Thousands of asylum seekers across the country managed to rebuild their lives after drowning in debt and destitution just next door.
On a bustling commercial street in the heart of Fatih, the district known as old Istanbul, Abu Ahmed (who withheld his first name) ushers children out of his store as he offers passers-by a taste of his Syrian-style baqlawa (a Turkish pastry filled with nuts).
The father of five, who moved to Istanbul four years ago after failing to make ends meet in Lebanon, says life in the vibrant, bustling city is a stark contrast to his darker days in Beirut.
“It’s not that we were treated particularly badly (although we were far from welcomed), but the economy there is so bad that no matter what we did, we couldn’t keep afloat with what we were making,” he says. “Even the Lebanese are hardly surviving. The country is in turmoil. Here, by contrast, we can trade normally, while enjoying a dignified standard of living. We don’t feel like beggars but like normal human beings."
Syrians have suffered far and wide in neighbouring Greece, Jordan and Lebanon since fleeing the civil war, which has killed more than 400,000 people since it began in 2011 (although some human rights watchdogs put the figure at 570,000).
Turkey is home to more than four million refugees of various nationalities, most of them Syrian and 600,000 of them in Istanbul alone.
According to World Bank estimates, Turkey has spent more than $30 billion to ensure Syrians are housed and set up.
This is in stark contrast to the plight of refugees in Jordan, where systematic measures have been taken since 2011 to make life harder for expats opening businesses after Iraqis and Syrians poured into the country over the course of a decade.
Indeed, the neighbouring country, which faces economic collapse and recently saw a mass wave of protests in response to the increasing prices of basic commodities, has quelled the up-and-coming immigrant Syrian economy in recent years.
Perhaps even more alarming is the seldom-reported fact that Syrians, many of them affluent businessmen, doctors and teachers who have lived in the country since as far back as the 1980s, were given refugee status on their official documentation when the crisis broke out.
Umm Nael, who owns a non-profit organisation in Amman that makes clothes for the less fortunate (and who also declined to share her first name), says this drove many to sell their longstanding businesses and move to Turkey.
“These people had lived there for decades,” she says. “Quite astonishingly, they redirected their revenues into Turkey, and very simply within a year, they had acquired citizenship and homes. It’s hard to imagine that four decades in a country yields nothing, while one year in another can do wonders. Suffice to say that you can own a house in Turkey, whereas you can’t in virtually any Arab country.”
Umm Nael laments the fact that authorities increased the price of water three-fold in her building in an attempt to deter Syrians and other refugees from keeping their businesses open.
“We used to pay JD50 ($70) a month and we pleaded with them not to increase it to JD150 ($210) by virtue of the fact that we are not-for-profit, but they refused,” she says. “We have already moved two of our businesses to Turkey and are considering operating our philanthropic initiatives from there, as well.”
“Some of Jordan's longest-standing Syrian families were barred entry after travelling abroad on grounds that they are ‘refugees’. I know a British citizen of Syrian descent who spent four days at the airport and was told he would be deported ‘back to Syria’ despite having no affiliation to the country. He reasoned with them for days and it wasn’t until British authorities intervened that he could go back to London. Similar horror stories happened with Arabs with Turkish passports.”
More than 2,000 refugees poured into Jordan daily in the early days of the Syrian conflict. According to the World Economic Forum, three in 10 Syrians still consider moving to Turkey or Germany, though restrictions have since been put in place across Europe to stem swelling asylum figures.
“Smarter Syrians had headed straight to Turkey after conducting feasibility studies in neighbouring Arab countries in the early days, preferring to set up camp as near to Syria as possible, but quickly realising that it would be futile, especially that we are not allowed to even open bank accounts in some, and this despite having employed a 60-percent local workforce,” she adds. “The bank issue, by the way, includes all expats.”
Her neighbour, Abu Rushdi, a textiles business owner, faced a similar fate.
“We used to fervently await the aid containers that were sent by the Gulf, some as a form of help and others upon request by companies like ours, which were either usurped by authorities or withheld for months under the pretext that we had to pay thousands in taxes on them so that ‘locals can accept our presence in their country’.”
“This is why the mass exodus westwards began happening in 2014,” says the father of three. “I moved my textile business to Istanbul two years ago and looking back now, I am thankful that the bureaucracy of the Arab world helped me discover a more carefree, equitable and hassle-free life here. The fruit and vegetable produce is cleaner and the quality of life incomparable.”
Syrian-owned bakeries, meat stores and coffee shops are abundant in Fatih, while Arab-owned businesses near Aksaray’s fire station near Eminonu, though less lucrative, are still in high demand for their meat, olives, dried fruit, cheeses and butter.
“Houses here are a quarter of the price,” he says. “Invest $100,000 and you’re a citizen, work for five years and you’re a citizen. Does this exist anywhere east of here? None of the Middle Eastern countries knew how to make use of the massive revenues being brought into their countries by affluent Syrian merchants.”
While Jordan and Lebanon host a large number of refugees, with 1.5 million each, socio-political problems abound even with schooling and healthcare despite the improvements that were made with the resources provided by aid agencies.
“This is thanks to deep-rooted levels of corruption,” says Umm Nael. “They say refugees are crowding their institutions, all the while failing to acknowledge that with their influx came resources and access to amenities they ironically couldn’t even avail of before the refugee agencies allotted water and electricity rations to cater for the refugees. Local lives were inadvertently improved, and yet they scapegoated the refugees just the same.”
“Here in Turkey, by contrast, we are not blamed for anybody's troubles. As long as you operate with a license and pay your taxes, you are free to produce and prosper.”