ANKARA from Turkey
Fatima Alzahra Shon believes neighbors attacked her and her son in their Istanbul apartment building because she is Syrian.
The 32-year-old refugee from Aleppo was confronted on 1 September by a Turkish woman who asked her what she was doing in “our” country. Shon replied, “Who are you to tell me that?” The situation quickly escalated.
A man walked out of the half-dressed Turkish woman’s apartment, threatening to cut Shon and his family “to pieces,” she recalls. Another neighbor, a woman, joined in, yelling and hitting Shon. The group then pushed her down a staircase. Shon said when his 10-year-old son Amr tried to intervene, he was also beaten.
Shon said she had no doubts about the motivation for the assault: “Racism”.
Refugees fleeing the long conflict in Syria were welcomed in neighboring Turkey with open arms, sympathy and compassion for other Muslims. But attitudes have gradually hardened as the number of newcomers has increased over the past decade.
Anti-immigrant sentiment is now near boiling point, fueled by Turkey’s economic woes. With high unemployment and skyrocketing food and housing prices, many Turks have turned their frustration on the country’s estimated 5 million foreign residents, especially the 3.7 million who fled the war. civilians in Syria.
In August, violence erupted in Ankara, the Turkish capital, as an angry mob vandalized Syrian businesses and homes in response to the deadly attack on a Turkish teenager.
Turkey hosts the world’s largest refugee population, and many experts say it comes at a cost. Selim Sazak, visiting scholar in international security at Ankara Bilkent University and adviser to officials of the opposition party IYI, compared the arrival of so many refugees to the absorption of “a foreign state that is ethnically, culturally, linguistically different ”.
“Everyone thought it would be temporary,” Sazak said. “I think it was only recently that the Turkish people realized that these people were not coming back. They only recently understand that they have to become neighbors, economic competitors, colleagues with this foreign population.
During a recent visit to Turkey, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi acknowledged that the high number of refugees had created social tensions, especially in the country’s major cities. He urged “donor countries and international organizations to do more to help Turkey”.
The prospect of a new influx of refugees following the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan heightened the unresponsive mood of the public. Videos purporting to show young Afghan men smuggled into Turkey from Iran sparked public outrage and led to calls for the government to protect the country’s borders.
The government says there are around 300,000 Afghans in Turkey, some of whom hope to continue their journey to reach Europe.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has long championed an open door policy towards refugees, recently acknowledged the public “unease” and vowed not to allow the country to become a “warehouse” for refugees. Erdogan’s government has sent troops to Turkey’s eastern border with Iran to stem the expected flow of Afghans and speed up the construction of a border wall.
Immigration is set to become one of the main campaign topics, even though the next general election in Turkey is two years away. Turkey’s main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party, or CHP, and the nationalist party IYI have pledged to work to create conditions that would allow the return of Syrian refugees. the waste collection makes foreigners pay there to propel them to leave.
Following anti-Syrian violence in Ankara’s Alindag neighborhood last month, Umit Ozdag, a right-wing politician who recently formed his own anti-immigrant party, traveled to the area with an empty suitcase and said the time had come for the refugees to “start packing.” “
Riots broke out on August 11, a day after a Turkish teenager was stabbed to death in a scuffle with a group of young Syrians. Hundreds of people chanting anti-immigrant slogans took to the streets, vandalized Syrian-run shops and threw stones at the homes of refugees.
A 30-year-old Syrian woman with four children who asked not to be named for fear of reprisal said her family locked themselves in their bathroom as an assailant climbed onto their balcony and tried to force open the door. The woman said the episode traumatized her 5-year-old daughter and the girl had trouble sleeping at night.
Some neighborhood stores remain closed, with traces of disruption still visible on their dented metal shutters. Police deployed several vehicles and a water cannon through the streets to prevent a repeat of the unrest.
Syrians are often accused of not assimilating into Turkey, a country that has had complex relations with the Arab world since the Ottoman Empire. Although predominantly Muslim like neighboring Arab countries, Turks have their origins in nomadic warriors from Central Asia, and Turkish belongs to a different language group from Arabic.
Kerem Pasaoglu, owner of a pastry shop in Istanbul, said he wants Syrians to return to their country and is disturbed that some shops on a street have signs written in Arabic instead of Turkish. .
“Just when we were saying that we are getting used to the Syrians or that they will leave, the arrival of the Afghans is unfortunately very difficult for us,” he said.
Turkey’s foreign minister said this month that Turkey is working with the UN refugee agency to safely return Syrians to their countries of origin.
While the security situation has stabilized in many parts of Syria after a decade of war, forced conscription, indiscriminate detentions and enforced disappearances continue to be reported. Earlier this month, Amnesty International said that some Syrian refugees who have returned home have been detained, missing and tortured by Syrian security forces, proving it is dangerous to return to any part of the country. .
Shon said Istanbul police showed little sympathy when they reported the attack on their neighbors. She said the police kept her at the station for hours, while the neighbor who threatened and beat her was able to leave after making a brief statement.
Shon fled Aleppo in 2012, when the city became a battleground between Syrian government forces and rebel fighters. She said the father of her children drowned while trying to get to Europe. Now she is wondering if Turkey is the right place for her and her children.
“I think about the future of my children. I try to support them in any way I can, but now they have a lot of psychological issues and I don’t know how to help them get over them, ”she said. “I no longer have the power. I am very tired.
Wieting reported from Istanbul. Mehmet Guzel in Istanbul and Zeynep Bilginsoy in Bodrum, Turkey contributed to this report.