Syrians in Istanbul, caught between realities

In Fatih district in Istanbul you can eat falafel from Damascus, buy roses from Aleppo, have your hair styled like Hazem Sharif in a Syrian Kuaför. You can go to a Syrian lawyer, a Syrian clinic, a Syrian beauty salon. You can go to a Yemeni restaurant run by Syrians and chew “Yemeni” khat, also from Syria. You can hear Syrian melodies playing variously from tongues, instruments, radios. You can walk many streets without hearing the sound of Turkish voices.

LLafon_Youcouldevendiefornotbeingarealcouple_06Dersim, Août 2013 – Laura Lafon

Ces images sont issues du livre “You could even die for not being a real couple”, auto-édité par Laura Lafon. Ce livre questionne l’amour au Kurdistan turc.


Syrians in Istanbul are living many different realities, in shifting politics. Stratified by class, religion, politics, ethnicity, cultural diversity, there are further cleavages of where in Syria they are from, personal identifiers, responses to displacement. For many their identity as Syrians has only been brought into being in exile. The signifier feels foreign to some – the “Syria” which has been reimagined as darkness, suffering, victimhood is a foreign land, in the foreign hands of other weapons, other journalists, other capitalist interests.

Another Syria exists, if only in their memories.

Istanbul is not always experienced as a literal geographical space. The city is an extension of Syria for those recently assassinated here for their political views; those receiving the same stigmatisms because of being Kurdish, or Yazidi, or women, or poor; for those who continue the same self-censorship endemic to realities in Syria. Urban refugees blur boundaries. The question of what it means to be a refugee complicates easy binaries between victim and entrepreneur, security threat and target, subject and object. Racism, hierarchy, exploitation still exists within the population, as well as towards them from their hosts. The environment in Turkey for Syrians is increasingly hostile, marked by suspicion, blame, rumour and violence.

Yet, the fluid character of displacement also opens up new spaces for social capital, just as it closes others. Since Syrians have been in Turkey in large numbers they have opened schools, hospitals, services, civic organisations. There are active cultural centres, media outlets, support groups, women’s groups. Many of these are facing increasing restrictions in an increasingly uncertain political environment, as the government shifts its initially welcome policy towards Syrians to a more centralized form of control and selective welcome of certain groups. Many Syrian run initiatives have been closed down, and still more conceal their identity behind innocuous fake street sides and boarded up entrances.

In Istanbul, the focus of this article, although there are many other Syrian run initiatives in the cities of Izmir and border cities of Gaziantep and Şanlıurfa to name a few, there is a private, essential, and largely invisible Syrian healthcare network which is operating in parallel to the Turkish public system. While the government is aware of the existence of such places they are not legally registered and therefore vulnerable to closure. These are clinics or dentist surgeries of varying sizes and capacities, run by Syrian doctors, pharmacists or trainee doctors who were not able to complete their degree before fleeing the war. They provide a range of general health services, gynaecology, injections, dentistry, blood tests, but most have no means to provide surgery. While Syrians who are registered under the Temporary Protection Status legal framework have access to Turkish public hospitals, many choose to go to a Syrian clinic owing the language and trust barriers, perceptions of racism from the staff in Turkish hospitals and, in some cases, cultural differences in the practicing of medicine. For the sizeable number of Syrians who are not registered, they provide the only means of healthcare.

Prior to the government attempting to place all registered Syrian children in Turkish public schools last year there was also a large school system, known as Temporary Education Centres (TECs). These employed Syrian teachers and taught an Arabic-language curriculum approved by the education ministry of the Syrian Interim Government, a cabinet of Syrian opposition authorities in exile in Turkey, and modified by the Turkish Ministry of Education. In 2016 there were estimates that approximately 78 percent of Syrian students in Turkey attended TECs. From this September most students are expected to transfer to Turkish public schools, although problems with capacity may necessitate some Temporary Education Centres to remain open. The Turkish education system is itself the subject of debate and political division – already quite heavily nationalist, recent changes in the curriculum have removed Darwin’s theory of evolution and included teaching of the concepts of jihad, which literally means “struggle” or “effort” and refers to a believer’s struggle to live out the Muslim faith and the struggle to build a good Muslim society, as well as the more widely known Holy War. 

Syrian children are joining their Turkish and Kurdish sisters and brothers in an increasingly devout learning regime.

Aside from service provision, Syrians are active in cultural, artistic and social spheres. Hamisch, a Syrian Cultural House meaning ‘margin’ in Arabic, is a space for collaboration between artists, academics, intellectuals and writers from Syria, Turkey and elsewhere. It’s motto in Arabic, Turkish, Kurdish, English, Armenian, and French, describes an independent ‘space-in-exile’ for critical debate, and the communication of ideas, and practices in the field of culture. Various Arabic bookshops, their numbers increasing down the backstreets of Fatih district, provide spaces for exchange and cultural enrichment. Syrian musicians have been opening channels of communication and expression for the past six years playing on the streets, bars, homes, concert halls, mixing buzuq players, qanun players, oud players in melodies and harmonies of remembrance and creation. is an alternative media channel that broadcasts the cultural and social hub of the Syrian community in Turkey.

It is an increasingly uncertain future. Already marked by precarity and ambiguity, Syrians in Turkey are facing the prospect of changing relations between the governments of Turkey and Syria. They are under the control of other forces. Their temporary protection legal status can be revoked at any time by the Turkish Council of Ministers. Some, those with education and skills, are being hand-selected for Turkish citizenship in an opaque process happening behind closed doors without order or accountability. For them, Turkey will be their home and the homes of their children. For others the future is unknown.

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