Interview with Reem Doukmak: Syrian Refugees in Turkey

Interview with Reem Doukmak: Syrian Refugees in Turkey

Since the beginning of the Syrian Civil War, to escape the violence, approximately two and a half million Syrian have fled the country to the neighbouring countries such as Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan. AsCentre for Policy and Research on Turkey (Research Turkey), we conducted an interview with Reem Doukmak about the situation of Syrian refugees in Turkey, especially Syrian refugees in the Kilis camp. In this interview, Doukmak demonstrates differences between refugees in the camp and the ones who are trying to survive outside the camp.

Reem Doukmak is a second year PhD student in the Centre for Applied Linguistics at the University of Warwick and her research focus is on classroom interaction and teacher development in refugee contexts. She has been working on the Syrian Refugees in Turkey for the last two years.

Synopsis of the Interview

“When I was still in Syria, I had the idea to continue my PhD, but the refugees were not on my agenda. It was not that serious back then in 2012 or 2013”.

“Just being a young man in Damascus for instance… you need to go and cross all these check points. You do not really want to be arrested because we know if one goes to prison, you might not hear from them again…”

“However, when it comes to refugees in a camp, I wanted to find reasons behind these people’s need for learning English… The school experience there is imported from Syria, so they are basically doing the same curriculum”.

“Kilis camp is considered as one of the ‘perfect camps’ and I was interested in seeing whether it was as perfect as they described it. I went to another less privileged camp which is a tent camp since Kilis is a container camp and it is different”.

“It has a geographical element because when we talk about people who are living in the northern part of Syria, it would not be convenient for them to cross central part of Syria to go to other parts because the regime is already there and they will take the risk. In addition, some people had already family in Turkey”.

“Turkey is like a hub now where people come and meet. For instance, I want to see my mom, but it is very difficult to go back home since it is dangerous. I might not be able to come back here again, so the solution is to meet up in Turkey. That’s what most of people are doing”.

“It has generously provided a safe haven for displaced Syrians and recruited staff to serve refugees’ urgent and long-term needs such as accommodation, education and professional training”.

“The major problem with the people outside the camp is that the rents are very expensive and they are not good quality. I have been to a house where all the family members were working to pay the rent. All the members including kids at the age of 12 or 15… ”

“Refugees can cross the borders either legally –those who have passports– through official border crossings or through smugglers into Turkey. In both cases, border crossers have the option to join the camp –if they are allowed in– or they might go to Turkish towns/cities”.

“The media is not very efficient in delivering a clear idea of the situation. They are selective and they would come to the camps or other areas, interview refugees and never come back or network with active NGOs or aid workers to solve the problems. They have no impact; on the contrary, refugees would place high expectations to deliver their voice. However, they would have their own agendas”.

“Although the Turkish government is considering to give to Syrians a ‘status’ that allows them to work on its territory, they might restrict their movements. No Syrian, after this law comes into effect, will be able to seek asylum in European countries, once they have the new ID that is supposed to include all Syrians on Turkish soil”.

Full Text of the Interview

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself Reem? When did you come to the UK and what made you to choose this topic?

I want to go back to the point where I was in Syria… At that time, I was still trying to find a way out. We are talking here about early 2013 and because I had an offer from Warwick I wanted to come here, but that offer was not enough. In order to come here, you need to secure funds and I luckily I had been in touch with a charity which is called Council for at- Risks Academics (CARA) and it is based in London. Through this Council, I managed to secure funds. They managed to waive the fees for me at Warwick and they supplied one year maintenance funds and then, obviously I found myself in the UK. Nevertheless, it was painful because when you are there, managing visa is hard. You need to go to another country to obtain it and the roads were not safe. You cannot really make sure that if you go… It was a last minute thing. I knew it was hard to get visas for Syrians, but with the support of the University of Warwick and CARA, I was able to get it from Lebanon. When I was still in Syria, I had the idea to continue my PhD, but the refugees were not on my agenda. It was not that serious back then in 2012 or 2013. Things were changing there, but people were optimistic that something will happen – you know like the Americans will do air strike and they could bring the situation to an end–, but obviously nothing happened. Then, when I came here, I could see that the urgent context to work on was the refugees.

“When I was still in Syria, I had the idea to continue my PhD, but the refugees were not on my agenda. It was not that serious back then in 2012 or 2013”

Why did you choose to focus on Turkey?

I just found connections there and I had family living there. They fled because of the situation in Syria. My brothers, for example, were in danger. Just being a young man in Damascus for instance… you need to go and cross all these check points. You do not really want to be arrested because we know if one goes to prison, you might not hear from them again… I just found it easier for me to go somewhere at which I had connections. If we consider Lebanon and other countries, there are really a big number of people heading towards Turkey and this would be a big issue. I thought that Turkey would be a very good starting point.

What aspect of the Syrian Refugees in Turkey are you focusing on?

I am working on language interaction and discourse between students and teachers and how it develops their learning of a foreign language.  However, when it comes to refugees in a camp, I wanted to find reasons behind these people’s need for learning English… The school experience there is imported from Syria, so they are basically doing the same curriculum. Because I worked in schools in Syria before, I had an idea about how things worked and about the curriculum so I found it relevant. These people are refugees in another country and there could be implications for people who are studying this curriculum in Syria and other parts where they use the same material. I wanted to integrate macro and micro elements to my research. There are still issues and others can benefit from the information that I have access to.

“Just being a young man in Damascus for instance… You need to go and cross all these check points. You do not really want to be arrested because we know if one goes to prison, you might not hear from them again…”

You said you conducted some fieldwork in Turkey regarding the situation of refugees in camps. Where have you been?

In March 2014, I went to two refugee camps and one of them is in Kilis and I spent 5 weeks there. According to the camp management, there are 14,500 Syrians in Kilis, but the number goes up and down because of the movements of people in and out. Some leave the camp and new people join the camp. My research was mainly based on this camp because it is a case study. So hopefully by understanding teaching and learning experience of refugees in this camp, it might be useful for other camps as well. Refugees are still crossing the borders and there might be other camps in the future and people in those camps may take my findings into consideration. I have also taken into account another camp. The other camp which was part of my research was just considered for the sake of knowing about different sides of the picture because you cannot really say that I looked at one camp and this is what I found. Kilis camp is considered as one of the ‘perfect camps’ and I was interested in seeing whether it was as perfect as they described it. I went to another less privileged camp which is a tent camp since Kilis is a container camp and it is different. So you see containers where refugees live. The other one revealed a far worse situation. I went, had a look and I tried to understand how the study in Kilis is relevant for the others. The interesting thing was that in the other camp, schools and education there were not so different. People live in tents, but they have similar schools and establishments and they use the same kind of educational facilities. I do not know about other camps except from reports issued by Turkish or United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) sources.

“Kilis camp is considered as one of the ‘perfect camps’ and I was interested in seeing whether it was as perfect as they described it. I went to another less privileged camp which is a tent camp since Kilis is a container camp and it is different”

What are these education facilities that you are talking about? Who attends these schools? Who are the teachers?

The schools are built by Turkish authorities, but the people who are attending these schools like students, teachers and principals of these schools are Syrians. Teachers are usually volunteers. They are living in the camps and students are refugee children.

How did you feel as a researcher when you visited the camp for the first time?

I felt out of my depth. You are placed in a different country. I had not been to Turkey before and it was my first time and I found myself in a camp setting with refugees. I was not a refugee, but then you really think… I spent the whole time there and it was an experience. Because I came from Syria, I had similar traumas and bad memories, so I could see what they have been going through… I felt some connections to these people. Although I left my home country with my own choice, you are still far from your home… That’s how you feel.

“However, when it comes to refugees in a camp, I wanted to find reasons behind these people’s need for learning English… The school experience there is imported from Syria, so they are basically doing the same curriculum”

Did you feel like an insider or outsider to this community?

Actually, I would say it depends. At some points, I was an outsider and at other times, I was insider. By the time you find yourself really close to the people. I did not want to be a complete insider because I was interested in seeing how things work and the main thing for me was to be aware about the main challenges and issues that they were happening. I was not supposed to go to the field that early as a PhD student and I did it anyway. It was a mystery for me. It was essential to go and to see how things were before even I began to review the literature. If you do not go to the field, you talk about your ethical dilemmas. However, the situation on the field is very different; you are making decisions by yourself.

Why do Syrians choose to come to Turkey? Is it because of proximity only or…?

It has a geographical element because when we talk about people who are living in the northern part of Syria, it would not be convenient for them to cross central part of Syria to go to other parts because the regime is already there and they will take the risk. In addition, some people had already family in Turkey. When the events took place, many towns and cities were evacuated. What usually happens is that when you have the regime intending to enter a place, they besiege the place and they cut water, electricity and all the resources. People really cannot survive there so they either have to leave or live under fire with no resources at all. That’s what happened in most of the northern cities. They stayed there, but when the danger approaches they could not really risk it. Most of them would have families and they did want to put them in danger so they flew. Furthermore, there are many people who use Turkey as a station. For instance, they go to Turkey to see friends and families because it is not possible to see them in Syria. So there are people visiting, coming and going either from Syria or from other parts of the world. Turkey is like a hub now where people come and meet. For instance, I want to see my mom, but it is very difficult to go back home since it is dangerous. I might not be able to come back here again, so the solution is to meet up in Turkey. That’s what most of people are doing. Thus, they use Turkey as a one step from home and they try to reach other destinations. Turkey is now the window to the world. Lebanon was the same, but the problem with Lebanon is that there is pro-regime support there. Therefore, Lebanon has more strict regulations about Syrians staying in Lebanon. When it comes to Turkey, it is providing many facilities and making things easier for people so they prefer to go to Turkey.

“Turkey is like a hub now where people come and meet. For instance, I want to see my mom, but it is very difficult to go back home since it is dangerous. I might not be able to come back here again, so the solution is to meet up in Turkey. That’s what most of people are doing”

How would you evaluate Turkey’s reception capacity? Considering the fact that you have been working on this issue for so long, how do you think Turkey is handling the situation?

I think Turkey has been coping well with the crisis. It has generously provided a safe haven for displaced Syrians and recruited staff to serve refugees’ urgent and long-term needs such as accommodation, education and professional training. I would not know personally about other camps since my experience was solely based on this camp.

Turkey does not accept Syrians as refugees but as ‘guests’ due to its refugee law. How does this affect the situation of the Syrians in Turkey? Are they disadvantaged?

They are disadvantaged because they do not have any legal status. In the camp, their camp ID enables them to access food and health services. They are certainly in a better position than those who are living outside the camps, who are living in unhealthy places without any access to accommodation and food.

How are women and children coping with the refugee life?

Most women are given household roles and they look after children. They live in that container and their husbands are looking after them. Although they live in a camp, it is like a small house as if you took it and placed it somewhere else. Most of the families have children.

Are there any forced marriages at camps? I remember reading stories about that…

Young girls have arranged marriages even when they are still at school. However, I do not know about forced marriages. I heard some horrible things about camps in Jordan.

In terms of security, are the camps safe for women and children?

I also heard stories and I was worried about my own safety, but it was not that bad in the camp. Women could go out in groups at nights, but I was told not to walk alone at night. This was a precautionary measure. The camp was kind of safe, but unpredictable. I want to reveal how these issues exist in the camp and I am interested in raising people’s awareness for them.

Reem and Bahar_iceriye2

“It has a geographical element because when we talk about people who are living in the northern part of Syria, it would not be convenient for them to cross central part of Syria to go to other parts because the regime is already there and they will take the risk. In addition, some people had already family in Turkey”

What are the areas that need to be improved in refugee camps?

Water supply, school staff wages, displacing difficulties, visit rules, expensive supermarket goods among others. One of the crucial issues is the education. For instance, teachers are quitting their jobs as they do not have any salary. Some of them have families, but they cannot volunteer for long time. For food, you have vouchers, but there are other requirements for the families. Some of men would be working outside the camp to support their families. Nevertheless, for teachers, it is hard because they spend the whole day at school. They will not be able to take another job. Therefore, they find opportunities outside the camp. There should be some funding that supports the teachers there. Turkish authorities are doing really well with providing things like school facilities, but when it comes to staff, I think there is a crucial need to support work of the teachers and get them paid jobs.

There is an article that identifies and details the situation of NGOs in operating and coordinating their activities with the government’s decisions. “For now, international NGOs face difficult circumstances in Turkey. As of late last year, ten international NGOs were registered in Turkey, but many of them complain about working with the government. It can take more than a year for NGOs to receive permission from the ministry of Interior to operate in the country, and there is no legislation that regulates them.” Which is the reason of this existing gap of communication between the two parts?[1]

Turkey’s strict security measures could be one of the reasons, that does not allow involvement of other parties that could be efficient in providing support. Turkey’s concern about its security, however, is understandable. When I was there, aid arrived from various organizations. I heard rumours that at some point, people needed to go through certain procedures in order to get in to the camp. It was not easy to just walk into the camp.

“It has generously provided a safe haven for displaced Syrians and recruited staff to serve refugees’ urgent and long-term needs such as accommodation, education and professional training”

Which are the international organisations and NGOs who are active in the region dealing with this issue in the camps you visited?

Danish Refugee Council and Blue Crescent are very active in the part where I visited. Blue Crescent is operating inside and outside the camp. Danish Refugee Council was operating outside the camp. They provide blankets, cushions, kitchen utensils etc. which people need. People, who came from Syria, did not have anything you know. The major problem with the people outside the camp is that the rents are very expensive and they are not good quality. I have been to a house where all the family members were working to pay the rent. All the members including kids at the age of 12 or 15… Everyone is working to pay the rent and the house was unfurnished so they had mattresses from the Danish Refugee Council. Some people were able to afford life outside the camp; these people came already from cities. Nonetheless, the majority that are now living in the camps are from rural areas and it is hard for them to afford life outside.

“The major problem with the people outside the camp is that the rents are very expensive and they are not good quality. I have been to a house where all the family members were working to pay the rent. All the members including kids at the age of 12 or 15… ”

Can you tell us about the refugee acceptance process? Do they usually use official or unofficial border crossings? What happens when they pass the border? How are they registered? Who decided who enters?

Refugees can cross the borders either legally –those who have passports– through official border crossings or through smugglers into Turkey. In both cases, border crossers have the option to join the camp –if they are allowed in– or they might go to Turkish towns/cities. This choice depends on whether they can afford paying for rent in the city or not. In addition, it depends on having already family or relatives in other places. Camp authorities might not allow refugees in saying that the camp capacity does not allow more ‘guests’.

What is the situation in temporary accommodation centres? (Non-camp refugees) What are the areas to be improved?

Those who live outside camps have severe financial concerns since they might not be able to pay the rent –unless all family members work. Besides, they do not have food support like the ones who live in the camp. Most of the time, they would be residing in poor areas and they would be cramped in a small space. In addition, most of the children do not go to school. In this case, you can find many examples of child labour.

Does Turkey invest in certain programs that have to do with post-crisis period for the refugees? Do they receive psychological support?

Yes, the camp management set social centres for training and teaching Syrian refugees to teach different professions such as textile, hair styling, drawing and, computer abilities. However, these facilities are not well invested; very few Syrians join them. When it comes to psychological issues, people do not talk openly about them. Unless they have a very serious problem, they would not go and talk about it.

What was your impression about the camps? How was the general atmosphere?

It was quite down. People are depressed and they are suffering, but you will not be seeing it all the time. When they are with others, having conversations… People pretend as if everything is fine. However, there are subtle moments where the depression will appear. For instance, they do not want to talk. They are not very open. When I was there, I remember some Turkish people, –I think from a NGO– came and wanted to distribute some sheets of paper for people to complete. On those papers, there were survey questions about sleeping habits, how they are coping with, or if they have any trouble. Nevertheless, people did not take it seriously; one family member would complete them for the whole family. Some of them are not even literate and some of them do not understand what is written there. Their attitude was like you complete them and give it back to us. I did not find it very useful. It was like a technical job, like a statistical survey… They are keen on knowing the numbers, they come every week and do statistics, but social support is not enough. Turkish authorities do not know this gap. There is a problem, but no one talks about it.

“Refugees can cross the borders either legally –those who have passports– through official border crossings or through smugglers into Turkey. In both cases, border crossers have the option to join the camp –if they are allowed in– or they might go to Turkish towns/cities”

We hear that non-camp refugees face significant xenophobic behaviour or resentment from the locals in where they currently reside. How would you argue that the significant numbers of refugees now being in Turkey influences the anti-immigrant, anti-Arab discourses, especially among the Turkish society? Do you think Turkey is doing enough to ameliorate the situation?

There have been some incidents of Syrians’ property being vandalised, especially property of those who reside in urban areas. The government has been working lately on establishing friendship committees that combine both Turkish and Syrians in order to alleviate the tension. Life outside the camp is really complex. It is really important to be familiar with the people they are living with.

“The media is not very efficient in delivering a clear idea of the situation. They are selective and they would come to the camps or other areas, interview refugees and never come back or network with active NGOs or aid workers to solve the problems. They have no impact; on the contrary refugees would place high expectations to deliver their voice. However, they would have their own agendas”.

We are always talking about the Turkish reactions and we pay little attention what the Syrians themselves think about this situation. Would you tell us what do they feel about these tensions?

Well, I think here there are some sensitive issues because you know living in a camp and obeying all these rules sometimes might be too much for someone who was already living in an oppressed place. At certain points, people would compare the Turkish authorities in the camp with the Syrian regime and say what is the difference? Are we experiencing similar oppression? I think there is this gap. In my opinion the Turkish authorities are doing well, but they are still concerned about the facilities and what is needed. When it comes to communication and relationships, more efforts are required.

How do you appreciate the attitude media has in providing an image upon the Syrian situation in Turkey?

The media is not very efficient in delivering a clear idea of the situation. They are selective and they would come to the camps or other areas, interview refugees and never come back or network with active NGOs or aid workers to solve the problems. They have no impact; on the contrary refugees would place high expectations to deliver their voice. However, they would have their own agendas.

Could you detect a transformation in Turkish policy regarding the refugee reception? What do you expect from the new regulations that are to be put in force in 2014? Do you consider that the presidential elections have influenced in any way the Syrian refugee’s situation? If so, how would that be?

Although the Turkish government is considering to give to Syrians a ‘status’ that allows them to work on its territory, they might restrict their movements. No Syrian, after this law comes into effect, will be able to seek asylum in European countries, once they have the new ID that is supposed to include all Syrians on Turkish soil.

How do you think the situation will evolve? Should we expect a crisis or are you optimistic about improvements in Turkish policy towards the refugees as the war becomes much more protracted?

If the security situation continues to deteriorate in Syria, I expect that Turkey will be struggling to cope since current refugees will have less support and more tension will occur between host population and refugees.

***

© 2014 Research Turkey. All rights reserved. This publication cannot be printed, reproduced, or copied without referencing the original source.

Please cite this publication as follows:

Research Turkey (December, 2014), “Interview with Reem Doukmak: Syrian Refugees in Turkey”, Vol. III, Issue 12, pp.25-38, Centre for Policy Analysis and Research on Turkey (ResearchTurkey), London, ResearchTurkey. (http://researchturkey.org/?p=7501)

Endnotes

[1]http://www.brookings.edu/research/articles/2014/04/15-turkey-integrate-syrian-refugees-kirisci

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