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Dispatch from Turkey: ‘I feel like I’m not in control of my life, just because I’m Syrian’

Abdullah, a 27-year-old graphic designer, is one of an estimated […]

23 February 2017

Abdullah, a 27-year-old graphic designer, is one of an estimated 2.8 million Syrian refugees living in Turkey.

He fled to the Turkish border town of Gaziantep with his mother and three brothers in October 2014 as the Islamic State and Free Syrian Army battled in his northern Aleppo hometown.

Even in Turkey, though, Abdullah cannot escape the specter of the Islamic State, which has claimed suicide bombings, shootings and assassinations inside the country. Just after midnight on January 1, 2017, an Islamic State gunman opened fire on an Istanbul nightclub, killing 39 people and injuring dozens more.

The Turkish government responded with a crackdown on suspected Islamic State collaborators. Police squads raided dozens of homes in February, arresting hundreds of suspects across the country.

On the first day of the campaign, Turkish security forces arrested 450 suspects, 150 of whom were Syrian refugees. Abdullah knew some of them: “I’d interact with them, just as any friendly neighbor would. We’d say hello and exchange some pleasantries.” But he’s starting to get paranoid, he says.

By Hamad al-Henawi, courtesy of Creative Memory.

“Some nights, I can’t sleep,” Abdullah tells Syria Direct’s Noura al-Hourani. “I think of my Syrian neighbors. I try to think about all of the different interactions I had with them, asking myself whether any of them would lead the police to come back and arrest me.”

Q: Could you talk about what your life in Turkey was like when you first arrived from Syria in 2014?

I was living a pretty normal life. After I first fled [to Turkey], I was living in Sanliurfa [a southeastern city near the border with Syria]. I worked as a graphic designer for a media office. The company was run by a Turkish man who treated me very well. I spent a year and half in Sanliurfa without any problems.

Then the Islamic State [IS] began to assassinate activists and journalists [in Turkey].

After that, there was talk among Syrians in coffee shops and public places about [police] harassment; incidents that would happen now and again.

A sense of fear had entered the home of every Syrian family. They worried about the IS assassinations, the presence of IS sleeper cells among the population and what the response by the Turkish government would be.

I felt a change in the way people viewed and treated me. The owner of the media office and my colleagues looked at me with suspicion and with doubts.

Q: The Turkish government launched a security crackdown on suspected IS collaborators at the beginning of February. As a Syrian refugee, have you been impacted by this campaign?

Honestly, it’s the Turkish government’s right to maintain the security of the country, first and foremost. Turkey has suffered from several bombings resulting in many civilian deaths. It has a duty to ensure the safety of its citizens.

But both the bombings and the police raids have had a major impact on my life. I feel shackled by fear and paranoia. The finger-pointing that I’ve witnessed weighs on my mind.

The police raided the Syrian households in the neighborhood where I live. There were officers surrounding the whole neighborhood. I didn’t dare leave the house, and I told my brothers not to go to school.

They arrested a number of young men suspected of collaborating or contacting the Islamic State. I knew some of them. I’d interact with them, just as any friendly neighbor would. We had a pretty superficial relationship. We’d say hello and exchange some pleasantries. I never saw anything suspicious about their behavior.

Some nights, I can’t sleep. I think of my Syrian neighbors. I try to think about all of the different interactions I had with them, asking myself whether any of them would lead the police to come back and arrest me. The thoughts never stop. What if someone saw me standing with them?

I no longer visit anyone or have anyone over to my house, unless I know them really well. I return home early. I avoid public places whenever I can. I’m always vigilant. And, of course, I never say anything related to the Islamic State to anyone.

One afternoon, about a month ago, I was at work. We heard the sound of gunfire in the street as an altercation broke out. We barricaded ourselves in the office, not daring to go out into the street. I was tense, and my heart was pounding. The curiosity ate away at me, not knowing what was happening outside. This chaos lasted about an hour and a half. Then everything calmed down.

Our office manager went to see what happened. I mustered up the courage to look out onto the street from the window. There was a body sprawled on the ground. It was a painful sight. I was terrified, and there were police everywhere. We later learned that the police had killed a young man and arrested two others in the office adjacent to ours. They were accused of having a connection with the Islamic State.

Turkish police raid a home looking for Islamic State collaborators on February 6. Photo courtesy of Anadolu Agency

Q: Did you feel like there was a particular turning point in the way Syrians in Turkey were perceived?

The turning point was the murder of the RBSS activists.

[Ed.: Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently, or RBSS, is a network of citizen journalists who cover events in Raqqa, the Islamic State’s self-proclaimed capital in Syria. The grassroots organization has members inside Raqqa, as well as abroad. Fares Hamadi and Ibrahim Abdul Qader, two members of RBSS, were killed in October 2015 in Sanliurfa. One month later, Naji Jerf, an RBSS journalist and film director, was killed in downtown Gaziantep. The Islamic State claimed both attacks.]

As I see it, these hideous events were the starting point of a fear felt by Syrians and Turks alike.

I was pressured by my boss to leave my job. He told me frankly that he didn’t want to put himself in a situation where he would face security issues or liability.

My landlord started to track my family’s movements—my mother and my three brothers. He increasingly questioned me about my comings and goings. He told us we couldn’t have guests over. Eventually, he raised our rent, so we had to move out. 

In August 2015, I decided to leave the city and move with my family to Gaziantep. The situation there wasn’t much better. I had trouble finding housing. My [eventual] landlord peered at me, asking: Why is your beard so long? Where exactly in Syria are you from? What do you do? Do you have relatives? I could only rent the house because one of neighbors was close with a good friend of mine, and he vouched for me.

I began working with Syrians at a relief organization, so I was able to avoid interacting with Turkish citizens. It was better, but, sadly, the struggles did not end.

After Naji Jerf, the [RBSS] activist, was assassinated in Gaziantep, there was the bombing of the wedding in August 2016.

[Ed.: A suicide bomber attacked a wedding party in Gaziantep on August 20, 2016. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he believed the attack, which killed 57 people, to be the work of the Islamic State.]

These tragic events were a curse for Syrian refugees, in every sense of the word.

With each attack, the fear within me grew. It affected every facet of my behavior. It’s reached the point where I run if I hear a police car in the street.

Some of my friends have left their jobs and moved deeper into Turkey [away from the border] where fewer Syrians live. But if I moved to another city now, it wouldn’t do anything—I’d feel the same.

Q: What has your experience with Turkish security forces been like? How has it changed since your first arrived in Turkey in 2014?

Sometimes, I have to travel for work. However, I’m banned from flying because I do not have an official passport.

I have to travel [by bus] for more than 18 hours. It’s exhausting, and there are security checks all along the way. At every checkpoint, a police officer boards and tells all of the Syrians to get off the bus. We’re thoroughly searched and they go through our luggage.

Before I travel, I have to get security clearance. Every time, it’s an investigation. Why am I traveling? Who will I be staying with? I’m given a maximum of 15 days to travel. Then, I need to return and file paperwork to inform [the police] of my return. 

One time, I was stopped by an officer who asked to search my phone, which should be illegal. I had put a picture of a relative who died in Syria as my background picture. He was wearing military clothing. I was detained, and it took me half an hour to get the officer to understand the situation.

These days, I don’t grow out my beard. I’m scared to put anything on my phone that might be the least bit suspicious. I feel like I’m not in control of my life, like I don’t have any freedom, just because I’m Syrian.

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