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Syrian refugees in Turkey face racist attacks and the fear of deportation

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Now let's turn overseas for a look at southern Turkey and the shaky status of Syrian refugees in what had been a welcoming haven. Turkey hosts millions of people fleeing Syria's civil war, and many made new lives there, even helping to power local economies with businesses they've built. Now an economic crisis and rising resentment have turned that reality upside down for many. NPR's Fatma Tanis went to the southern city of Gaziantep. That's the center of Turkey's biggest concentration of Syrians.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOTOR RUMBLING)

FATMA TANIS, BYLINE: Two years ago, this Syrian business owner and his family were offered relocation to Canada by the United Nations. But life in Turkey was so good, they declined and chose to stay.

YUSUF: (Speaking Arabic).

TANIS: He now recalls the decision with disbelief and regret. He runs a phone store with his father on a busy street with many other Syrian businesses and wanted to only use his first name, Yusuf, fearing that speaking publicly could hurt his legal status in Turkey.

YUSUF: (Through interpreter) Many of the working-class Syrians have left. There's no one to buy our stuff anymore.

TANIS: In 2018, Turkey's economy took a downturn and has only worsened since. The crisis has been especially tough on Syrian refugees, many of whom are laborers and living below the poverty line. But Yusuf says there's actually a bigger problem.

YUSUF: (Through interpreter) Racism, racism, racism. The Turkish people blame us for everything.

TANIS: Opposition politicians in Turkey have mostly blamed the country's economic woes on Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's once very welcoming immigration policies and scapegoated Syrians. In response, Erdogan announced a plan to, quote, "resettle" 1 million refugees in areas of northern Syria that are controlled by Turkey. And this year, rights groups say, Turkey started arbitrarily deporting hundreds of Syrian men.

YUSUF: (Speaking Arabic).

TANIS: Yusuf appreciates Erdogan's record toward Syrians, but he's tired of getting harassed in the streets and deeply critical of the deportations.

YUSUF: (Through interpreter) The deportations have emboldened the racists. The smallest altercation with an angry Turkish citizen who might call the police, and you can find yourself at a deportation camp.

TANIS: You hear a Turkish view a couple of shops down from Yusuf. Murat Baykal owns a small grocery store. He says he feels like a second-class citizen in his own country.

MURAT BAYKAL: (Through interpreter) The Syrians are just everywhere. They own more than half of this street, get all kinds of help from the government. And they brought more crime to the city.

TANIS: But Baykal himself relies on Syrians for work, like his apprentice, a 10-year-old Syrian boy who was munching on snacks next to him.

BAYKAL: (Speaking Turkish).

TANIS: "Of course, there are amazing people, too," he says, "like this one," reaching to ruffle the boy's hair. A lot of Syrians are working with Turks. Omar Kadkoy, an analyst for Ankara-based think tank TEPAV, who is Syrian himself, studies the integration of Syrian refugees in Turkey and says the pressure Syrians feel hold them back from doing things that could help Turkey more.

OMAR KADKOY: They live in fear because any minor mistake might put them at the opposite side of the border. And while this is going to happen, they will not fully unleash their potential or contribution because they feel that at any given point, this might come to an end in an arbitrary manner.

(SOUNDBITE OF HAMMER PLINKING)

TANIS: In the old town of Gaziantep, coppersmiths hammer away. Narrow cobblestoned streets are lined with shops selling spices and silk. The city was once an example of successful integration, taking in half a million refugees. Syrian Mohammed Salem has a shop selling scarves and jewelry from his homeland. It's the last of his stock from Aleppo. There's nothing left there anymore, he says. And things are getting tougher here.

MOHAMMAD SALEM: Here the people are all refugees. They have stress, and the government - they don't understand that. Some people - they have stress from the house, stress from the war, stress from the streets, stress from everything.

TANIS: He and other Syrians worry that if they're sent back to Syria, they'll face the same persecution they fled years ago. And they don't actually believe it'll happen.

SALEM: Nobody wants to go back to Syria - nobody. And the government knows that. They're talking as the politics. This is a political game.

TANIS: Still, he says the rhetoric is harmful, and he hopes to move his family to Europe or Canada because he just can't see a future for his children here. But if he and other Syrians leave, their Turkish neighbors will feel it. The director of the city's migration management department, Onder Yalcin, told NPR in a statement that Syrian businesses help increase exports and employment. But the message hasn't gotten out, says analyst Omar Kadkoy.

KADKOY: Unfortunately, there isn't enough media coverage when it comes to the success stories of Syrians in a way to combat the overall negative perceptions that are prevailing in the country nowadays.

(SOUNDBITE OF METAL CLANGING)

LOBNA HELLI: (Speaking Turkish).

TANIS: One of those success stories is Lobna Helli, who was an HR manager in Syria and fled in 2015 after her husband was arrested and tortured by the Syrian regime. Here, she got a grant from the city and opened a popular restaurant called Lazord - Arabic for the deep blue gemstone lapis - where she, along with her mother and sister, cook and serve Aleppan home dishes. The restaurant is frequented by Syrians as well as Turks.

HELLI: (Speaking Arabic).

TANIS: She smiles, watching her Turkish customers enjoy Syrian food, which is similar to Gaziantep's cuisine but with different spices and flavors.

HELLI: (Through interpreter) My upstairs neighbors are Turkish, and they always send me plates of Turkish food when they know I work late, even though I have a restaurant.

TANIS: Helli says her life is in Turkey now and doesn't plan to go anywhere else.

HELLI: (Through interpreter) My two daughters speak Turkish fluently. I'm even thinking about expanding to another location.

TANIS: But the future for her and others could be decided next year.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR HORN HONKING)

TANIS: Back at his telecom shop, Yusuf says their fate will depend on presidential elections expected in Turkey by the summer. If Erdogan wins, he'll stay in Turkey. Otherwise, he'll move his family to rebel-held Idlib in Syria, where millions live under the threat of Syrian and Russian airstrikes.

YUSUF: (Speaking Arabic).

TANIS: If given the choice between death in his homeland and suffering daily harassment here, he says he'd rather go back home and die with dignity. Fatma Tanis, NPR News, Gaziantep, Southern Turkey.

(SOUNDBITE OF STATIK SELEKTAH SONG, "TIME FEAT. JACK HARLOW") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.