Three years ago, when Amar was 18, he left Syria under the premise of a quick trip. A soft-spoken young man with an interest in engineering, Amar grew up on the Syrian coast. By his account, he had a loving family, a nice home, and college was in his future.
In 2015, however, fearing death at the hands of the conscripted military service, he fled his country, unsure he would ever return.
Once Amar, who asked to be identified by only his first name, arrived in Turkey, he booked passage on a boat to Greece. He planned to head to Germany, which he had heard was good to refugees. But when he finally arrived, Amar found he had only exchanged his previous problems for a new set. – discrimination, hunger, poverty and homelessness.
By contrast, Eymen Imam and his family are among the millions of refugees who escaped to Turkey in 2015 – and to a much different fate. A polite man, Imam was still reticent about criticizing the Syrian government, despite fleeing to Turkey to escape widespread carnage and death .
Upon arrival, he, his wife and small children spent a month in one of 26 refugee camps Turkey has established in ten cities that are currently home to about half a million Syrians. The camps can provide a comfortable life for asylum seekers, with access to language education and free health services, as well as schools, playgrounds, markets, mosques, hospitals, and even sports facilities on camp grounds.
Imam was impressed with the camp, though he and his family soon left for Istanbul, where he found work as a real estate agent in Fatih, a section of the city where many Syrians have settled. Now Imam feels like he landed in clover. His Turkish friends and support network were instrumental in helping him settle in the city. Furthermore, he noted, he hasn’t experienced racism in Istanbul, nothing like what Amar has seen in Germany.
This is a tale of two men, swept up in an historic, frantic migration from war-torn Syria, facing two different worlds. Fleeing a brutal war has led to tremendous dislocation for millions of people. It’s also the tale of two countries that have responded to the crisis in very different ways:
Germany, at first, looked as though it supported an open door policy, with Chancellor Angela Merkel offering home to a million Syrian refugees. By contrast, Turkey, with its dubious reputation on human rights, has accepted three million or more of the 6 million who have fled Syria, with many praising the Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
“Though facing difficulties of its own — the attempted military coup was little more than a year ago — Turkey has managed to pursue a far more humane refugee policy than its neighbors,” wrote Rula Jebreal in the New York Times. “Europe has been happy to let Turkey play this leading role in refugee relief.”
TURKEY, EUROPE, AND THE REFUGEE CRISIS
Last week marked seven years since the start of the Syrian civil war. Since 2011, over half a million Syrians have died in the war; more than 11 million have been displaced. Europe has taken in roughly one million refugees of varying backgrounds, ages, and skills. Resettlement efforts, however, have not been met with much praise from refugees, who recount stories of a dangerous journey, only to be met with fear, resentment, and difficult living circumstances.
In contrast, however, stands Turkey, which has, in its own words, done a “brilliant job” resettling refugees. And Erdogan has been lauded by many for the work his government has done.
Erdogan’s populist sentiment is often anti-Western, repeatedly taking Western countries to task for their failure to resettle as many asylum-seekers as it has, or provide more aid to Turkey to deal with the refugees. Simultaneously, populism and anti-Islam feelings have been on the rise in Western countries, from France to Poland to the U.S. Those countries are rejecting traditional Western liberal values and creating an anti-refugee discourse, adding to the burden Turkey has agreed to shoulder.
Jessica Brandt and Kemal Kiri?ci of the Brookings Institution pointed out that since the European migration crisis of 2015, Syrian refugees have been viewed as a threat to the stability and future of Europe, leading to negative attitudes about Syrians. Islamophobia certainly plays a role, too, said Elzbieta Gozdziak, research director at Georgetown’s Institute for the Study of International Migration. Gozdziak noted that even in countries without a Muslim population, Islamophobia played a large role in deciding whether or not to accept Syrian refugees.
This, she blamed on bias in the media, which reported more widely on terror events involving Muslims than it did human interest stories. In many ways, she said, this has biased the populace.
It is not all roses in Turkey, though.
Unemployment is a common problem for people in Turkey, both for Syrians and Turkish nationals. While the unemployment rate hovers around 10 percent, this rate is significantly higher for Syrians, likely 70 percent or more. Another 30 percent of Syrian refugees in Turkey are working illegally, without permits, which has created resentment of Syrians among the general population. Additionally, many refugees often work for wages far below that of a living wage, their desperation taken advantage of by local business owners.
There have been instances in which the Turkish community was not welcoming to Syrians, though violent incidents have been rarer. Integration has been particularly difficult. A 2017 public opinion survey showed that 80 percent of Turkish people believe Syrian refugees either do not resemble them culturally. That percentage actually increases in parts of Turkey bordering Syria, where many Turkish people share the same geography, religion, sect and even ethnicity as Syrians.
With no other options, Amar boarded the boat, an inflatable black rubber affair with low sides, crammed in with at least a dozen other people. He had a six-hour journey ahead of him during which he would be bumped, jostled, and bombarded with salt spray and the manifestation of other people’s nerves.
Thousands of people have died making similar journeys, drowning when their boats could not make the trip intact. Still, that didn’t stop hundreds of thousands of people from heading for Greece.
Amar knew how dangerous it was, he said during a recent interview, but he wasn’t afraid of dying. Given the choice between military service in Syria or the open ocean, he chose the latter. Instead, he was worried that if he died on the journey to Greece, his parents would never find out what had happened to him.
Since arriving in Germany, however, Amar has only exchanged his previous problems for a new set.
Most Syrians who fled for Germany led what Amar called two lives: the one they wrote and called home about, and their real lives.
When they called home, they talked about going out, having money to spend, and things normal young adults do, he explained. But it was far from the truth. The reality Amar recounted was one of depression, loneliness and hunger. Many Syrians he knew in Germany, he said, did speed, smoked pot, and drank just to get through the day. Still more survived on only one meal a day. For many months, Amar said, he ate one personal-size pizza a day that cost just €3.
Safety is another concern for Syrians living in Europe. Since Amar arrived in Germany in 2015, white nationalism and Nazism have been on the rise, leaving refugees and other vulnerable populations in extremely precarious positions.
He recounted a story of a group of Syrian teens who were badly beaten by a group of Germans. The youngest of the Syrians went into a coma for several months and had to re-learn how to speak. Amar noted the influence of Islamophobia, saying Syrians and Muslims are unfairly viewed with suspicion. “We are not terrorists,” he said.
Imam, who has lived in Turkey for three years now, feels like his fortunes are soaring. His Turkish friends and support network were instrumental in helping him settle in Istanbul. His two children are enrolled in elementary school and learning Turkish, while his wife stays at home and takes care of the family, a typical arrangement for a conservative Muslim family in the region. Furthermore, he noted, he hasn’t experienced racism in Istanbul, nothing like what Amar has seen in Germany. He heard that some Syrians had been bullied on social media, but he never caught even a whiff of that himself.
“We, as Syrian refugees, are appreciated to Turkish state for giving us any kind of help and assistance,” said Imam. “Turkey did a really good job. They opened their doors to us, established the world-class refugee camps and provided public services, including medical assistance for our children.”
It has not been a picture-perfect integration. However, by and large, Turkey’s incidence rate of violence has been much lower and its success rate much higher than that of Europe’s.