Monday, March 3, 2014

What The Syrians Had To Say: Views from Istanbul (Part 5 Of A Multi-Part Series)

First of all, thank you to those who have stuck with us through this lengthy series on network analysis and Turkey. This will be the final installment, though the projects are still ongoing and the techniques still being refined and applied. 

Below are the stories from Syrians that have fled the country, collected by the author in January 2014. 

For those who missed the first four pieces, they can be found here: My Conversation With The Free Syrian Army, Ethnolinguistic Mapping, Gravity Model Analysis, and Population Simulations.

All the methodology involved in this lengthy project was recently presented at the International Network For Social Network Analysis Sunbelt Conference, and very well received (a big thanks to a very special CENTCOM Sunbelter who made the presentation and the trip to Turkey all possible). 

The methods led to very intriguing conclusions, some of which were confirmed and some of which were challenged by the Syrian refugee population in and around Istanbul, Turkey. In the suburbs of Istanbul, I spoke with many refugees to gain perspective on everything from their geographic movement to their political opinions, and what they had to say was equally as heartbreaking as it was informative. 

A woman held a one year, seven-month old child in her arms as she spoke to me in Arabic. "She is a living marker of the revolution," she told me. "She was just one month old when we left Syria; her life has only seen the war." 

Children playing outside for recess at a Syrian day school in Bayramtepe

A single mother of three, this woman had been living in an apartment in Fatih district of Istanbul since early 2013. The last time she had heard that her husband was alive after being incarcerated in Aleppo was March 2013. 

"We agreed before we left Syria," she said, "that if either one of us was killed or put in jail, the other one would continue to Istanbul." 

"Do you intend to stay in Istanbul?," I asked.

She replied that she could not leave. She hopes every day that her husband is alive, and if he is and escapes, he will only know to find her here. "I send money back to Aleppo for people to pay to the prison guards to ask about my husband. They take the money, but I never hear anything back." 

She was a woman of higher socioeconomic status, obvious from her black silk hijab. Many people living in Istanbul, namely the district of Fatih, are of a higher socioeconomic standing than those out in the suburbs, like Bayramtepe. 

Of all the people I interviewed, a total of 22 families and 152 individuals (about half of them children), there was a clear difference between groups of both lower and higher socioeconomic statuses. Those of the former group responded that they hoped to return to Syria as soon as possible. When asked what their ideal outcome would be, they replied that who would be in power in Syria did not matter, only that it was safe enough to return. 

Those of a higher socioeconomic status indicated that they did not intend to return to Syria. They were bitter and angry.

"Why would I go back?," one man shouted at me. "I have lost everything! There is nothing there for me and my family!"

"What would you like to see happen in Syria, politically," I pressed, despite his challenging tone. 

"Assad has treated the Syrian people like animals," he replied. He spoke of the need for international intervention. He expressed his disbelief at the U.S. government's lack of initiative in the region. "And this Geneva conference..." he continued, "they are just playing their game." He spit these last words at me before taking a sip of the Turkish tea his son's wife had made for us on arrival. 

This interaction was representative of the class divide among those with whom I spoke. 

The following day I walked through Bayramtepe, sun setting quickly around 1600 behind rolling hills littered with cinder blocks and the occasional haggard donkey. Crawling out of the muddy streets and up the cement stairs to a shack on stilts, I was overwhelmed with the smell of garlic and cooked greens as the door opened. A chorus of Salaam Alaikum filled the entryway as I pried my muddy boots off my feet for about the 20th time that day.

It was a single room with a drafty roof, but it was cozy, with a pot in the center that contained simmering green leaves. Many children, too many to count, ran in and out of the house as a woman, upwards of 95, tottered around yelling at them to keep quiet for the guests. She brought out an apple on a tray for the seven of us to share.

"We walked," she told me, "first from Damascus, then to Raqqa where we crossed the Turkish border at Tel-Abyad." 

"What was the most difficult part of your trip?," I asked. 

She mentioned walking all that way with all the children (more than 10) and her mother, who was ill (the 95-year old woman who was surprisingly lively and cheerful, excited to have company). 

"Also," she pressed on after she had contained her tears enough to continue, "when we crossed the border, the Turkish police caught us on the other side. None of us had passports, so they returned us back to Syria. We had to wait for them to leave before sneaking across the border the following night."

This was a common story I heard from the refugees. Almost none had passports or citizenship papers. Many were captured and returned to Syria, but then sneaked over the border later. 

"My life was saved by an American," a man later told me.

This was intriguing.

"I was captured near Aleppo by the Syrian government, and put in jail with my family. We stayed there for a few days until another man was put in jail with us. An American, I think. He spoke only in English. Later that day, I heard the military talking and the captured man was someone of great importance, so the Syrians took us all, my family and the man, and left us out in the middle of the country near Aleppo. They just drove away. I was lucky."

Thoughts of who this man might have been flashed through my mind. A journalist, perhaps? An international peacekeeper? Someone the Syrians did not want to be responsible for incarcerating. 
Bayramtepe, Turkey

The refugees were from Aleppo, Raqqa, Homs, Idlib and Damascus. They had come to Istanbul looking for work, some by way of Cairo. It was encouraging to hear that those that had crossed the border between Syria and Turkey had all crossed at the precise locations used in my simulations. 

I also learned that most traveled on foot through Syria and then by bus from Turkish border towns to Istanbul. The factors in my simulation reflected railways and roadways. In retrospect, railways were unnecessary, where roadways were important, but so pervasive throughout such a developed country that the factor hardly would have made a difference. It is through these valuable insights that I can now alter the factors in the simulation to better represent the region hosting the population and the characteristics of the population itself. 

A final surprise from Istanbul was the groups of people that I encountered. I expected to find Shia Kurds, Christians and Alawites, all minorities in the Sunni Muslim refugee camps near the border. What I found were both Sunni and Alevi (Shia) Kurds, some Sunni Muslims and no Christians. Where were the Christians?

Granted, I had assumed they would be in Istanbul by process of elimination. They did not go to Jordan, Lebanon or Iraq, but preferred Turkey's more secular environment. They were not in the refugee camps near the border, though, so I assumed they must be among those migrating to Istanbul. After speaking with those who knew the entire Syrian population in Istanbul and its suburbs I determined there were no Christians in the area. Where were the Christians? News articles answered the question for me once I got home.

In speaking with a man named Azzad, the leader of a private Syrian refugee organization in Bayramtepe that survives on donations from Turkish citizens, he indicated that he had registered 2,500 families, upwards of 12,000 people, with 5 - 10 new families arriving daily. He said that no one leaves and everyone needs help. The majority of the refugees are Kurds.

A man named Muffa who runs the same kind of organization in Fatih district of Istanbul indicated he had 5,500 families in the city with 100 new families registering every month. 

"If I had to guess," he told me, "about 20 percent of the people in Fatih are Kurdish." 

These are just some of the many stories from the refugees that I spoke with representing the ways in which they challenged and confirmed my analytic predictions. 

While I continue to follow the crisis in Syria, my current research involves the application of the methods presented in this multi-part series to central Africa. The utility of the methodology developed is its flexibility, but different regions and refugee groups require a comprehensive re-evaluation of the factors influencing the simulation. 

With luck, look for the information on Central Africa to surface sometime early summer!

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