Some of Syria's most marginalized people don't even feel safe in refugee camps

Some Syrian Dom families now live in urban outskirts around southern Turkey. Others live in city centers, where they pay exorbitant rents and often resort to begging.
Kemal Vural Tarlan/ERRC

ISTANBUL, Turkey — A steady stream of tourists rushes past Hassan and his children from the early hours of the morning late into the night, but few notice him. Occasionally, passers-by will drop a lira coin into Hassan’s heavily tattooed hands. 

He sits at the foot of Galata Bridge, which connects Istanbul’s modern center with its historic town — one of many Syrian beggars who have appeared in Turkey’s largest city. 

People walk through a tunnel under the Galata Bridge on May 31, 2015.

The bridge, however, isn’t his regular spot. Used to a life on the move, Hassan never stays in one place for longer than a day. In Syria, he was a nomad: one of the Dom, a little-known community often pejoratively labeled “the Middle East’s gypsies.” 

The refugee crisis has brought the plight of Syrians back to the world’s attention, but the Dom’s suffering remains hidden. Despised by many of their own countrymen, they are among Syria’s most marginalized refugees, vulnerable to exploitation from all sides.

“I am forced to beg,” said Hassan, cradling his four-year-old daughter. His teenage children and wife sell bottled water to tourists by the Blue Mosque, a half-hour walk from the bridge.

Lured by the promise of work, he moved his family from the border province of Sanliurfa to Istanbul after fleeing Syria earlier this year. For days, they moved from park to park, where police would not let them sleep, until they found a room. The landlord demanded an extortionate sum for having to rent to “gypsies”: 40 lira a day, which came to about $415 a month to live in what Hassan called a “slum.” He saw no other choice than to take the offer.

His experience as a seasonal worker in the fields of Homs was of little use in the megacity. With his savings spent on the bus ticket to Istanbul, he resorted to begging to pay the rent and feed his family of seven. They barely scrape by: Some days, there is no money for food. 

“I’m trying to find a way out of here, but I have no other place to go,” he said. “May Allah take revenge on the people who told me to come here.” 

The Blue Mosque dominates the skyline in Istanbul's Old City.

Some 200,000 Dom are thought to live in the Middle East, including 35,000 to 75,000 who have left Syria since the war started, though many hide their ethnicity for fear of discrimination. They speak an endangered Indo-Aryan language and often lack any documentation, having been excluded from society for centuries much like Europe’s Roma communities.

“There is entrenched prejudice and discrimination against them and this is making their lives much more difficult than other refugee groups,” said Yesim Yaprak Yildiz, a researcher who raised alarm over the Dom refugees’ situation in a report for the European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC) last month. 

In Syria, nomadic Dom would work as entertainers or follow the harvest, while those who had become sedentary often lived on the outskirts of major cities and found employment as day laborers, dentists or musicians. At the beginning of the war, many moved to Syria’s Kurdish north, but they were forced to flee again during the Islamic State’s advance last summer. The Dom say that the terror group regards them as “heretics” and threatened to kill them.

Once in Turkey, they struggled to find work. While Dom in rural areas may find seasonal employment in agriculture, those in cities can often only earn money by begging, selling water or trinkets to tourists, or collecting recyclables from bins. 

“Other Syrians will say that this is how they used to live in Syria as well, as if begging is their lifestyle, not a consequence of the conflict. Because of that, I believe, no aid organizations in Turkey, including international organizations or the authorities, are helping them,” Yildiz added.

Instead, Dom are often forcibly relocated to smaller towns or refugee camps in southern Turkey under recent legislation that allows authorities to remove begging refugees from cities like Istanbul.

"They’re often forcibly relocated. When they refused to comply, there were several cases in which the refugees were sent back to Syria — a huge human rights violation.” 

“The police and municipality usually demolish their tents, in some cases they burned their tents. They’re often forcibly relocated,” said Yildiz. “When they refused to comply, there were several cases in which the refugees were sent back to Syria — a huge human rights violation.” 

Several Dom in Istanbul said they had been rounded up by police and sent to camps when they were found begging or sleeping in the park.

“It’s not a country where we can sleep outside as we used to do in Syria. Here, they won’t leave us alone if we do,” said Shadia Ismail, a Dom woman living in an empty shop in Küçükpazar, a run-down neighborhood where the imposing Suleymaniye Mosque towers above steep streets and crumbling Ottoman-era houses. 

Here, a stone’s throw from the bustling Spice Bazaar, many Dom live in appalling conditions. Ismail’s shop, where she lives with 10 family members, has only one room and no toilet. The walls are dotted with black flies. 

The local authorities seem to be aware. “There are several property owners who rent out stores to Syrians that don’t even have toilets and showers,” a neighborhood headman told the Turkish newspaper Zaman in March. “People are left having to go to the bathroom outside on the street.”

A newlywed Dom couple, 16-year-old Basma and 18-year-old Muhammad, paid 1,200 lira every month (about $415) for a narrow room of perhaps 50 square feet. The same amount would pay for a comfortable room in Istanbul’s upscale districts. With Muhammad, a baker, only earning 900 lira, Basma worried they would be kicked out soon.

“I’ve forced several to leave when they can’t pay,” said her landlord, Selim Shahin, with a shrug. He has no qualms about charging so much for so little, viewing his tenants as “dirty.” He added: “These people prefer to sleep on the floor, that’s why I don’t provide beds. They’re not clean, you know. The way they talk, the way they behave, it’s very uncivilized.”

The Dom living in Küçükpazar know they could live in camps for free. But most believe that the conditions there are even worse, even though Turkey’s camps have been lauded by the UN refugee agency. Others said they avoided the camps for fear of discrimination by other Syrians. 

“They don’t live in camps and they don’t want to — and they can’t,” said the ERRC’s Yildiz. “Ethnic divisions in the camps mean that they are stigmatized there. They told us that whenever there was an incident in the camp, they would be blamed. And of course, the regulations in the camps are quite strict and Dom are not used to liv[ing] like that. They consider camps as prisons.”

Holding a deep-seated distrust of authority, several Dom GlobalPost spoke to thought the camps were a trap. Amina, a 40-year-old Dom woman from Aleppo begging next to the British Consulate, said she was afraid to ask aid workers for help, fearing they would send her to a camp. “I heard we would starve to death in the camps,” she said. 

Leyla, a teenager living with her family in a flooded house in Küçükpazar, had heard similar rumors. “We didn’t go to the camps because there isn’t any clean water and no bread,” she said, before running out the door to “go to work.”

Her father Akil watched her with sad eyes. “My girls go begging,” he said. “In Syria, they went to school. Now I’m struggling to find money to feed them and to pay the rent. What can I do? No one helps us. We have no choice.”

Additional reporting by Yahya al-Abdullah.