Author’s Notes: Delphine Minoui on the Resilient Syrian Community in Istanbul

It was the summer of 2015 and my family had just moved from Cairo to Turkey, for my last assignment as a Middle East correspondent for Le Figaro newspaper. I was walking my three-year-old daughter to school through the cobbled streets of Istanbul when we saw a painting of Aylan Kurdi, a Syrian refugee boy his age, his lifeless body lying on a Turkish beach. Aylan’s photo had recently made headlines after he drowned in the sea trying to reach Greece with his family, hoping for a better life away from war. The artist, an elderly Turkish man in his late sixties, stood in front of his frame, eager to communicate the tragedy to passers-by. His act warmed my heart. This echoed the wave of solidarity then sweeping the country: people rushing to the border to help newcomers; charities collecting food and clothing; volunteer doctors to care for the sick.

More than six years later, the mood has changed. Apart from a few signs, like the “welcome refugees” graffiti that recently appeared in my neighborhood, the doors are closing and most Syrians I know are keeping a low profile. With the upcoming Turkish elections approaching, most political parties are keen to send some of the 3.5 million Syrian refugees back to their country.

“We, as Syrians, no longer feel safe in Istanbul,” Ahmad Muaddamani told me. A brilliant Syrian activist, Ahmad was one of the co-founders of Daraya’s secret library, filled with books scavenged from bombed Syrian homes, which I wrote about in The Book Collectors of Daraya. After fleeing to Turkey in 2018, Ahmad sought asylum in France. Yet many young Syrians his age proudly call Istanbul home.

“Life is not easy; I don’t feel like a refugee or a citizen,” said Yaman Khoraki – a Syrian friend who fled Aleppo bombs in 2014 – on one of our many walks through the neighborhood of Fatih, nicknamed the “Little Syria” of Istanbul. Arrived in Turkey, Yaman thought he would stay there for a few months. The Syrian war escalated and he ended up settling for good. Although he is eligible for the Turkish citizenship, Yaman’s application has been rejected and he fears deportation if the government tightens its refugee policy. Nonetheless, he has built a bond with this vibrant city of more than 15 million citizens. He is studying the medicine, learned Turkish, made Turkish friends. During the first outbreak of Covid-19 in 2020, he was on the front line to take care of patients. “At the end of the day, we have so much in common in our Islamic traditions: Ramadan, music, food,” he said. “If I lived in Norway, I would feel much more disconnected.”