Searching for a Positive Intercultural Transition Between Syrian Refugees and Turkish Society

Searching for a Positive Intercultural Transition Between Syrian Refugees and Turkish Society

Marella Bodur Ün (Çukurova University, Turkey) and Sevgi Balkan-Şahin (Çağ University, Turkey)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-7585-6.ch009
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Existing studies on Syrian refugees in Turkey focused either on the difficulties refugees have been experiencing or on how refugee identities have been unilaterally transformed during their interaction with the host culture. Drawing on the literature on identity and politics of recognition, this chapter argues that intercultural encounters transform the identities, values, and norms of both host communities and refugees. The analysis is based on semi-structured interviews with non-camp Syrian refugees and local citizens in the cities of Mersin and Adana to uncover the interactions of refugees and the host society, focusing on intercultural encounters at diverse settings, including classrooms, schools, campuses, hospitals, and neighborhoods. The chapter reveals that recognition of diverse cultures, respect, empathy, and social support influence intercultural interactions in a positive way. It also shows that reflexivity and the willingness to interact on the part of both refugees and the host culture facilitate interactions and negotiations between them.
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The Syrian civil war that started in March 2011 has caused thousands of Syrians to lose their lives and millions of civilians to seek refuge in other countries such as Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and Egypt. Of 5.6 million Syrians that have fled the country so far, Turkey hosts the largest number of Syrian refugees displaced by the Syrian civil war (The UN Refugee Agency [UNHCR], 2018). As of October 11, 2018, there are 3,585,738 registered Syrian refugees in Turkey according to the Directorate General of Migration Management (2018).

Turkey responded to this unprecedented refugee flow by establishing 26 refugee camps in ten cities close to the border with Syria. In these camps, services ranging from education, healthcare, heating, and security to grocery stores, laundry, worship, hairdressing, psychological support, and recreational activities are provided to Syrians. However, only less than 5% (177,376) of Syrians are currently living in these camps (the Directorate General of Migration Management [DGMM], 2018). The rest, non-camp refugees are spread throughout the country and most are struggling to survive in tough and dire conditions in urban areas. Non-camp Syrians are mostly living in the south and south-eastern provinces of Turkey such as Hatay, Şanlıurfa, Kilis, Gaziantep, and Adana. Beyond the border cities, a high number of them are living in Istanbul and coastal cities like Mersin and İzmir. Particularly, İzmir has become an important destination especially for those Syrians that want to end up in Europe through Greece.

When formulating its open-door policy towards Syrians in the beginning of the Syrian civil war, Turkish elites and policy-makers acted on the assumption that displaced Syrians would return home once the conflict was over. Yet, the conflict has entered into its eighth year and it is now clear that Turkey needs to develop long-term national policies and institutional mechanisms to manage refugee flows in a more effective and humane way. The influx of millions of Syrian refugees has created one of the most challenging intercultural transition situations for Turkey. This challenge has put pressure on Turkey to create the necessary conditions for full economic, social, cultural, and political participation of Syrian refugees. However, language barriers, ethnic and cultural differences as well as the prejudice and hostility towards refugees may complicate the process of intercultural transition. This transition cannot proceed smoothly in a country like Turkey that has put too much emphasis for a unified ethnic identity as part of its nation-building process.

Given the centrality of unified ethnic identity in Turkey, any group maintaining an identity other than Turkish has been historically perceived as a threat to national stability and unity. Therefore, incorporating more than 3.5 million of non-Turkish population has represented a challenge to the unified ethnic identity constructed by the ruling elites in the early years of the Turkish Republic. The way Syrian refugees in Turkey have been negotiating their identity and sense of belonging with the host community may also complicate the intercultural transition process. These identity-based challenges require the need to address both host country and refugee experiences during intercultural transition.

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