The 500.000 Syrian refugees form an important part of the actual population of Gaziantep. In western countries people feel that the amount of Syrian refugees form a burden: 1 million on 80 million in Germany, 60.000 on 6 million in Austria, 70.000 on 17 million in the Netherlands. They resist against the in their eyes large numbers of refugees.
Gaziantep is a town of 1,5 or 2 million people, and this town has received 500.000 (!) Syrian refugees. Think about this, compare it to the western countries I mentioned here… What is the feeling of a town where every 1 out of 4 or 5 persons is now Syrian instead of Turkish? There are several sides to this question.
Answer 1: the principle
I have found no one in Gaziantep to discuss the principle that the Syrian refugees are there for a reason and that Gaziantep should offer a shelter to them. All share that idea and find it normal to host the Syrian refugees in Gaziantep, even when it comes with a (huge) price. They see Syrians as their guests who lost everything. They see them as brothers they want to comfort in difficult times. The amount of 0,5 million refugees is seen as a heavy burden that is there to take – just like that. Already before the Syrian war, life was a struggle for the ‘ordinary’ Gaziantep-inhabitant. That life has become even more difficult. It is seen and taken as a fact of life. No one blames the Syrians for it. The Gaziantep-inhabitants have to live with it and they do. Helping Syrians is their duty and their pride. Just like that.
Answer 2: Daily practice
Syrian refugees in Gaziantep are very visible. You see them in the streets, in restaurants and coffeehouses, in the Zoo and around the shops. They do or do not work: that differs. They get loads of help in food, housing, clothing and the like. When they work, they do not pay taxes or health insurance. The Turks say: ‘your country is a mess, your house has disappeared. You are our guest. Keep your money for the day you can return – you will need it’. The ordinary, often not very wealthy Turks, pay for all the costs that the Syrian refugees bring. Moreover, they work for low wages so that ordinary Turks see their position and their income threatened. ‘Life was always difficult here, but now it has become even more difficult’, locals told me. But they do not complain, they are rather proud of the sacrifices they bring. ‘This is how we are, we want to help, look at the state of these poor refugees’.
When Syrians drive a car in Gaziantep, they get a special numberplate. It will show M when the car was bought in Turkey, and SA when the car was imported from Syria. Syrians must be recognizable because they are not insured for damage done. If they cause an accident to someone else, that person has to pay for the damage. So: you drive on a road, a Syrian does not pay attention and hits your car and you have to pay for all the damage. Gaziantep-inhabitants call this ‘absurd’ but they still accept it as a fact of life. They try to avoid Syrians on the road as much as possible.
Answer 3: personal feelings
In an apparently strange contradiction to the first two answers given, I have not found anyone in Gaziantep who liked Syrians. Syrians are called ‘our guests’ and ‘our brothers’ but they are far from popular. There seems to be a consensus that Syrians have no pride and ‘no values’. They fight a lot and show no respect to each other or to the Turks.
Moreover they cause problems in the streets. Thefts have increased and shopowners explain you (softly, when nobody can hear it) that these are Syrians; they have to keep a very close eye on their business when Syrians are around. Syrians also like to go out and make a lot of noise in late hours – note that the average hard-working Turk ends the day at 22.00h. Young Syrians commit robberies, destroy public objects and make the streets of Gaziantep unsafe. I haven’t heard inhabitants blame the police because ‘so many things happen, the police can just not keep up with it’. I witnessed myself a robbery with knifes, and vandalism.
Still, no one wants to ask the Syrians to go back to Syria because there is nothing to go back to and they are our guests – in Middle Eastern hospitality you don’t ask the guests how long they will stay. It is intriguing to see that the Turks offer, even sacrify, so much to people they do not like and that that goes for them without saying.
All in all, I think the Turks and especially the people of Gaziantep deserve our deepest admiration, respect and support for their enormous contribution to the Syrian refugee crisis.