Everyday life experiences and narratives of Syrian urban refugees in Turkey
I am a Colombian anthropologist. I am interested in trying to understand how people make sense of life in conflict situations and how they reconfigure their worlds. I will conduct my Master’s research with Syrian urban refugees living in urban settings in Turkey and hope to share beautiful stories and experiences from people’s everyday lives. The conflict in Syria erupted in 2011 and has already left around 5 million internally displaced persons, more than 2 million refugees in neighboring countries and some European countries. In Turkey alone, there are more than 500,000 registered refugees.
The goal of this research is to try to get a glimpse of what Syrian urban refugees are experiencing fleeing the ongoing conflict, staying in a country that shares a border with Syria, sharing a living space with people from different backgrounds.
With this research I hope to contribute with an in-depth account (in a micro level) of people’s experiences in this critical situation. I believe there is a need for documenting people’s disruption of everyday life and the struggle for reconstructing it in a country that already has thousands of others in similar situations.
I am very interested in documenting and analysing the people’s narratives, their own accounts of the experience of forced migration. People shape and reshape their worlds, their lives and their cultures while telling and retelling stories of their, or others’ experiences. Thus I will be listening and paying attention to their reflections of the conflict, of life in this new setting, and their interpretations of the future. Every person experiences and expresses differently, each of them contributing to the world of the other. They are part of the historical process of the conflict and thus should be part of the construction of peace.
Blog: The Istanbul chapter
Placed on March 31, 2014
On March 1st I took a plane from Gaziantep to Istanbul. I was glad for the change of scenario, and to discover new things and put the last two months into perspective. After one month here, I am left with an amalgam of emotionally fueled data, and an emotionally amalgamated self.
The second week I was already eating Syrian food with Mohi, whom I met here back in the beginning of January. We discussed some issues about how Syrians are carrying on with their lives “outside”. Mohi’s case is interesting because he was in Barcelona and went back to Syria because of the revolution. He then fled to Lebanon before coming to Turkey, and has been in Istanbul since August 2012. He has a stable job, a residence permit and a work permit with the company he is working for. Nevertheless, while he telling me about the dreams he used to have compared to what he is doing now, he said: “This isn’t living”. Even though he said he loves Istanbul, he feels lost without knowing how to plan a secure future anymore. I realize now that the scenario does influence greatly the way people refer to their present, but a similar deep sentiment of unrest and uncertainty remains while living in exile. The “for now” motto that I identified in Gaziantep was also present in much of the interviews and conversations I had here, but for different reasons.
Istanbul is a vibrant and loud city; I haven’t heard once those common remarks I was used to hearing (and feeling) in Gaziantep: Boring, soul-less, ugly. But it is still a foreign city with a foreign language, and Syrians are in a fragile situation even if they have been here for one year or one month. Thinking about Syria and the reasons that brought them to Turkey triggers an unbeatable feeling of sadness in almost every Syrian I met during this three months. In Istanbul, nonetheless, when not asked about the situation in Syria or about plans for the future, interviewees remained calm and some even cheerful when describing their present life. For conducting the interviews I asked participants to chose the place for us to meet, and they took me to neighborhoods, cafés, and restaurants that in a way make them feel good or at ease; a place they wanted me to know about. Here, there is always something amusing to watch, hear, or comment about.
Every single person I talked to here told me they like Istanbul very much –I dare to say people even felt almost compelled to like it now that they are living here–, but the atmosphere becomes gloomy when the conversation digs deeper. Ahmed, 30, is from Damascus and has been living here for about 15 months. He told me Istanbul is a very nice city, with beautiful views, but then he said: “we don’t know what’s gonna happen here in Turkey”. Abu Shadi, an artist from Tartus who has been here for 5 months, said he liked the city but that somehow he doesn’t feel like living here; “You always have this feeling…you want to be in a situation that is more stable” he said.
Almost everyone I met in Istanbul feels there is nothing for them to go back to in Syria. But something shared by the participants in Istanbul and in Gaziantep is that their narratives of everyday life are impregnated with a romanticized memory of a segment of their past in Syria. For some this memory is the dream of going abroad to study, or living “outside” but having a Syrian family; for others it can be the memory of life back in Syria, studying, working, etc. Because, even if some of them wanted to leave before the crisis, this was not the way they imagined it would be.
A complex scenario unravels here: I’ve felt how painful it is for people to become aware of the weight of this memory while talking about it, of how clinging to the past impedes them to move forward. But this weight is a part of everyday life, and it is unconsciously reproduced while following the news of the crisis, meeting with other Syrian exiles and discussing the issues of the revolution, eating Syrian food, listening to Syrian or Lebanese music, and so on. Keeping the past alive provides people’s existing with meaning when the present is abruptly disturbed; when realizing a once dreamed future will never come true, memories start playing a bigger role. This sustains life in such uncertain circumstances as living in exile in an unstable place, far away from home and sometimes without even having a home anymore. Being conscious about how one clings to a memory that will never come back hurts deeply. It makes people anguished and worried, and they realize –again– how fragile life is and has been. “It is very hard to remember”, said Ahmed.
Daydreaming is unavoidable; nobody can run away from it even if they tried. The guidelines of new dreams have traces of those long-lost, now unlikely dreams of an ever-present past. Being a filmmaker in Italy, going to Argentina or Brazil, getting married and living in the UK, having children with a stable future, starting a new life in Germany…dreams are always being forged, “later, we will see”.
Blog: “After, we will see”
Placed on March 6, 2014
“We only meet the survivors”, writes Michel Agier. A series of life decisions has led me to this emotional and mind-blowing journey, briefly accompanying very few of the Syrians that have fled their country’s crisis. They all have very different experiences, different expectations for the future, but they have all been through so much.
All the Syrians I met in Gaziantep have dreams and hopes for the future of the country and for themselves. But actual plans seem to dissolve between their fingers. “After, we will see”, is one of the most common sentences I’ve heard when I ask people about their life here and their plans for the future. It is commonly followed by “For now …”.
When I tried to talk about everyday life in Gaziantep, like their daily routines and their perception of the city, there was a silence surrounding it, some stopped for a moment to think before answering, others made a gesture of discomfort, others blatantly said, “I hate it”. It was very amusing to listen to people, that hadn’t even met each other or hadn’t discuss the matter previously, shared the feeling that the city didn’t have a “soul”, that certain something that you just feel in some cities, a sort of essence. For some, the lack of “soul” made them long more for the places that marked their lives and are now destroyed, long for that glorified past and wish for returning as soon as possible. For example, someone told me that even his ringtone was called “I’m coming home”. For others, the blandness of the city made them urgently seek for a way out, a student visa or a request for asylum in a far away country, a chance to start over now that they’ve been forced to leave everything behind.
When the conversation turned to talk about what a normal day was in Syria, before and after the revolution started, the pace changed: they would accommodate in the chair like people do just before they want to make a point very clear and their faces reflected a downpour of emotions and memories, they wanted to talk about it. But this silence encasing everyday life in Gaziantep was very meaningful and hinted a very crucial point: when the revolution started they became different persons, and this becoming greatly influenced their narratives (partly composed of silences and gestures).
A very interesting phenomenon I came across while conversing about life in Gaziantep – and in Syria – is how everyone refers to people in Syria as “inside”, and the act of crossing the border as “going inside”, as if everywhere else was the outside world. Perhaps this feeling is exacerbated by how difficult it is for them to go back to their homes, even if being so close to the border. This feeling of being outside affects daily life, affects the way they relate to their surroundings. They couldn’t help but compare everything in Gaziantep to their cities in Syria and, for most of them, everything was better back there. Everyday life is about Syria, because if it weren’t for the war they would have never thought of going to this city.
It is probably accurate to say that life in displacement is not a “life” in itself, it is surviving, waiting, leaving loved people and loved spaces behind and continually debating between wishing to escape and wishing to go back “inside”. Regarding life in Gaziantep as a period suspended in time can be both a coping mechanism for this anguish, but also a painful way of denying how close to impossible it is to be somewhere else. Either way, everyday life is experienced as a liminal state between past in Syria and an undetermined future. Interestingly enough, the city itself also seems to incarnate this feeling: it looks like it has been expanding for a long time, as if it was trying to become a city but hasn’t been able to actually become one yet. It is an in-between space. A liminal space that can’t offer anything more than in-betweenness to those who never thought they would end up here and now can’t wait to run away from it and never look back.
Elaborate plans for the future are like castles made of sand next to a furious sea. In the end, hope is what remains. As a very nice girl told me once, quoting a poet from Aleppo: “We are condemned to hope”. This is a very accurate statement that people in Colombia can also relate to, where people are no strangers to violence and suffering. La esperanza es lo último que se pierde, goes the saying in Spanish.
Blog: Gaziantep, Turkey
Placed on January 22, 2014
“These days you will find Syrians everywhere”, said someone about Gaziantep, the southeastern Turkish city where I was about to do most of my fieldwork.
But let’s go back a little bit first. Before coming here I arrived in Istanbul. From the first day there I saw Syrians everywhere. When my partner and I stepped out of the bus, we saw women with little children sitting near Gezi Park and selling paper tissues. “Suriye” was the only thing I understood from what they said to the passersby. They looked so tired and sad. This was a scene that repeated itself through the week in Istanbul: women with children and sometimes children by themselves, selling paper tissues. But there were also Syrians strolling like us through the mosques, obelisks and food carts, window-shopping, eating, and sitting around. One Syrian friend took us to a restaurant owned and run by Syrians. The food was amazing, colorful, flavorful and generous, and I loved how everything was served to share. This is something very special about Arabic people, how they gather around plenty of food and eat, talk, and share.
So then it came the time to go to Gaziantep. The city greeted us with much less English-speaking people and a combination of Turkish and Arabic everywhere. It is dusty, the traffic is chaotic, and almost everybody smokes on the streets and indoors, even though there are “no smoking” signs all around. And yes, Syrians are indeed everywhere.
After saying goodbye to my one and only I moved from the hotel to an apartment with around seven people and a half (a beautiful baby boy), although some nights other people come and spend the night. They are all Syrian and they all work for the NGO I am volunteering in. There at the NGO everyone is also Syrian. Every night in the apartment, quite late at night I may add, someone cooks a delicious dinner and we all gather around. They all start discussing the situation in Syria, laughing, making fun of someone. Sometimes they translate to me what they are saying, but most of the time I just pay attention to their gestures, to the way they eat, to their hands, to their eyes. It is wonderful just to be present although I do not understand most their conversations.
Gaziantep is a quiet and safe city to be in. But everyday life is troubling because most Syrians don’t speak Turkish and therefore try to avoid any contact with Turkish people. I can relate to this. Some Turkish people here have been awfully rude and get visibly annoyed with Syrian people –most of the people working in shops and restaurants think I am Syrian, and decide not to talk to me if I don’t answer in Turkish—. Perhaps we can’t blame them, nobody thought the situation in Syria would get this terrible and so many people were going to be forced to leave their homes and move to the neighboring countries. Nobody expected this exodus.
Doing fieldwork is usually a lonely experience. If you add to this being confronted daily with two foreign languages, and sharing with people that are also terribly lonely, well…loneliness duplicates. I am far away from home, and so are the Syrians I am sharing this experience with. And while Syria is just “around the corner”, the longing and anguish is much worse for them because of how awful the situation is there. All of the Syrians working in the NGO have build a bond between each other, and although some of them are here with their families, most of them are not and can’t even cross the border to check on them. I have seen and felt how much some of them love their hometowns, how they are longing to go back, how they manage to bring a little bit from home by spending time with each other. I have heard about their experiences in the crisis, horrible stories of bombings and attacks, but also sweet stories about their loved ones, their pets, their adventures.
It’s been amazing to see how people build solidarity links between each other, with people they didn’t even knew before, with such different stories of despair and survival. But they all stand together, trying to beat off the anguish and work for the better future of the country. They sing, they dance, they work together. They have even taken over a beautiful café that now is always filled with Syrians.
So this is all for now. Some of them will be going back before my next entry in this blog, others will stay here. To all of them I wish all the love and success in the world, and I really hope my stay here will contribute with something to their cause.