Currently around 2.7 Million refugees live in camps in Turkey. Since 2011, when the revolution started in Syria, the people have been fleeing first to Lebanon, then Jordan and Turkey.
Hopes for an imminent end and the chance to return homewere doomed as the civil war turned into an international vast conflict and generated the enormous human tragedy the international community is facing today.
The documentary In the Dark Times features Syrian artists and actors living in Istanbul. One of the protagonists of the movie is bookseller and artist Samer Al Kadri from the Pages Bookstore in Istanbul.
Samer Al Kadri at Pages bookstore Istanbul
Samer expresses his thoughts about Syrians heading to Europe:
If you want me to say something real to Europeans, who know that all these refugees are going to Europe, I would say, in my opinion Europe is receiving the best people we have in Syria. And Syria is losing them. They should know that. They should understand that. It makes me sad for my country, because all the people are going. But of course, they just don’t have any choice.
(Quote from the Documentary In the Dark Times, a film dealing with the subject of refugees and migrants in Istanbul)
Refugees at Istanbul bus terminal
Turkey is overwhelmed by nearly 3 million refugees. Thus, Turkey can’t deal with the crisis aside from the humanitarian emergency. Integration in the society, exchange with the local population, as well as the conferment of the status of political asylum are mostly missing for these forced migrants from Arabic countries currently living in Turkey.
The status of asylum outlined in the Geneva Convention on Refugees from 1951, is only accessible for Europeans in Turkey. Arabic refugees cannot apply for permanent asylum and are not granted work permits. Turkey is only tolerating them as guests, a status which does not exist according to international law. Instead of welcoming and healing experiences in a safe environment, they are partially marginalized and not integrated entirely neither in the education system, nor in labor market, nor in society in general.
Syrians are teaching their children at home in Istanbul
The wish for self-determination and the dissipation of time due to the almost never-ending lack of perspective are the main motives for people from the Arabic diaspora community leaving Turkey and aiming for Europe. Europe is talked up as the Promised Land among refugees who are experiencing this unfortunate mixture of ambiguity of their status and the longing to restart normal life. In fact, these hopes often lead to disappointment.
A Syrian actor and friend of ours, currently residing in Berlin, frames out that there is always this correlated hope for recovery, which is projected on the places one does not know. This made him hazard the dangerous way from Turkey along the Balkan route to Germany, where he found asylum. He’s one of the lucky ones, since he had already arrived in June 2015, and his legal status was cleared rapidly. Still, he is confronted with the reality that safety doesn’t guarantee happiness.
Racist organizations like PEGIDA (Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the Occident) or parties like AfD (Alternative for Germany) find fertile soil to spread their right-wing populist slogans and generate supporters by mobilizing against the refugee danger. They base discussion of identity-loss and social clashes on a populist, racist ideology lacking funded or proven arguments. The reactionary fear is causing the conscious departure from political correctness, inflating the distorted picture of the migrant as a mutual enemy.
Aside from the wide range lack of empathy in society, the failure of the political and administrative sector is even more alarming. Unsolved problems in fields of accommodation, registration, staff shortage, and in administration in general have to be approached politically.
The absence of so called “Christian values” like grace of charity regarding refugees is so great that it even mobilized the slow apparatus of the Catholic Church which underlined last week that ‘it is simply necessary to save humans from stark misery.’ (Cardinal Marx)
In the light of this social and political climate for a lot of asylum seekers, it turns out that Europe, in this case Germany, is not matching the refugee’s expectations. It has been an illusion.
Our friend – the Syrian actor – was granted refugee status in Germany. He lives in a flat in Berlin, a city that is well known for its multicultural mixture. But still, he regrets his decision to leave Turkey and to go to Germany. “I was missing Beirut in Istanbul and I am missing Istanbul in Berlin,” he explained. The desire to become a member of a free society in the West proves to be often unfulfilled. Participation in society was what he was looking for in his profession as actor, not to live as a marginalized refugee.
Yassin Al Haj Saleh, Syrian intellectual, writer, and winner of the Prince Claus Award in 2012, currently lives in exile in Istanbul, declared that culture is the way out of the misery. He sees it as a tool to overcome recent tragedy and create a future including as many of the possible parts of the society.
Yassin Al Haj Saleh during a demonstration in Istanbul
Our culture could — our culture should be rebuilt on these experiences, and through culture we can rebuild our identity, our roles, and in a way our imagination, and our society.
We need a dialogue between ourselves to meet and rebuild our society. Society is composed of these interactions between people. [...] The regime was built on isolation, and preventing people from meeting, and in the end they were successful.
What Yassin Al Haj Saleh described in this interview as solitude inside Syrian society forced by the Assad Regime, should not be replicated in European societies. Avoiding the development of feared parallel societies, requires an active exchange between migrants and the local population, in European countries as well as in Turkey.
Above that, an open society is dependent on examination of the foreign. Revitalization is the outcome of exploration of the new and unknown. Seeing the foreign as a chance, in part of the concept of an open society, which Europeans claim to live in.
All images from the movie In the Dark Times produced by the Goethe-Institut Istanbul