The owners put the biggest burdens on my children because they are Syrians” says a Syrian activist, refusing to continue the interview.
The Syrian regime’s continuous bombing of civilian areas, arbitrary arrests, and the deterioration of the economy resulting from the conflict, have compelled hundreds of thousands of Syrians to flee to other countries in the region, such as Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, Libya and Algeria. (Notwithstanding their claims to “support the Syrian people,” countries such as Saudi Arabia and all the other Gulf states have not welcomed Syrian refugees.) Relatively speaking, Turkey has been the best destination for the Syrian refugees, as the Turkish government has allowed them to work – the capacity of the Turkish labor market is greater than that of the other above-mentioned countries. Nonetheless, Syrian workers’ conditions in Turkey are poor, and in too many cases downright miserable.
Many of the Syrian refugees in Turkey are students, some of them teenagers and children, who have been unable to continue their education in Turkey despite the fact that the Turkish government has made it possible for them to gain admission to universities and schools. The financial plight of many students’ families, whether also in Turkey or still in Syria, has forced these students into the workforce, where they are often subjected to very hard conditions. International organizations have to date been apathetic with regard to this issue, and have done nothing to enable these refugees to return to school. Even the schools established in Turkey specifically for Syrian refugees charge tuition fees that are simply too high for many to afford.
Syrian refugee workers in Turkey have limited rights and protection by law and not being able to speak Turkish, most – including the educated and professional workers – are employed as manual laborers in industries such as construction and textiles. Compounding the issue is that the psychological pressure resulting from the poor working conditions, combined with the dream of asylum in one of the developed countries results in many of these refugees not even attempting to learn Turkish.
For Turkish companies the Syrian worker phenomenon is a boon; Syrians earn half the wage of their Turkish counterparts, and unlike Turkish laborers, Syrians can be fired at any time for no reason at all, with the result that many are forced to work extremely long hours.
To get an idea of the predicament many Syrian refugees in Turkey find themselves in, one need merely take a look at their Facebook pages. They share posts explaining their suffering and resentment, sometimes with a dash of humor or irony.
Here are a few of the stories of Syrian refugees working in Istanbul: Muhammad and his cousin Ali are 15-year-olds from Aleppo. Both were in secondary school before the war, and came to Istanbul about a year ago after their fathers both lost their jobs and decided to move their families to a village close to the Turkish border, away from the front lines. Muhammad found a job across the border in a Turkish textile plant, and Ali in a shoemaker’s workshop. They work 14 hours a day, and live in a two-room dwelling along with 20 other Syrian workers. Muhammad’s boss withheld his wages for two months, promising he would pay all at once before the Id al-Adha festival.
When Id came, Muhammad was happy at the thought of being able to send money to his family, who were in dire need of it – but his boss simply told him he could not afford to pay him.
Saleh, an engineer, came to Istanbul about six months ago. In Syria he had worked in a government training center, but after it closed down he and his family moved to Istanbul, where he tried to find a job. He couldn’t find one in his field because he did not speak Turkish, and after two months ended up in a textile factory. He works 12-hour night shifts, and his salary is 800 Turkish lira ($375) – far too little to meet the needs of his family of seven. Saleh asks the developed countries to either take responsibility and stop the war in Syria, or open their doors to Syrian refugees.
Abu Ahmed, a Syrian activist, came to Turkey together with his five children.
Before the civil war all his children were attending school, and he always used to say that his only wish in life was to guarantee them an education, but after coming to Turkey he and his children had to work hard to survive. When I met him he was grieved that his children were being deprived of their education, and very angry at mistreatment his children encounter at their workplaces. He said, “Every day when my children come back home from work they tell me how bad they were treated by their bosses.”
“The owners put the biggest burdens on my children because they are Syrians” he cried, refusing to continue the interview.
Hussam was a soldier in the Syrian army, who deserted and fled to Turkey. A short time afterward, his brigade fell to Islamic State fighters, and many of his comrades were beheaded. Like other Syrian refugees, his conditions are hard. He has often been refused pay, and fired for no reason. Nevertheless, he’s grateful to still have his head on his shoulders. “At least I’m alive,” he said.
** The author is a Syrian refugee who lives in Turkey.