How do you get into a Turkish camp for Syrian refugees? Not easily, it turns out. I had taken a shared dolmus minivan to the village of Yayladagi where the camp was located, about 60 km south of Antakya and almost at the Syrian border. I sat sandwiched between two grim men who were among the few people in this country resolutely uninterested in conversing with a foreigner. It was already getting late in the afternoon by the time I arrived, so I hurried through town to reach the camps on the other side. They were hard to miss, with white tents stretching row upon row across the fields.
I walked up the road to the camp, past the Red Crescent-operated hospital. As I approached the police control point manned by two officers, I stopped to take a picture of the hospital. A shout from them indicated they were not photography fans. They then barraged me with a stream of questions: Who are you? Why are you here? Where are you from? Do you have any permission documents? Eventually, one of them pulled a cell phone from his pocket and called for instructions about what do with this Amerikali. The answer was to let me pass, after giving me the choice of going to the Arab camp or the Syrian Turkmen camp, which were divided by a road between them. I picked the Turkmen camp, on the grounds that I would be more likely to find a common language with them — the Turkmen are ethnic Turks living in Syria. I then walked further up the road to the Turkmen camp gate, where I was asked exactly the same set of questions by three policemen as the first pair had asked me. They were not moved by my protest that I had already been screened by their colleagues just 150 meters down the road. Again, the cell phone came out, a conversation was held, but it seemed that the person on the other end of the line was not the same one as the one who had approved my passage just five minutes earlier. This time the gods of Turkish bureaucracy did not smile upon me, as the policemen muttered about a decision-maker in Ankara who refused to give entry permission. I tried proposing that one of them escort me on a walk through the camp, but they were not buying it. So I left, intending to try the other camp back down the road, thinking that perhaps another phone call might connect with the same official who had approved me the first time.
However, along the way to the other camp’s entrance, that of the Arab refugees, I took some pictures through the ragged plastic sheeting of the fence surrounding the camp. Within minutes, a police car with a couple of smartly dressed young officers drove up and began to ask me the same questions — I was getting quite practiced at answering these by now — but also made it very clear that taking pictures was verboten. At this point, I was beginning to feel that my luck was running out, and that persisting with my quest might lead to a longer and more difficult conversation at a police station. With a plane home to catch the next morning, I was feeling less open that usual to new adventures of this sort.
I walked back into town, thinking to simply find some men to talk to in one of the village tea houses. On the way, I stopped at a bakery for some fortifying baklava, for which the baker declined payment.
I sat down at a vacant table on the sidewalk in front of a likely-looking tea house, a technique that had almost never failed me in Turkey for finding local people to talk to. Sure enough, a couple of teachers soon showed up, and sat down, and we talked. One of them was Mimar, an English teacher who did most of the talking, and the other was Aslan, an information technology instructor. All it took was a single question to Mimar about what he thought of the thousands of refugees in the midst of his town to unleash a torrent of strong opinion. “This is Syria’s problem. We feed them, we house them, and we even arm them. Their soldiers fight, then come over here for a few days to rest, and then go back once again. Tell me, would the people of the United States ever tolerate something like that? If Mexico were having a civil war, would you let one side keep its fighters on the American side of the border?” I admitted that was a remote possibility. Then he launched into the economic dimensions of the issue. “The shopkeepers in town are the only ones who are happy about all these refugees, because for them it just means more business. But for me, it means I pay more taxes. We already have the most expensive gasoline in the world. You see that car over there?”, he said, pointing to a very modest small car that looked as if it might sell for $15,000 or so in the US. “Here, even a basic car costs 50,000 lira [about $28,000] and I can’t afford one. I can’t afford to travel and have never been outside of this country. Most teachers make around 1500 lira a month. I have been a teacher for five years, and my salary only goes up 3% every year. Meanwhile, the government tells us that inflation is only 5%, but everyone knows it’s closer to 8 or 10%. I am getting poorer every year!” I asked the inevitable if tactless question: “Why don’t you change jobs?” He responded: “This is what I trained for at Marmara University for four years. I don’t have the skills for other work. ”
Since he felt that way, I asked him what he thought the Turkish government should in fact be doing in Syria, if not helping the way it already was. “We should provide humanitarian aid only: food, medicine, tents. Then, let the Syrians solve their own problems.”
We then talked about the journalists trying to cover the Syrian civil war and the refugee problem that had spilled into Turkey. Many of them were as ham-handed as I was, it transpired, including a team of five New York Times journalists arrested in the military zone along the border a few weeks earlier, who were duly brought to the police station where Mimar was summoned, as usual, to provide translation services. The reporters were let go without paying the usual fine — apparently the New York Times has a lot of clout even in this part of the world.
Usually, Mimar said, journalists show up without the necessary authorization from the local district governor and try to get into the camps anyway, and then when they are denied admission, covertly take pictures. Or they blunder into the restricted-access military zone. In either case, they get arrested. Mimar was happy to supplement his income by providing translation services at the police station or in the courtroom. The standard fine was 90 euros. As to who was allowed to enter and who is not, he could not say what the rules were. Sometimes accredited journalists showed up and the governor’s office issued a permit to enter the camps — in such cases, he was typically hired as the interpreter to take them through their visit. But equally often, he said, similarly accredited journalists were turned back. He could see little pattern to it.
He said that he thought that this level of tight security was a good thing. One of the most common words heard in the village, he noted, was “ajan”, or agent. Everyone was always talking about agents and speculating who they were and who was behind them: Syria, Iran, Iraq, the CIA, Israel and so on. A few weeks before, in August, he said that five men had been arrested with a vehicle filled with explosives, thwarting what was assumed to be a planned car-bomb attack on one of the local camps or on one of the many other ones in the region. Depending on political bent, it was easy to see such an act as a provocation of some kind intended to either deter the opposition to Assad — or the reverse, to provoke a Turkish invasion. It was a very murky situation ripe for paranoia and conspiracy theories.
It was getting past 6:00pm by then, it was dark, and I was afraid of missing the last dolmuş back to Antakya — which would not be a good thing with an early morning flight to catch the next day. I returned to the town square where I had arrived two or three hours earlier and soon found the right dolmus parked by the curb awaiting passengers. After 30 minutes of sitting in an otherwise empty vehicle with only two other prospective riders in sight, sitting on a nearby bench, I asked the driver how many riders he needed in order to depart. He pegged the number at 12, so I paid the equivalent of six normal fares just to get the van to leave immediately.
I got off at a town just outside of Antakya, called Harbiye, to meet up for dinner as arranged with a few others staying at my hotel. They soon turned up, and we went to a quirkily-decorated restaurant next to a lovely waterfall, where we talked about the state of the world. One of those at the table was a Japanese graduate student in Turkey for a year to do her thesis on Alawite society, and desperately trying to master Turkish at the same time. The Alawites are a small Shiite-like sect primarily found in Syria, where they make up a small minority — less than 20% of the population — but are the dominant group because Syrian President Hafez Assad is a member. There are a lot of Alawites in Antakya. I asked what the local Alawites living in Turkey thought of Assad, an embattled leader who had so far killed over 30,000 of his own country’s citizens in a civil war that he could not win yet refused to concede. She reflected for a moment, and then said: “They support Assad. They don’t know anything about him other than that he is of the same tribe as them. Beyond that, they don’t know and they don’t want to know.”