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The Syrians of Konya: Observations of an unwelcomed and ghettoized community

Updated: Oct 23, 2023

'Konya's centre being revived again': a billboard advertising the city's re-development plans

As anti-Syrian sentiment has exponentially risen, I wondered how these issues were unfolding locally, with Konya being a case study of interest. I was curious about how much the city had changed and how relations between locals and Syrians were truly faring. The results were partly unexpected, but nonetheless shocking. In summary, ghettoization and gentrification have become the city's new tactics to manage, or rather combat, the presence of Syrians. In this article, I will share my own observations of the city, alongside hearing the locals' views and the insider information provided by Syrians who grew up in the city.

In one neighbourhood, Syrian refugees have settled into apartments, often with multiple families sharing a single apartment, and have established local shops. The majority of them are employed in Konya's industrial sector, engaging in manual labour. The neighbourhood is located in the city centre, and most apartment buildings are old and in need of maintenance. Locals and Syrian migrants coexist in the same vicinity but have limited interaction. Occasionally, they make purchases from each other's stores, though this happens infrequently. Syrians tend to keep to themselves, with women primarily fulfilling the role of homemakers, while the men manage their shops or are predominantly engaged in various blue-collar jobs across Konya's industrial areas. In general, they adapt and make the most of their current circumstances.

Graffiti on a wall which says: ‘Brotherhood>racism. A youth movement’.

On the other side, the local population is not happy with the increased presence of Syrian refugees since 2015. Having witnessed the political developments relating to Syrian refugees in Turkey, I observed a notable contrast between the online discourse and the hate speech prevalent in western provinces like Istanbul, as opposed to what is expressed at the local level in a central Anatolian city like Konya. Notably absent are the racist remarks often heard elsewhere, such as concerns about the 'Arabization' of the country, demographic shifts, or the perceived burden on the struggling economy. Instead, the causes of their “grievances” lie more in face-value annoyances they perceive, like the way Syrians walk, their alleged behaviour in public spaces, and the perception that they do not display sufficient humility despite seeking refuge. The social and economic observations were primarily confined to what the locals could visibly discern in the new Syrian neighbourhood. This included the presence of Syrian-owned shops and a noticeable decline in neighbourhood maintenance. The latter issue stems from municipal neglect, though it is often falsely blamed on Syrians not tending to their shops and residences. For instance, during the five weeks I spent there, I did not observe a single municipal cleaning team at work. These factors are compounded by a language barrier, which has contributed to the emergence of parallel Syrian and local Turkish communities within this small neighbourhood. Locals generally interact with Syrians only when necessary, and encounters tend to evoke resentment and discomfort. However, according to Syrians I spoke with, this wasn't always the case. Syrians who arrived during and after 2015 primarily hail from Aleppo's eastern countryside. With the Assad regime's takeover of the area, Aleppians sought refuge from Assad's collective punishment for residing in opposition-held regions. Konya became an appealing place of refuge due to its religious character and the collective support extended by the locals upon their arrival. Additionally, Konya's flourishing industries in furniture, construction, and raw materials provided a substantial number of job opportunities for newly arrived Syrian refugees.

A street in one of the Syrian-populated neighbourhoods.

This neighbourhood isn’t the only ghettoized neighbourhood with a significant presence of Syrian refugees. In the city centre, there are two more neighbourhoods, among others, that face neglect in terms of municipal services and a shortage of housing. While these neighbourhoods are not far from ours, there's a clear boundary where the city's downtown area, known as 'Zafer,' begins. Konya, relatively speaking, doesn't have a large Syrian population, which might explain why the city's Syrians often go unnoticed in articles discussing Syrian refugees in Turkey. Konya has a population of approximately 2.3 million, and the 119,555 Syrians with temporary protection status make up only a fraction of this number. However, they tend to live in tightly clustered communities within the city's central neighbourhoods, as well as in the southern and eastern neighbourhoods. What exacerbates the situation is that in many cases, newly constructed apartments in gentrified neighborhoods do not allow Syrian tenants. As a result, Syrians relocate to neighbourhoods that have not yet experienced gentrification. Ironically, Syrians often work in the construction industry, building high-end houses for middle to high-income Turkish citizens in neighbourhoods they themselves cannot reside in. They must move again when their own houses become subject to rapid gentrification. This policy has garnered support from Konya's local property owners due to the significant profits they can gain from owning one or more apartments that can be rented or sold in gentrified areas.

The mayor of the Meram district on a billboard advertising the soon-to-be revamped neighbourhood of Şükran

Buildings in the process of being demolished in Şükran

Among these neighbourhoods is Şükran, which, up until recently and still to some extent, served as a refuge for disenfranchised Syrians in the city. Situated between the two heavily Syrian-populated areas of Sahibata and Şems-i Tebrizi, Şükran is now slated for transformation into a new luxurious downtown district, destined to become a prominent trade centre in the city. Following the Turkish-style gentrification model, the neighbourhood has been completely razed to make way for new buildings, parks, and incoming residents. The former inhabitants are expected to seek residence in other parts of Konya. The remaining structures provided a glimpse into the neighbourhood's poor condition, underscoring the stark contrast with the envisioned new district which seeks to remove “undesired” residents, including impoverished Syrians, poor Turkish residents, and the long-neglected Romani community of Konya. It is expected that the rest of the neighbourhood, along with adjacent Syrian-populated neighbourhoods, will be next in line for the municipal gentrifying machine.

New buildings in the process of construction

The root of all local anxieties and concerns stems from the recent restructuring of the city. The municipality of Konya has witnessed a surge in gentrification projects, starting from scenic and quiet suburban areas and gradually encroaching upon the traditional core of the city. This process has systematically ghettoized old neighbourhoods with a substantial Syrian population. Presently, the working-class Syrians in Konya have, amidst the local and national challenges they face, established their lives within these marginalized neighbourhoods. Most of the males work to support their families, while women strive to raise their children, and the children, at times, seem unaware of the complexities around them.

The future for Konya's Syrian population is uncertain, as gentrification, hate speech, and discrimination in the housing and higher education job markets have become the norm in Konya. What is certain is that the temporary protection regime, with its limiting and exploitative factors in Turkey, will continue to exploit the Syrians in Konya as a low-wage worker class.


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