Returning to Syria – Escaping refugee life in Istanbul

by Naya Marie Nord and Nicoline Alletorp

“My mother and the two girls are going back to Syria tomorrow, inshallah. There is no money and no work. And I can’t handle living in Istanbul. So we are all going back to Syria.” (Zeinah, informant)

This was a message we received from one of our informants a couple of months after returning from Istanbul, where we had been conducting fieldwork in the spring of 2016 for our master’s thesis about the experiences of Syrian refugees in re-establishing livelihoods after displacement. Zeinah was a trained computer engineer and single mother of two in her mid-thirties, who lived in a basement apartment in Istanbul with her daughters and sick mother. She had been in Istanbul since 2014, but became one among several of our informants, who made the difficult choice to leave the relative safety in Istanbul and return to war-torn Syria.

At the time of our fieldwork the situation in Syria was, and continues to be, extremely critical, with continuous air strikes from both Russia and the Assad regime against both the so-called Islamic State and anti-Assad rebel groups. All parties to the conflict have been accused of war crimes and human rights violations, including the use of barrel bombs and chemical weapons, torture, forced disappearances, deliberate and indiscriminate attacks on civilians, attacks on hospitals and schools, the use of child soldiers and the of use sieges as a method of war. Stories of Syrian refugees returning to Syria from exile are not commonly heard of, and we were curious to explore why someone would make this decision, as it clearly entailed great dangers. Based on our empirical data, we discovered that the underlying causes for our informants to decide to return were many, and that they were related to both material and more existential aspects of their lives in Istanbul.

In order to understand the situation of Syrians in Turkey, it is crucial to take into account the legal framework surrounding them. While Turkey has ratified the 1951 Refugee Convention, the country holds a geographic limitation, which means that only people fleeing from Europe are eligible for refugee status. The Syrians are instead granted the right to temporary protection status, which also gives access to basic services, such as healthcare and education, and the right to apply for permission to work legally.

However, during our fieldwork we soon discovered that there was a significant gap between what the Syrians are officially entitled to, and what they can benefit from in practice. This was particularly clear in relation to the so-called kimlik, i.e. the ‘Temporary Protection Identification Card’, which is a prerequisite for obtaining the temporary protection status and the accompanying rights. Several of our informants faced severe challenges in obtaining the kimlik and many did not succeed.

Among these were Tariq, his wife Tammar and their four sons, who were asked to pay bribes of up to 400 Turkish Lira (110€) per person in order to get the kimliks. The family came from a village near Idlib in Northern Syria, where Tariq had worked as a mechanical engineer at a local radio station, until it was closed by the regime, and the children aged between 7 and 20 had been attending school. The family had come to Istanbul only in November 2015 and had been struggling to get by ever since. They were not able to pay the bribes required to get the kimlik, which meant that the children did not have access to free education in Turkey. Another key consequence of not having a kimlik is the lack of a legal status, i.e. ‘the temporary protection status’, which meant that many of our informants experienced a general sense of insecurity and were vulnerable to arbitrary treatment, arrests and extortion by the police. Not having a kimlik also meant not being able to access free health services or assistance (e.g. food, clothes and school materials) from various mosques and organizations.

In general, the absence of rights and access to services, caused by lack of kimlik, made life for many of the Syrians we met in Istanbul even more difficult than it already was. How our informants dealt with these difficulties differed significantly. While many of our informants had found ways to circumvent the challenges and stay in Istanbul or planned to go to Europe, for Tariq and his family, the inability to obtain kimliks and get the children enrolled in school became one of the main reasons for them to return to Syria.

We had both visited the family in their home and spent time with them on several other occasions, when we one day randomly bumped into them by a local mosque. It turned out that they were about to leave for Syria the very same evening. Though we already knew about their plans for returning to their home village, it came as a surprise to us that they actually went through with it. We were puzzled by their willingness to risk their lives by returning to an area, which had been subjected to heavy air strikes by both the Assad regime and the Russians for a prolonged period of time, as it was a rebel stronghold.

Though struggling to get food on the table, the family was not dying from starvation in Istanbul. Rather, we argue, they were threatened by what anthropologist Ghassan Hage calls ‘social death’, which designates a lack of possibilities of a worthy life. Like most other Syrian refugees in Istanbul, their lives were characterized by social marginality, liminality, stagnation and a minimum of agentive possibilities. For Tariq and Tammar, who themselves were well-educated, a ‘worthy life’ for their children entailed for them to reach high levels of education and obtain good jobs. But as the children could not go to school and were forced to work, in order to help support the family and earn enough to pay the rent, they were unable to follow these expected and desired life trajectories. Furthermore, the family experienced extensive discrimination and exploitation in their everyday life in Istanbul, e.g. when they were required to pay an extraordinarily high rent only because of being Syrian.

In Syria they still had their own house, a vegetable garden, a network that could support them and they believed that their children would be able to go to school, despite most of the schools having been demolished. The decision to return had been long underway, and the family had been continuously following the situation in their village. At the time where they decided to return, the Russian air strikes had temporarily stopped, and they assessed that living under only the regime’s bombings would be better than living as refugees in Turkey. For them, returning to Syria can be seen as representing a way to escape the constant threat of social death that they were experiencing in Turkey, and thus they were willing to risk their physical life in order to escape social death.

For Zeinah, the discrimination and exploitation that Tariq and his family also experienced, played a pivotal role in her decision to finally return to Syria. As we sat in her apartment and drank sweet Syrian tea, listened to the sounds from the market outside the window and talked about her life in Istanbul, she continuously used the term ‘yabancı’. The Turkish term, which, directly translated, means ‘foreigner’, ‘stranger’, ‘alien’, ‘outsider’ or ‘unknown’ very well captures the everyday discrimination against Syrians in Istanbul, where there seems to be two ‘laws’, as Zeinah explained it; one for Turkish people and one for ‘yabancıs’, particularly Syrians. For our informants this was especially reflected in relation to the housing and job markets.

As mentioned, many Turkish landlords take advantage of the Syrian’s precarious situation by requiring much higher rents and deposits from Syrians compared to Turkish people and they often increase the rent significantly every year. Furthermore, Syrians often live without leases and thus without any safety net, resulting in a life in constant fear of getting kicked out of their apartments and end up on the streets. Like the landlords, many employers exploit the Syrians, who, due to a de facto lack of access to work permits, mainly work illegally in the construction and textile industries under atrocious working conditions. Many of the Syrians we met, including Tariq and Tammar’s children, worked in sweatshops, e.g. producing jeans, and their work days were normally 12-14 hours, six days a week. They usually got paid under half of their Turkish co-workers’ salary, even though they worked much longer hours. We also encountered several cases, where Syrians had simply been refused their pay, and as the vast majority work illegally and without contracts, their opportunities for claiming their right are severely limited in situations like these. Paying the rent and living expenses in expensive Istanbul was thus very challenging for our informants, and many other Syrians, due to exploitation in the job and housing markets. Hence, discrimination, exploitation and lack of humanitarian assistance led to material hardships, which were part of the reason for some of our informants to decide to return to Syria.

At the same time, we found that lack of community, not feeling welcome and homesickness were also important factors in the decision of Zeinah and Tariq’s families to return to Syria. None of the families had social relations to Turkish people and Zeinah and her mother told us that they experienced that the Turks were ‘very afraid of Syrians’. While Zeinah had experienced eggs being thrown at their windows, other informants had experienced even more serious cases of both verbal and physical harassment. Our translator, Sayid, for example, told us that some Turks had broken into his apartment and violently kicked him out because he was Syrian. These examples underline a general experience among our informants of not being accepted and welcomed by elements of the Turkish host population. Furthermore, while many of our informants were engaged in the Syrian exile community, both Zeinah and Tariq’s families had very limited contact with other Syrians, and Tammar expressed that the Syrians in Turkey were not helping each other in times of hardship.

For both Tariq and Zeinah’s families, being without a social community in Istanbul, as well as the experience of not being welcomed by the Turkish host population strengthened their feeling of homesickness. For them the homesickness became so debilitating in terms of re-establishing a new life in Istanbul that they experienced returning to Syria as their only choice. Our interpreter Sayid, who decided to return to Damascus shortly before we left Istanbul, expressed that returning to Syria was the only way he would be able to feel the beating of his heart again, and he was willing to risk his life in order to regain the feeling of being alive for however long it would last.

For Tariq and his family, Turkey had not represented the space of security and opportunities they had hoped it would, but quite the contrary. Thus, for the family, returning to Syria was a way to escape what Tammar described as ‘the nightmare of being a refugee’, comprising a life characterized by social marginality and lack of opportunities in Istanbul. At the same time, it represented a way in which their children could pursue their educations and thus attempt to follow their expected and desired life trajectories, despite living in a war zone. For Zeinah, not being able to find work and sustain herself and her family became the decisive factor for their return to Syria. At the same time, for all of the returnees that we met, homesickness played a key role in the decision to return home, rather than staying in Istanbul.

Another way in which many Syrians in Turkey have tried to improve their life conditions and possibilities for a better future has been to attempt to cross the Aegean Sea to Greece and enter the EU. This, however, ceased to be an option during our stay in Istanbul, when the EU-Turkey deal came into effect on March 20th 2016. The main component of the deal is that all irregular migrants arriving in Greece from Turkey will be sent back to Turkey. And for every Syrian individual being returned to Turkey, the EU will resettle one Syrian individual from a refugee camp in Turkey. In return for the readmission of all irregular migrants and efforts to prevent them from going to Greece in the first place, Turkey is supposed to receive a total of €6 billion to improve the conditions for asylum seekers and temporary protection beneficiaries in Turkey. Hence, the deal has further limited the scope of agentive possibilities faced by the Syrians in Turkey. They are now de facto stuck in an environment where they are to a large extent considered unwelcome, and where they are struggling to build a life due to a significant gap between policy and practice as well as extensive discrimination and exploitation. Thus, returning to Syria represents one of the only options currently available for Syrians to leave the critical conditions under which they are living in Turkey. Despite the extreme physical dangers entailed in returning to Syria, this was assessed to be the better option for a number of our informants.

In mid-December 2016 the Assad regime regained the control of Eastern Aleppo from the rebels in an extremely violent offensive entailing executions and bombings of the trapped civilian population. After the fall of Aleppo several experts assess that the regime is now in a position to also defeat the opposition in the suburbs of Damascus, as well as the Idlib and Daraa areas, which are the main remaining rebel strongholds. Hence, there are great risks that massacres similar to the one in Aleppo will occur in the exact areas that our informants have returned to. The current situation thus puts their return into a different and even more worrisome light.




Naya Marie Nord and Nicoline Alletorp both hold a bachelor in Social Anthropology from University of Copenhagen and a Master of Science in Global Studies from Lund University. Their master’s thesis is based on a six weeks field work conducted in Istanbul, Turkey, in the spring of 2016. The thesis is concerned with the challenges of Syrian refugees in re-establishing livelihoods in Istanbul after displacement and their tactics to circumvent these. The thesis is titled: “Navigating Protracted Liminality – An Anthropological study of the experiences of Syrian refugees in Istanbul in re-establishing livelihoods in Istanbul after displacement” and is accessible here:


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