Syrian War Refugees Have 'No Place Anymore' as Turkey Pushes Them to Return Home

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Baraah Jajah, left, with her son Louai, 3, from Hama, Syria, at a tent camp in Reyhanli inhabited by Syrians, most of whom are agricultural workers. Photograph by Jodi Hilton

It was June 2011, and Barzan Ramo scrambled inside from the balcony. The 22-year-old college student was studying for his final exams in Deir Ezzor in eastern Syria when rebel groups and regime forces backing President Bashar al-Assad clashed beneath him.

To escape, Barzan and a few other students pleaded with a minibus driver to brave the rubble-strewn streets and sniper fire before government troops surrounded the city. It took Barzan several days of furtive travel to reach his hometown, outside Qamishli, in Syria’s northeast corner. But even there, the war was waiting. Assad’s army wanted Barzan’s closest younger brother, Rezan, who had just completed his mandatory military service, to return to fight against the burgeoning revolution. The family had come to rely on the brothers; their father, Jamal, suffered from heart problems, and their mother, Hifa, leaned on Barzan in particular as a third parent, to help with their four younger siblings.

But with her eldest two sons in danger, “I told them to go,” says Hifa, “to have a safe life.”

So Barzan and Rezan crossed the border to Turkey, which boasted an “open door” policy for Syrians. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he would welcome refugees as “guests” and granted them temporary protection, a legal status that afforded them the right to stay in Turkey and access to some public services. Many Syrians saw a path to better opportunity and security beyond Turkish borders, in Europe. Among them were eventually Barzan’s mother, two sisters and two other brothers, smuggled later in shifts to Istanbul, as the situation in Syria worsened.

FE_Syrian Refugees_02 Barzan Ramo crossed the border to Turkey, with his family soon following. Photography by Jodi Hilton

Turkey, however, was utterly unprepared for a few thousand Syrian refugees at the conflict’s outset to balloon to millions. Rents rose, work dried up, and refugees scrambled to survive. Today, as the war in Syria enters its eighth year, more than 3.5 million Syrians are living in Turkey, the largest refugee population in the world, according to the United Nations. Year after year, cultural and linguistic differences, and inequalities in education and employment—and lately a lingering economic crisis—have turned a spirit of brotherhood into one of hostility. More than 80 percent of Turkish respondents who support Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, or AKP, said in 2017 that Syrians should be returned after the war, but roughly half of Syrians in a different survey last year said they want to stay.

That growing tension pervades Turkey, from Istanbul, where refugees number nearly 550,000, to the southeast, where they represent roughly 30 percent of the population. Now, instead of an “open door,” Turkish soldiers patrolling the roughly 475-mile wall on the border with Syria shoot on sight. The government is dismantling refugee camps and shutting down nongovernmental aid organizations and medical clinics. “We aim to make all Syrian lands safe,” Erdogan said as he campaigned for re-election in June, “and to facilitate the return home of all our guests.”

FE_SYyrian Refugees_Cover Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey's president, poses for a photograph following a a Bloomberg Television interview in London, on May 14. Erdogan said he intended to tighten his grip on the economy and take more responsibility for monetary policy if he won the upcoming election. Jason Alden/Bloomberg/Getty

With the international community largely ceding victory to Assad and his allies, neighboring nations that have borne the brunt of Syrian displacement, as well as European Union members buffeted by resurgent nativism, are echoing that call. Under President Donald Trump, U.S. policy too has shifted from “Assad must go” to “Syrians should go home.”

The refugees face a no-win situation: If they return to Assad’s Syria, they risk conscription, disappearance and sectarian retribution, as well as an utter lack of basic services and opportunity. If they stay in Turkey, they face chronic uncertainty and destitution, as domestic and international politics turn against them.

In 2014, Barzan set out for Germany to finish his education and find a better job to support his family, and Rezan followed later. Yet even German authorities have rejected Barzan’s asylum requests, dashing not just his hopes but those of his mother and siblings, who have now been stuck for five years in Istanbul.

Now adults, three of his siblings work 12-hour days together in a basement sewing factory, crammed in with 100 other Syrians and Turks. (Their Turkish boss, they say, pays Syrians less, a common complaint.) Even the youngest sibling, 12-year-old Mohamad, who napped throughout an October visit, goes to class in the morning but runs errands at the factory in the afternoon. Three times, the family has paid a smuggler to help them reach central Europe, but authorities turned them back. Now, much of their earnings go to Syria, to help Jamal, whose health has deteriorated.

“Our situation,” Hifa tells me, “is getting worse by the day.”

FE_Syrian Refugees_06 Idlib, Syria, Qay Camp for IDPs. Photograph by Jodi Hilton

Amid the world’s last major refugee crisis, following World War II, Turkey signed the United Nations’ 1951 Refugee Convention, which defined the term refugee and countries’ obligations to protect displaced people. But Turkey, straddling Europe and Asia, maintained a geographical limitation, granting refugee status only to Europeans. Sixty years later, when war broke out in Syria, Turkey was not obligated to give Syrians refugee status—hence, the “guest” policy—though it is barred from returning them to danger.

This year alone, some 1 million have been displaced in Syria, according to the U.N. The World Bank estimates that roughly a third of all houses, and half of schools and hospitals, are destroyed or damaged. Men between 18 and 50 years old risk conscription into Syria’s hollowed-out military, and some rebel groups that agreed to lay down their arms in reconciliation deals with the government instead have been enlisted to fight for Assad. Damascus has also said it will seize displaced Syrians’ properties for “redevelopment.”

At first, Erdogan drew political capital from welcoming Syrian refugees as guests, framing himself as a regional and religious leader helping millions of Muslims while the more powerful developed countries did nothing, according to Hande Paker, a professor at Bahçeşehir University in Istanbul.

But by the end of 2015, as Turkey hosted millions of Syrians and more than 1 million refugees fled to Europe, the mass migration bloomed into a political crisis. Nativist parties from Italy to Sweden amassed more power and dogged EU centrists such as outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who advocated for accepting more refugees. Erdogan struck a deal with the EU: Refugees arriving in Greece from Turkey would be sent back, but for each one returned, one refugee already in Turkey would be resettled in the bloc. Under the agreement, the EU would take 72,000 maximum.

It hasn’t worked out that way. Migration to Europe has fallen, but more than two years after the agreement, only 16,975 Syrian refugees have been resettled from Turkey, according to the U.N. The Trump administration admitted just 62 Syrians total into the United States in fiscal 2018. “The Turkish government can claim it is holding back the refugees for Europe,” says Kati Piri, the European Parliament’s rapporteur on Turkey. “We’re not holding up our end.”

Now, as Turkish public opinion has shifted, Erdogan has hardened his stance on refugees. Turkey has closed its border, effectively ending Syrian family reunification in Turkey, as well as registration for new arrivals. Notably, for Syrians intercepted by the Turkish coast guard, the government is no longer releasing them in Turkey; instead, it is either moving them to the remaining camps in the southeast or returning them to Syria. This past summer, Turkish officials encouraged registered Syrians to return home for Muslim holidays, in part to reassess their homeland.

In all, Erdogan touts that half a million Syrians in Turkey have opted to go back to Syria, though observers question the claim. On November 1, the Turkish defense minister said 260,000 Syrians have returned to Turkish-held territory in their country’s north. “This should be voluntary,” Erdogan said at a summit on Syria in October, where Russia, Germany and France agreed that refugee return was the ultimate goal, coordinated by the U.N. But the sheer numbers being cited by Turkish authorities, as well as reports that they’re carrying out coerced repatriations and deportations, are raising concerns among human rights advocates and officials. Selin Unal of the U.N. refugee agency says the U.N. is not promoting or organizing return journeys yet “because the situation in Syria is not fully safe.”

Mehmet Gulluoglu, the director of Turkey’s Disaster and Emergency Management Authority, denies charges of forcible returns. “None of them is pushed or handed back,” he tells Newsweek.

Either way, over several days in October at Bab al-Hawa, the closest international crossing to Idlib, Syria’s last remaining rebel stronghold, I see no sign of mass returns. A bus of registered refugees returning from holiday pilgrimage in Syria rumbles to a stop. Taxi drivers abandon their game of dice and sprint to unload the luggage.

Jamal Baraa says he and his family are returning to Turkey from Aleppo. The holiday trip home “was very difficult,” he says. “Under threat of bombing, we could be attacked at any time.” Asked about claims from Moscow and Damascus that refugees can move back to regime areas, he says, “It’s all lies.” As we speak, his daughter sits on a rock, holding her sleeping brother. The family has lived in Reyhanli for the past five years—and returning to Syria permanently, he says, is still too dangerous. But it is still their hope.

“If things get better,” he says, “I’ll go back.”

FE_Syrian Refugees_08 Youssef Kabawa points to a spot where he was injured by shrapnel while in Syria. Photograph by Jodi Hilton

Cotton lines the highway that runs from the ancient Turkish city of Antakya through Reyhanli, skirting the long gray wall marking the Syrian border. During the day, Turkish men and women bend over the white fluffs. At dusk, a refugee named Ali Jaja shows me his harvest, balled up behind his tent at the roadside. Syrians, he explains, get only the leftovers.

Turkish law traps Syrians as perpetual “guests,” virtually unable to access paths to legal work, homeownership, citizenship or even resettlement, because they aren’t technically refugees.

Back in Syria, Jaja owned a citrus grove. “They took everything,” he says of the regime. Now, in Turkey, he, like 3.3 million refugees, lives “unsheltered,” in cities rather than official camps, according to Turkey’s Directorate General of Migration Management. For the past five years, home has been a makeshift encampment of blue tarps on a dirt lot in Reyhanli. Twenty-five families live there. The lucky ones have cement floors and satellite dishes. Because immigration authorities require Syrians to reside where they registered, refugees cannot travel far for work and face limited opportunities. To date, the Turkish government has issued only 20,000 work permits to Syrians and restricted them to less than 10 percent of employees in any workplace, according to the Istanbul Policy Center, a research institute. Jaja and the other men in the encampment survive by picking what’s left of the seasonal cotton crop.

At the same time, the ongoing refugee presence irks local Turks, despite many having Syrian roots. They perceive, often falsely, that the refugees are competing for jobs and public services and contributing to petty crime. “Turkey prides itself on hospitality,” says Paker, “but now Syrians are seen as overstaying their welcome.”

Violence between Turkish host communities and Syrian refugees increased threefold in the last six months of 2017, compared with the same period in 2016, according to the International Crisis Group. A big factor is the roughly 950,000 Syrians working in the underground economy, which employs a third of the Turkish labor force. But the men gathering at dusk in front of Jaja’s tent say that a full day of hard labor for Turkish bosses yields barely $5.

“We are treated so badly,” Jaja says. If not for his children, he would go back. “At least I’d have respect. Here, I don’t have anything.”

FE_Syrian Refugees_09 Hafizaa Bregeh is a grandmother and widow from Idlib, who scratches out a living as a seamstress in Reyhanli, Turkey, holds a photo of her deceased husband. Her daughter was recently widowed as well. Photograph by Jodi Hilton

For Syrian women, the conditions are worse. They face higher barriers to education, employment and services, as well as greater vulnerability to xenophobia and violence, which stems from the region’s patriarchal structures. Many must maintain their traditional role as caregiver while working full-time jobs; husbands or male relatives stayed behind or were killed.

On my last day in Reyhanli, I meet Hafizaa Bregeh, 59, a widow and grandmother providing for 13 family members. She and seven of her relatives fled Taftanaz, their village outside Idlib, in early 2012. She says regime soldiers entered their home and took her injured husband, a schoolteacher, and his brother outside. As she watched, the soldiers bound their hands and shot them against a wall. Sniper fire prevented her from retrieving their bodies for three days. She gave them a hasty nighttime burial and crossed the border at Bab al-Hawa.

“We didn’t think about what we will eat,” says Bregeh, “only that we will be far away from rockets.”

After arriving in Turkey, she picked grass outside a Reyhanli refugee camp to boil for food. A Turkish neighbor gave her an old sewing machine to start working as a tailor, and after saving for four years, she bought two of her own. But her small earnings go fast because of Turkish discrimination, she says, as locals charge her higher prices. “They exploit me because I am a woman,” she tells me, “because they know I am a Syrian, on my own.”

As we speak, Bregeh eases into a chair behind her machines. She grimaces. She needs knee surgery, but it costs more than five months’ rent in Turkey. “If I work, I eat,” she says. “If I don’t work, I don’t have any food, and I am the only worker for 13 people.”

About six months ago, Bregeh’s daughter and four more grandchildren joined her in Turkey; her daughter’s husband was killed in Syria. When Bregeh is most desperate, she considers returning home. Life, she says, is too hard in Turkey. But then she starts to sew again. As long as Assad remains, she says, there’s no going back.

For many, returning would be a death sentence.

At the nearby office of a nongovernmental aid organization, a young Syrian woman tells me she will face imprisonment or worse in Syria. She asks to be identified only by her initials, R.Z., because she fears her family in Damascus will be targeted. In 2014, her mother was wounded in a bombing in Syria, so she and her sister took her to the nearby government-run hospital. But because R.Z.’s brother was an activist who had joined a Turkey-friendly Islamist rebel group, Syrian authorities locked the women in a hospital room for the next 11 months, then in a prison for another 13. R.Z.’s two young children and her husband, a government math teacher, thought she was dead.

When she was released in April 2016, she immediately began saving to smuggle her family to Turkey and ultimately brought her mother, who’d become disabled during imprisonment. In Reyhanli, R.Z.’s children attend Turkish school, but with the little assistance she receives from the government, she struggles to make the rent on their small apartment, as she cares for her mother full time.

R.Z.’s husband left Turkey after one year and returned to Damascus to his pro-regime family. She refuses to go back, so her husband sent divorce papers. “It’s impossible for us to meet again,” R.Z .says. “I told him, After two years in prison, you can’t feel what I feel.”

FE_Syrian Refugees_04 Rakan al-Hardan and his son Safi, who was critically injured during a bombing in Syria. His family members are farmers from Latakia and are now living in Turkey. Photograph by Jodi Hilton

Rakan al-Hardan holds a neon-orange goldfinch in his callused palm. Other sherbet-hued birds whistled across the rooftop overlooking Antakya, but he’d taught this one seven songs. He breeds them to help feed his family as they wait for resettlement, and for treatment for his son, Safi, 13, who survived a gunshot to the face.

“I’d go to any country where I can get treatment for my son,” Hardan says. “I’d even go to hell.”

Hardan could not bring his prized birds from their farm when he left Syria in 2013. His family had been visiting relatives on the outskirts of Latakia, home to Russia’s largest air base in Syria, when bombing began. Amid the chaos, his uncle’s gun went off, and Hardan found Safi on the floor. With 40 cents in his pocket, he jumped in an ambulance as medics rushed his son across the border to Antakya, home to the region’s best-equipped emergency facility.

Told Safi had a 10 percent chance of surviving, Hardan sent for his pregnant wife, Hamide, who smuggled their other three children over the Turkish border. They slept in the hospital garden. Doctors Without Borders and the Danish Refugee Council recommended the Hardans resettle in the United States, one of the only countries with the expertise to treat Safi. But resettlement is rare—the U.N. refugee agency resettled less than 1 percent of nearly 20 million refugees worldwide last year—and Turkish law, which denies Syrians official “refugee” status, makes it even harder. But U.N. and U.S. guidelines prioritize urgent medical cases.

Hardan says the family had several interviews with U.N. and American officials, but in January 2017, Trump’s executive orders barred all refugees, and Syrians specifically. The Hardans’ case then fell into a subsequent 120-day review, which the administration has effectively extended. In June, Trump said he won’t allow the United States to be a “refugee-holding facility.”

The U.S. State Department’s refugee bureau and the U.N. refugee agency said they could not discuss specific cases.

Each day Safi remains in Turkey, he steadily loses his remaining sight. “My child needs treatment,” says Hardan, “but I am helpless.”

FE_Syrian Refugees_05 Dr. Ziad Jourma, pediatrician from Idlib, examines a patient at the Ataa Relief Health Center where he works in Antakya,Turkey. Photograph by Jodi Hilton

A network of Syrian doctors working with nongovernmental aid organizations tries to provide more basic care. In October, in Antakya, a pediatrician named Ziad Jouma is busy seeing children. In between appointments, he gestures at the glass windows facing a lush green yard. After Syria, he considers them a luxury; his Idlib clinic was bombed so many times that he changed its windows to plastic so his young patients wouldn’t be injured by the glass shards from explosions. He’d brush the rubble off his examination table and continue. “You work on the ones you can save, and that’s it,” he says.

Officials and medical experts like Jouma worry about the young Syrians in Turkey who have lived through continuous war and will now shape their adopted country’s future. Around two-thirds of Syrian refugees in Turkey are women and children.

Jouma says most of the children he sees in Antakya suffer from incontinence and intense panic. They also display complex psychological problems, with trouble in school, eating, even speaking. Children, he says, internalize others’ trauma. “The parents are suffering, so the children’s problems are increasing.” In their first months in Turkey, Jouma’s own three children dove under a table whenever a plane flew overhead.

When I visited, the doctors in Antakya feared the government would shutter the clinic, like others across Turkey. Critics see such moves as an extension of Erdogan’s illiberal slide, as he’s purged public workers and eroded the media and judiciary. Syrians suspect the government is trying to force refugees to self-deport. By December, Jouma’s clinic was closed.

“In Syria, I had my own clinic, a car, a house, my family,” Jouma says. Now, in Turkey, “it’s like a bad dream, but you can’t wake up.”

FE_Syrian Refugees_03 Jazia Ramo and her mother, sister and two of her brothers in Istanbul in the early spring of 2016, just before they left home. Photography by Jodi Hilton

At dusk, sewing machines still hum from the basement garment factory in Istanbul where the Ramo siblings work. Jazia, Barzan’s eldest sister, asked to meet outside because she feared a visit would jeopardize their jobs. We walk the darkened streets to her apartment. Inside, she apologizes for the sparse décor: little furniture beyond a bed, two couches and bare walls.

But at 24, Jazia seems happy; she has just married, with the typical big white dress, banquet and dancing. She met her husband, Youssef Kabawa, in Turkey. Also a refugee, he first saw Jazia in their Istanbul neighborhood in 2014 as she searched for housing with her family. Boldly, he offered to help. “I was not thinking of a house,” he says with a grin. He and Jazia had exchanged texts. Then she walked into the garment factory—and saw Kabawa there among the sewing machines. “He is very handsome, except for the beard,” Jazia’s mother says. Kabawa blushes behind cigarette smoke.

FE_Syrian Refugees_07 Newlyweds Jazia Ramo and Youssef Kabawa in their apartment in the Bagcilar neighborhood of Istanbul, a popular quarter known as a Kurdish area, where many Syrian Kurds also live. Jazia, her husband, and three of her siblings all work in the small clothing factories that populate the area. Photograph by Jodi Hilton

Their romance never would have happened in Syria: Kabawa is an Arab, from an upper-class family in rubble-strewn Aleppo; Jazia is Kurdish, from a relatively peaceful small town outside Qamishli, in the Kurdish-held area. But the historic tensions of their homeland persist in Turkey. When Kabawa visited Jazia’s family to ask for her hand in marriage, he came alone; his family disapproved of his marrying a Kurd. Likewise, Barzan won’t speak to Jazia because she married an Arab.

Making barely enough to cover rent and wedding debt, Jazia and Kabawa wonder if they’ll ever be able to afford their own family. They’ve contemplated trying to reach central Europe, but the smuggler’s fee—commonly exceeding $10,000—is impossible.

The Syrian war has torn their families apart even as it’s brought them together in Turkey, and they’ll carry the war with them wherever they go.

Jazia has lost her hope to go back. “If we are not going as the whole family, I cannot imagine it,” she says. “We have no place anymore.”