A Portrait of the Refugee as a Young Man

“They put me in the car tire, chest to knees. They break your fingers. And they started to hit me, asking me to count. They make a joke with you — if you say it is eleven, but it is nine, then they start again from the zero. They took me out of the tire after 150 strikes and the Colonel asked me again, ‘Did you want to escape from the army?’ I fainted a few times and they were still hitting me, so I woke up. They don’t care if you are conscious or unconscious.”

Hosam had been caught deserting a regime that committed war crimes — wanted him to commit war crimes — to attack unarmed countrymen and countrywomen. They tortured Hosam at great length. Then he nearly starved, escaping Hama on foot after they came for him again. These were dramatic events in his life. He was fortunate to get to Turkey.

What followed is far less captivating. The absence of those evocative words — torture, war crimes, starvation — belies Hosam’s reality. In Turkey, like so many Syrians, he is being ground down slowly.

“The newspapers engage poor desperate wretches, out-of-work clerks and commercial travellers and the like, who for a while make frantic efforts and keep their sales up to the minimum; then as the deadly work wears them down they are sacked and fresh men are taken on.”

That was Orwell describing newspaper subscription hawkers, but the last phrase could just as well describe the working conditions for most Syrians in Turkey. Today Hosam works in a factory. He lives with Walid and Walid’s older brother, Nasser, the latter who works in the same factory.

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Hosam in Antalya

Nasser came to Turkey just six months ago. He was a taxi driver in Hama, with a wife and kids. But he got called, at age 38, to join Assad’s husk of an army. Refusal means detention or worse. When war criminals come calling, what would you do?

Yes, there are still refugees from Syria coming to Turkey in 2018, for the same reasons, for all the convenient narration that the Syrian crisis is winding down. Separated from his family, Walid tells me, he needs to send remittance. He worked for a Turkish businessman in the neighbourhood — Sultanbeyli on the asian side of Istanbul — for two months after he first arrived. After two months he was ghosted without ever being paid a dime. His brother, who now has strong Turkish, went to the police office with him. They said they would look into it and did nothing. Nasser already paid a high price to get smuggled to Turkey — the border is closed — and his first two months as a refugee were spent working hard, for nothing.

This has been happening in Turkey, where Syrians work without the protection of the law, the slow debilitating grind of economic oppression. Because Syrian work is not regularised or legalised, many get stiffed or shorted on their salary, across all industries. In Gaziantep employers can let Syrians go as soon as they burn out. There are fresh, eager, unemployed Syrians with equal qualifications waiting to take their place (as per the Orwell quote). The wages for which they are working are hard to process. 1,000 Tl a month for 70 hour weeks of unskilled manual labour is commonplace in Gaziantep, with no days off allowed. Child labourers work full time for as little as 50Tl a week.

A similar thing happened to Hosam over the summer. He had stayed in Antalya, where his story in Turkey began, working at a vacation resort (previous to that he worked at a stone-breaking factory). The resort told him there was no more work in the fall and he left for Istanbul in the early winter without having collected his pay for either July or August.

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When Hosam gets injured on the job (picture left) he does not get danger pay, time off, or even stitches. The same for Walid’s factory job. When I visited in the waning days of Ramadan, Walid had a thigh contusion the size of a grapefruit that made it difficult to walk. Running after a switch that was on when it should have been off, he had not seen some jutting steel rebar. The contusion was such that, for days, he could barely bend the leg. Not only did he receive no sympathy for this workplace injury — when he had to miss nearly three weeks work earlier in the year, his back in traction, he almost lost his job entirely. His boss threatened him — if he didn’t provide a doctor’s note, Walid might be fired.

I stayed with Hosam, Walid, and Nasser two nights last week. In the day between I visited a friend, an architect, who is also missing months of pay from his job. He even became a Turkish citizen, by way of his qualifications, and has access to much more recourse than 99% of Syrians in Turkey. But his employers told him he did not need to come back to work after Eid and there is no sign of the money he is owed.

It is the same story over and over. One of the first interviews I did in Istanbul, 2.5 years ago, another, different Syrian friend had been stiffed for seventeen days worth of tiling work — skilled labour for which he studied and was certified in Syria. For Syrians as refugees in Turkey the margin for error is low. To work a grueling job for seventeen days and receive nothing is for many a devastating setback.

More often than being stiffed is Syrians getting shorted. The boss hands them a manilla, bill-sized envelope in the presence of the entire staff. If they take it out to count the money there are consequences — the boss will accuse them of not trusting him and threaten to fire them. But when they are owed 1,350Tl for the month’s work, often enough, 1,280Tl waits for them in the envelope. Then they have to calculate if it is worth taking a stand for 70Tl with no protection from the law because they are working illegally. Being ground down is incremental and banal like this.

The international NGOs here in Gaziantep do not short their employees, but they do burn them out to hire fresh bodies. They hire Syrians to the lowest positions, even though Syrians have the most relevant and local knowledge, the best connections to the beneficiaries of NGOs’ programs i.e. other Syrians, the most Syrian-Arabic language (and Arabic period), and the most comprehensive knowledge of the conflict. But because of their replaceability and the entrenched position of other international staff (Syrians are technically international staff, just not with the right kind of passports), Syrians struggle to move up in NGO hierarchies. Worse, many NGOs employ staff in Syria and when their house is bombed or when they put themselves at risk, and that risk materialises, there are worst practices in place from the safe side of a difficult to cross border. Best practices are for people with recourse, people with Western passports. Syrians inside Syria were lucky to get a job with a NGO, if they lose everything in the course of their work, it is what it is. Solidarity is a word for the twitter campaign.

 

Imagine rolling hills cleared of all vegetation, that one day, from far above, had cement poured onto its highest points. And the cement flowed into each valley, coating every square foot of the land. This is how neighbourhood’s like Istanbul’s Sultanbeyli appear to have been built. A few government parks are then carved into the cement, complete with fountains and terraces of turf, and walls with gates and guards. Hosam and Walid’s living conditions did not change much between the hills north of Antalya and Istanbul’s Sultanbeyli — there were chickens in both yards. The first morning in Sultanbeyli I woke up to a kerfuffle. Two chickens, fighting, had burst through the door.

 

Hosam is protective. The language barrier is big, so when Walid isn’t around, we talk through google translate. If he thinks I am shy to eat, he pushes the lion’s share onto my plate. If he spots olive pits in my napkin, he fetches an ashtray. He is a man with middle class aspirations — a job, a wife, maybe some disposable income. To get ahead of expenses. Once we met at a mall and I offered to buy lunch anywhere he wanted — he chose KFC because he couldn’t afford it himself.

Once, in Döşemealtı, the neighbourhood of Antalya in which they used to live, I was hanging out at a big Syrian barbecue. It was twenty men in a room, preparing food, playing cards, smoking cigarettes. A fresh, charismatic face arrived, introduced himself, and sat with Walid between us (for translation).

He asked if I was a Muslim, I said no. He asked if I was a kaffir, and things quickly became uncomfortable. Not too much further into the inquiry did a third friend of ours, Muhammed, tsk at him from across the room. Muhammed had been playing cards but apparently had kept an eye on me since the new arrival. This guy is okay, don’t bother him. And that was the end of it. The stranger, who had seemed alpha a moment earlier, moved on.

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Döşemealtı developed a lot in the time between my first and last visit. In the first, there was no bus that went up the hill, and no road that went to the apartment building where the guys slept. They slept, by the way, in a room on the apartment building’s first floor, that was designed to be the building’s bodega. A big glass facade let the heat out. That development, the constant construction that powers Turkey’s economy, came at a cost. On one visit a Syrian man, who had been an Arabic teacher, had fallen from scaffolding on a nearby construction site and died. The men I ate dinner with were trying to agree on how they should protect his widow from his brother, who also lived with them at the time. Suffice to say the teacher knew nothing about navigating the hazards of work on a construction site. But an Arabic teacher from Syria in Döşemealtı would have no other opportunities for work, particularly without a work permit. My architect friend, mentioned earlier, is the exception — none of the men from Hosam and Walid’s socioeconomic strata are granted work permits, and some have been refugees in Turkey for over five years.

It was not until recently Hosam even got a kimlik, an identification he could show to Turkish police if they stopped him. Before that he was not even able to meet me at the airport, or move between cities comfortably.

Syrian men want to work, this is integral to their identity. They also want to marry, especially in this 25-35 phase that Hosam and Walid find themselves in. Their inability to even meet women — there is no time or opportunity working hard six days a week — is a source of constant psychological stress. There is an unhealthy pressure on men to find a wife and start a family in order to prove they are indeed men. The fact that sex is unavailable to them without marriage (in many cases, but not all), promotes them to rush into marriage, to assent to any potential marriage their mother and father might have set up. They rush into any opportunity because with marriage they unlock their social status, they relieve the pressure of their society, and are guaranteed to get laid. The older generation in Syria has promoted, and continues to promote, this, to the detriment of everyone. It is not uncommon for a Syrian man to get engaged over Skype. Many Syrian mothers try to arrange courtships between their refugee sons (whether they are in Turkey, Lebanon, or Jordan) and women (not at risk to join the army) who stayed in Syria. Many of these mothers are helping in this case — men like Hosam have no time for anything but working and sleeping — but the overall scheme of things is ill-equiped to deal with human realities. Many Syrian men have little skills or experience in interacting with women — learning begins after marriage. This is why men in their 50s and 60s appear wise. They, after decades of marriage, learned how to treat or not treat women, how to be good fathers and husbands. These learned skills they possess, which their unmarried sons lack, appear as proof of the process. But of course, this is confirmation bias. Many marriages end badly or would end badly, had the wife anywhere to go.

Refugees try as much as possible not to appear downtrodden, as you may have guessed from the above photos of Hosam. The risks to which one is exposed when lacking the right to work legally has nothing to do with personal hygiene or sartorial choices or stereotypical images of refugees. People do the best they can, most often.

Syrians, particularly guys like Hosam, do not want a handout. Last summer in Toronto, I had a Syrian friend call him. This friend knew a NGO which provided free medical treatment for Syrians in Turkey. At the time Hosam had a painful swelling of nymph nodes around his ear and neck — an infection treated easily enough, one imagines, by someone qualified. Hosam refused this help.

“If you can’t help bring me to Canada,” he flatly rebuffed my friend, “I don’t want your help.”

I never found out the name of the guy who died falling from the scaffolding. In Döşemealtı there was a Syrian man who had a van — he once drove me to the airport at 3am, a slight diversion from his bread route, achatter with Walid and the guys the whole way.

“He just disappeared,” Walid tells me. “I heard nothing, no one knows what happened to him.”

This has been the constant fate of Syrians in Turkey for years. No one knows what happens, but men and women, and sometimes children, slowly, routinely, banally disappear, their stories unrecorded and untold, presumably forever.

 

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