In Turkey, Syrians find peace and purpose

Alaturka Kultur Sanat Haberleri

By Merve Aydogan

ANKARA (AA) – Overcoming adversity has been a defining part of Yusuf Mohammed’s life.

The loss of loved ones and an unrelenting longing for his homeland have been a burden thrust upon him for the greater part of his 31 years.

Today, he has forged a path through it all and is living a life driven by much more than the self — a leading light for millions of Syrians fleeing the tyrannical regime of Bashar al-Assad in search of safety and security.

Like all of his fellow countrymen, Mohammed, known as Yusuf Molla within the community, is hopeful for an end to the war that has ravaged Syria for almost a decade.

What sets him apart, though, are his aspirations for the future — to revive and protect the historic connection that has bonded Syrians and Turks for generations.

"I want to build bridges between our societies. When Turkish people will one day visit Syria, they will be welcomed by all of us who were given a safe place here," Mohammed told Anadolu Agency in an interview on International Migrants Day, marked globally on Dec. 18.

"Syrians who would have returned home from Turkey will invite you to their homes for meals because they will be speaking both Turkish and Arabic!"

Underlining that ties between the two peoples date back to the Ottoman era, he said: "Relations between Turkey and Syria have faced many obstacles because of Assad, [and] we do not want to lose our connection again."

– From Damascus to Ankara

Mohammed is among the over 4 million Syrian refugees in Turkey, the highest figure for any country in the world.

Born and raised in Damascus, he completed his schooling in Syria before heading to Lebanon for higher studies, avoiding Syria's mandatory military service for men between the ages of 18 and 42.

"I did not want to be part of the [Assad regime's] military so I left for Lebanon," he said.

The regime, though, continued to hound Mohammed, threatening him and his family back in Syria.

"My elder brother was a famous stand-up comedian in Syria. He would criticize the Assad regime and Daesh in his shows," he said.

It was his brother who told Mohammed to move to Turkey to evade the Assad regime.

That advice came in what turned out to be Mohammed's last conversation with his brother, who was abducted by Daesh terrorists in 2013 and remains missing to this day.

"I came to Turkey in 2012. After my brother's abduction, I brought my mother, father, and grandparents here in 2015," he said.

– 'Syria Town' in Turkish capital

While a majority of migrants from other countries live in Turkey's eastern and southeastern provinces, the capital Ankara is also host to more than 50,000 migrants and refugees, mostly Syrians.

They are largely based in Altindag district, right in the heart of the Turkish capital, giving the area a distinctive feel.

A walk in the neighborhood gives glimpses of the streets of Syria, with grocery stores, barbers, restaurants, and other small business all having signboards in Arabic and Turkish.

"Just like the Chinatowns in Western countries, this is 'Syria Town' in Ankara," said Mohammed, greeting people in the bustling locality.

During his initial time in Ankara, Mohammed worked as an Arabic teacher at various institutes, reaching out to Syrians and volunteering to help them as a translator.

He then started working as a volunteer translator for state institutions and other organizations dealing with Ankara's Syrian community.

Assisted by Turkish aid groups, Mohammed would track down Syrians in need and help them with accommodation, food, clothing, and any other needs.

In 2016, he enrolled at Yildirim Beyazit University in Ankara.

Today, he is a part of the Social Integration Project at Turkey’s Ministry of Youth and Sports, while also working as a journalist for a news channel, Aleppo Today.

Mohammed, who is married and has a daughter, is now a popular social media figure, sharing Turkish news in Arabic for some 1 million followers.

He is also part of an organization to assist Syrians, particularly those in Ankara, called the Association of the International Asylum and Solidarity with Refugees (IMDAD).

– 'Turks were the first to help Syrians'

Asim Khalil, 46, who set up IMDAD with Mohammed and others, came to Ankara in 2015 and now holds Turkish citizenship.

Along with his wife and three young children, he fled from his hometown of Aleppo in 2012, crossing over into Turkey's southeastern Kilis province.

"My wife and I could've come through the border, but our children didn't have passports, so we had to enter illegally," he told Anadolu Agency.

He related an incident during the crossing that highlights the human aspect of the conflict.

"One night, as we waited for a chance to cross the border, I told my kids to hide behind some rocks, as there were Turkish soldiers patrolling the area. By the time I went to get them, the children had fallen asleep, so we waited for the next opportunity," he recalled with a wry smile.

Khalil lived at a friend's house in Kilis for a while as he looked around for a place for his family.

During this time, he met a Turkish man named Abdurrahman who gave him a house free of charge.

"Turkish people were the first to help Syrians," said Khalil, a chemistry graduate who worked in the public sector in Syria.

After 10 months at Abdurrahman's house, Khalil and his family moved to a camp in Kilis where they stayed for two years.

"We had two beautiful years at that camp; my wife still misses her friends and neighbors there," he said.

– 'Doing our bit for both societies'

Once in the capital, he set out with a few others on a mission to help Syrians.

Through IMDAD, they have set up 13 classrooms that are catering to some 1,300 students.

While many of the students are young children, Khalil said they have also had women as old as 60 learning to read and write Arabic.

The group, he said, was initially solely focused on helping Syrians integrate in Turkish society.

With the passing years, though, they realized that the needs of Syrians in Turkey have changed.

Khalil, who has completed additional higher education through Yildirim Beyazit University, believes it is imperative to ensure that Syrians have a good command over their own language.

"While integration in Turkish society is essential, it is also equally important for Syrians to learn their native language," he said.

"We will return to Syria one day. That is our country and those are our people; we have a responsibility toward them."

IMDAD is also working with the Turkish Red Crescent and is part of social support groups helping people affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

"We are trying to do our bit for both societies; that will be our real success," said Khalil.