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My time in 'Little Aleppo'

  • The border crossing near Kilis. Officially, Turkey’s borders are open to all Syrians.  But both NGOs and refugees accuse Turkey of limiting entry. And even the Turkish government acknowledges there are tens of thousands of people living in camps on the Syrian side of the border.

I knew so many Syrian refugees had come to Gaziantep that locals had started referring to it, only half-jokingly, as “Little Aleppo.” And I had seen the evidence: not only did I meet a lot of Syrians, but I saw Arabic signs on stores and heard Arabic spoken in the streets; I drank Syrian coffee -- espresso with cardamom -- in a cafe transplanted from Aleppo; and ate Syrian-style falafels -- flat disks with holes in the center -- in a restaurant that was an informal resource center for refugees.

But strangely, it was license plates that most made me feel like the nickname was appropriate. On one block, in a neighborhood near the university where many Syrians have moved, I counted that eight out of nine parked cars had Syrian plates. The block after that, and the next one after that, were similar. Suddenly I could picture thousands of them, overflowing with people and suitcases like a photo one refugee showed me of his own car, as they drove across the border to safety in Turkey.

Gaziantep, Turkey and Aleppo, Syria have been close for a long time. They are geographically near; during the Ottoman Empire, they were even part of the same province. Before the war started in Syria, it only took about two hours to drive from one to the other, closer than either city is to its respective capital. Especially after Syria and Turkey stopped requiring visas in 2009, Aleppans often came to Gaziantep on weekends to shop; some even used Gaziantep’s airport as their own. Even after the war started, but before it came to Aleppo, there was a lot of trade between the two cities, both regional business centers.

The two are culturally close, too. Cross-border marriages are common, and many families have relatives in both countries. Gaziantep’s cuisine is much closer to Aleppo’s than it is to the rest of Turkey’s.

It’s mostly that spirit of neighborliness that I sensed there. Refugees told me about Turkish friends and relatives who helped them with everything from starting businesses to finding apartments. And as Settar Çanlıoğlu, a Gaziantep city official said, helping the Syrians in Gaziantep isn’t so much generosity as a humanitarian duty. He showed me a binder, filled with the resumes of roughly 60 Turkish-educated Syrian doctors, for whom he was trying to find jobs.

It’s fortunate, since it’s likely the Syrians will be around for awhile. I asked a university student-turned-housepainter how long he was planning to stay. His answer? “Forever.”

But I also wonder how long Turkey -- both officially and personally -- will continue to feel so hospitable. Suphi Atan, the foreign ministry official responsible for the the 20-odd refugee camps Turkey has built for Syrians, said that the best scenario at this point is to start helping the Syrians in Syria. Turkey’s border is officially open for all Syrians, but NGOs and refugees say that’s not true. And even Turkey acknowledges there are tens of thousands of Syrians in camps on the Syrian side of the border.

And as Çanlıoğlu, the Gaziantep official told me, the best outcome of this crisis is that the war ends so the Syrians can go home.  


Alisa's reporting on the Syrian refugee crisis was supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting.

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