Syrian Coffee and Ethnic Tensions Brew in Turkey

Refugees from the Syrian civil war continue to cross the Turkish border into the town of Reyhanli, and the tension between them and the locals is reaching boiling point.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

Reyhanli, Turkey – Abu Maher, a Syrian who fled to Turkey just over a year ago, hasn't found civil war conducive to friendship.

“Friends? I had no friends in Latakia, and I have none here in Reyhanli,” he said.

Abu Maher lived in the Alawite stronghold in northern Syria, before climbing mountains to get to this little town near the Syrian border in Turkey's Hatay province. His wife and six of his children made the trip with him; his two married daughters stayed behind.

It wasn’t the fighting that forced him to flee. “We were being pressured. When someone has older children who don’t want to serve in the army, they start threatening him. Both my sons-in-law have been arrested in Syria, and I can’t go back to Latakia now, but from time to time, I cross the border back into Syria to buy groceries – to bring Syrian coffee and smell the Syrian soil,” he said.

At the entrance to the old building where he rents an apartment for 500 Turkish pounds per month he has set up a small stand selling coffee. His youngest son, 17, who has been out of school for a year, works in a store across the street, and his two other sons work at odd jobs to help him support the family.

"We have a clear hierarchy. A prince marries a princess, the son of a minister marries the daughter of a minister and the paupers gather the crumbs," said Abu Maher, who in Latakia was a sports reporter before he became a merchant.

"Whoever has money moves to Diyarbakir, a city in the Kurdish province [of Turkey]. Whoever has lots of money goes to Istanbul. The really rich go to Ankara. Those who have no money live in Reyhanli, which is close enough to the border that if someone runs out of money, they can always cross the border back into Syria and make a living from something. At least he will be among Syrians, who’ll help him,” said Abu Maher.

“I do not want friends,” he continued. “A friend is someone to whom you can open your heart, but here everyone is jealous of everyone else. Here, if you tell a Syrian that you’ve run out of money, he’ll suggest that you go to the Bab al-Hawa refugee camp, some eight kilometers from the city, because there you can live for free. But I’m not ready to live in that kind of hell. I’ve seen what happens in those camps – there’s no water, no food and no medicines. There are only horrors.”

Abu Maher's coffee stall is just opposite the corner where a terrorist attack killed at least 51 and wounded more than 150 people in May. The ugly demonstrations that took place immediately after the event have subsided, the stores are open and the city has erected a tin fence around the site, but tension remains in the air.

“It would be good if the Syrians would get out of here," said Yakoub, a stationery store owner up the street. "Until three years ago, the Syrians were an important source of income. Merchants would buy from us, and we sold things in Syria. There were no problems. As you hear, we all speak Arabic, not because we study the language in school, but because of the economic need. When your customers speak Arabic you must learn it. But now these customers have become suspects. No one can know whether the car travelling past your store might explode.”

The locals do not hide their anger.

“They, the Syrians, have grabbed all the apartments in the city," said Omar, who works at the local branch of the Vodafone telecommunications company. "Prices jumped to the point that local people can’t afford to live here. If I could I would move to Diyarbakir, but I have no money. The Syrians who stay here are so poor they aren’t even any good for business."

Abu Maher argues that the Turks’ anger is exaggerated.

"There is a mixed population, some are Alawite Turks (who are distinct from the Alawite Syrians), some are Kurds and some are Sunnis. Alawite Turks consider us the enemy, though they don’t do anything against us, at the most they will spit at us or curse us," he said.

“But what can we do? I cannot and don’t want to get into Turkish politics. I had enough with religious politics in Latakia. To be Sunni in Latakia means to ‘to slip through three rings. Sunnis live in the center of Latakia, surrounded by dense neighborhoods of Alawites and Shi’ites live in the outskirts of the city."

The Alawites, Abu Maher explains, are the most moderate Shi'ites.

Echoes of the war can be heard from beyond the mountains. Syrian aircraft do not approach the Turkish border, but artillery explosions are audible. News reports say the Syrian army is attacking Homs at full force and that the United States is mulling sending quality weapons to the rebels – anti-tank missiles and possibly more.

Rafik – who fought with the Free Syrian Army in the Battle of Idlib in 2012, eventually ceding the town to government forces – no longer believes.

“The Americans want us to fail, otherwise they wouldn’t have waited so long to send weapons. I don’t believe anyone anymore," he says.

Two days earlier, at an international conference held in Istanbul, spokesmen for the political opposition in Syria said there could be no dialogue with Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime until it is removed from power. But even the spokesmen do not know for sure whether some different plan is being worked out behind their backs. After all, they represent the new Syrian government that hasn’t yet been established, and they have opponents in the Syrian National Coalition, which in turn has rivals within the Free Syrian Army. None of these groups are positioned to help Abu Maher or about a million and a half other displaced Syrians.

Syrians wait to cross back into Syria at the Turkish Cilvegozu border, opposite the Syrian commercial crossing point Bab al-Hawa, in Reyhanli, Hatay province, May 14, 2013. Credit: Reuters

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