Homelands & Strangers

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“I work to support my family.” About a third of the room takes a step forward. 

“I can trust or rely on the police when I need help.” Only two or three people move in.

“I’ve tried to hide that I am a refugee before.” First, a few bold steps. Then, a few hesitant steps follow. There’s a deafening pause. Moments later, almost everyone is inside the circle.  

“Syrian women used to be valued. Now, people see us as disposable,” Bana* shares in our debrief of this activity. She tells us a story of a Syrian woman who married a Turkish man. She didn’t speak Turkish and he didn’t speak Arabic. After a few weeks, they divorced. 

Fayza chimes in and shares a similar story. The group nods, saying that these temporary or unofficial marriages exploit vulnerable and impoverished Syrian women refugees and have become a noticeable trend. 

“I’ve tried to hide my refugee status before.” Why? 

Siham* says she’s tired of her second-tier status, that it isn’t right or just for her to belong to “altabaqa althanya” because she’s a Syrian, a refugee, or a woman. 

Fayza* says that, indeed, life here is hard, but it’s not because of discrimination or oppressive obstacles. “It’s just a different culture. And as strangers, nonnatives or guests, we need to be on our best behavior.” We need to be grateful that this country has opened up its gates to us. 

I look around the room. Some nod, some cringe. Siham* goes in. “Why am I a stranger? I am not a stranger. I am just trying to live, like anyone else. Who’s really a native anyway? We can’t be apologetic about our existence.” I nod vehemently in support of her words. I share that I was born and raised in the US, but regardless of my behavior, regardless of how nice I am, I am perpetually viewed as foreign, out of place.  

“That’s different. You were born and raised there–it’s not right for you to be treated that way. But for us, we haven’t been here for that long and we don’t know how long we will be here. We are temporary guests,” Fayza* responds.

“Actually, I like it here. I am here to stay,” Mariam* gently adds this side note. Even if the regime falls, and regardless of what comes next, she tells us that she wants to stay here, in Istanbul. This draws skeptical looks from around the room, some shock even. A couple of people get ready to intervene, but I try to steer the conversation back and let Mariam’s comment stand on its own. It’s already too difficult for her to share; she can’t be shut down the few times she does.  

Fayza* says that Syrians face discrimination, exploitation or have a bad rep because they’ve behaved poorly or have tainted Turkish culture. That if they could just abide by the norms here, their situation would be OK.

Janat* agrees. She shares a proverb. El ghareeb adeeb. “The stranger or foreigner is courteous/civil,” always on her best behavior and always dealing with people in the best way. When people here think poorly of us, she says, it’s because they’ve interacted with Syrians who’ve ruined our image. So we ought to set the best example at all times. 

Siham* denounces this burden of representation talk floating around. She says it isn’t fair. She’s tired of respectability politics used by Syrians to police other Syrians in the diaspora. And she’s tired of the baggage that comes with “Syrian refugee”–much of which is inaccurate and does not reflect her experience (assumptions about poverty levels, skills, educational background, political and social views, etc). 

She shares that cultures mix all the time, they all have the good and the bad, and we can’t view absorbing or inheriting “bad” social mannerisms as a one-way street. She gives examples of things she doesn’t like about her new home, and says that having recognizing that, she would never essentialize people here for it or blame them for negatively influencing her. 

If we want to talk about culture, Siham* says, we should talk about how much our culture was utterly suppressed by the regime and continues to be in the diaspora. “The Baath or nothing. That was the logic.” she says. “How can we blame our culture when we haven’t even had the freedom or space to shape one?” 

We bring up the statement, one more time, for any last thoughts. “I’ve tried to hide before that I’m a refugee.” 

Dalia* thinks this statement is too loaded. She says she doesn’t like the word refugee, and doesn’t want to be identified as such. Others respond that it is simply a status of location and citizenship, not a derogatory word to be ashamed of. She knows this, but she wants to choose how she identifies, and “refugee” isn’t at the top of her list. It’s not on her list. 

Today’s session was supposed to be about collective action and mobilizing around issues and obstacles in our community that we want to change. But the women of QUWA reminded us that raw conversations on how we conceptualize our “community” in the first place must precede attempts to rectify and build it. 


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