Siege the Second

By Kyle Merrit Ludowitz *The Syrian Border -*

Bassam Abadi survived the military siege and bombing campaigns of his home city of Aleppo, Syria for three years. Yet after finally escaping and illegally smuggling himself to safety in neighboring Turkey, Bassam began experiencing the severe hardships of living as a refugee in a foreign country without housing, employment, or a familiar language—a desperate situation known by many Syrian refugees as ‘the Second Siege’. Now, after a full year of scraping by in Turkey, the difficulties of being a refugee are driving Bassam to return home, where he will opt to live in the midst of the civil war rather than continue to struggle to make a new life for himself in an unfamiliar land.

Unlike the military siege occurring within Syria, the Second Siege is not an assault of artillery and airstrikes, but of culture and economics. The past four years of civil war have devastated the value of Syria’s currency, at a time when the Turkish economy has seen a steady rise in its national industries. This rapidly expanding gap in currency values adds an almost insurmountable level of difficulty for Syrian refugees trying to adapt to a new life outside their own country. A Syrian family’s weekly budget for food and public transportation before the civil war can easily be spent in a day or two when living in Turkey, due to the widening exchange rate between the two nations. This weakened purchasing power forces families to choose between rent or food, between medicines or clothing, or between school supplies for the children or bus fare for a father to look for employment or to travel to work.

Syrian refugees living in Turkey also face the barriers of navigating a country with a wholly unfamiliar language and culture. Once outside the Arabic-speaking border communities, Syrian refugees generally find themselves unable to communicate with local Turks. This language barrier can make critical tasks such as finding employment, asking for directions, or seeking medical assistance acutely difficult, encouraging Syrian refugees to clump together with other Arabic speakers in overcrowded, economically depressed neighborhoods. These desperate living conditions and lack of assimilation in turn exacerbate existing Turkish animosity toward Arabs, dating back to historical resentments over Arab complicity in the fall of the Ottoman Empire. This anti-Arab hostility has only intensified as the Syrian civil war grinds on and more and more Arab refugees are permanently settling in Turkey.

“[The Syrian refugees] come to Turkey illegally and take our jobs for a lower wage,” Garip Batur, a Turkish bus driver from the city of Gaziantep expresses as we sit in the lounge of a transit depot. “Unemployment is already a large problem here in Turkey, and Syrian people are taking jobs away from Turkish citizens. Arabs don’t bother to learn Turkish, and they open shops with only Arabic writing. Housing prices and rents have doubled or tripled in the area because there are so many Syrian people arriving, and even then, families sleep on the ground in our parks because there are too many of them. Turkish culture is being replaced by a more conservative Arabic culture. How can young Turkish people manage to make a life with these problems? Arabs are changing everything here and I don’t feel safe in my own city anymore.”

Under such devastating economic challenges and with so much animosity from the Turkish populace, many Syrians surpass their own personal limits and can no longer bear to live as displaced refugees in an unfamiliar and unwelcoming society. The return to Syria—the return to life in a war zone—is one of the only remaining options open to them. Riding with Bassam in a bus full of refugees returning to Syria, the mingled emotions of desperation, frustration and uncertainty hang heavy in the hot summer air. A somber silence falls over everyone as passengers anxiously text on their phones to friends and family in Syria awaiting their return. The dejected expressions of those peering out the bus windows grow more distraught as the barbed wire fences defining the border come into view.

“What am I going to do now?” Bassam exclaims, unable to suppress his desperation any longer. “How can I go back to Syria and try to live in war? But I have no other option. I can’t afford to be a refugee. Everything is so expensive here [in Turkey] and all my savings were used in the first month. I can’t afford to live as a refugee in this country anymore. I have to go back now and live with the bombs.” Another long silence takes hold as the border fence grows closer. Staring out of the window, he shakes his head in defeat, muttering almost under his breath. “This isn’t fair. This isn’t right. What am I going to do?” Finally the bus comes to a halt, and the doors draw open. Disembarking, Bassam and his fellow refugees begin walking through the barred, metal gates that will usher them across the border and back to their home country—back to a life amidst what may well be the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

It is unclear what will happen to Bassam and the others like him who have given up on building a new life and are returning home to Syria. Some will likely be killed by the bombings, while others may starve to death. Those who make it through the war will be witnesses to the horrors of combat, the destruction of their country, and the mass slaughter of their neighbors and countrymen. There was a moment of hope for these civilians—a chance to start a new, safer life in Turkey—but that moment is gone for them now. For countless Syrians who once fled to Turkey hoping for a better future, the burdens of the Second Siege have simply proven too great to bear.

— Humanitarian Photojournalist & War Photographer