GAZIANTEP, Turkey — Umm Muhammad is quick on her feet. She paces out of her apartment on a late January morning, pressing a cell phone to her ear. She instructs her customers how to navigate the labyrinthine alleyways of her neighbourhood in southwest Turkey’s Gaziantep district, until they come to a point where she is able to meet them midway.
Her customers are usually from foreign non-profits and aid organisations that have sprung up in Gaziantep after civil discontent in Syria morphed into a brutal civil war. Muhammad, who preferred not to give her real name to protect her privacy, delivers them the meals she cooks out of her tiny kitchen on the ground floor of a rundown building.
She lives with her two teenage boys, a paralysed husband and a mentally sick father. The 45-year-old is originally from Syria’s Aleppo province. She moved to Turkey four years ago after she lost her two nephews, one of whom was killed by a sniper and the other abducted and killed by the forces loyal to Syrian regime leader Bashar al Assad. She’s now single-handedly looking after her family, both by being the sole earner of the household income, and as their carer. Their survival relies on the number of meals she sells.
“My husband and father need medication. I have to pay bills of home, water and electricity. I cannot stay at home,” she says.
Her day starts at 6am. She cleans her kitchen and then buys her daily stock of vegetables, beef and chicken from a nearby grocery store.
By 11am, the aroma of food emanates from her kitchen, strong enough to whet the appetite of passers-by. She packs the food in tin foil-wrapped containers and delivers them all by 3pm.
“My customers have praised my cooking skills,” she says. “They encourage me to cook more.”
Muhammad is particularly good at cooking yaprak (grape leaves stuffed with rice and meat) and kibbeh, a Levantine mix of beef, cashews, raisins and cereals. She also makes zucchini stuffed with rice and tomatoes, and different kinds of vegetable salads.
After taking a rest for one or two hours, she returns to her kitchen to prepare food for dinner. She delivers her last order at 12:00 am. “We Syrians are hard working people,” she says. “I am not going to say that working overtime has made my life miserable. I am very thankful to Allah that I am able to sell food and look after my family.”
Muhammad’s entrepreneurial journey began soon after she became a refugee. She took a job as a maid in a Turkish household three years ago, where she cleaned floors, washed dishes and cooked dinners for her employer. She earned 400 Turkish Liras ($111) a month.
One day, her employer, a woman in her late forties, invited people over for dinner. She asked Muhammad to cook some Syrian dishes. “They all liked my food,” Muhammad recalls, “One woman [in the group] worked for an international NGO. She asked me if I could cook lunch for her and her colleagues.”
The client and the market
In addition to that initial foreign non-profit, her clientele soon increased to four other aid agencies. But she couldn’t grow beyond that - aside from cooking for weddings and funerals on rare occasions.
Though Syrians topped the list of foreign nationals setting up the most high-capital startups in Turkey last year, middle class entrepreneurs like Muhammad find themselves trapped in a soul-crushing routine of putting in hard hours every day, just to make ends meet.
Muhammad aspired to open a restaurant to multiply her production, but she soon gave up on the idea. The economic reality in southeastern Turkey has changed after the arrival of Syrian refugees increased the region’s population. Real estate prices have shot up and the labour pool has become highly competitive, leaving refugees running small-scale businesses with often pitiful profit margins.
“I just need a slightly bigger space, a microwave, a potato cutting machine, a refrigerator,” she says. “I can afford to buy some of the equipment, but I cannot afford a space.”
Yet wealthier Syrian refugees are on a different side of the aisle. They have better opportunities compared to their disadvantaged counterparts. Syrians can register a business firm with $1,000, and with $2 million capital investment, they are eligible for Turkish citizenship.
Muhammad Saleh Ahmedo has applied for citizenship for himself, his wife and his three children. A medium-built man with wide green eyes, Ahmedo set up his firm two years ago. He manufactures cold storage devices for big buildings, factories and warehouses.
“All you need is a [Syrian] passport and a Turkish residency card to set up a shop here,” says Ahmedo. “If you import products you have to pay 18 percent tax to the government and when you export you get that 18 percent back.”
Ahmedo mainly ships his products to the Gulf countries: most of his clients are in Saudi Arabia and Qatar. In the last two years, he says he has invested $500,000 to set up his manufacturing firm in Sanayii, a newly built industrial hub in Gaziantep.
“To name the factory, I went to the trade chamber. The officials there gave me an acceptance letter. I submitted that letter at the local governor's office. They asked me how much my project is worth,” says Ahmedo, “They approved my case, and I signed the contract in the governor's office. That was it.”
He rented a spacious warehouse in Sanayii for $700 per month. He combines the spare parts, which he buys from Turkey and Germany, into giant-sized cooling units. The devices cost between $2,500 and $9,000, depending on their size.
Before the war broke out in Syria, Ahmedo ran the same business in Idilib province. He also has a branch office in Saudi Arabia, which is currently overseen by his older brother.
Under the shadow state
Ahmedo has journeyed a long and dangerous path to make his business profitable. In 1993, soon after he finished his bachelor’s degree in mathematics, he left Syria to seek better opportunities. “It was a presidential rule that if you were a successful student in any field, the regime did not allow you to travel abroad,” says Ahmedo. “I had to bribe the police to get out of the country.”
Ahmedo moved to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. He taught mathematics at a government-run school there.
“Throughout my time, I was followed by Syrian intelligence,” he says, “It was so brazen that the mukhabarat [Syrian spies] would come to my house. I often served them dinner.”
A decade later, the Syrian regime announced a rehabilitation policy for all those nationals who had left for foreign lands. They were asked to return home, and promised that no charges would be pressed against them.
Ahmedo moved back. He opened up a pharmacy in Idlib province. The business grew and he slowly began to import medicine from South Korea, Spain and India. He distributed it across the Idlib and Aleppo provinces. A few years later, he veered toward building cold storage holds.
During the early days of the war in Syria, he offered free medicine to people injured in the street battles. “I didn’t discriminate between those who were Assad supporters and who were revolutionaries; I just gave medicine to everyone,” he says.
But his aid work irked the Syrian regime. He soon found his name blacklisted in local police stations and checkpoints. Ahmedo went underground for a few weeks, thinking he might be able to bribe Assad’s military and get his name removed from the list. “I learnt that they had even put my kids’ names in the wanted list.”
Ahmedo has four children, all boys, ranging between one to 16 years of age. The hunt didn’t end there. Assad’s soldiers, he says, often stopped and harassed his uncle at checkpoints. The final blow came in the form of bombing. His two houses, factory and his mother’s villa were targeted on different occasions.
“In the end, I was left with $5,000 and a small Hyundai car,” he says. “I drove it to the Syrian border with my family in it and crossed into Turkey on foot.”
The office he had set up in Saudi Arabia helped him stay financially afloat. He mobilised it, raising some money here and there to start the new factory in Turkey.
Ahmedo has hired a staff of ten people and he often takes extra men as daily wagers. Most of his workers are Syrians.
“I was lucky to come here and not miss this business opportunity. But I also see my countrymen desperately looking for work; I try what I can do, and I know it is not enough,” he says.
His application for Turkish citizenship is still being screened by the Turkish government. Though he's thankful to the Turkish government for giving Syrians some hope of resettlement, he would still prefer to live in Syria.
“Home is home," he says, “Syria is beating in our hearts. We miss it every day.”
Ahmedo has no complaints about living in Turkey. He has rented a three-bedroom apartment in a gated upper middle-class neighbourhood. “My landlord is happy with me,” he says. “I pay my rent on time, and we are not fussy about little things, so things are quite smooth.”
The new urban reality
Unlike Ahmedo, Syrians facing less prosperous socioeconomic circumstances have to navigate through neighbourhood tensions. To begin with, it’s hard for a Syrian refugee to rent a decent apartment. Since the region faced the refugee influx, the property prices for rentals have skyrocketed.
“For a house worth 500 Liras ($140), it's now 1,000 Liras ($280) per month; so it has doubled,” says Mahir Gungor, a real estate agent at one of the world’s leading real estate firms, ReMax.
Gungor, who works out of Gaziantep, has witnessed the fast transition in the property business after the war in Syria resulted in a massive refugee crisis. The first two years, he says, were not as challenging for Syrian refugees as the last four years have been when it comes to renting out properties across southeast Turkey.
“The main cause of the soaring property prices in rentals are not Syrian refugees,” Gungor says. “It’s the foreign aid organisations, non-profits and self-help groups.”
The non-profits and aid organisations, he says, came to Gaziantep with big budgets. “They didn’t mind paying $500-$1,000 for a space that was worth $200,” he says.
“That changed everything. House and commercial property owners started looking for such clients. So these aid organisations do give food to hungry refugees, but at the same time they have hurt their housing situation.”
Umm Muhammad, the Syrian chef, is one of the victims of that situation. She couldn’t afford to rent a space where she could have started her restaurant. The landlords told her that she needs to pay huge sums to their tenants first to free the property, and then pay more money to them as a security deposit.
“The total cost is about 50,000 Turkish liras ($14,000),” she says, “I don’t think about opening a restaurant anymore because I can never arrange such a large sum.”