Inas is a woman who once left her country to become a refugee in another country, only to leave that country and become a refugee in yet another country. As winter was slowly descending upon Ankara, we discussed her life in Palestine, Syria and Turkey.
But before we move on to Inas’s story, we should briefly consider the history of Palestine. Palestinians usually refer the foundation of Israel on the 15th of May 1948 as “al-Nakba”, that is, as the “day of misfortune or disaster”. It was also the day Palestinians began to roam the planet. Many Palestinians were forced to migrate, with 85,000 going to Syria.
Later, as a result of the Six-Day War in 1967, 500,000 Palestinians left their lands. According to the latest reports, more than 5.5 million registered Palestinian refugees are living in mostly Syria, Jordan and Lebanon.
If a few still live on Palestinian soil, Palestinians have also had to relocate farther from their homes. More than 1.5 million Palestinian refugees live in United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) camps, while the rest live outside the camps. Some 100,000 people are in other countries outside UNRWA authority, including Egypt, Iraq and Libya.
Though their situations differ depending on the country they settled in, Palestinian refugees are struggling with being displaced by force, having no homes, poverty and human rights violations. While 528,000 Palestinian refugees lived in Syria before the war, the number is now down to 438,000 and as one might guess, they have been very negatively affected by the war, according to a recent report by UNRWA.
“About 120,000 Palestinian refugees took refuge in the neighboring countries of Lebanon and Jordan, some took refuge in Europe. Most of those who remained in Syria were non-proportionally affected by the fighting due to their proximity to war zones and had to relocate many times.”
‘I was very afraid’
Inas, 36, lives in the Keçiören district of the Turkish capital, Ankara.When she arrived in Ankara four years ago from Damascus, she could probably not guess that one of her sons would say this to a young woman with a camera and notebook: “I was very afraid. A soldier kicked his foot. I was very afraid. There was a baby, I ran when it cried.”
We met with Inas where she regularly brings her homemade falafel. I had not thought she would bring her children and I was a bit nervous to see them, because talking about traumatic events in an environment with children requires another level of professionalism.
In my previous job, I would learn beforehand the stories of children and bear in mind what not to ask. I’d always go with a social worker or psychologist. My fears came true, one of the children told me this. Although I was able to steer the conversation away, this sentence was more imprinted in my mind than anything else I heard. The world doesn’t have the right to do this to children.
Inas and my translator friend Rawan met at the Building Bridges for Refugee Children Project. Inas was cooking falafel at the charity sales as part of the project, she also taught Arabic to neighborhood children last year. These days, she cooks falafel for the cafe we sit in, makes handcraft for the social initiative Joon Crafts and cooks meals for another social initiative Tina Zita.
Inas is actually a nurse. She studied nursing at an academy in Damascus and was an intern for a doctor for two years. After she got married and had children, she quit as she no longer had a financial imperative to work.
“I had wanted to study medicine but after my father died there was no one supporting my wish, so I dedicated myself to my children,” she said.
Her husband was an accountant in Syria but he had to quit upon arrival in Turkey after working unregistered for a while.
“After working permit laws became more strict, my husband had to quit his job at the textile workshop because there was a fine of 3,000 Turkish Liras if he was caught. He was being paid 1,200 lira. We don’t have a Kızılay Card [an EU-backed program that provides a monthly allowance and some other basic needs for refugees] because we don’t meet the requirements. And because the work I do is not regular, we don’t have a regular income.”
Surviving in a different world
I asked her whether she uses her nursing knowledge or not. She says she helps neighbors with health and first aid and although they got sick many times when they first arrived because of the weather changes. She was able to carry out first necessities.
“I would like to be a nurse here but I need to make my diploma compatible with the local requirements. Also I still can’t speak Turkish even though I went to a course. In courses, they try to teach university graduates and illiterates all at the same level. One learns slowly, one learns fast and this can create problems.”
While telling her story, Inas often mentions differences. One is the difference between the people she used to know and the people she meets here.
“I am actually quite a social person. I am trying to get to the social life here but I still haven’t because I am coming from a very different life. Even during the war, my life back there was better for me. Here people are not very conscious. There are people from villages, who can’t read or write. This is a different social circle for me here. For example in Syria, villages near Damascus and villages near Aleppo are very different in terms of education.”
Then of course there are the Turkish neighbors. Inas explains the discrimination she faces.
“One of my neighbors did not want to see the firewood I had piled in front of the house. Because of that he made us carry the wood elsewhere. It took almost a week. He was constantly saying ‘This is my neighborhood, you don’t belong here, you do what I say.'”
Inas decided to leave Syria after her brother died in the war. Her husband was also taken into custody.
“It took three years for the war to come to Damascus, it had started in Dara. My husband was randomly arrested one day, I went to my family home. They were in Damascus too. As soldiers drew nearer, we were changing locations. He was released and went to Turkey,” she said.
“Because I was a Palestinian refugee, I did not have the freedom to travel like I have here. So I couldn’t come with my husband. He said ‘You will come after I settle.’ Six months later, my children and I came with the help of a smuggler. We went to Idlib by bus and then walked. We couldn’t cross the border initially due to the military presence, so it took us one week to enter Turkey. On the way from Reyhanlı to Ankara, I was very afraid at police checkpoints. I wasn’t in Syria anymore, I was in a safe place but still… My sisters are alone in Syria right now. I couldn’t bring them here. Even though I am content with my life, I always have a feeling of void. I can’t bring them anymore because borders are closed.”
Palestinian in Syria, Syrian in Turkey
When I heard Inas is from Palestine, I remembered something a friend of mine from Idlib told me.
“There were Palestinians in Syria but we never realized what they had gone through. Now the same has happened to us, we lost our home, our country.”
Inas says she had a carefree life in Syria and talks about being a Syrian in Turkey.
“People were treating us like Syrians but there were some legal problems like the travel permit. Culturally, Palestine and Syria are very close but it’s very hard being a Syrian in Turkey. If I had my Palestinian identity card I would have more rights but because I am a Syrian under Temporary Protection Status, I am having troubles. Most of the time I had troubles because of my own people [Syrians]. For instance, when there is aid being distributed, people who go to get them can be very unfair. And even though I don’t want aid, I want to stay at home and take care of myself, people think that I need aid. And sometimes neighbors tell me things like ‘You are a woman, you don’t need to work, your husband should work.'”
‘I have come to regret this dream’
Inas’ husband was staying with a friend in another neighborhood when he first arrived, then they moved.
“That was a shanty house in a very bad shape. A Somalian refugee helped me find the current one. There used to be a lot of Somalians here, but now they are in another area. This one is a shanty house too, but better. When I was in Syria I used to watch Turkish channels. When I saw these houses I would say ‘How nice, outside the city, just like village houses, I wish I lived like that’ but apparently it seemed nice from the outside, I regret this dream now. In fact, my house is one of the sweetest places in the world for me but maybe I hated it because of how my neighbors act. Or maybe because of the lack of services. Otherwise it’s not that bad a life.”
Since she rarely leaves the neighborhood, I ask her if she feels like she is living in a cage.
“As a Syrian I can relocate with a travel permit but I don’t know anyone anywhere else, my life is in Ankara, I don’t need a permit. My life in Turkey is not so bad. Of course I would have liked it to be better but there is the economic crisis, my husband’s low income and the lack of services.”
Despite everything, Inas is content with being in Turkey. Though she keeps mentioning the lack of services.
“I am happy because my children already speak two languages and now they will learn a third. I like Turkey culturally as well. Because of this, I would like to stay here. In terms of lifestyle, Europe is different but they provide better services to refugees. My daughter started school, we couldn’t afford all of her school needs. If services were sufficient, I wouldn’t be worrying about my daughter missing physical education class because we couldn’t buy her sporting clothes.”
Lastly, Inas advises us to love people more.
“I hope that people here are more open to not only Syrians but to all Arabs. Especially their children… Because with Arabs you can find love and peace, they never betray you, they are very generous and good. One should bear this in mind so we can remove the boundaries between us. Even if you can’t do it, tell your children to be more open to Arab children.”
Translator: Rawan Hüdaifa