Istanbul's 'Little Syria' Provides a Home Away from Home for Syrian Refugees

The Fatih neighborhood is one of many Syrian enclaves that have emerged in Turkish cities across the country, offering a familiar community where refugees can share a common culture — but where life still remains difficult.
February 4, 2016, 10:30am
Le marché de Malte à Istanbul. Photo de Benjamin Gilbert/VICE News

In August 2011, as the Syrian army violently suppressed an armed rebellion that had begun as a mostly peaceful uprising against Bashar al-Assad's government, Lieutenant Adnan Halit decided he'd seen enough.

He deserted his post and defected to Turkey, where he used his skills as an anti-aircraft expert to help train Syrian rebels. He later spent eight months battling the Syrian military.

Halit's fighting career ended when a tank shell exploded near him, peppering his leg with shrapnel. He returned to Turkey to recuperate and decided it was time to use something other than his military skills to help his fellow Syrians.

"I have a teaching degree, but was working as a baker," he recently recalled. "So I applied to a competition for teachers I heard about."

He won, and now teaches at and manages the Syrian Nour School in the Fatih neighborhood of Istanbul.

Halit said that 90 percent of his students live in the neighborhood, which has become known as one of the "Little Syrias" springing up in Turkish cities across the country, which is now home to 2.5 million Syrian refugees, according to the United Nations. A good chunk of Istanbul's 325,000 Syrians reside, work, eat, shop, study, and socialize in Fatih.

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In this conservative, middle-class, and sometimes seedy area of Istanbul's old city, Arabic dominates conversation on the street, and is commonly seen on shop windows and signs. Arabic advertisements for furnished apartments appeal to displaced Syrians looking to settle down, while orange life jackets hang outside shops for those brave or desperate enough to attempt a crossing to Europe.

Syrian restaurants from Hama and Aleppo have opened up branches or moved here entirely. Pharmacies keep an Arabic speaker on staff in order to translate to the Turkish pharmacist, and often advertise this service in their front window.

Some of the new arrivals have even pushed to have the Malta market, which is located near the Fatih mosque that gives the neighborhood its name, renamed the Syrian market.

The Nour school is one of 13 Syrian schools in the neighborhood, providing some 325 students between the ages of five and 18 instruction in math, science, English, and Turkish. Classes are taught in two shifts, one in the morning and one in the evening.

"Some of the kids are old for their grade — they missed a year or two due to the conflict," Halit said.

But they are the lucky ones. The UN reports that some 400,000 Syrian children don't have access to education in Turkey.

Adnan Halit in one of the classrooms at the Syrian Nour School in Istanbul. 

The Nour school is subsidized by a charity called the Syrian Nour Association, which runs other schools in Turkey while also providing health care and other services to Syrians both inside and outside of Syria.

On a cold, damp Wednesday in January, a dozen or so Syrians sat in the waiting room of one of the charity's clinics in Fatih.

Next door, Dr. Mehti Davut, the head of the charity, said that the clinic is one of two the association operates in the country, with 20 Syrian doctors treating 100 Syrian patients every day. Although Turkey now provides free medical care to Syrians, few Turks speak Arabic, and few Syrians speak Turkish.

"The biggest problem is the language," he said. "Medical care is an important thing, and you don't want an interpreter to get something wrong."

Outside, a clinic staffer waited to escort patients with prescriptions written in Arabic to one of the nearby pharmacies that offered an Arabic-speaker on staff.

The Yani Akdiniz pharmacy is located just around the corner from the clinic. The 30-year-old Syrian pharmacist who was on duty that day asked that only her first name, Asala, be printed, for security reasons.

"One out of 100 customers we get are Turkish," she said. "A lot of Syrians come in."

She recounted how she came to Turkey two years ago after the civil war engulfed her home in Syria near the Golan Heights, noting that Syrians are attracted to the Fatih area of Istanbul because it feels a bit like home.

"Syrian people like this area because it's conservative," she said. "It's close to our culture. Most people are religious Sunni Muslims. The women cover their hair and wear the abaya" — a loose, robe-like covering.

"In other Turkish neighborhoods, the women are practically naked," she added.

Although this Little Syria provides a familiar community where refugees understand the language, enjoy the food, and share a common culture, life here is still difficult.

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Syrians say that Turks take advantage of refugees who are desperate for jobs, and of the fact that many of them do not have work permits and lack recourse to Turkish courts if an employer pays them less than the minimum wage. Many are employed illegally and underpaid.

"When the Turks hire Syrians, they pay them half of what a Turk gets, and then they fire them so they can get new Syrians that they can pay less," said 23-year-old Maha Milahassan, who was attending a lecture about labor laws in Turkey set up by a humanitarian organization called Small Projects Istanbul that serves the Syrian community in Fatih.

Milahassan's sister-in-law, Huda Bilawy, 21, says her husband was fired after working for three years at a Turkish auto repair shop because the owner wanted to hire another Syrian who was willing to work for less pay.

The going rate for a Syrian worker is 800 Turkish lira per month, about $266 US — far less than the official Turkish minimum wage, which is around 1600 Lira, or about $532.

"I want higher wages, because the money he's making is not enough to support the family," Bilawy said. "We have three kids, and a lot of Syrian kids have malnutrition. There's not enough money and food to go around."

Bilawy and Milahassan's families share an apartment since neither can afford a one-bedroom unit, which usually runs around 1100 lira per month, on their own.

Another Syrian named Azad Nabel has found himself in a similar situation. He works as a manager at the Saloura restaurant on Millet Avenue in Fatih. He's from Hama, but worked at the Aleppo branch of the restaurant for 15 years before it closed down due to the war. He said it's difficult to save money in Istanbul.

"I'm working crazy hours," he remarked. "It was the same in Syria, but we built things. We had a house, a community, and now we have to start at zero, and all our efforts are completely wasted. All we care about is getting money to pay rent and to send kids to school, because education is the most important thing."

The Syrian-owned Saloura restaurant in Istanbul's Fatih neighborhood. 

Nabel, who left Aleppo after he was wounded in an artillery barrage in 2013, knows many Syrians who have made the dangerous journey to Europe in search of better lives. He doesn't plan to embark on it himself because he wants to return to Syria someday. Until then, he'll keep his family in Turkey because it's close to home — but he doesn't see Turkey as a replacement for his homeland.

"We are laughing out ourselves when we call this area Little Syria, because this is not our country," he said. "This is not where we belong."

Nevertheless, Syrians are enriching Turkey's, culinary, cultural, and business atmosphere — in Istanbul and elsewhere.

Along with Saloura, other Syrian restaurants have relocated or opened ranches along the main roads in an area called Aksaray. In the Malta market, Syrian hawkers and shopowners peddle their goods along narrow cobblestone streets that resemble markets in Damascus and Aleppo, albeit much smaller.

Samir Alkadri, a 42-year-old Syrian publisher, opened Istanbul's only Arabic bookstore, called Pages, in the Ayvansaray neighborhood of Fatih because it reminded him of Damascus.

"Sometimes I forget where I am," he said.

Syrian musicians perform at Pages bookstore, which Samer Alkadri (fourth from the left) opened last summer. 

Alkadri serves the bohemian side of Syria's diaspora in Turkey. He regularly hosts free cultural events for the Syrian community at his three-story shop, including cinema, open mic, and music nights, as well as creative workshops for children and adults. Such a community center was sorely needed to not only serve the massive Syrians literary needs, he said, but also to build a bridge between Syrians and Turks.

"We need to explain for the world who are the Syrians, because now people see in the news that Syrians are two people: hungry people or ISIS," he remarked. The bookstore "gives another perspective of Syrian people."

Alkadri has two siblings in Europe: a sister in Germany and a brother in Holland. He could easily fly his family to a new life in the European Union if he wanted to — but he doesn't.

"I don't want to live in Europe. It's too organized, and I am not an organized person. Everything closes at 6 or 7pm, and if you want to visit your friend, you must take an appointment one week in advance," he said. "There is more life here in Istanbul. The city doesn't sleep, and I like this type of city for me."

He's not planning to stick around, however.

"I want to return to Syria," he affirmed. "I don't want to stay here."

Follow Benjamin R. Gilbert on Twitter: @benrgilbert