The Other Syrian Situation

Ankara - Dikmen vadisi

Dikmen Valley

Earlier this week my mother-in-law warned me about going for a walk in Dikmen Valley, the long Italy-shaped park that runs through the center of Ankara, because there are some Syrian families camped out in half-demolished houses across the new bridge from the valley’s upper end.  And they could follow me into the park and… disembowel me? ask for change? set their kids loose on the park swings?  My husband tells me I’ll worry once I’m a mother too.

upper dikmen vadisi

The valley on the other side of the bridge…not as appealing (but also not a refugee camp)

Quite honestly the [minimal number of] Syrians in Ankara are about as actually dangerous as Turkey’s street dogs, which are the other thing I’m constantly warned about.  Not to suggest that Syrians are like dogs, but that both rarely live up to the threat perceived: Turkey’s street dogs are for the most part fat, friendly and found lolling underneath cafe tables waiting for generous patrons to drop morsels of their meal.  Some street dogs, of course, are a little more vicious at heart.  Ankara’s Syrians seem to be split into those who actually want to stay and are enrolling as students or setting up house; the very poor  (usually women and young children) who somehow ended up here and are found begging on a few street corners; and the inevitable untrustworthy percentage found in any population.

And yet I still came across a man selling purse-sized bottled of pepper spray in Kizilay last Sunday, and near everyone here seems to have a negative attitude towards Syrians.  Why?

From my time here there seems to be three factors feeding this negativity and distrust: the size of the refugee population, Turkey’s undesirable middle position, the sense of entitlement of the refugee population, the disdain for Turkey among many refugees,  and the refugees seemingly free access to Europe.

june 2015 refugeesFirst, size: Yesterday I came across this article in the New York Times, in which it appears many European nations are now griping about the surge of refugees, many of them from Syria.  Greece is overwhelmed, as is once-welcoming Germany.  A host of countries are closing or limiting their borders.   Turkey is mentioned nowhere in the article.  And yet almost all of those Syrian refugees came through Turkey.  Now Europe wants Turkey to keep most of the refugees that enter it’s borders. Numbers are a bit fuzzy, but at present (Feb 15) there seem to be a whopping 2.6 million in Turkey (UNHCR). Others put the figure at 1.9 million +; either way, that’s still far more than any country in Europe.  And it’s 3.5% of Turkey’s total population (the equivalent of having around 11 million Mexican refugees flood into the US to escape cartel wars; this actually seems to be fairly close to the current number of Mexican immigrants in the US, which might help some Americans understand Turkey’s situation in better context).  Anyway, lots of refugees in Turkey – and,once you look at the graphics, obviously a lot more than anywhere else.  Most of Turkey’s cache of Syrian refugees are currently found along the coast (closer to Syria, or from places where they might find a boat to Greece); this also happens to be Turkey’s biggest tourist region, and thus the influx of refugees (coupled with Russia’s ruble slide) has led to a lot of local economic downturn.

syrian refugees 2014

2014 numbers, but this graphic gives an even clearer portrayal of Turkey (and the Middle East’s) unequal share.

However, unlike Europe, Turkey can’t close it’s borders.  Notice how no voice from the West is advising Turkey to seal its borders with Syria.  No, Turkey’s supposed to let them in one end – and not let them out the other.  Back in 1991 when 500,000 Kurdish Iraqi refugees gathered on Turkey’s Eastern border (reference) following the Gulf War and Turkey didn’t  let them in the country was vilified by the Western media.  Never mind that, like Syria, this didn’t start as Turkey’s war. It seems Erdogan might have agreed to attempt to keep more Syrians in Turkey for €3 Billion in aid – but divided by the refugees already in Turkey that’s a paltry €1153.85 per head (i.e. not enough to actually cover the cost of keeping that many refugees in country for more than maybe a few months).  Erdogan has criticized Europe on this double standard (one of the few things I’ve found to admire in his presidency), but there still doesn’t seem to be a solution.  For who is responsible for the Syrian refugees?  Their closest neighbors? The European countries where some eventually land?  The US for invading Iraq and bringing instability to the region?  The shadow-state of ISIS? The realm’s original regime?  The refugees themselves? Clearly there’s no equal answer, no visible figure to pay for resettlement and reconstruction when and if the war ever ends.  So for now many in Turkey feel like it’s being used as a ‘dumping ground’ for ‘less desirable’ refugees as Turkey is needed by Europe – but not offered a seat at the table.

sanliufa refugee camp

The Sanliufa refugee camp

Now let’s address migrant entitlement and resentment towards ‘being stuck in Turkey’.  Back to those Mexican immigrants in the US: now imagine that they all want free passage through the US (and use of hospitals, shelter, and roads) on their way to Canada.  Because none of them really want to stay in ‘lower North America’.  But, wait – Canada doesn’t want them either (and is now building Trump’s giant wall to keep them out). And that’s pretty much the situation right now with refugees in Turkey.  Most may never have set foot in Europe, but they’ve heard of this promised land of safety, good housing, social services, and generous welfare benefits – and Turkey, as a middle-income country, is definitely below the bar.  To Turkish citizens, however, it seems like the refugees believe themselves entitled to not just access to their country and transport through, but also aid and assistance while in country.  If the government’s figures are correct, Turkey has already spent upwards of €6 on the Syrian crisis. And yet, to many, it seems like most refugees aren’t very grateful for Turkey’s aid – to the contrary, they’re spitting on the hand that feeds them. To be fair, some refugees do seem to want to settle in Turkey – it presents some semblance of cultural similarity, and it’s close enough to home that they can return once conflict finishes.  The border town of Kilis actually seems to be a positive example of refugees settling in, volunteering locally, and collaborating with the local community (who’s population they now dwarf) to create a temporary home.  The flat across the hall from my oldest sister-in-law in the family apartment complex is currently being rented out by a Libyan man and his family waiting out the conflict in their country.  He’s enrolled in a MA program, the kids in a local school, they’re learning Turkish, and they’re on friendly, trustworthy terms with all of their neighbors.  But there’s definitely a sense of distrust when facing the larger, often far more fluid, immigrant population.

On to our last issue: the refugees’ perceived easy access to Europe.  Now I know no-one who has read about the journey that refugees actually take to cross to border int Western Europe would term that “easy”.  Physically it’s not – it’s dangerous, uncertain, and expensive.  But to citizens of countries (like Turkey) who have been kept for so long on the outer fray of the EU, it still seems like these refugees have comparatively open access to resettlement in and assistance from the West.  Europe has never fully accepted Turkey as one of it’s own, and it can still be a rather arduous process for Turkish citizens to get Schengen visas or residence permits for study or work in Western European countries.  And yet the refugees, it seems, are welcomed in and given immediate shelter – without visas, often without resources to pay for their own keep. Obviously, if viewed in this light, the situation can seem a little unfair.

Anyway, it’s a difficult topic with no clear answers.  I don’t agree with all the perceptions towards refugees I’ve encountered in Turkey, but I can understand where they are coming from – and why many of the newcomers might be seen with distrust.

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Bodies, the Bikini and Flesh-Perception, Self-Protection

Bodies, Perception and Self-Protection
(Disclaimer: this post contains generalizations. If I allowed for every exception it would run for far more pages)
I grew up in a solid professional-class town in Minnesota, a community full of German Catholics and Scandinavian Protestants, people who greeted each other on the street and analyzed every comment made after all social gatherings. There were creative types and a small artistic-natural vibe: organic community farms, an art gallery, street fairs and festivals, an established co-op (of which we were the 128th member), an alternative bookstore with tarot cards and crystals, massage services and acupuncture, forest conservation and environmental education movements. But in many ways it was still a very closed town – people were afraid to do anything out of the norm, knowing that everybody else would talk about and judge them for it – for years to come. The smallest change in clothing was creative, unique. One day walking down my high school hallway I realized that all five girls in front of me were all wearing the exact same pair of American Eagle jeans.
I also grew up in a tourist town – the second biggest tourist attraction in Minnesota after the mall of America, to be exact. In the summer people came in their speedboats and clogged our city streets in deep tanned skin spilling out from fluorescent bikinis and florid tops. Most locals despised the summer speedboat tourists – too loud, too brash, too un-cultured and drunk and upsetting (especially during the annual LumberJack Days when our main park turned into one giant trashheap and nobody could find parking within a mile of Main Street). Only a small percentage of our neighbors and family friends benefitted from the tourist industry – most people commuted daily to the main city or worked in large locally-based industries like 3M.
Somehow out of this came an extreme sensitivity when it came to bodies and flesh. Americans in general are sensitive about their skin – I think no other culture has such a phobia of fatness (balanced by an equal phobia of talking about fatness), such fear of confronting their own bodies, such fear of standing in front of their naked flesh. When I think back to my summers at the beach, or comments my mother would make about my early outfits, it seems that where skin is involved people (and by people here I mean females) in my hometown were always either showing off the parts that flatter, or hiding those they were ashamed of. And women are always ashamed of their stomaches, their thighs, their wrinkles, anything that bulges (but boobs) or sags. A women over the age of thirty-five (or thirty even) would nearly never be caught in a public place wearing a bikini. Maybe at a private pool, at home or at a close gathering with friends. But even there she would risk people thinking her too ‘bold’ or a little crude, whispering after she had left. Never would you see a professional woman over fifty in less cover than a one piece.
In first Thailand and then a Turkey I was initially shocked to see so much flesh from women of all ages. And in Turkey no one seemed to be flaunting it. In fact, they were rather nonchalant. We went to the boardwalk beach belonging to N’s housing site outside Bodrum today; being the end of summer almost the only people left are retirees and a few late-start college kids or young professionals. Perhaps fifteen percent of older women were in one pieces, and the rest in bikinis. My mother commented on an earlier picture that I sent of us diving underwater that she would “close her eyes to the skimpiness of my string bikini”, but at the beach I’ve seen plenty of women far older than me and with far more flesh wearing suits that cover far less. Because here young, old, fleshy, slim, skinny – it doesn’t matter. A body is a body, and people will wear what’s comfortable and cool. There’s no shame or hiding. That flesh is there – everybody knows it, and no one seems to be concealing anything that’s already obvious. In short it seems a lot less dishonest than the US, where obesity and silent fat shaming go hand-in-hand with complete dishonesty about our bodies, where I once overheard a plus-size woman eating a salad buried under bacon and croutons drenched in ranch dressing telling a friend over the phone that she had ‘picked up a little salad for lunch’;where we’re practiced with the worlds ‘just a little’, ‘a bit’, ‘a smidgen’, ‘generously sized’, ‘a little extra’, ‘an indulgence’ as if denial of what we ate will make us skinnier.
Turkish women aren’t skinny. Some women are when they’re younger, but it’s generally assumed that women will gain flesh as they age and have children. There’s no shame in that – I don’t see diet pills or advertisements hailing a miraculous return to youth. Curves on a woman are generally considered attractive. Perhaps some people are uncomfortable with the accumulation of flesh, but that doesn’t seem to be the case with the majority. Bodies are. People eat what they eat (which is mostly heart-healthy natural food aside from an over-emphasis on red meat).
Complimenting the comfort most people seem to have with their bodies is a lack of piercing, critical judgement. When compared to the US, I nearly never feel stared at here for my body, Not started at like someone is evaluating my skin. We were in Olympos with the girlfriend of a longtime friend of E’s old band buddy. She’s my age but has gained a few rolls in the midsection over the past few years. E commented that she had gained a belly – but unlike in the US this isn’t a mark of biting critique, wasn’t meant to induce shame, and the comment was taken in a friendly, joking manner. Comments on flesh are rarely mean – they’re just an acknowledgement, for both men and women. Where people can be (and are) more honest about their own bodies, comments are more acknowledgement and less attempt to get someone to admit a perceived fault they’d rather hide.
In the East (where people are often more conservative, and more women cover their heads), men are known for being more aggressive in pursuing or catcalling foreign women (before you judge Turkey, recall that this is quite commonplace in parts of Europe and the US as well). Where women are closed, or more concerned about covering their bodies and the sexuality or sin in flesh, skin is stigmatized. But here along the coast flesh is flesh, skin is skin, and bodies are what they are.

In terms of everyday wear though the British actually shock me – sometimes. After years of living in China where the average size is a 32 A and people don’t wear cleavage-baring shirts if simply because there’s usually no cleavage to flaunt, I’ve grown accustomed to covering my chest. But in Europe and the US the necklines plunge and plunge, a fine line between daring and overdone. Push-up bras, plunging necklines, the pulling and pushing and shaping of flesh, a lot exposed here, none exposed there – it all seems too overdone, too anxious, too tawdry. Maybe we could all just relax, be honest with ourselves about food and flesh and exercise, and stop simultaneously hiding from and flaunting in front of others.