First Reflections on Turkey (and Syrians+Turks)

I barely remember the last time I was in Turkey. I was maybe 11 years old and did mostly tourist-y things with my family.

So the situation is a lot different now: I am travelling with the US-based Syrian Orphans Organization to help teach Syrian refugees in Istanbul during a 3-week summer camp.

I also have some more background knowledge this time around. According to an economist from Goldman Sachs, Turkey is a Next-11 country; meaning they are one of 11 countries (following the BRIC countries) with rapidly growing economies. The original study was done in 2005, and a 2011 follow-up found that, along with Mexico, Indonesia, and South Korea, Turkey was helping make 73% of all the Next-11 countries’ GDPs.

What does this all mean? First, it means Turkey has some pretty good prospects on the global stage, economically speaking at least. Second though – and far more interesting to me – is what this means in terms of their acceptance or rejection of Syrian refugees.

You’ve probably heard the numbers by now: Turkey currently hosts the largest number of Syrian refugees, with the official UNHCR count at 1.8 million. More than 70% of the refugees in Turkey are urban refugees – living off of official camps – and they inhabit 72 of 81 Turkish provinces. Although NGOs are allowed to assist in Turkey, much of the assistance to the refugees comes from the government. Combined though, they’ve spent more than 6 billion and there is speculation as to how long the Turkish government and its people can sustain such a cost.

So it’s pretty easy to see why Turks might be against welcoming any more Syrians within their borders. The concerns are valid and real: Syrian beggars have become a permanent sight in cities across Turkey, already-low wages have dropped, and rents have increased where refugees are searching for housing. And so Turkey’s bright economic future seems to be slipping away…

And a growing number of Turks seem to agree, as a study done by Murat Erdogan from the Center for Migration and Refugee Studies in Hacettepe University in Ankara proved. According to the findings, 70.7% “believe that the refugees are doing serious harm to the economy,” and another, “70% believe that the Syrians will create lasting problems for the country.”

Interestingly however, a whopping 64% also believed “it is an ethical duty to help the Syrians,” and,  “50% think the government’s management of the refugee crisis has not been satisfactory.” These numbers indicate the general hospitality and welcoming attitude the Turks have towards the Syrians, but also point out that new solutions should be thought up to address the problems that have come to light so far.

Yet as Erdogan wrote in his study, “The attitude displayed to date is a credit to Turkish people,” and I couldn’t agree more. Aside from the open door policy, I have daily met people who wholeheartedly support the Syrians here. Every shop-owner I met had learned Arabic, and all of them expressed their love for the Syrian people and their desire to help. A close Turkish friend of mine even volunteered to teach our students Turkish at the summer camp – no compensation or thanks needed. She, as the rest of the Turks I met, echoed the idea that helping is a duty they have to the Syrians who have fled their country.

Yet, how that help is administered is up for discussion, especially considering the economic implications of such a large influx of refugees. But the Turks I met have given me hope that solutions will be found, a peaceful coexistence continued, and a bright future for Turkey pursued.

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