Abdullah Ebu Hattab and his family

Abdullah Ebu Hattab is a Syrian refugee whose biggest dream is to become a Turkish citizen. He wants to live with his children in a safe country, and that’s what Turkey is for him. 

Ebu Hattab is not impressed with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s plan to build new residences in northern Syria for the refugees who currently live in Turkey.

“I’d never return to Syria. If we are forced to do that, we’ll leave Turkey and go to Europe, not Syria,” Ebu Hattab said.

Ebu Hattab fled Damascus six years ago. He met his wife in Syria and married her in Istanbul. They have two children now. 

“In Damascus, I owned an exchange office, a house and a car. I left all that behind. My luggage was stolen the day I arrived in Istanbul. There were no translators at the police station, so I couldn’t tell them what happened,” he said.

Ebu Hattab started his life in Turkey from scratch. He first made a living by assisting Arab customers at a real estate office in the Esenyurt district of Istanbul. He was fired for not having a work permit, following the government’s pressure on employers who gave jobs to refugees.

“I get only temporary jobs now,” he said. 

When asked why he wanted to remain in Turkey and become its citizen, Ebu Hattab said:

 “I want to raise my children in a Muslim country. They should hear the sound of Ezan [the Islamic call to prayer] every day.” 

Ebu Hattab goes regularly to a local mosque with his 3-year-old son Muhammed.

 “If we wanted to go to Europe, we would have gone six years ago. But if we had to leave Turkey now, we would go to Europe, not Syria”, he said.

Abdullah Ebu Hattab and Muhammed (Credit: Murat Bay)

Esenyurt is one of the multicultural districts of Istanbul with a booming population. It is populated mainly by Kurds and Syrians.

Police officers and armed vehicles stand guard in the town square, which is surrounded by barriers. On side streets, many shops have signs in Arabic and their owners are Syrians. But when the Interior Ministry announced this summer that all Syrians who were not registered in Istanbul would have to leave the city soon, the business slowed down and many shops had to be closed.

Esenyurt Square (Credit: Murat Bay)

Enes Hamade, 29, is one of the shop owners in Esenyurt. He came to Istanbul from Syria five years ago and opened a snack shop using all of his savings. He showed us his documents from the Istanbul Governorship and said: 

“I need to renew my work permit every three months. I may temporarily return to Reyhanlı [a town in Turkey’s Hatay province near the Syrian border] where I’m registered, but I will not return to Syria. If I’m forced to leave Turkey, I’ll go to Europe.” 

Ali Kassab, 29, shows a photo of the remains of his home in Aleppo. 

“I don’t have money to rebuild this house”, he said. “There is no safety in Syria and no jobs. If we can’t stay in Turkey, we’ll flee to Europe”, he said. 

President Erdoğan has promised to build new homes and provide “humane living conditions” in northern Syria, so that Syrian refugees currently residing in Turkey could be relocated there. 

However, over the last two months, hundreds of civilians died in a safe zone that Turkey is trying to create in northern Syria. 

According to the November report issued by the Middle East Director of the New York-based Human Rights Watch, Sarah Leah Whitson, “Executing individuals, pillaging property, and blocking displaced people from returning to their homes is damning evidence of why Turkey’s proposed ‘safe zones’ will not be safe.”

Amnesty International said in October that Turkish military forces and a coalition of Turkey-backed Syrian armed groups have displayed “a shameful disregard for civilian life”. 

Turkey is also accused by London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) of conducting a “demographic transformation” in the regions in northern Syria that it controls. 

Gülseren Yoleri (Credit: Murat Bay)

Director of Istanbul branch of Human Rights Association (IHD), Gulseren Yoleri, claims that Syrian refugees in Turkey are forced to sign voluntary repatriation documents, adding that the war is still going on in the parts of Syria where Turkey wants to relocate the refugees.

“International treaties stipulate that a person cannot be sent to a location where they would be subjected to mistreatment and would be in danger. Even if a person wants to go there, a state shouldn’t enable them to do that. We think that Syrian refugees are being used as bargaining chips again”, Yoleri said. 

ID control in Avcılar Metrobus (Credit: Murat Bay)

Turkey is the country that hosts the highest number of refugees in the world – somewhere between 3,5 and 4 million. 

According to Yoleri, an increasing number of Syrian who live in Turkey want to go to Europe because their living conditions have become worse. 

City planner Burcu Yanar, who wrote a master’s thesis on Syrian immigrants, also pointed out that “regardless of how bad the situation is in Turkey, most refugees don’t want to return to Syria”. 

Haci Hasan Haki (Credit: Murat Bay)

14-year-old Haci Hasan Haki lost his arm during the war in Syria. Four months ago, he came to Turkey from Aleppo where he spent half of his life in constant fear of being killed. He said he could not go to school in Syria, and could not understand what was going on.  

Haki came to Turkey on foot, with his mother and five siblings. He does not remember how long their journey was.

“It lasted maybe days, maybe weeks, I don’t know,” he said.  

For him, returning to Aleppo is not an option.  “Aleppo is gone, it’s just a heap of rubble”. 

When asked what he wanted most in life, Haki lifted his head and said: “I want doctors to give me a new arm”.