ISTANBUL, Turkey—The Aksaray metro station opens onto a concrete square. All day long, young men and families crisscross the open space. You can hear every dialect of Arabic spoken here: it’s mostly Syrian and Iraqi, but sometimes also Egyptian, Libyan and Moroccan. Men sit the entire day around the edge of the central fountain, waiting—it’s unclear for what.Men sit on the edge of the fountain in Aksaray.
In nearly five years since the war began, Turkey has been a welcoming host to nearly two million Syrian refugees, particularly compared to others. Many of the camps were built and paid for by the Turkish government, and they have been well-stocked and well-organized. And most, though not all, Syrians I meet report largely decent treatment at the hands of Turkish police – undocumented people, if caught, are usually registered, given a Turkish ID card and released.
While Turkey hosts more refugees than Lebanon, because the country is far larger refugees make up 2.5 percent of the population in contrast to Lebanon’s 30 percent. Perhaps the most significant difference is that Turkey has robust economic and political structures, which paired with its size, provide an infrastructure that facilitates integration of more people. Consequently, though Syrians live and work in many parts of Turkey, they are less visible than they are in Lebanon. One exception to this lack of visibility in in Turkey’s Syrian neighborhoods in Istanbul, Aksaray and Fatih. Many Syrians have been here for years, settling down, finding work and learning Turkish—old hands now give guidance to new arrivals.
“When they first get to Istanbul, most Syrians come to Aksaray,” says a young woman working in the storefront of a place that calls itself the “Hope Company.” Jacks of many trades, their signs—written in marker in Arabic on pieces of paper in the window—boast a myriad of services for refugees, from procuring furnished apartments to university admission to help with residency permits. A number of such companies have sprung up all around the neighborhood. In the window of every restaurant, a sign offers apartments for sale or rent or spaces for young men in makeshift hostels.
The woman says that—particularly in the summer, when thousands of refugees came through Istanbul en route to Europe—many people would just show up in Aksaray, waiting until they arrived to find housing and people to show them the way to the coast. But most of the people I’ve met recently knew someone here before they came—a sibling, friend, or cousin—and most reserved their housing or onward travel in advance, often over Facebook.
Here in Aksaray, in the midst of a immense non-Arab city, one steps into the Arab world. Language and landscapes change from one street to the next: there are coffee shops where men sit for much of the day smoking shisha, restaurants selling ful, Syrian fatah and Baghdadi kebabs, phone cards and travel companies offering reduced rates for calls and flights to Kirkuk, Erbil, Mosul, Damascus. The streets of Aksaray and neighboring Fatih are clogged with Syrian products of all sorts, from labneh balls and olives to matte—the South American tea popular in Syria because of widespread immigration from Syria to South America—and cakes of the green-brown soap long produced in Aleppo.
“It’s Aleppan style,”says one shop owner, of the soap, which is made in Turkey. “There is no Aleppo.”Iraqi cafe in Aksaray.
Little Damascus, as some people have taken to calling it, has prompted mixed reactions among the local population:
“Syrians are our brothers,” says a Turkish man working in a barbershop where most of the other hair cutters are Syrian: “there’s no difference between Syrians and Turks.” He speaks in the well-pronounced Syrian Arabic he’s been learning from his colleagues; he hopes to study the language formally one day.
His sentiments are moving, but far from universal—they are truer in this barbershop than as a general proposition. Most of the Syrians working here are ethnic Turkmens—a small ethnic minority in Syria which speaks a dialect of Turkish. In that regard, they have a leg up on most other refugees in the area.
The barbershop is located on a main street in Aksaray. It is almost a parody of the small-town American barbershop, everyone comes through here sooner or later: former Syrian regime officers and young democracy activists, Turkmens and Iraqi Kurds, fathers taking their families to Europe, and young men trying to make a new life in Istanbul.
Aamar, from a town near the Turkish border, says his European clients often tell him he should come to Europe and open a shop, because there’s no barber shop in Germany or the Netherlands like this one. And it’s true. The elaborate grooming rituals they offer—waxing, steaming, facemasks, perfumes, threading—are almost unheard of in most men’s salons in the US. Grave subjects are discussed and transactions undertaken at various stages of the grooming process.
With pink wax adhered in his nostrils, a middle-aged Iraqi man asks me why his visa to the US was denied after he worked with the Americans.
“Turkish men really like the blowdryer,” says Ammar, making large semicircle above his head with his hands.
“For the Arabs, it’s about the beard,” says Ammar’s Turkish colleague. “Some come in every few days to trim it.”
Not everyone in the neighborhood is so welcoming to the refugees’ presence.
“Before, rent used to be $250 a month. Now it can be as much as $100 a day,” says Ibrahim Konus, a 34-year-old Turkish barber at a different salon, referring to rents he had seen charged to people traveling on to Europe this summer. He used to live in Aksaray but can’t afford it any more. “This used to be a residential neighborhood. My rent was 650 Turkish Lira ($223). I had to move out to somewhere by the airport. Now these buildings are empty and many are rented by the day. If they’re renting for longer, in each apartment there are four families, [and] they [each] pay $1,000 a month.”
In the past, he says, many Syrians sought work in Turkish establishments. “At first, Syrians would come here. Now they’ve opened their own shops.” Before the war, he says, Syrians would come through from time to time. “They’d come as tourists with money, then they’d leave.”
“They don’t have to come here,” he says. If roles were reversed, he says, “I would die in my country, fight for my country.” But despite these harsh words, he says he feels sorry for many of the people he sees here: “I’ve seen some very difficult situations.”
Some establishments are actual transplants from Syria. The first Selloura restaurant opened its doors in 1870 in the city of Hama. By 2011, there were branches in Aleppo and Homs as well.
When peaceful protesters first started marching in the streets of towns and cities across Syria, Akram—who ran the Selloura in Hama—was wary: “I wasn’t with them and I wasn’t with the others,” he says. His life revolved around his work and his family.Selloura restaurant from the outside. There are branches in Hama, Aleppo and Homs.
“When the shelling started I decided I had to go,” he said, worried that kidnappings and killings would soon begin. He and his family fled to Egypt, where they opened 12 branches in two years—two restaurants and ten sweet shops. “Egypt was an Arab country. Syrians and Egyptians are one people,” he says. But he saw warning signs there too. A few days after the 2013 coup in Egypt, just as a backlash against Syrians in Egypt was beginning, he moved his family once again, this time to Turkey.
He brought several of his employees with him from Syria and many of his clients used to eat at his restaurant in Aleppo. While life in Turkey has been good to him, the best part is its proximity to Syria.
“When things stabilize in Syria, I’ll go back immediately, in five minutes,” he says, “I miss everything about Syria: its air, its sun, its water, its people, its work environment, all of it together.”Aleppan-style soap.
Syrian storefront near the Fatih mosque.
Families near the Fatih mosque.
On one of the main streets is a shop called “al-muhajir,” the Arabic word for emigrant. “I think it’s because the owner is Egyptian,” says the young Iraqi sales clerk there, “and it’s named after the film by Youssef Chahine,” one of Egypt’s most celebrated directors. The reference is to Chahine’s film about the life of the prophet Joseph, who was sold into slavery by his brothers and rose to become vizier of Egypt. “It’s just a guess,” says the young man. Two weeks ago, the boss’s partner, an Iraqi, took a boat to Europe.
The two young men who work in the shop are both from Mosul, Iraq. They fled when the Islamic State came in.
“With Daesh, either you join them or you’re an unbeliever. In Mosul, every time you’d see a Daesh person, they’d ask you why you didn’t join.” He said he was afraid that if he did eventually join under duress, one day another group would come and he would be punished for having been a part of ISIS, even if he’d been forced to affiliate.
Before ISIS came, he said, he had Shia friends: “There were Shia conscripts in Mosul.” He befriended them. “We’d bring them food, especially in Ramadan. They were far from their families and didn’t have time to go to the shops to buy food. Many people used to bring them food.” His Shia friends live in Baghdad now, or have left for Europe. Now, he says, “everything has become so sectarian."