take shelter in the shop, and they needed to open the pull-down shutters. The mukhtar said that they started to sit on the pavement during the nights and smoked water-pipe tobacco, a symbol for the locals for how different the Syrian culture allegedly was. For him, the Syrians had disturbed the order and had acted immorally by slipping into the common space of the alley. The locals had the habit of sitting on the pavement day and night since their neighbourhood often lacked green spaces and parks. However, according to the Syrian interlocutors, the Syrians were not used to sit at the doorsteps and pavements. They told me that they used to go in the parks on every occasion, which they mostly lacked in Gaziantep because the green areas in the outskirt neighbourhood were rather scarce. Thus, it is understood that the locals’ view of the Syrians, as articulated by the mukhtar, just objected the presence of Syrians in the common spaces and expected them to adapt to the local culture and learn their habit.8 I tried to provoke the mukhtar by asking whether the Syrian culture did not include any element that the locals could appropriate. He repudiated them: “The Syrians do not have anything nice that we [the Turkish people] can borrow”.

The measures by the local state to suppress the assaults to the Syrians actually strengthened the feeling of insecurity among them. The authorities detained the Syrian families living on the ground floors of unplastered and cheaply built apartments, in ruined factory and housing buildings, jerry-built tents in the parks or on the street collecting garbage, and relocated them to the camps. They also announced it to the public.9 They ordered the replacement of the Arabic signs in the Syrian shops by Turkish ones. Several Syrian shops with Arabic signs today opt for hanging the Turkish flag as a tactic. For the last two years, the Syrian refugees have tended to maintain a low profile. They try to avoid confrontation with the locals and to not respond if someone teases them. “We do not want to have any problems with the locals”, said a young male running a humble restaurant with his uncle in İnönü Street. A Syrian woman from Vatan region explained that she used to return home looking foremost down onto the ground, without exchanging any word with the neighbours sitting at the doorstep.

Nonetheless, the local landlords continue to rent their shops as dwellings with poor living conditions, e.g. in the neighbourhoods of Cinderesi, Vatan and Düztepe. The xenophobic discourse among the locals is likely to conceal the rent extraction. For example, in some Düztepe neighbourhoods, there is an old but rampant tendency among the landlords to rent their houses to the incomers – now, the Syrians – and move to the upgraded neighbourhoods in Karataş region, a new urbanization site at the edge of the city that offers affordable housing to the lower and higher middle class families. The Syrians were also able to open shops and establish small businesses, particularly garment or shoe manufacturing workshops in the back alleys where they could escape the financial inspection more easily, just like the locals. The Syrian families can work home-based as well, by taking part in the outsourced manufacturing of the garment and shoe industry extending to the small and inconspicuous workshops in these neighbourhoods. The Syrian males and children in particular have replaced the locals as the cheap labour working for the local industry.

photo-3-home-based-work_s%cc%a7enog%cc%86uzPhoto 3 – Home-based work

Many Syrian interviewees complained about the high level of rents for dwellings which are overpriced and yet unfavourable places. They sometimes insisted to bring me to their home for having my confirmation on how bad the housing conditions are. Most of them told me that the landlords rejected to pay for the basic repairing of the neglected dwellings, like installing a window. Still, these neighbourhoods attract the Syrian refugees to their barely affordable dwellings and shops as well as their proximity to the industrial workplaces where the salaries have drastically decreased.

Thus, the complaints among the locals are abundant about the high increase of rents and the decrease of wages. Many expressed that they suffer because of the Syrian presence in the city. They deplore the distribution of humanitarian aid, food, coal and money to the Syrians while they do not even receive state support as citizens of the country, as they state. A family in Cinderesi, migrant of Şanlıurfa, for instance, challenged the open-border policy of the Turkish government by saying that “letting the Syrians in our midst was wrong”. They believed that the Syrians should be enclosed in the camps. The family has rented the ground floor as a second hand shop to the Syrians and the family was living on the upper tier. The parents had a son who, involved in a quarrel with the Syrian young in the vicinity was stabbed in his back, a knife wound almost hitting his lungs. Having escaped from death and just turned 20, the young boy was receiving his friends visiting him to say their get-well wishes while I was listening to his parents in a park filled with adults and children, both locals and Syrians. The park was an entertainment place for the families during the day and evening and a nightly zone of dispute among the Syrians or between the local and Syrian youth. The young usually chose the park as the appropriate location to engage in quarrels and settle disputes according to my young Syrian translator from a nearby neighbourhood.

The two-tier apartment stood just behind the family sitting on the rug and I was running my eye over it while I gave ear to the conversation. The father, as if he was reading the thought slipping through my mind, abruptly added: “The fact that I have rented my house to the Syrians would not let me want them to stay because of the money. If you have pity on people, you will end up pitiable.” Just like that the parents explained their resentment for having their son harmed by some Syrians whom, war-torn and desperate, they initially helped. The father also expressed his concern about the security of the Syrian family whose son committed the assault. According to the father, a beloved man in the neighbourhood, the neighbours vigilantly watched an opportunity to step in if they realized that the Syrian family had not yet left the vicinity. Later, I talked to a young friend of mine, a local himself who knew the neighbourhood youth, and I happened to think that the father actually feared the retaliation of Syrians. He told me that the friends of the stabbed young had stabbed four Syrian young men in retaliation. Although the Syrian family pursued for conciliation by putting the local mukhtar as an intermediary, the father refused and wanted the family to quit the neighbourhood. From the viewpoint of the locals, it was the Syrians who should leave when there was a problem between the locals and Syrian refugees.

photo-4-family-dwelling-in-shop_s%cc%a7enog%cc%86uzPhoto 4 – Syrian family living in a shop with bare walls

While this story constitutes an example to the anti-Syrian sentiments among the locals, I want to use it as a backdrop to the post-coup reactions among both communities. The Kurdish family, for instance, suggested that the fleeing of Syrian refugees from Syria indicated a sign of moral degeneration and decline among the latter. The mother complained about the Syrians by referring to the coup attempt of July 15. To her, the (Turkish) people, stood united against the coup attempt as the Turkish president Erdoğan called his supporters to take to the streets and face down the coup initiators, whereas the Syrians locked themselves in at their homes. Then she put bluntly what most of my interviewees hypocritically mumbled: If the Syrians united and reclaimed their country in the way that Erdoğan asked the Turkish people to do, they would not end up with the war in Syria.

The Syrians after the July 15 Coup

The Syrians in Gaziantep did not shut themselves in at their homes in the aftermath of the coup attempt. Rather, the national campaign to make the citizens move for “protecting the democracy” after the coup attempt was effectual on the Syrians as well. The urban residents received daily SMS messages from the female mayor of the city, notifying about the gatherings and rallies that were staged. The advertisement on giant screens and billboards conveyed the messages by the district and metropolitan municipalities, celebrating the nightly gatherings of the crowds in the main square of the city. After the 15 July attempt, small gatherings all over the city headed to the main square of the city for the democracy watch. They occupied the Democracy Square, which was cordoned off by the police forces, listened to the speeches and religious chants and waved Turkish flags. Families and children were also spread over the abutting greens to have nocturnal picnic and fun. For the Syrians, it was a good opportunity to go out and join among the crowd. For their children, it was a good opportunity to grab small treats and giveaways distributed on the square, like soup or t-shirts presenting the Turkish flag.

photo-5-brothers-with-turkish-flag-shirts_s%cc%a7enog%cc%86uzPhoto 5 – Syrian brothers with Turkish flag t-shirts in a shoe manufacturing workshop

The emancipatory potential of the squares occupied for the democracy watch came under both the media and scholarly scrutiny. The Turkish scholars of the social movements Türkmen and Küçük, for instance, questioned how much the crowded public squares could open a way to the social diversity to mingle with and transform each other.10 According to them, although the demonstrations orchestrated by AKP pointed to the ultimate desire of establishing a new fascistic national consensus regime and authoritarian domination by the Sunni-Turkish majority, they also provided room for the masses to feel themselves empowered in opposing the military coup for the first time in the Turkish history – although they were greatly helped by the lack of support to the coup among the top brass in the army.

The nature of the mass participation to the post-coup demonstrations is beyond the scope of this discussion. But the point is that the post-coup demonstrations reshuffled the sentiments of belonging and identification among the Syrians who took to the streets. The Syrian refugees were not visible in the public square of Gaziantep, but they were noticeable on the route to the square as crowds started to march from different venues in the city. There were eye witness accounts about the first evenings of the march in the old city center, saying that the flags of the Free Syrian Army were waved. The Syrian interviewees, the assistants of a garment shop selling evening dresses in İnönü Street, an almost liberated zone and hub of the Syrian refugees with shops and restaurants, showed me the video taken by their smart phone at another evening. Together, we watched a flow of Turkish flags passing by the street where almost all shops were run by the Syrians and saw the latter attending or participating in the march.

In the neighbourhoods, the Syrian refugees expressed their worries and fears about the coup. A man in his thirties with five children, one dead in Syria, could only find a shanty shop, unplastered and unfurnished, as an affordable dwelling to rent. His wife was out to check the mukhtar to ask for the food voucher distributed by the humanitarian organizations. The single chamber comprised two small doorless rooms and a toilet that were built in later to furnish the place as a tenement. It lacked a kitchen and a bathroom. He paid 250 Liras for the rent and earned 300 Liras per week in a plastic slippers factory where he could intermittently work due to the curbed production. He said that he felt very sorry about the Turkish people. He believed that his people had suffered the worst and hoped the Turkish not to experience the same. “They should not undergo what we had, there are also good people here”, he noted. He had taken to the street during the campaign to support them.

Among the interviewees, some sympathized with Erdoğan – which is a well-known trend among the Syrian refugees in Turkey – for his success to confront the coup attempt. Nonetheless, the refugees I spoke to went on to analyze the coup attempt and to compare the case with the Syrian state. They declared that the Syrian state waged a war against its own people whereas Erdoğan called Turkey’s people to claim the state. In their viewpoint, Erdoğan told its people that the State is theirs and, thus, they protected it. To some of the Syrian refugees, the success of Erdoğan, became a leverage to express their dissent to their fellow countrymen who supported Assad and dissented from Erdoğan’s involvement in the Syrian war.

I believe that the coup attempt created the conjunctures not only for the nationals but also for the Syrian refugees to position themselves, take action and embrace agency regarding the Turkish politics, even though they used to refrain from it. Interestingly, the Syrian refugees are developing a sense of belonging to an increasingly authoritarian rule. Does this mean that the Syrian refugees support the regime reformation which reinforces the Sunni-Turkish bloc and virtually runs against their own interests? My answer is: yes, it does. Here I am reminded of what a Turcoman Syrian interviewee in Düztepe said, referring to Erdoğan’s offering of citizenship to the Syrians in July 2016: “Do you think Erdoğan will grant citizenship to the Syrians? Can you imagine the Turkish state naturalizing the non-Turks? No, it will only be granted to the Turcoman and maybe to the rich Syrians.”

The scholarly and humanitarian discourses on the Syrian refugees are predominated by the question of integration, which is apprehended uncritically in the Turkish context to refer to the social inclusion of refugees and their access to rights. This question needs to be reformulated. On the one side, the Syrian refugees try to manage their participation into the Turkish society in their mundane and oblique tactics and improvise ways of belonging, albeit differently. On the other side, they are left with the only option of integration to the Sunni-Turkish culture, which exclude them on the basis of class and ethnicity (and religion), and deny their differences as well as rights. The same question is also valid for the locals. We have long known it for instance as the Kurdish problem.


Adaman F. & Ardıç, P. (2008) “Social Exclusion in the Slum Areas of Large Cities in Turkey”, NPT, vol. 38, 29-60.

Altuğ, S. (2002) Between Colonial and National Dominations: Antioch under the French Mandate (1920-1939), unpublished MA thesis, Boğaziçi University, Istanbul.

Biner, Ö. and Soykan, C. (2016) “Suriyeli Mültecilerin Perspektifinden Türkiye’de Yaşam“, published report, Mülteci-Der Yayınları, Istanbul.

Biner, Ö. Z. (2010) “Acts of Defacement, Memory of Loss: Ghostly Effects of the “Armenian Crisis” in Mardin, Southeastern Turkey”, History & Memory, 22(2): 68-94.

Doğruel, F. (2013) “An Authentic Experience of “Multiculturalism” At the Border City of Antakya”, Çağdaş Türkiye Tarihi Araştırmaları Dergisi/Journal of Modern Turkish History Studies XIII/26 (Bahar/Spring), 273-295.

Gültekin, M. N. (2016). “Antep Saldırısı: Gerçekten (Hâlâ) Şaşırtıcı Olan Bir Şey Var Mı?” Birikim, 22 August 2016

Malkki, L. (1997) “News and Culture: Transitory Phenomena and the Fieldwork Tradition”, pp. 86-101 in ed. Akhil Gupta and James Ferguson, Anthropological Locations: Boundaries and Grounds of a Field Science, University of California Press.

Özden, Ş. (2013) Syrian Refugees in Turkey, Migration Policy Centre Research Report No. 2013/05. Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies, European University Institute, San Domenico di Fiesole (FI).

Özgen, Z. (2015) “Maintaining ethnic boundaries in “non-ethnic” contexts: constructivist theory and the sexual reproduction of diversity”, Theory and Society 44(1), pp. 33-64.

Tarlan, K. V. (2016) “Gri Alanlar Kararırken: Antep”, Birikim, 25 August 2016.

Yavuz Y. (2016): Gaziantep Bombing Drives a Wedge Between Turkey and the Kurds. Research Turkey, 27 August 2016; available at

Yücebaş, M. (2016) “Kibrimizdi Sizi/Bizi Öldüren: Gaziantep’te Kim Sağ Kaldı!” Birikim, 23 August 2016.

Yüksel, A. S. (2014) “Migrants as Entrepreneurs” in eds. Deniz Korfalı and Deniz Sert, Migration and Turkey: Changing Human Geography, ISIS: Istanbul.


  2. I conducted my research on Syrian migration in Turkey within the framework of the Lajeh project ANR-15-CE28-0005.
  3. The names of these regions are given after one particular neighborhood. But in the local vernacular they also suggest a larger region comprising several neighbourhoods.
  4. The concerns for the endangering of ethno-religious diversity and infiltration of violence among various communities have resurfaced with a suicide attack on a Kurdish street wedding lately. The blast killed 54 people, mostly children, and wounded many. The so-called “Islamic State” is blamed for the attack deliberately targeting the Kurdish community (see Yavuz, 2016). Research Turkey, 27 August 2016; available at See for the debates among local intellectuals on the impact of bombing on ethno-religious diversity Gültekin (2016), Tarlan (2016) and Yücebaş (2016). Gültekin and Tarlan discuss the blast from the macro-political perspective as a punch to the already fragile balance among different ethno-religious communities in Gaziantep. On the other hand, Yücebaş (2016) stresses the micro-political dimension by discussing in what ways the local identity of the city marginalizes different cultural lifestyles and anchors an abstract autochthonism as its mainstream.
  5. Similarly, the city temporarily sheltered some 1,000 families from Kobane, a border town in Northern Syria besieged by the so-called “Islamic State” in September 2014. Here also, the kinship relations as well as political mobilization of the pro-Kurdish Democratic Regions Party (DBP, organized within the Turkish borders of the imagined Kurdistan geography) were effective to pull this migration (Interview with a former district co-head of DBP).
  6. Yüksel (2014) suggests that the migrant entrepreneurs of Kurdish origin felt themselves as accepted in the city and their geographical proximity and cultural affinity facilitated their integration. However, the local businessmen could also express their discomfort and doubt towards migrant entrepreneurs and their family by distinguishing their own cultural values with the migrant group in question. For instance, there adopted negative accounts about the businessmen from Cizre, a predominantly Kurdish town which was greatly affected from the state violence against the civilians in the 1990s. But the Kurdish identity of the migrant group is not overtly expressed in these accounts.
  7. A mukhtar is an elected governor of the smallest unit in the local state, i.e. neighbourhoods and villages, and administratively connects the neighbourhoods or villages with broader public authorities. The mukhtar offices are the first step in the registration procedures of Syrian refugees.
  8. Several researchers indicated the reason for the backlash against the Syrians as their being labelled as guests. Hence, the locals expected them to behave like a guest, conforming to the rules of the hosts and not wearing out their welcome. See for instance Özden (2013) and Biner&Soykan (2016).