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Inside the harsh living conditions for Syrian refugees in Turkey

January 17, 2016 at 4:20 PM EDT
More than 2.5 million refugees fleeing Syria's civil war, currently live in Turkey. Nearly 90 percent of those refugees are now living outside of traditional refugee camps, presenting a whole new set of challenges for international relief agencies. NewsHour special correspondent Mike Cerre reports.
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HARI SREENIVASAN: Over the past year, we have heard and seen the images of Syrian refugees making the treacherous crossing to Europe, but most Syrian refugees live in neighboring countries like Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey.

In Turkey, about 250,000 Syrians live in refugee camps, but many more live outside the camps in order to find work to support their families.

This week, the Turkish government announced it would help some of them by issuing more work permits for refugees. Turkey is also poised to receive aid from Europe to pay for refugee support and to slow their migration onward.

In tonight’s signature segment, special correspondent Mike Cerre reports on Syrian refugees in Turkey torn between returning to a dangerous homeland and struggling to start a new life.

MIKE CERRE: As fast as Turkey’s government could build the dozens of refugee camps along its border with Syria, they were filled to capacity. Turkey is about to receive $3.2 billion from the European Union to help cover its refugee costs and secure its borders with Europe.

Turkey has already tightened its southern border to stem last year’s overflow of refugees from Syria. The majority of the refugees are staying here, close to the Turkish-Syrian border. Nearly 2.5 million refugees are in Turkey, the most of any country. But just under 11 percent of them are staying in traditional refugee camps, presenting a whole new set of challenges for international relief agencies.

Jehan is one of several Syrian refugees working with the international relief organization CARE helping other refugees. She served as my translator as we traveled with CARE’s relief teams to see how the majority of refugees now live outside the camps, because they couldn’t get in due to overcrowding, or because, when they live in the camps, they are not permitted to go out and look for work.

We agreed not to identify refugees by their full names or disclose their locations due to their continuing security fears so close to the Syrian border.

Saddam and his extended family lost their homes in Syria to fighters from the so-called Islamic State group, or ISIS. They have been in Turkey three months and now live in this abandoned shop with no plumbing or electricity that costs $50 a month to rent. Because the only construction and agriculture work they can find is seasonal, their only source of income this winter is their 12-year-old son’s job in a bakery that pays $2 for a 12-hour day.

Saddam told me that, if the situation here doesn’t improve, he will consider leaving for Europe. Most refugees living in these makeshift shelters that have sprung up in small border towns have used up most of their money and other resources just to get into Turkey. They don’t have the additional $1,000 to $6,000 per person smugglers would charge them to go onto Europe, at great risk in a small boat or crowded truck.

And going to the United States isn’t even a consideration, given the cost, distance from Syria, and the U.S. immigration restrictions.

Salah, a former professional basketball player who fled Syria after he completed his graduate degree in business studies, has the means and professional qualifications to emigrate to Europe, but he doubts he would fit in.

SALAH, Refugee: I could afford to go to Europe. I didn’t go there. So, even for the people who are actually going there, they will be going there until like three, four years, or something like that, and sometimes they will — back. There’s no — none of us actually can — like, it’s a totally different culture.

MIKE CERRE: Salah is like some Syrians with enough resources and skills to settle in the larger Turkish cities near the border, like Gaziantep. He wants to stay in the region, so he can go back to his hometown, Aleppo, as soon as it’s safe enough.

SALAH: If you go to Gaziantep, where I am based there, you will see all the Syrians from Aleppo city living in Gaziantep, like, because Gaziantep, it’s really close to Aleppo, like, the same kind of food, the same, like, weather and everything else.

RANA, Refugee: And, also, we have Syrian coffee here, and also the trademark, it’s Syrian.

MIKE CERRE: Rana, who was an English literature professor in Syria, is now a social worker helping her fellow refugees get food and housing. She believes many refugees’ cultural ties to the region are holding them back from going to Europe, as much as the financial and legal obstacles.

RANA: It depends on the mentality of Syrian people.

For example, if they find jobs, and they could be able afford living in Turkey, I think they would rather stay in Turkey. They don’t need to even exert efforts to learn the language, and they share a lot with the Turkish people.

MIKE CERRE: That’s especially the case for the Syrian Kurds, like Taksim and his family, who share a common language and culture with the Turkish Kurds, who populate Turkey’s southeastern border. Taksim sold his wife’s rings to pay rent for their apartment in this unfinished building.

He says they’re considering moving back to their hometown of Kobani, now that Kurdish militias have retaken it from ISIS. The Turkish government says it has spent more than $8 billion on the Syrian refugee crisis.

By law, all registered refugees qualify for Turkish health care, education and, with a permit, the right to work. But these benefits and jobs are hard to find outside the major cities, where most Syrian refugees can’t afford to live, or in the smaller border towns, which have fewer social services.

Since speaking Turkish is a prerequisite, few Arabic- and Kurdish-speaking Syrian children attend school here, other than part-time schools, like this one set up by Syrian teachers. A typical job most refugees find is low-paying farmwork. The lack of steady work matching their skills and education is the greatest obstacle to settling here.

Emad, a shopkeeper back in Syria, occasionally is hired for construction work, but says he gets paid half what a Turkish worker earns. He thinks more about going home to Syria than going to Europe.

WOMAN: He is saying maybe if he goes to Europe and, like, be far away, he would forget about Syria.

MIKE CERRE: As the new head of CARE USA, Michelle Nunn went to the region last summer to assess the refugees’ needs and how the groups could best help the host countries.

MICHELLE NUNN, President and CEO, CARE USA: When I was there and asked people, you know, how are you going to get through the winter, they don’t yet know.

And what we want them to do is to be able to survive and to actually start to have the opportunity to rebuild and to recreate lives of meaning and purpose, so that they can think about going back to Syria at some point, but also that they can imagine staying where they are, and not risking their lives or the lives of their children to cross oceans and to immigrate.

MIKE CERRE: CARE is the organization that created the original CARE Package first sent by Americans 70 winters ago to European refugees after World War II. CARE has updated the concept to help Syrian refugees.

WOMAN: This could be described as the new CARE Package. It’s an electronic voucher.

MIKE CERRE: The food vouchers that CARE and other organizations manage work like debit cards. But they can be used only to buy food and household essentials. New credit is added monthly with funding from the United Nations and large aid organizations.

CARE believes the electronic vouchers are now a faster and more flexible way to deliver food and clothing than shipping, storing, and delivering packages.

These food vouchers started out with a value of $30 a month per person. Today, in Turkey, this voucher is worth about $18 a month per person. That means 60 cents a day for food.

In addition to food vouchers, CARE is helping refugees with other voucher cards to buy heaters, coats, and blankets to get them through this winter.

WOMAN: By giving the voucher, rather than a set kit of in-kind donations, it enables the family to choose what’s right for them and to meet their own needs better.

MIKE CERRE: Too scared to go forward to Europe or back to war-torn Syria, most of the refugees we met are resigned to the reality of living in Turkey for the foreseeable future, especially if the international community fulfills its pledges of humanitarian aid.

Living just a few miles up the Euphrates River from Syria, these border towns in Turkey are as close to home as they can be.

HARI SREENIVASAN: See how the story of one Syrian refugee in Turkey caught the attention of the creator of Humans of New York. Visit PBS.org/NewsHour.

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