The Syrian refugee unhooked some laundry drying in the baking sun and made a wish for this month’s Turkish election: “May Erdoğan win.”
A mother from Kurdish-majority Kobane in Syria’s northwest, Neroz Hussein is crystal clear about why she supports the Turkish leader, who faces the toughest election of his 20-year rule on May 14.
“Recep Tayyip Erdoğan will help us stay,” Hussein said.
Since the Syrian war broke out in 2011, Turkey has become the new home of at least 3.7 million people — probably closer to 5 million — who fled the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, Russian bombardments and Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) attacks.
Most have “temporary protection” status, leaving them vulnerable to a forced return.
The secular Republican People’s Party (CHP) of Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, who is running neck-and-neck against Erdoğan, pledges to repatriate the Syrians “within two years.”
Neroz, 35, and her husband Adil Sheho, 38, fled to Turkey in 2015.
“Two weeks after we got married, Kobane was attacked by ISIS,” Adil said, using one of the acronyms of ISIL.
Now based in Şanlıurfa, a city 40 kilometers (25 miles) from the Syrian border, the family treats Turkey as their “second homeland,” Neroz said.
“Our four children were born here. They don’t know Syria,” Adil chipped in.
“We were well received at first, but the situation changed because of the economy,” he added, referring to a cost-of-living crisis that saw annual inflation reach 85 percent last year, fanning anti-migrant sentiment.
“Even if they don’t send us back all at once, they will put pressure on us, demand papers, increase our rents and bills.”
Hiking refugee bills
The CHP mayor of Bolu in Turkey’s northwest did just that in 2021, abolishing social aid and imposing an 11-fold hike in the water bills of Syrian refugees in his municipality.
He also more than doubled their marriage registration tax. Disavowed by his party, the mayor himself eventually had to pay a fine.
But the episode reflected the winds of change that have swept across Turkey since it became the world’s largest home to refugees and migrants under Erdoğan’s Islamic-rooted rule.
Some 240,000 Syrians have obtained Turkish citizenship and the accompanying right to vote in the approaching polls, which will also elect a new parliament.
They can gain citizenship by making big investments or, like Hussein Utbah, by becoming students in sought-after fields such as electrical engineering.
Naturalized in 2020, the 27-year-old will be voting in Turkey for the first time.
But he will be the only one eligible in his family, casting his ballot for Erdoğan in the hope that his mother and five siblings will have a future in Turkey.
“My friends and I all have the same view: not only because we are Syrian, but because of what we see he has done for the country,” Hussein said.
Hussein also scoffed at the CHP’s pledge to ensure the Syrians’ “voluntary and dignified” return.
“We can’t go back and trust Bashar al-Assad,” said Hussein, whose family fled Raqqa when it became the self-proclaimed ISIL capital in 2015.
Zara Dogbeh, a 50-year-old widower, has launched a popular Middle Eastern food catering service since arriving in 2018, the last time Turkey had a presidential election.
“We are more fearful this time. The [CHP] talks about sending us back in every speech,” she said.
“They are going to hunt us down on a moonless night,” she sighed. “Even our Turkish neighbors are afraid of us.”
Standing outside his office, local CHP chair Halil Barut strikes a reassuring tone.
“The most important thing for us is their safety,” he said. “They are our brothers. We can’t throw them onto the fire, we can’t send them back to war.”
But “with their arrival,” Barut added, “house prices and rents have increased. It has harmed us.”
‘We are useful’
The Syrians also provide a source of cheap labor on Turkish farms, construction sites and textile mills.
Omar Kadkoy, a researcher at Ankara’s TEPAV think tank, called the scenario of a mass repatriation “unrealistic.”
“Even with the end of the war in Syria, we still will have to ensure their security on the spot, because disappearances, persecutions and kidnappings continue there,” Kadkoy said.
The CHP was using the issue to win votes instead of focusing on “pressing issues such as the economy, justice and democracy,” the analyst said.
Delivering his mother’s catering order on a scooter before returning to work as a security guard, Mohamed Utbah, 25, wondered why anyone would want to send him back.
“We’re not doing anything wrong here,” he said. “We’re useful to Turkey.”
© Agence France-Presse