The importance of place and language – Syrian, Turkish and Syrian-Turkish encounters in Gaziantep

What influences encounters between refugees and members of their host communities, and how do these encounters change over time? In this post, Sara Al Helali (Southern Responses to Displacement researcher) draws on her interviews with Syrian refugees and local community members in the city of Gaziantep, Turkey, and explores the historical, relational, social and economic processes that shape the experiences of Syrian refugees and their hosts, in addition to the influence of international NGOs and local and international contexts.

If you find this post of interest please find a recommended reading list at the end of this piece.    

The importance of place and language – Syrian, Turkish and Syrian-Turkish encounters in Gazientep

by Sara Al Helali, Researcher, Southern Responses to Displacement

In this blog I explore Gaziantep city – previously named Antep before becoming Gaziantep, although among Syrians it is called Aintab عنتاب – and examine what, if anything, makes it unique amongst the many cities hosting Syrian refugees in Turkey, according to the perspectives of some of the city’s residents: Syrians and Turks alike. In particular, I focus on my interlocutors’ perceptions of the nature of real and imagined encounters between Syrians and Turks in the city. 

Encountering Gaziantep

Gaziantep is an industrial city in the south of Turkey near to the Syrian border and specifically near to the Syrian city of Aleppo city. It is a city that reminds many Syrians of Aleppo: it has a castle that looks like Aleppo’s castle, similar bazasrs, and many similar traditions and trades: Aleppo and Gaziantep are both famous as being the home of laurel soap and textile industries; they are famous for the same delicious food recipes and pistachios; and Syrians and Turks debate as to whether baklava was first made in Aleppo or Gaziantep. Moreover, many of Aleppo’s families have Turkish origins and many of Gaziantep’s families have Syrian origins. All of these cultural similarities made it easier for many Syrians to settle in the city. On the other hand, many Syrians find Gaziantep to be a very difficult place to live in. In this blog I highlight why living in Gaziantep is difficult, according to the Syrian refugees who I interviewed, but also with reference to my own experiences.

My family and I, as well as the majority of my relatives, left Aleppo and settled in Gaziantep. The reason why most of my family network moved to Gaziantep started with one distant aunt who had a Turkish husband from Gaziantep. They have been living in Aleppo for around twenty years but moved back to Gaziantep in 2012 due to the escalating violence in Syria. They were able to settle easily because they own an apartment in Gaziantep, they speak Turkish, and they are Turkish citizens. Later, tens of families were able to move from Aleppo to Gaziantep because they leaned on my aunt’s help and support. She hosts Syrian families in her apartment for a few months and helps them find their way around and find jobs. In many ways, my aunt was engaged in what Fiddian-Qasmiyeh refers to as ‘refugee-refugee humanitarianism,’ although my aunt is simultaneously a refugee from Syria and a Turkish citizen and, alongside her husband, is a member of the local community.

I moved from Aleppo to Gaziantep in 2015 and was lucky as I soon secured work with international humanitarian organizations, before starting my work with the Southern Responses to Displacement project in 2020. As part of the project, I interviewed 26 Syrian refugees, 16 Turkish local community members, and 13 people who work for local nongovernmental organizations. In this reflection, I interweave insights from these interviews, with reflections from my own and my relatives’ experiences of living in Gaziantep.

In many of our interviews, my Syrian interlocutors told me that the local community in Gaziantep is rejecting them, mentioning different reasons.

“There is a big difference between the Turks’ dealings with the Syrians in Gaziantep from other Turkish cities”

35 year old Syrian refugee woman

“I assure you that the highest peak of racism is in Gaziantep.”

28 year old Syrian refugee woman

“I found that the Turks in Gaziantep are dealing with Syrians in a bad way because of the overcrowding of the city.”

34 year old Syrian refugee man

Far from being inevitable, however, many Syrian refugees mentioned the decrease of Turks’ sympathy with them over time, coinciding, in their view, with the increase in the number of Syrian refugees there:

“In the beginning we, as Syrians, were welcomed by the Turks, and we could see the welcome in their faces and words, and they would send us food in Ramadan. But over time, and because of the large numbers that arrived and settled in Turkey, their presence became undesirable, especially with the Turks convinced of the idea that the Syrians share their livelihood and compete with them for it.”

34 year old Syrian refugee man

From the other point of view, amongst members of the Turkish community, one local resident told me that the population of Gaziantep had increased with the passing years due to the arrival not only of more Syrian refugees, but also of different organisations:

“The city changed a lot. It was 1.1 or 1.2 million in 2010 and now it is 1.8 million. It is a big increase, and it affected the prices. But the increase in prices is not only due to increase of Syrians. It is also due to the increase of NGOs here. NGOs come with their money they don’t care about the rent.”

30 year old male local resident

In this local resident’s account, it is acknowledged that the increase in prices is not only ‘because’ of refugees, but also due to the increase in the number of NGOs and their respective staff members. As he explained, he had a good level of knowledge of the situation because he himself had been working for international NGOs in Gaziantep since 2012. In this way, local responses to the arrival and presence of refugees are intimately related to international dynamics and systems, including both national and international organisations.

Gaziantep, Antakya Hatay, Mersin… Places and languages of encounter

If these are the perspectives of my interlocutors with regards to Gaziantep, how do they relate to perspectives about the encounters arising in other cities in Turkey? In a conversation with my sister who lives in another city in Turkey – Antakya Hatay -, she told me she never faced difficulties during her interactions and encounters with members of the local community in Hatay. On the other hand, she perceived that Turks were being discriminatory towards her in Gaziantep. For her, she thinks the reason is precisely the diversity of people in Hatay:

“There are Sunni Muslims, Alawite Muslims, Christians and Jews in Hatay. I think the diversity in Hatay is what makes its people accept all others including Syrians.”

Some Syrians with experience of cities like Mersin had a different experience and a different opinion, as they found Turks in Gaziantep to be more sympathetic with Syrians:

“In Mersin, the Turks of the Alawi sect were the worst in their treatment with the Syrians, and they are present in state jobs in a large percentage. They do not hide their hatred for the Syrians, while we did not witness this bad treatment by state officials in Gaziantep.”

47 year old Syrian woman

Speaking of the specificity and characteristics of each place – and of the different residents living in each place – in response to refugees, a friend of mine who lives in Hatay once told me that he isn’t getting a chance to learn the Turkish language because all the locals in Hatay speak Arabic.

Overall, my interlocuters agreed that Turks in Hatay are more sympathetic towards Syrians and less discriminatory, leading me to wonder if this may be because most residents of Hatay are originally descended from Syrian grandparents who moved to Turkey many years ago? Or perhaps it is because long-term residents speak Arabic and are not facing significant language barriers in getting to know the new refugees, understanding them and connecting with them?

Such reflections demonstrate the significance of place, history, and both local and international contexts and dynamics, to understanding how the needs and rights of refugees are, or are not, supported by members of local communities. Indeed, given the focus of the Southern Responses to Displacement project – which aims to understand how people who have experienced and are responding to displacement from Syria perceive and conceptualise different forms of response by actors from the so-called global South and the global North – it is notable how some of my interlocuters compared Turkish civil society’s response with that found in European and North American countries:

“It is very necessary to prepare the society to accept others. The Turkish people are very closed to themselves and are not prepared to deal with the foreigner or the refugee, while we see people in countries such as Europe and Canada, have an awareness of accepting refugees, and an understanding of the humanitarian duty towards them.”

34 year old Syrian refugee man

I agree with my interlocuter that it is very important to prepare host communities and educate them on how to welcome refugees and integrate with them. My colleagues and I wrote a piece on the importance of what we call ‘educating the host’ which you can read here.   

My interlocuter perceives that host communities in northern countries like Canada have a higher awareness relating to the importance of welcoming and hosting refugees. In addition to raising questions relating to whether Northern host communities really better welcome refugees and understand their needs, an equally, if not even more important question is: Why do Syrian refugees in Turkey perceive this to be the case? These are questions that we continue to explore and investigate through the research of the Southern Responses to Displacement project.


If you found this piece of interest, please see the recommended reading list 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

Al-Khalili, C. (2017) Hope, Resilience and Uncertainty: A Day with Displaced Syrians in Southern Turkey

al-Mehdi, D. (2019) The Tribulations, and Deportations, of Syrian Guests in Turkey

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

Carpi, E., Istanbouli, A., Al Helali, S. (2021) Educating the host: It’s not just refugees who need ‘integration’ programmes.

Carpi, E. (2019) Local Faith Actors in Disaster Response and Risk Reduction – ALNAP Webinar

Carpi E. (2018) ‘Southern’ and ‘Northern’ assistance provision beyond the grand narratives: Views from Lebanese and Syrian providers in Lebanon

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

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2020) Refugee-led local responses in the time of COVID-19: Preliminary reflections from North Lebanon

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

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2019) Exploring refugees’ conceptualisations of Southern-led humanitarianism

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2019) Histories and spaces of Southern-led responses to displacement

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2018) Faith-Based Humanitarianism

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

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

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2018) Southern Responses to Displacement: Background and introduction to our mini blog series.

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2018) Pan-Arabism

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2018) Refugee-Refugee Humanitarianism

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E., Fiori, J. (2020) Migration, Humanitarianism, and the Politics of Knowledge – An Interview with Juliano Fiori

Istanbouli, A. (2021) Research terminology from the ‘Global North’ to the ‘Global South’ – conceptualisations, interpretations and challenges from Hatay, Turkey.

Oklah, H. (2020) “I had to sell a gift my sons gave to me on Mother’s Day”: Syrian Refugees and Coronavirus “Post-stability Destabilization”

Olliff, L. (2019) Refugee diaspora humanitarianism and the value of North/South distinctions in research on responses to forced displacement.

Ozturk, M. (2019) Municipal-level responses to Syrian refugees in Turkey: The case of Bursa

Wagner, A. C. (2019) “There are no missionaries here!” – How a local church took the lead in the refugee response in northern Jordan

Featured image: Gaziantep Bazaar, Gaziantep, Turkey. (c) Mouhannad Saab, (2017)

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