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Thousands Of Syrian Refugees Struggle To Survive In Turkish Port City

ICE Graveyard 15/04/2016 Jesselyn Cook
REFUGEES © Petros Giannakouris/Associated Press REFUGEES

During the early years of the Syrian conflict, Mersin was considered “the best place to be Syrian in Turkey” and thousands of middle-class Syrians fled to the port city. With few allowed to work and their resources now exhausted, most now struggle to survive. Mersin is the second stop in our series "Route Mediterranean."

MERSIN, Turkey – Leila Ahmad still wears her wedding ring, a shiny silver band on the third finger of her left hand. At 37, she is the mother of four children – and a widow.

A Palestinian refugee from the Golan Heights, occupied by Israel in 1967, Leila was married to a Syrian. As the civil war in Syria neared its fifth year, her oldest daughter, 17, began her final year of high school. But before she could graduate, the family was forced to flee.

Leila's husband was detained by the Syrian regime. The family knew nothing of his whereabouts or fate until they received a photograph.

Leila's second daughter, 15, hands me a phone with two images of her father on the screen. In one he stands outdoors beaming, his body silhouetted against the sun. The next image reveals a close-up of his face with him lying on a cement floor. His mouth hangs open, his eyes are frozen and his skin paled by a deathly blue hue.

That was five months ago and the only closure the family had regarding his death.

Now, Leila and her children are in Mersin, Turkey, a southern port city about 185 miles (300km) from the border with Syria. They share a room with 11 other people, all mothers and children. The dormitory they live in is run by a U.S.-based charity started by a Syrian engineer. “Without this center, we’d be sleeping in the street,” Leila said.

“If they give us the basic support, we’ll stay here,” Leila said of the Turkish government. But her family receives no support from the government or international organizations. Even though she would take up any menial job to provide for her family, Leila isn’t able to find work. “I don’t want to travel [further] … I’m very afraid of migrating because you see people drowning at sea, but I don’t have a choice," she said.

But even that option may soon cease to exist. With the E.U.–Turkey deal deterring refugees from attempting to travel to Greece, Syrians have few options other than to remain in Turkey. Due to uncertainty about their legal status and difficulties with integrating because of language barriers, Leila and other Syrians in Mersin find it hard to imagine a future here.

Mersin, a city of around 1 million, hosts some 300,000 Syrian refugees. During the early years of the Syrian conflict, middle-class Syrians relocated here, contributing to its reputation as “the best place to be Syrian in Turkey,” according to Mohammed Rabie Zein, a 43-year-old businessman from Latakia. Zein helped found an NGO called the Syrian Social Gathering (SSG) four years ago. SSG has been a vital link between the Syrian community in Mersin and the Turkish authorities in providing educational, health, legal and social support to refugees. But the organization has financial difficulties and the staff has been working for six months without pay.

Aid and support are dwindling at all levels. Many of those who came to Mersin with money and resources are now struggling.

“If the same services were available here as in Europe, no Syrian would leave Turkey,” said Hussein al-Ibrahim, a 48-year-old judge from Manbij in Aleppo. He fled his home in January 2014 when it was overrun by the so-called Islamic State.

Like all Syrian refugees, al-Ibrahim is in Turkey under a “temporary protection” regime that allows him to be here legally and have access to certain services, like free healthcare. But, like other Syrians in Mersin, he said he received very little support.

“When refugees reach Europe, they are given housing and a simple salary until they can take care of themselves,” al-Ibrahim said. “This is why people go to Europe. They just want to survive.” None of this basic support exists in Turkey. Even food aid, clothes and blankets are in short supply in Mersin, and it’s difficult to find work.

In January, Turkey introduced a new regulation allowing people in the country under the temporary protection regime to apply for work after six months of residency. This is “an example to other countries on how refugees should be received,” UNHCR spokesperson Selin Unal said. Previously, it was almost impossible for refugees to be legally employed.

Less than 0.1 percent of the total Syrian refugee population in Turkey qualifies for work permits, according to a Turkish government report shared with aid workers in late March. This amounts to just 2,000 out of the 2.5 million registered refugees.

“The situation here for us is unstable. If they give us refugee status we will have rights, but under temporary protection our rights are unclear,” said Mohamed Arabo, a 46-year-old lawyer from Afren in Aleppo, expressing a common sentiment among Syrians in Mersin. Highly qualified, he simply wants to continue working as a lawyer. But the system makes those like Arabo, who arrive with intellectual and financial resources, equally desperate. While they wait for an opportunity to restart their lives they slide into poverty.

Most Syrians in Mersin work illegally, making them vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. Language is a major barrier. European countries offer courses as part of an integration process. In Mersin, a few Arabic language schools teach a modified Syrian curriculum plus Turkish. Private institutions and NGOs, like SSG, offer courses, too, but there is no systematic program. Of roughly 35,000 school-age children in Mersin, only around 17,000 are actually enrolled, according to SSG statistics. Language is one of the main reasons for the low enrollment rate.

Among those who do continue their studies, some learn the language and try to earn a degree here with the hope of finding employment after graduation. But many parents send their children to Europe, along the dangerous route across the Aegean Sea, so they have the opportunity to graduate from high school and attend university.

Three of al-Ibrahim’s five children are in Germany. “The most important thing they went there for is education. Nothing else matters. If we didn’t send them there, they wouldn’t have a future,” he said.

Al-Ibrahim spent a total of $13,000 to have his children smuggled out of Turkey. “I sold my house to pay for them to reach Europe. I spent 20 years building that house just to sell it like that,” he said, raising his hand and snapping his fingers.

“When I left, I thought I would just stay for two or three months and go back to Syria.” Now, with his resources nearly exhausted, al-Ibrahim struggles to pay rent from month to month. Two of his three sons are adults, and the other is nearly 18, so making it to Europe through family reunification seems like a long shot. Building a future in Mersin, with all of the uncertainties, seems equally unlikely.

With the borders closing and no possibility of returning home, al-Ibrahim feels stuck. “I regret I didn’t go with them,” he said.

With the E.U.-Turkey deal returning Syrians to Turkey, the situation is set to become even more precarious as more refugees compete for a limited number of illegal jobs. With mounting accusations against the Turkish government of turning away Syrian refugees, it remains to be seen if those already in Turkey will outstay their "temporary" welcome.

Route Mediterranean is a Refugees Deeply series that follows one of several refugee routes that form the Mediterranean Crossings.

This article originally appeared on Refugees Deeply. For weekly updates and analysis about refugee issues, you can sign up to the Refugees Deeply email list.

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