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Living Among Strangers

As of 2019 there are an estimated 3.6 million Syrian refugees living in Turkey. In the city of Gaziantep in the south and near the border with war-ravaged Syria there are currently 500,000. The impact on Gaziantep has been significant. The city of 1.5 million people has grown by approx 30% since the beginning of the war in Syria.

While the city has adapted well and much has been done to integrate the new arrivals, the daily challenges for uprooted Syrians are immense. Turkey has deservedly won praise for opening its doors, taking in the largest number of Syrian refugees. Yet the majority of refugees are living life in a kind of suspended animation. For the most part, they are not homeless or starving. But there is little more to life than basic survival, especially for women from the poorer, more conservative families that make up the bulk of those living in Gaziantep.

Most do not speak Turkish and cannot financially support themselves and their children. Women's shelters are overburdened and have no Arabic speaking staff. Dark stories abound of women forced into prostitution after their marriages broke down. The case of Siham Mohammed, a young Syrian refugee who was killed by her brothers after the collapse of her marriage to a Turkish man, is testament to the horrendous danger faced by refugee women. Her burned body was left beneath a pile of stones by the roadside.

Child marriages are very common in both Syria and Turkey, usually conducted in secret. Marriage is illegal in Turkey under the age of 17 so weddings take place in private ceremonies, conducted in living rooms by local elders. Unlicensed doctors pay home visits to supervise underage pregnancies and births.

The phenomenon of child marriage was widespread in Syria even before the war, especially among conservative families. But Syrians say that the problem has been exacerbated by the stress of life as refugees and internally displaced peoples. Prospective husbands offer substantial amounts of money for young women and girls which are difficult for hungry, struggling families to refuse. Many families believe that marriage can offer a kind of protection for their daughters amid the chaos of displacement.

Poverty and the disruption in children's education have also forced thousands of youngsters into working to support themselves and their families. The textile industry forms a significant part of Gaziantep’s economy and there are numerous workshops across the city producing clothing for the domestic and international market. Nowadays they are full of Syrians working for a pittance. Boys as young as seven work 13 hours a day, six days a week in dark, hot workshops, hunched over sewing machines or toiling over piles of jeans. The youngest earn just 50 Turkish lira (GBP 7.00) per week. Families do not want to send their children out to work but feel compelled to do so by their struggle for survival.

The consequences of all of this for Syria in the decades to come are potentially devastating. Despite Turkey's generosity, and the renowned kindness of many in Gaziantep, the country is hosting many who are living in the shadows of Turkish society; a lost generation, deprived of a childhood and a future.

Mary Turner and Laura Pitel were supported by the International Reporting Project in covering this story.
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