Dreams and despair in Turkey's 'little Syria'

2015-03-18 12:19
A teacher gives a lesson in a Syrian private school in Mersin, southern Turkey, where at least 200 000 Syrians live after fleeing the war in their country. (Adem Altan, AFP)

A teacher gives a lesson in a Syrian private school in Mersin, southern Turkey, where at least 200 000 Syrians live after fleeing the war in their country. (Adem Altan, AFP)

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Mersin - Since the Syrian civil war erupted four years ago, tens of thousands of refugees have poured into the southern Turkish port town of Mersin, fearing they may never return home and yearning for a better life.

Between 200 000 - 350 000 Syrian refugees are now estimated to live in the workaday Mediterranean city, swelling its population of around one million by about a quarter.

Some get on with starting over again, but for a smaller number the city serves as a hub for the dangerous and illicit boat journey across the Mediterranean to Europe and a shot at a new life.

"I tried for a long time to get to the US, France and Italy but they refused me a visa. As Turkey does not require one, I came here," said a 24-year-old Syrian professional health worker who wanted to remain anonymous.

Sitting in a cafe, puffing on a nargile (water pipe) and sipping a coffee, he explained in perfect English that he had left Damascus with all he had only three months ago.

Asked if he was considering making the trip across the sea that killed thousands of migrants last year, he replied: "It is too risky. I prefer to live in Turkey but I also fear that I am going to die here."

He and the others in Mersin make up a large proportion of the 1.7 million Syrian refugees hosted by Turkey since the war broke out in March 2011.

It is an unprecedented influx that, according to the UN refugee agency UNHCR, has made Turkey the world's biggest refugee hosting country.

'Middle class migrants'

Stricter controls on the once porous border between Turkey and EU member Greece have pushed migrants and traffickers to use the Mediterranean Sea route to Europe, said Fulya Memisoglu, a researcher at Cukurova University in the Turkish town of Adana.

"Before it was Izmir or Bodrum [on the Aegean Sea], now Mersin has become the hub for the migrants," she said.

Since 2014, traffickers have increasingly been turning from smaller boats to cargo ships to transport migrants who are usually headed for Italy from the port of Tasucu, which is about 90km south of Mersin.

"It's generally migrants from the middle class who want to leave to find work in Europe that better suits their education," Memisoglu said.

Even with all the risks and uncertainties, the journey can cost $6 000 and only a minority are prepared to take up the journey.

"They wait for several weeks, even months, for the green light from a trafficker who will put them on a rogue ship," said Kenan al-Najari, a Syrian businessman from Aleppo.

In a murky incident last week showing the difficulties of such a voyage, Turkish coast guards in the Dardanelles Straits fired on a ship carrying more than 330 mainly Syrian migrants after traffickers refused to halt.

'Dangers in Europe'

The Syrians who stay in Mersin have made some parts of town their own, with Syrian shops, signs and Arabic spoken in the streets.

One district, Mezitli, has become the heart of the Syrian diaspora, complete with new apartments popping up for the monied elite.

Thanks to money from successful Syrian businessmen originally from Aleppo and the coastal city of Latakia, several Syrian NGOs have sprung up to help those who stay

One of the brightest examples is Syrian Social Gathering, an organisation which offers a Syrian curriculum to 2 000 pupils in its own school, manages a clinic and eases administrative formalities for refugees, many of whom left their own country with nothing more than their clothes.

"We register the Syrians when they arrive and offer them free services. For us it is easier to live in Turkey as we share the same religion and culture," said Social Gathering's director Ziyad Mnilla.

"We show them the common points between Turkey and Syria, that the two countries are similar in religion and culture, and the dangers that there are in Europe," Mnilla said.

The organisation has 250 staff who every day receive hundreds of refugees asking for help as it is recognised by the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and the Turkish authorities.

He said his group tries to convince people to stay and warns them they are risking their lives by trying to make the crossing of the Mediterranean.

"We explain that this way is not the good way and that we can live in peace in Mersin before we go back to our own country," said Mnilla.

But others, he says, do not want to hear anything. "They leave at any price."

Read more on:    un  |  turkey  |  syria  |  security

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