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Permanent refugees reshape the Middle East

Syrian refugees are weaving themselves into the fabric of Turkish life

A woman and a child left a Syrian shop in Mersin in March.
A woman and a child left a Syrian shop in Mersin in March.ADEM ALTAN/AFP/Getty Images

MERSIN, Turkey — When Marwan Munir left Syria three years ago, he only intended to stay away from home a short while, like most of the refugees he knows. Munir worked as a trainer at the local professional soccer club in Lattakia, a coastal city known for its fair Mediterranean climate and its boisterous waterfront cafes.

Today, Munir is the founder and head coach of a new Syrian national soccer team made up of rebels in exile, which hopes to displace the regime-backed soccer team in Damascus. He has found a home in Mersin, Turkey, a sort of doppelganger just around a bend in the Mediterranean from his hometown. After practice, Munir and his players repair to teahouses along the sea where Syrian expatriates refresh the coals on the water pipes and Arabic competes with Turkish as the lingua franca.

“I don’t want to learn Turkish,” Munir said. “I don’t want to admit that we might stay here.” But he has proven quite adept at learning the ways of the country where he now lives with his wife and three daughters, along with approximately 1.7 million other displaced Syrians, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.


Munir has skillfully negotiated with the local mayor’s office to find a top-notch training facility in this resort town that’s a three-hour drive and a cultural world away from the Syrian frontier.

Some of the refugees in Turkey cluster just over the border, ready to slip back home as soon as they feel it’s safe. But many others, like Munir, have migrated deeper into Turkey and further from home, establishing bases and communities that hint at a long time horizon — and though it’s politically toxic to say so, at permanence. “It might take 10 years for the war to end,” said the coach.

He’s loath to consider the possibility that the regime could survive and the rebellion could end in complete failure, but he admits it’s a possibility. “If our side loses, then we’ll stay in Turkey forever,” he said.

In the Middle East, Palestinians have long been synonymous with permanent diaspora. Waves of refugees remade the region after wars with Israel in 1948 and 1967, destabilizing neighboring governments in Jordan and Lebanon, while bringing with them established fortunes and businesses. Palestinian culture and politics provided a vital injection of dynamism to public life in the nations that hosted refugees. But the never-ending refugee presence also brought tension and periodic crises that continue to flare generations after the first Palestinian refugees arrived.


Arab governments vowed never to repeat the same mistakes. When millions fled Iraq after the civil war provoked by the 2003 US invasion, many were allowed to make temporary homes in neighboring Jordan and Syria, but entirely on a short-term, provisional basis. Governments made it very difficult for refugees to get papers and settle down. As the worst fighting subsided, they were encouraged or even pushed to return home.

Syria’s civil war has now dragged on far longer than the bloodiest period in Iraq, and the two biggest hosts of Syrian refugees — Turkey and Lebanon — are starting to see what it looks like when a long-term emergency ages into the new normal.

There are about 4 million Syrian refugees registered by the UNHCR, and nearly twice as many displaced from their homes but still inside Syria. No precise numbers can track the human and societal toll, but the migration does take a disproportionate toll on certain groups.

Doctors, for instance, fled the city of Aleppo en masse early in the war after a concerted campaign of violence against them. Aleppo’s industrialists and skilled workers, who formed the backbone of the country’s manufacturing base, have also disproportionately moved elsewhere, sometimes reopening their old factories and workshops in Turkish cities like Gaziantep.


Syrian laborers and professionals have flooded into Turkey and Lebanon, sometimes displacing local workers and meeting with resentment. They gather at Syrian restaurants, usually reincarnations of establishments in abandoned, now war-torn, neighborhoods back home in Syria.

In Lebanon, the 1.2 million registered refugees represent about a quarter of the country’s entire population. The actual number of unregistered Syrians is probably significantly higher. Since the beginning of 2015, Lebanon has enforced a policy of limited welcome, after years of effectively leaving the border open. Now Syrians need a visa or proof of a certain amount of wealth before entering Lebanon. They’re more carefully tracked, after six months or a year many are forced to leave the country.

In Turkey, however, signs of a permanent diaspora are emerging. Turkey has officially embraced displaced Syrians as part of its active support of the rebellion. Turkey’s government was among the first to call for the fall of Bashar al-Assad’s regime, and has placed its considerable political resources behind the uprising. A shared Sunni Islamist ideology unites many of the anti-Assad militants with Turkey’s powerful president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Some Turkish institutions, notably the more risk-averse military, have warned against getting too deeply involved in Syria’s civil war. But Erdogan has plunged ahead, allowing rebels to set up bases in Turkey, providing the most reliable staging ground for humanitarian relief to beleaguered northern Syria, and effectively keeping the opposition alive by providing a secure rear area for refugees and combatants.


Children listened to their teacher in a Syrian private school in Mersin in March.
Children listened to their teacher in a Syrian private school in Mersin in March.ADEM ALTAN/AFP/Getty Images

Most of the time, Syrians cross the border freely, without officials keeping any record. Even when Turkish officials close the border for weeks or a month, as they did during clashes in June, they allow wounded Syrians to enter Turkey. Vetted Syrian rebels can cross the border freely even when it’s closed to civilians.

Those who intend to return home stay close to the frontier, like filmmaker Muhannad Najjar. He lives in Kilis, directly on the border, where dozens of new concrete apartment blocks and compounds have sprung up in the last two years, as the sleepy way-station has swelled into a sizable city-in-waiting, its new ranks populated almost entirely by people like Najjar who don’t intend to stay long.

Najjar visits his village near Aleppo whenever the crossing is open. He has registered his newborn daughter in Turkey, and until recently he had an official Turkish identity card that allowed him to access free health care and other Turkish government services. The last time he came back from Syria, he said, the card was confiscated without explanation.

“They don’t want to make it too easy for us,” he said. “But I feel safe here.”

There is a booming border economy fueled by the war in Syria, mostly centered on trade, smuggling, and humanitarian aid. International aid groups run massive operations along the border. Syrian and foreign companies that work inside Syria often have headquarters, training, and back-end facilities in Turkey where it’s less dangerous. But all this border activity will cease as soon as the war ends, or even sooner, if the rebels can secure some of the areas they control from regime bombing.


But hundreds of thousands of Syrians have moved further afield into Turkey, severing themselves from the conflict economy. Skilled workers have flocked to Bursa, on the Sea of Marmara near Istanbul, for jobs in mills and factories.

The Fethiye quarter, a few tram stops from Topkapi Palace and Istanbul’s premier tourist attractions, has become an almost entirely Arabic-speaking neighborhood. Syrian rebel groups have set up political offices in nondescript apartment blocks. Young refugees study in intensive Turkish language programs.

Like Istanbul, Mersin is a decidedly Turkish place, not some border town. It’s a popular beach destination, and enjoys a reliable Mediterranean breeze all the way into the green hills overlooking the city.

Tens of thousands of Syrians have settled down here, drawn by the cheaper rents and the sense of stability. In border towns like Kilis, speculators have doubled rents for tiny flats. Mersin, in contrast, welcomes newcomers to its steady port economy.

The new national Syrian soccer team trains every evening, when the summer sunshine has subsided. Manager Anas Ammo and the coach, Munir, recruited players to defect from clubs inside Syria, and held tryouts along the border. The full squad only came together in May, and expects to play its first exhibition matches in the fall.

The Syrian National Soccer Team in Exile trained in Turkey.
The Syrian National Soccer Team in Exile trained in Turkey.courtesy of the Syrian National Football Team in Exile

“We represent the Syrian people,” said Ammo. “The regime’s team represents the military, politicians, and the Ba’ath Party.”

More than anything else, however, the soccer team is an acknowledgment that many of the millions of Syrians who have taken up residence inside Turkey don’t plan to go home. Nearly a hundred years ago, millions were displaced at the end of the war between Turkey and Greece. One of the first things the refugees did in their new homes was re-create a memory of their old communities through football clubs, usually named for the town from which they fled.

“My dream is to go back home. If I can’t, then my second dream is to play on the Syrian national team, even here,” said Omar Hajj Mohammed, 23, a star midfielder from Lattakia who is one of the new team’s prized recruits. He played on a junior club team in Syria as a teenager before he was drafted into the regime’s military at the start of the uprising. He defected to the Free Syrian Army after 10 months. Eventually, he quit the fighting, working first as a construction worker in a Turkish border town and later at the fish market in Mersin.

None of the founding members of the exiled Syrian football team like the idea that their idealistic efforts will cement their position in the diaspora. But they said that after years of active resistance, their return to football marks a turn away from war and toward a future, even one far from home.

Their familiarity with the waterfront neighborhoods, the local Turkish sports officials, even the passing workers laying a new promenade by the sea, bespeak a growing rootedness. It’s too early to say whether the Syrians, like the Palestinians, will remain refugees for generations. But most of them come from communities so thoroughly destroyed they will take decades to rebuild. They’ve been away so long, it’s hard for them to imagine what return would look like.

Smuggler boats leave daily for Europe from Mersin, but Hajj Mohammed has decided he’d found a place he could stay. “I don’t want to be any further way from my family than here,” he said. “If I can’t be with my family, I might as well return to soccer.”

Thanassis Cambanis, a fellow at The Century Foundation, is the author of “Once Upon a Revolution: An Egyptian Story.” He is an Ideas columnist and blogs at thanassiscambanis.com.


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