Research terminology from the ‘Global North’ to the ‘Global South’ – conceptualisations, interpretations and challenges from Hatay, Turkey.

Home to about half a million Syrian refugees, Hatay is a diverse Turkish city where Southern Responses to Displacement Researcher, Amal Shaiah Istanbouli, has been conducting interviews with Syrian refugees and Turkish local community members.  In this piece Amal discusses some of the challenges she found in ‘classifying’ Syrian refugees and other local resident interlocutors that occupy and identify with multiple histories and identities within the context of displacement from Syria and how she explored terms such as ‘response’ and in particular ‘Southern’ and ‘Northern’ responses with interlocutors, including INGOs and other aid providers.  Exploring how these terms are conceptualised by refugees, host communities and aid providers is a key aim of the Southern Responses to Displacements’ research project. You can read more about these aims here, here and here.

If you find this piece of interest please visit our Thinking through the Global South series and visit the recommended reading at the end of this piece. 

Research terminology from the ‘Global North’ to the ‘Global South’ – conceptualisations, interpretations and challenges from Hatay, Turkey. 

by Amal Shaiah Istanbouli, Southern Responses To Displacement Researcher.


In this blog, I outline some key themes that have emerged during my time as a researcher based in Antakya (South Turkey) for over a year for the Southern Responses Project. Antakya/ Hatay province is a small, ancient city on the Turkish-Syrian borders with the older generation of Turkish people speaking Arabic as a mother tongue. Historically Antakya has always embraced people from different faiths and beliefs such as Christians, Jews and Muslims. Now it has become home for about half a million Syrian refugees, making Hatay one of the cities that welcomed the largest number of Syrian refugees over the last ten years. As a researcher who herself lives in Hatay, I conducted over 70 face to face and online interviews including Syrian people living in Antakya, local members of the host community, local/international NGO and civil society representatives and local residents of other nationalities too. The aim of the interviews was mainly to understand how different interlocutors perceive the difference between Southern and Northern providers of assistance and protection in Antakya. However, exploring and unpacking some of the project’s key terms – including ‘response,’ ‘South and ‘North’ and even ‘refugee’- during the interviews sheds light on important insights developed from interlocutors’ perceptions which I will discuss in this blog. 

The challenges

Classifying interlocutors

The first challenge started even before we started the interviews: it is where and how to situate certain interlocutors. Classifying the interlocutors into groups such as ‘Syrian refugees’ and ‘Turkish host community members,’ etc, was problematic.

For Syrians, there are many factors: some had inherited Turkish citizenship from their ancestors (such as people of Turkmen origin), some have exceptional citizenship, a citizenship given to some Syrians by the Turkish government without clear criteria; and some have married Turkish citizens. Each of these factors has a different impact. Being granted the citizenship, for example, didn’t have a great implication on Syrians’ lives, namely my interlocutors: they continue to identify themselves and are identified by others as Syrian refugees. The refugee term here is used to refer to their social self-perception rather than their legal status. On the contrary, Syrians married to Turkish citizens identify themselves as locals on the basis that they mix with Turkish families-in-law and other Turkish circles, even if they have not yet formally been granted citizenship. Moreover, they acquired the Turkish language with a local dialect, which affects their classification as well.

Interestingly, some Turkish interlocutors had also been well established in Syria a long time ago before 2011. They moved to Turkey alongside Syrian refugees; moreover, they found themselves following the same endeavours of the Syrian refugees, in terms of finding a job and re-establishing themselves in Turkey. In such a situation, the borders between host community and home town are blurred.

A Turkish resident said:

Let me clarify that I was living in Syria until 2012, and I reached here with the refugees. I was working in Aleppo. When I first arrived here, like any refugee, I started looking for a job.

Another Turkish woman who used to live in Syria narrated her displacement journey:

I came here in 2012. Before that I was displaced to other cities inside Syria like Raqqa or Aleppo. Then finally we came here. I am Turkish but my husband is Syrian. I was in Syria since 2003…When I first came, I started from scratch. Some people helped me. For example, my neighbours, who knew me long time ago as we were friends at school. They gave me two ovens, clothes and curtains’

The terminology

Explaining the terminology underpinning the ‘Southern Responses to Displacement’ project to interlocutors with backgrounds which are not linked to the humanitarian field was not easy. This tells us a lot about the perspectives of our interlocutors in particular and the community in general. It also poses many questions on what makes a response unclear, hardly accessible and even hidden in such a small city.

Meaning of response

In the ‘Southern Responses to Displacement’ research project, ‘response’ is taken to include all kinds of aid, support and services provided by all actors, whether NGOs, national entities, locals providers, grass root organizations or newly arrived refugees. However, refugees from Syria and Turkish local residents understood the word differently and focused on different aspects of the response.

The first part of this challenge has thus entailed understanding what response means for refugees and for local residents. As a whole, during our interviews, most refugees from Syria focused on services that are concrete, measurable and permanent. Things such as food baskets and other forms of cash support came first to their minds when they heard the word ‘aid’ or ‘services’, while, as a whole, they disregarded other services, such as free health care services and medication, in addition to free education at schools and universities and all other related facilities. Moreover, they rarely mentioned less visible services including capacity building programs, such as free courses and seminars, in addition to advocacy campaigns.

During these interviews, I found myself trying to expand the notion of ‘service providers’ outside the borders of NGOs or beyond providers who focus on distributing in-kind materials aid. To do so, questions about main sources of services were sometimes followed up with another question about whether they were aware of or had accessed free courses, scholarships, health care services, in order to ensure that the interview covered a broader range of services.

Services that refugees first thought of in the interviews were different from what the host community members referred to. Unlike refugees, Turkish host community members were aware of a different range of services, namely, health care and education. Some interlocutors expressed their frustration that Syrians get free health services and free education. According to them, Syrian refugees get these services with access to more facilities than Turkish citizens themselves. Services such as health care facilities and education are more visible to Turkish local residents than NGOs’ aid programmes because local residents observe and interact with Syrian refugees in spaces such as hospitals, schools and markets.

These spaces of interaction have first magnified the scale of these services, in particular when the number of Syrian refugees benefiting from these services is noticeable, whether school students or patients at the hospitals. Furthermore, this has nourished the fabrication of many stories around these services, even when these accounts do not correspond with reality. ‘Syrian students enter universities without exams’ and ‘Syrians don’t have to queue at hospitals’: These two scenarios (and similar ones) were narrated first hand by my interlocutors – local residents and refugees alike – as they reported incidents where they have been told that this was the case.

A Syrian teacher reported similar incidents:

They say we take their jobs and benefit from the government more than them. I try to clarify misconceptions about Syrians. A teacher once told me ‘Syrians enter universities without exams’. Another teacher at school once told me ‘do you see this job you are doing now, this should have been my son’s job, but you have taken it’.

Another Syrian refugee said:

Local residents should stop saying Erdogan is giving you money. I faced such a situation in the fresh market. A woman saw me picking fresh fruit from the seller and she said ‘of course you will select the freshest because you don’t care about money, Erdogan is paying everything for you.

While a Turkish local resident said:

‘If I am waiting in the hospital, a Syrian woman may immediately enter the doctor’s room without being in the queue and she justifies this by saying that she is Syrian and she doesn’t have to wait. This actually happened to me. A Syrian woman refused to wait in the queue and she insisted on this’.

South vs North from research to interlocutors

The second challenge in terminology relates to ‘the South’ and ‘the North,’ which are themselves terms that are being explored in the project (see here). When I introduced how the ‘North’ and ‘South’ are conceptualised in the research, I was repeatedly asked ‘is it about the lines of the equator? But Syria is not even South of the equator?’ Although the project aims to avoid negative phrasing and positioning [Exploring refugees’ conceptualisations of Southern-led humanitarianism – Southern Responses to Displacement], this required me, as the interviewer, to paraphrase and explain the term in other words, such as saying that ‘the North’ includes Europe, the US, Canada and big international NGOs/ providers coming from these countries.

At this point of the interviews, many interesting discussions arose, such as interlocutors mentioning the Polish initiative in Turkey PAH or the Turkish government and local Turkish service providers, and asking whether they can be considered South or North. As a researcher, I stepped back to encourage the interlocutors to provide their own input, as one of the project’s aims is precisely to explore our interlocutors’ own conceptualisations of ‘the South’ and of ‘responses’ to displacement.

Some other interlocutors took the term ‘South’ to refer to the south of Turkey or South of Syria. I had to be very precise in asking the question to encourage the interlocutor to focus on the main ideas which are at the core of the research project.

A Turkish humanitarian worker in an INGO explained his point of view:

‘This Umbrella of south and North doesn’t fit in our situation…Maybe I can add the Polish NGO, they are present in Turkey, whether you consider them south or north. I don’t know.

While another humanitarian worker expressed that the term southern provider is unclear to him:

‘No, I am not familiar with the term. If I ever heard this term, I link it to southern areas in Syria such as Deraa’. He suggested: ‘I would use southern provider as a geographical term for targeted areas. I would say a service provider for Syrians or for the MENA region’.

Understanding ‘what is the North’ and ’what is the South’ is a key element in the research. South and North are not defined in terms of geographical perspectives here: it is more about power, processes, practices and policies. Many interlocutors paused at this stage of the interview to discuss Orientalism and to explore what is East and West. Here, in the research, the discussion is brought again but with new terms and definitions, from a different perspective focusing on the humanitarian response.

A Syria refugee reported:

Well let me first clarify that Turkey is north for me. The amount of service and help they provide for Syrians is unprecedented’.

While a Syrian local provider insisted on defining the organization as a northern one:

My NGO is definitely a Northern not a southern provider, we have a huge budget and our programmes are enormous’.

Lastly, the interlocutors defined these terms based on their understanding of where Turkey, Syria and other Northern providers lie. Most of the time the term أجانب ‘Ajaneb’ (Arabic for ‘foreigners’), was used by those who decided to situate and examine the response using terms other than those proposed by the research: North and South. The term ‘ajaneb’ was used mainly to refer to any ‘foreign’ provider i.e. non-Syrian for Syrians, or non-Turkish for local residents.   


These rich exchanges around definitions, terminology, and conceptualisations from the perspective of different interlocutors help us explore and develop new meanings of ‘responses to displacement’ and ‘the South’ alike. Such exchanges reflect the interlocutors’ understanding of what they hear, know and circulate about refugees and the different responses that have been taking place in the small city of Antakya.


If you found this piece of interest please visit our Thinking through the Global South series and visit the recommended reading below. 

Akay Erturk, S. (2020) The effects of COVID-19 on Syrian refugees in Turkey

Akay Erturk, S. (2020) Taking refuge in time, space and place: The case of Syrian refugees in Turkey

Akay Erturk, S. (2020) ‘Syrian refugees and the transformation of Turkey’s rural areas

Berg, M. and Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2018) ‘Hospitality and Hostility towards Migrants: Global Perspectives—An Introduction

Carpi, E. (2019) Thinking Power Relations across Humanitarian Geographies: Southism as a Mode of Analysis

Carpi, E. (2018) Empires of Inclusion?

Carpi, E. (2017) ‘Syrians in Akkar: Refugees or Neighbours?

Delioglu, F. (2019) The ‘Al Shami Kitchen Project’ – Solidarity amongst Syrian Refugee Women in Izmit, Turkey

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2020) Introduction: Recentering the South in Studies of Migration

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2018) Thinking through ‘the global South’ and ‘Southern-responses to displacement’: An introduction.

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2018) The Localisation of Aid and Southern-led Responses to Displacement: Beyond instrumentalising local actors

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. and Daley, P. (2018) Conceptualising the global South and South–South encounters

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2017) ‘Representations of Displacement Series: Introduction’

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2017) “Syrian Refugees in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon Face an Uncertain 2017”

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2018) ‘Histories and spaces of Southern-led responses to displacement

Greatrick, A. (2018) ‘Hearing Marginalisation and Agency in Istanbul: Sounds from Istiklal Street

Greatrick, A. (2017) “Photo Gallery: Istanbul”

Loris-Rodionoff, C. (2017) “Hope, Resilience and Uncertainty: A Day with Displaced Syrians in Southern Turkey”

Nimer, M. (2019) Reflections on the Political Economy in Forced Migration Research from a ‘Global South’ Perspective

Ozturk, M. (2018) ‘ Municipal-level responses to Syrian refugees in Turkey: The case of Bursa

Refugee Hosts (2018) ‘Local Faith Community Responses to Displacement in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey: Emerging Evidence and New Approaches

Rowlands, A. (2018) ‘Turkey – Crossroads for the Displaced

Featured image: Antakya, Turkey. (c) Amal Shaiah Istanbouli, 2021.

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