Syrian Refugees Are Becoming Second Wives in Turkey

Hemmed in by circumstance, Syrian refugee women often find that the simplest path to stability is marrying a man—even if that man is already married.

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Jun 22 2016, 8:23pm

A Syrian refugee in Turkey poses in her wedding dress. Photo by Cem Genco/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

When a matchmaker told Jasmin she'd found a Turkish man for her to marry, Jasmin couldn't believe her luck. It was only a year since she had fled the war in Syria and taken refuge in the Turkish border town of Gaziantep. She was 27, almost spinster age by traditional Syrian standards, and she was told her 38-year-old Turkish suitor was well-off and single.

But soon after their engagement, the truth began to unfold. The supposedly single man was already married with four kids.

"I was shocked," Jasmin told me. (She asked that I only use her first name, to protect the privacy of her family.) After she found about his wife, the man claimed he was divorced, but family problems had led him back to that first wife. He wasn't actually divorced, but Jasmin's father liked the man, and so they were married by an imam—a religious marriage, without an official or legal record.

Jasmin is one of roughly 2.5 million Syrians who've fled to Turkey, many who have settled in Gaziantep. Among the women refugees there, about one quarter are illiterate, according to a recent study by Turkish women's rights foundation Kamer. Many have turned to marriage as a way out of their situation—sometimes to men who already have wives.

"The main reason is poverty," said Aynur Yildiran, the head of Kamer's office in Gaziantep. "They are in a limbo in a foreign country. They want some security. Mothers think their daughters' lives will be saved, that they will become Turkish citizens. Even when they know they are going to be a second wife, some rationalize it with excuses like, 'His first wife can't give him kids, he is a nice man.'"

There's also confusion about what a marriage entails. Yildiran pointed out that in Syria, it's legal to have up to four wives, all of whom are entitled to the same legal rights. In Turkey, even though polygamous marriages are not uncommon, only the first wife is entitled to legal rights. As a second wife, a Syrian woman can't apply for Turkish citizenship; she can't claim any compensation in case of separation, or even gain custody of children born from these marriages.

"Syrian women are now beginning to realize how vulnerable this situation leaves them here," Yildiran told me.

Guzelvadi, the district in Gaziantep, Turkey, where many of the Syrian refugees live. Photo by the author

Syrians are gradually gaining legal rights in Turkey, which for some time granted them a vague "guest" status rather than formal refugee recognition. (Earlier this year, Syrian refugees with "temporary protection status" were given access to work permits, among other resources.) Women are starting to seek more help, the activists say, but it's still not enough to prevent many of them from becoming second wives.

Jasmin is probably one of the lucky ones. Her husband never divorced his first wife, but instead established two families, two houses, two lives. She told me she's met his other wife and says they liked each other, but she's still scared of being abandoned. If her husband left her, she would have no legal recourse.

Syrian refugees in Gaziantep are generally poor—some lost their wealth in the war, and others have been poor all along—and lack connections in their new home. For women, in refugee camps rife with stories about sexual harassment or forced prostitution, second marriages can be "simply a way to live more normally," according to Erkan Sahin, the local co-chairman of the Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party.

But some argue that Syrian women are being exploited in these arrangements, since they don't have the protections afforded to legal wives.

Ibrahim Caner, a board member of the religious human rights group Mazlumder, told me many of these men will hide their second wives from friends and relatives "because the real purpose is sex, not to embrace this woman as a real wife." And then, "after a while, he gets bored" and can abandon the woman without any consequences.

Zeliha, a 56-year-old Syrian refugee, told me she had a big house in Syria before she and her children were forced to seek refuge in Turkey. Here she lives in a tiny, windowless flat, and resents needing help from strangers now that she's a refugee.

On top of everything, she had to accept her 24-year-old daughter marrying a 32-year-old Turkish man who already had a wife and three children. Zeliha told me the man promised to divorce his wife, but she doesn't believe him. Now Zeliha's daughter lives in the southeastern city of Maras with her husband.

"[He] and his family are very happy with my daughter," Zeliha told me. "He says he will never leave her." But she doesn't trust him and claims that he can be physically abusive toward her daughter.

Mayada, a 35-year-old Syrian refugee in Turkey who has avoided getting remarried. Photo by the author

Local activists say Syrian women could avoid these situations by getting jobs, which would give them financial independence. Many of the women would actually prefer jobs to husbands, according Majdoulin Elbe, the Syrian coordinator of the Mercy Corps, a charity with outreach in Gaziantep. "They cannot work for a good salary, but they don't mind," Elbe told me. Often "there are more work opportunities for women than men, like cooking or cleaning."

Elbe told me her group is working on "the language barrier," as well as trying to teach Syrians about local laws and customs and build solidarity with Turkish women. Despite these efforts, there's not enough work for all the refugees, so some Syrian women turn to the unofficial marriages.

For those who have found work, the outcomes are more promising. Mayada, a 35-year-old Syrian refugee, works in a dress shop. She told me she would never marry again after divorcing her abusive husband 15 years ago and losing the custody of her three children. Life as a refugee in Turkey is tough, but she can support herself—no husband needed.

"I don't trust men," she told me. "Neither Syrians nor Turks."

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