Antakya: A Lesson in Multiculturalism

In Western Europe there has been a lot of talk over whether the concept of multiculturalism is a lost cause.

I believe that the objective is still a fine one, but going about achieving it requires the kind of mutual understanding, tact and wisdom that is the product thousands of years of exposure to different peoples. Not to say that Europe has not had its share of demographic shifts, but it is lagging far behind when compared to, oh let’s say, the southern Turkish city of Antakya.

The area of Antakya has been a site of human settlement for over six thousand years. Each of the city’s proprietors, whether it be the Persians, Romans, Arabs or Turks, have left traces of their presence engrained in its countless historical sites and architecture. Antakya is better known in the west by its former name Antioch, which was officially changed to a more Turkish form after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. In this period, the new Republic engaged in a frenzy of nationalist ‘Turkification’ policies which affected everything from religion and governance, to music and language. Many policies specifically targeted what would be known in today’s parlance as ‘multiculturalism’, which was considered a risk to the integrity of the corporate state.

Although these policies succeeded in imbibing a strong sense of nationalism in other parts of Turkey, Antakya retains a distinctively relaxed atmosphere which I have not found anywhere in Turkey, where issues of identity and loyalty are of the utmost importance. Not so, in Antakya – I could feel something different was at work here the moment I arrived, in the most unexpected of ways:

Firstly, I should point out that one of the funniest/most excruciating features of living in Turkey comes in asking for directions. Turkish people have a truly deserved fame for their willingness to help, but this is to the extent that even if they do not know the place you are looking for, they will still give you vague directions out of a genuine hope that you will find it eventually. This is not limited just to tourists, as writer Elif Shafak confirms in a piece titled “How to say ‘I don’t know’”, which I recommend for reading with a good translation.

However, when I arrived and intrepidly began searching for a hotel which exists only on the internet, it was in people’s various responses that I realised I was in a place marching to its own drum. I marvelled joyously at the amount of ‘I don’t knows’ I heard, and when someone did end up sending me on a wild goose-chase it was with a look which betrayed a serious lack of practise in the fine art of trying to appear helpful.

What’s more, I found that Antakya is probably Turkey’s best place to spark up instant friendships. None of the conversational exchanges I had resulted in being given either to little, or too much attention. The reasons for this are two-fold and make Antakya perfect for travellers: Firstly, most of the city’s visitors are religious pilgrims, for reasons I shall go into in a moment, but this is a blessing (pun intended) for travellers, as you will not have been preceded by bands of rowdy young party animals or walking bank machines who will leave you looking an easy target in the market place. The second reason for the ability to make friends is that Antakya itself is such a melting pot, that to have a narrow mind out of the question.

Before the last demographic survey in 1939, Turks came to make up just over half of the province – the rest mostly comprising Arab followers of the Alevi sect (a branch generally associated with Shi’a Islam) and Christianity. In the time before and since, the city has been visited by innumerable pilgrims on the way from Turkey, Iran and the Balkans on the way to the holy sites of Syria and the greater Middle East. Apparently, up to 60 percent of Antakya’s population speaks Arabic.

There are a number of contentious issues regarding attitude to minorities such as the Alevis and Christians in other parts of Turkey, but you would not think so by walking around Antakya, which is a testament to the integrity of the people’s tolerance and the clear reality of the make-up of the city, to which no one group dominates. While on our way toward the old cave of St Peter, one of Christianity’s oldest churches, on the slopes of the Mt. Starius, I and my travelling companion were struck by the amount of people, instinctively smiling and pointing us in the (right!) direction.

On the way back into town, we stopped to inspect the oldest Mosque in Anatolia, the imposing, albeit humble, Habib-i Nejjar. We found inscribed on a plaque in the inner courtyard, the tale of the mosque’s founding. The story truly enshrines the essence of the city itself.

Having conquered the city in 636, the eminent Islamic commander Abu Ubaidah ibn al-Jerrah was shown the site of the graves of two of Jesus’ apostles who had travelled to the area – known locally as Yunus and Yahya. Buried alongside the two, rests the town’s first Muslim leader – the namesake Habib-i Nejjar. The story of the mosque’s founding is a reminder of a time before the Christian sphere of the world was brought together by an intense mutual hostility of Islam, and when, from the perspective or early Islamic history, Muslims were more greatly accepting of Christianity as a component of their own tradition.

After reading this story, everything about Antakya fell into place. In the parts of Turkey where the ancient churches have not been left to decay, they are often sealed beyond highly defensive walls and locked but for one or two days the week. In Antakya all religious buildings are ready to receive guests and worshippers, and are tended by locals.

What I found most interesting, compared to other religious heartlands on the Turkish map, was that the spirit of tolerance in Antakya did not only extend to those of a local denomination, but even to those potentially without a denomination at all. A spiritual city with a care-free ambiance is the best way to put it; religious, but with none of the complexes of what many would call ‘conservative’ towns in the area, which can appear uncomfortable and judgemental to outsiders. There are few bars, but those few felt no shame in having seating areas outside on the main street. In any case, the city park, on the banks of the River Asi is the best place to hang-out and meet people. It is a harmless environment full of groups of families and friends, young lovers, and an unusually high amount of joggers.

The city’s ambiguous nature is a source of pride, not contention, for all Antakyans. No-matter what group or sect, people make friends, go about their business, marry, have children and go to the park. Each part adds to the tapestry of life in the city. It would be naïve and highly inaccurate to assume it has always remained a utopian island in a sea of unrest, but it is worth considering that multiculturalism as it is practised, or rather, as it is lived in Antakya, is the result of centuries of living side by side with variety, to the extent that difference becomes the norm.

For those questioning the virtues of multiculturalism it may not be a smooth journey, but if we can learn anything from Antakya, it is that time is the essential component to success.


A Pause for Thought (1): Why Turkey?

Something has happened whereby I cannot remember how to order food and don’t know what side of a car to get into. Panicked for my own safety, today I went to the doctor and asked for a “biological MOT”, only to be stared back at blankly. “Is that a normal thing to ask for?” I asked anxiously. “Only when you’re fifty” was the pitiful reply.

No, I am not going senile at twenty-four. Neither, am I experiencing some kind of premature ‘man-o-pause’, what has happened is that I have returned to Britain after over two years of work and stress in Turkey, and I don’t think it could have come sooner.

One of the thing’s I’ve come to appreciate is the greenery. The cities here are planned with open space and the summer sky in mind as, unlike Turkey, there are no awkwardly close-together, five-story apartments sprawling up out of every available crevice. And so nothing stands in the way between me and the blistering grey melancholy lingering overhead. Needless to say it would be perfect if it were all a little more in-the-Mediterranean. But that’s me being fussy. Besides, there are many worse things about Britain than the weather. But it would be dramatically selfish of me to go on about all that. At this point, with yet another year left to go in Turkey it’s better for the psyche that I stay clear of nostalgia and treat the Yoo-kay as my stop-off point before re-entry.

Because the best thing about being back here is having a literal breath of fresh air. Now I think a review of the situation is in order. What is my reason for staying in Turkey? Maybe I should start by asking what I was doing in the first place.

Between the usual ice-breakers at parties, people generally ask me “why did you choose to come to Turkey?” to which I often reply “I ask myself the same question every morning”. A small chuckle ensues, and then we talk about something else.

Answering honestly requires time, thought and reflection, which many social situations don't allow. There is a basic narrative I cling to about what happened, and it begins with getting off the plane and instantly hating Turkey. In 2008 I came to Ankara as a young, innocent, liberal, quietly religious, left-wing Muslim convert from England, shaken to death by what I heard and saw from people my age. They were aggressive in their attitudes, intellectually stuck in the 20th century, and as politically correct as a Fox news anchor. On the other hand, my great error was believing myself to be enlightened and open-minded enough to go with the flow, anywhere I went, and expecting young people from any Muslim country to be the same as the young Muslims I was friends with in my own country. Call it naive, call it ignorant - whatever it was it was, my own alienation shocked me.

Rather than explaining all this you can see why I would avoid the question, or prefer to focus on bitching about Ankara, which is much more socially acceptable if only because the city is like the worst parts of Birmingham bundled together and dropped onto a desert plain. For eight months of my stay in Ankara, the only beauty I saw was on trips out of the city, in the surrounding country and the eastern provinces. In any case, the positive effects of these journies were not long-lasting because whilst living in the city, my fear and disillusionment was so bad that I restricted myself to the company of other foreigners almost the whole time.
I had failed to crack the country, and for that I returned to Britain ashamed.

I'm not the only one in history to fail to 'break' a country. Look at the Normans (stick with it - i'm a history student). Their architecture from Sicily and Italy, shows how much, as a civilisation, they fused with local populations. Looking at the their ruins in the Holy Land however, and you’ll see how even the simpliest churches were constructed like minature gothic fortresses: A symbol of the alienation they felt from the surrounding native culture, and their subseqent defensive and self-affirmating attitude. If it’s not inappropriate or ridiculous enough as a Muslim, to compare my first experience of Turkey to that of a band of Medieval Crusaders, then my second example may be even less appropriate: There is a wonderful essay about Christian missionaries landing in Africa by Richard Price, titled How British Humanitarians Learnt Racism in the British Empire 1840-1860, and I suggest reading it for anyone interested in 'culture shock' or travelling in general.
The comparisons may be out-there, but the main link between myself and the Priest who found that his arguements about God did not stand the scrutiny of an African tribal lord, is that similarly, I arrived with a view of the world which did not stand up in debate and thus caused what Price calls an “intellectual anxiety" attack. The missionaries arrived assuming the equality of humanity and the universality of their own ideas. Now, the equality of humans is one thing, but the universality of the ideas of a second-year history student from Birmingham is quite another. It was the realisation of this that made me retreat into my own ignorance. For me it was literally the smashing of my naïve idea that I was going to a community which, through bonds of faith, I had the right to call my own from day one, but soon found it reflected none of my beliefs or ideas.

Thus, I failed to learn any of the language, whilst condemning it as simple and poor. I complained that their state was founded by utter fascists, and this I proclaimed, with the zeal of a fascist. 
I also never learnt backgammon, and judging from my current ability you'd think I hadn't tried since either.

My raison d’etre coming back home, was then to spend a year studying nothing but Turkey and then return triumphantly. My goal was to go away with my feeling I could integrate whilst still being open to learning a thing or two, and consider more-deeply my own beliefs with the benefit of better historical and cultural understanding.

Working in a state school put a lot of the attitudes and ideas I had had trouble with into perspective - as they were on the syllabus (see photo of school display promoting militarism and Ataturk's personality cult). But to find people from different age-groups, social classes, back-grounds and cultures, I would have to learn the language. That was another year. Now (insha'Allah) on the road to fluency - what is my current excuse for being in Turkey?

Is it enough that I can’t remember how to order fish n' chips?
A time to reflect…


New Interest in No Interest

I never cease being annoyed by Bank Asya. Firstly, when I joined them I had to wait over a month for their card to come in the post. I went to the local branch and queued-up twice to enquire about speeding-up the process, and as though the card was attatched to some kind of elaborate tracking device clipped onto a pigeon, they looked at the computer screen and told me it was on its way. It was only the third time I came, that from beyond the sublime, frosted-glass offices adjacent to the main service desk a man came and told me they could cancel it and prepare a new one for me in fifteen minutes, if I could wait that long. Words fail me at this point.
The second reason for my constant annoyance is that Bank Asya’s bank machine distribution per square mile of Turkey correlates equally with the number of karaoke bars per square mile of Saudi Arabia. If you are familiar with the Levent district of Istanbul, you will know that it is the centre of every bank in the country. Not for Asya. You may also know that Istiklal Caddessi is the longest, most crowded shopping street in the city with banks everywhere. Except for Asya.
Thus, if you ever saw me on the street in the last few months you missed crime of the century as at any one time I'd have had at least five hundred liras on me. You may consider it unwise to announce this on the internet but trust me, I would only be spending that on the amount that other banks charge me for using their machines every month as a 'loyalty charge'.
Sometimes I wonder why my employers ever recommended the bank in the first place, and why did I go along with it? To be honest I don't know much about the difference between banks and settled for it as I tend to keep grudges with other banks. I like the green logo for Garanti, but I remember them shutting their doors on me with ten minutes before closing once, and Finans Bank are everywhere, but two years ago in Izmir they consistently denied me access to Western Union, thereby attempting to starve me out of the city.
So why suggest Asya? One of two reasons: Either because the business I work for, Leeds Akademi, finds itself pride of place amongst religiously-inspired businesses, which according to rumour Bank Asya is, or it is because it’s the closest bank to the religiously-inspred school they said company place me with a job in.
I should point out that many Turks will talk about certain companies, even certain supermarkets, as being ‘Islamist’ - which I do find petty, as though I have to remove my shoes before entering, and might have a hand sawn off for using a friend’s bonus card. Of course I’d heard the gossip about Asya being 'Islamist', but I sort of dismiss things like that with all the other lob-sided conspiracy-theory chatter that unfortunately obsesses anyone who opposes the government from the safety of a bar stool.
Whilst looking for the online banking option on Asya’s website yesterday however, I discovered exactly what they meant from a page titled “about interest-free banking”. I merely stumbled on it but of course – a bank declining to make money from usury is working in-line with Islamic economic principles.
The sense from the website is that Asya are quite coy about being labelled religiously-inspired. Obviously this is not to alienate potential share-holders from other faiths, but you kind of get the feeling they are trying too hard in places to not mention the 'I-word' when others, are clearly not bothered - here are some highlights taken from the FAQs:
“the history of interest-free banking dates at Hammurabi who reigned in Babylon between 2123 and 2081 BC... The interest-free banks do not bear any ideology… Since their foundation, regardless of religion, language, political view, religious sect or ethnicity interest free banks have worked with all parts of society... (Are they going for Miss Universe?) ... Switzerland, Luxemburg, Denmark, Philippines, United States of America, England, South Africa and the Bahamas are among the countries which have the banks working on interest-free banking principle. Besides, Citibank, Union Bank of Switzerland, Kleinwort Benson, ANZ Grindlays, Goldman Sachs (last but not least!) United Bank of Kuwait and Arab Banking Corporation have interest-free banking departments”
Dobra dobra konush. Translation: Call a spade a spade.
The famous Turkish Sheikh Bediuzzaman Said Nursi was once asked, during the occupation of Istanbul, what the remedy was for man’s troubles. His reply was “the prohibition of interest and usury, and the obligatory payment of charity”. The man was proved correct about a good deal of things in his own time, so I’ve decided to investigate the pros and cons of interest-free, that is to say, Islamic finance in the current age.
One of the things I’ll be most interested in, apart from how Islamic finance could have prevent the bust-and-boom (well, bust-and-bust) patterns we have been used to for our entire lives, but which apparently were a lot less influential on our day-to-day existence not to long ago.
I’ll also be interested in exactly how these banks bag and distribute the money they do. For if I opt for it, apparently my account can gain money which is not interest, despite looking and feeling a lot like interest. This basically entails investing “in all kinds of raw material, goods and semi-manufactured goods, real estates, machines and equipments required for enterprises… payment of the costs in cash to the dealer on behalf of customer and debiting it to the customer for a certain period.” I would thus earn a share of the profits in the future.
The difference according to Asya, is that “whereas the earning acquired at the end of a term is guaranteed in interest-bearing systems, it is determined as per the efficiency of the supported projects in interest-free systems.” What I can gather from this that a one-size fits all approach is given to lending in interest banks, in terms of time or quantity, but a flexible and more ethical-sounding approach is said to be maintained at Asya, where the profits are shared-out whenever they are yeilded.
As far as conspiracy theories go, then there is arguably a circle of connections between government and the new big economic players who have spawned out of Anatolia with a more politically liberal, socially conservative attitude. The main share-holders listed on Asya’s website include Ortadoğu Tekstil Ticaret San. and Birim Birleşik İnşaatçılık Mümessillik San. along with a guy called Abdulkadir Konukoğlu owns 2,23%.
Regard the latter fellow, one impartial observer on eksisozluk.com wrote that “if Karl Marx returns from the grave, then we should have this man thrown into it”, citing poor pay and working conditions for workers in his factories in Gazi Antep, whose football team he also owns.
That’s all very well, but it doesn’t show big businessmen doing anything out of the ordinary. If we want intrigue then we could look at the fact that Ortadoğu Tekstil Ticaret San. is a connection owned by the chalik family of Çalık Holdings, whose CEO, Berat Albayrak (the son-in-law of Turkey's Prime Minister) was tainted with suspicion for abuse of his connections when he bought two big media outlets in 2008 for minimum price, as the sole bidder, with mega loans from two state banks.
So two options: Seeing as they openly flooded my local branch with AKP leaflets before the election, you can assert that Bank Asya are, quite openly, a religiously-based company supporting a religiously-inspired party who thus don't have to try quite so hard to curry favour with the big men in Ankara, or, you could weave all of these connections to show that they are "turning Turkey into Iran" and creating a religious elite which controls all the money the state should control.
It’s your choice, but I wouldn’t worry about a bank setting-up a new Iran when they don't even think to set-up a cash machine in Taksim.


And Speaking of Social Segregation…

Some of the most articulate minds I’ve had the pleasure of seeing in any school were at the conference, made up of high school students from three Istanbul schools. The subject of the debate: Social Segregation. Some wonderful points were made regarding injustice in societies based on race, religion and beliefs, and even some sociological enquiry into the possible reasons and means of prevention that could be taken were also discussed.
The conference lasted about an hour and half before the bell rang for lunch – but first, as with any event that would fill some space on the school newspaper – a few photos: One with teachers and students, one with just the students, one with the class teachers and the students, and finally, one with just the students and teachers who were not wearing hijab. What was the topic again? Who even cares, I thought.
In school publishing, paraphernalia and brochures ect, the slightest mention cannot be made of our policy that if a girl chooses to wear the hijab after the age of fourteen, then she may do so. It is a logical scheme which, if practised in the rest of Turkey would lead to much less societal division than the current political divisions allowing it represents.
For as with all things in Turkey, society is too far ahead of politicians for them to be entirely comfortable. The fact is, that mixed groups of hijab’d/none-hijab’d women walk the streets without the later feeling pressured into having to conform despite what opposition mantas would have us believe.
There is a kind of anger only familiar to history and sociology students, which originates from a rounded understanding of the complete absurdity of humans in their historical context. In this context for example, knowing that if it wasn’t for the Orientalist persuasions of the European elite of the 19th century, and their way of life being so appealing to a class of disgruntled bourgeoisie officers in the late Ottoman Empire, and those people having never quite lost their tendency to define a strict model of modernisation based on physical appearance (and being able to tell people how to physically appear) in Turkey, then I would not be forced to be complicit in this absurdity which should, after all that time, have been resolved.
If these people could realise that the girls, despite having social segregation ingrained in their very core, still have a greater capacity to make the kind of rational, critical and intellectual points that would make a young Halide Edip go weak at the knees, then maybe we wouldn’t be in this mess.
My frustrations temporarily drifted away. Despite my internal dialogue, for the only thing that seemed worthy of point for the girls leaving the stage was that while we were still taking photos, they got to go to lunch early.


My Obsessions Are Becoming Manifest...

It was a lonely Valentine's Day last year in Izmir, but I made it through all with the aid of a tub of ice-cream, a blanket, a bottle of something Turkish and the movie Selvi Boylum Al Yazmalim (The Girl With The Red Scarf).

The 1978 romance classic stars macho (and indicatively moustachio'd) Kadir Inanir, along with raven-haired Yesil Cam bombshell Turkan Shoray (pictured below). This is the first Turkish movie I bought with the intention of watching all the way through despite not understanding a vast amount of the plot. So it will be nice to watch it tonight that I might get a lot more of the storyline - The main thing I want to clear up being this:

Exactly why is it that Inanir, having married his lover-at-(understandly)-first-sight Shoray and had a child with her, slaps her in a car park for no apparent reason? Whatever the reason, which could be something to do with Inanir's bimbo secretary, this sends Shoray on a physically and mentally challenging life path, but one that ultimately leads her to discover the meaning of love and find freedom from the eternal prison that is the regret of a lost love. I'm still not sure if he should have slapped her, but at least I will know why, hopefully.


Book Review: Practical Turkish Course for Foreigners

So 45 liras is quite an investment. But it goes a long way. Dr Mufit Yildirim Alp is a distiguished expert on lanuages and taught Turkish in the United States for many years.

I recommend this book as a way of accessing Turkish for many reasons. Firstly, it doesn't waste too much time early on with useful but unimportant conversation killers like "how are you" "i'm from England" "my name is Mehmet" ect. It offers exactly what it says on the cover. Practical Turkish.

Secondly, I love way a digestable amount of vocabulary is joined with at least two grammar points in each chapter. The beauty of this in later chapters is that only one of those grammar points will be the focus, whilst one sentence will contain a small grammar point that hasn't been commented upon by the author thus encouraging investigation on the reader's part. Also, Yildirim Alp deals with the first pages with great humour. Simple grammar conversations can be scrunitising to read out as an English teacher, but the writer allows himself a smug joke here and there with ridiculous lines and names. I mean, it's not comedy-award winning don't get me wrong, but if learning a language is about communicating personality then the writer should be noted as one who can do just that.

I'm not big on courses and homework. I can see how this would be a great book accompanied by a course, but I got alot by using this on my own and I that's credit to how user-friendly it is. I finished about half-way through and made out on my own in Turkey after that - but as I read more Turkish I know I can get more from refering to this book from time-to-time.

Worth every penny.

The Syrian Camps: We Want the Clear Position of the Turkish

So here are the pictures we got out of the camps last week. People protesting against the Syrian regime and the situation they find themselves in Turkey. The cut-throat sense of irony of amongst the Syrian protestors was clear as soon as videos came out of placards escribed with the message "Syrian germs saluting the Libyan rats!", a reference to the various insults used by the leaders of those countries against their respective pro-democracy protestors.

And the irony continues as a vital component of discussions amongst refugees here: "Are we in Syria?" is an obvious comment on the restrictions and self-imposed censorship of the media. International organisations and the media have by-and-large accepted Turkey's handling of the crisis alone as acceptable. Syrian media makes alot of describing the terrible conditions in the camps as a means of keeping the protests within its reach, and the opposition is far too concerned not to annoy Turkey for which it eventually hopes will step up and support it. Eventually.

Turkey has been playing such a careful game, despite the tough words of the pre-election period, that its position is not clear to the opposition in Syria. In any case, for the moment Turkey has time to wait for which side of history it's best to be on. It has little to lose but in the mean-time pro-democracy protestors will just have to be content to trickle in and out of camps on the southern border having no-one to hear their stories.

In the end, Today's Zaman published me and beth's article here, with a good chunk of editing. See it here.


Hunger strikes begin in Syrian camps

This is the best photo we could get. Things were tough in the initial confusion of the Syria crisis, and this is as close as any outsiders could get.

On a day in which two out of five of the Syrian camps along the Turkish border declared a hunger strike, we join a couple of activists on a visit to deliver a handful of goods to alleviate conditions for the refugees.
An abandoned tobacco factory, site of the Yayladağı camp, is surrounded on all sides with steel fencing capped with barbed wire and blue plastic sheeting to block any view from outside. Police and security services focus most of their attention on guarding the main gate, which seems to be the only way in-and-out of the camp. They seem a little tense. With no exchanging of salams they inform us that only families or spouses can enter the camp – and no pictures please. Perhaps they are particularly tense as the local provincial governor is also on a visit. Our friends, both Turks and Syrians have asked if they can enter. Police send a go-between to ask the governor, who returns a short time later to say that he has given them the go-ahead. Maybe the police are not convinced – we are still unable to cross. At least we are allowed to pass bags of clothing through the fence.
The open hunger strike at the camp was announced in a statement last night aimed towards the Turkish government. Although the refugees thank Turkey for the support and provisions it has provided thus far they none-the-less aim to address issues that have arisen in the last few weeks. Namely, these issues have been the “poor treatment [received] from the camps supervisors”, and a severe lack of “medical and nutritious supplies, and the care for children.” The statement goes on to emphasise the last point as up to 50% of camps’ populations are made up of children. This fact is clearly no exaggeration, from the noise coming from within. The statement continues to “demand” that Turkey allow in more international bodies to provide humanitarian aid.
The most concerning aspects of the announcement was the statement that refugees “are exposed to internal and external pressures in an attempt to force [them] to go back to Syria”. This is a perception supported by local activists, who point to several examples in the daily running of the refugee operation as evidence of this. As one source wryly commented, “if you urgently need an ambulance it can take two days to arrive, if you say you’d like to return to Syria they can have a car ready in fifteen minutes”.
And indeed many Syrians have chosen to stick it out and return to their home villages despite continued military activity in the north-west by the infamous 4th brigade, of whom Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan stated "don't behave like humans."
However, encouraging many refugees to return prematurely have not just been the poor conditions at the camps, where all but a few Turkish NGOs have been refused the right of access. There have also been suspicious claims that pro-regime agents from Syria have been entering the camps to inform the ‘guests’ (Turkey refuses to use the legally significant term 'refugee') that everything is alright and that they may return home unharmed. Unfortunately this has not turned out to be true for many returnees, and hideous stories of torture have returned to the camps. Whether these agents are complicit in the fate of those who return is debatable – at the very least though, Syrian state TV has been emphasising reports of poor conditions at the camps to dissuade would-be activists from looking to Turkey for help. Refugees returning home looks good for the regime and discredits the uprising. The representatives of the regime, themselves from local areas and villages in the north-west of the country, have the freedom to arrive and then leave the camps at will where many agencies, and of course the refugees themselves, have no such rights.
Media Blackout
Circling the perimeter fence, every few metres we are greeted by tiny faces peeping out from beneath the material. One young girl shouts “come come” in Turkish, and after some waving and smiling we exchange a “bye bye” in English. This must all be a curious spectacle for some of the youngest at the camp – the funny foreign words, the tents, the older kids climbing the fence to tease police. But this is as much of the camp as we can see. Restrictions on communication have also been almost entirely restricted.
According to Selcuk Unal, the spokesman for the Turkish Foreign ministry, “the Syrians in the camp reacted when we recorded them first at the camp”, the restrictions have been set in place to ensure the safety of those fleeing the strife, at a time when the results of the conflict are still unclear. Protection for army defectors and their families has also been alluded to as a reason for not allowing journalists inside. This has created the impression that many in the camps are unwilling to talk, however the following story shows a different current within the camp;
A journalist who arrived a few weeks ago heard second-hand, the story of a woman whose husband, satisfied with the arguments of pro-regime personnel entering the camp, decided to go home – although she chose to remain at the camp. Unfortunately once back in Syria, he was shot dead by soldiers. Immediately after this occurred his wife called. One of the soldiers present proudly answered to inform her of what he had just done.
The journalist was overcome by the story, and so was a little uneasy asking a mutual contact to arrange an interview with the widow so soon after the event. Yet surprisingly, the woman was more than happy to speak about the events, and agreed to an interview over the fence. After a few questions the police were on the scene and escorted the journalist to a nearby police station. Here she was made to sign a declaration promising to never return to the camps.
This is not the only example of refugees having suffered extreme hardship, wanting to tell their stories. Whether to journalists, psychologists or even to wandering Swedish artists wanting to collect paintings from the children of the camp, outside contact has been restricted to only telephone communications and one instance of a visit from journalists, where a certain six refugees were given the shared time of half and hour to talk. Cameras are banned both in and around the site, despite the ability for refugees to use camera-phones to smuggle some pictures from inside the camp. Written accounts from people inside the camps are also being smuggled out to activists who are working to get some media attention on the situation.
It appears that the refugees want to be heard from inside the camps. As Turkey has been providing for its ‘guests’, criticism has not been so forthcoming from Syrian opposition, activists or the international community. Refugees stress a need for more external support, in terms of better healthcare and food as well as a means to communicate with the outside world.
This was written with Bethany Shiner, who I must thank for her great contacts, media-savy, sneakiness and of course, great company, in Hatay this week.