GAZIANTEP, Turkey — As a horrific war escalated next door, Turkey opened its doors to Syrian refugees, granting them access to free health care and promising citizenship to thousands. More than 3 million Syrians accepted that welcome and put down roots. They started businesses and sent their children to school.
That abrupt reversal is unsettling many Syrian refugees, leaving them afraid for the future they dreamed of in Turkey. Turkish military victories in northern Syria have opened the possibility that refugees could go back to their homeland, but many are wary of returning to a country wrecked by a war that is not yet even finished.
Here, in Gaziantep, where nearly a tenth of the Syrian refugees have settled, Abu Ammar and his family had launched a new future. Back home in Aleppo, he had just bought the equipment to open a sweet shop when Syria’s civil war began. As fighting between government forces and rebels quickened, he and his family escaped north to Turkey three years ago, leaving the equipment behind.
They got a second chance in Turkey, where they opened a new sweet shop in the city center, serving desserts from home mostly to patrons like themselves who had escaped Syria.
Seated at a table in his bright, bustling shop, he recalled how Turkish officials had helped him open it, even facilitating permits.
“We invested, got married, had kids,” added one of Abu Ammar’s sons, Mahmoud, 29. “We formed a life here.”
Stocky and gruff, Mahmoud had served in the Syrian military before the war began, later trading his uniform for an apron and hairnet pulled tight over light, curly locks to work in the family shop. Two other sons attend Turkish schools, including one studying engineering at Gaziantep University.
“We have applied for citizenship, but we are worried about continuing to invest as long as we are refugees,” Mahmoud continued. Like his father, he did not want to be identified with his last name, for fear of inviting scrutiny from the Turkish government. “Now we are afraid Turkey will kick us out,” he said.
On a recent spring evening at a popular Gaziantep restaurant, Arabic ballads and smoke from water pipes wafted over the Syrian clientele. The Ottoman-style eatery, Topkapi Sarayi, like the surrounding city, has a distinctly Syrian flair and is a fixture of the Syrian community, a place where business executives and rebels mingle over grilled meat and tea.
That community has invested heavily in Turkey’s economy, creating at least 8,000 businesses and 100,000 jobs, Turkey’s INGEV Foundation said in October.
Many Syrians have obtained Turkish degrees and many younger Syrians now know no other country. Nearly 500,000 Syrian children are enrolled in Turkey’s public school system, according to the U.N. Children’s Fund, and an additional 230,000 study at accredited “temporary education centers,” which teach an Arabic-language curriculum.
But these days, the refugees’ daily lives are consumed by mundane bureaucracy, securing travel permits and identity cards for fear they may soon be expelled by the Turkish government.
“They don’t know what it is that they want from us,” said Yasser, a 33-year-old Syrian aid worker who previously studied English literature.
Yasser noted that like himself, many of the Syrians are well educated, with university degrees, and could be an asset to Turkey. “But they don’t know if they want us here,” he said.
The rising anti-refugee sentiment has caught the attention of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who faces reelection next year.
“We want our refugee brothers and sisters to return to their country,” Erdogan said in a speech in February. He proposed that they relocate to northern Syria where the Turkish military and allied Syrian fighters are conducting an offensive to capture territory held by Syrian Kurds.
Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim later said that as many as 350,000 refugees could migrate to Syria’s Afrin enclave alone.
“They will be taken care of by Turkey, but they won’t be in clear sight of many Turks,” said Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “They will stop being a problem and stop causing near-universal resentment.”
But as the Syrian conflict enters its eighth year, with nearly half a million dead and a nation destroyed, few say they foresee being able to return — even to areas under nominal Turkish control. Fighting continues to rage in various parts of the country, notably in the Damascus suburbs, where the Syrian government is pressing an offensive to recapture territory from rebel control and is accused of carrying out a chemical weapons attack over the weekend.
At least 74 percent of Syrians in Turkey say they want citizenship there, according to a 2017 poll published by the INGEV Foundation and the global research firm Ipsos. More than 50 percent said they planned to build a future in Turkey, and the majority said they didn’t want to leave.
So far, only 12,000 have been naturalized, government figures show.
“There are younger generations who are starting their lives here, some who were born as refugees,” said Gareth Jenkins, a senior fellow at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, a research and policy center.
“You would need a lot of things [to happen] in Syria before people can go back,” he said. “The younger generations may stay, or use Turkey as a springboard to go somewhere else.”
But local hostility to the Syrians is on the rise, and so is anti-refugee violence in major Turkish cities, according to the International Crisis Group. Many Turks think Syrians receive preferential access to public services and assistance, the group says. Ethnic and religious minorities are also worried that the influx of Syrians will upset the demographic balance and cause sectarian strife.
Nowhere else is this tension more apparent than at Turkish schools, Syrian parents say.
Syrian mothers say that their children are bullied and face discrimination, while Turkish teachers complain that Syrian children act out in class or on the playground.
“My son, he is 10. And he said to me, ‘The Turkish kids don’t like us. They always hit us,’ ” recalled Umm Mohamed, a black headscarf framing her face.
Umm Mohamed lives in a sparse apartment in a building shared with other Syrian families. As she brewed thick Turkish coffee and tended to her four children, she recounted trying to enroll another son, who is 8, in the same school.
“The principal kept saying there were no more spots,” she said. “But finally, they said, ‘The students and the students’ families don’t want Syrian children here.’ ”
Even if Turkey wrested her home town of Manbij in northern Syria from Kurdish fighters, Umm Mohamed and her husband said they would not move back. Her husband, who asked not to be identified, said it would still be too chaotic for him to practice his profession as a lawyer.
In nearby Hatay province, also home to about 300,000 Syrian refugees, Umm Yusuf runs a hair salon from her family’s cinder-block apartment. A refugee from just across the border, she could not obtain a hairdresser’s license because she does not read or write Turkish, she said, but the local government let her open the business anyway, and now she serves Turkish clients.
“There are good people and there are bad people,” she said. Tall and slim, she strode gracefully across the salon as she spoke. “Some want to pay less just because we are Syrian,” she added.
Umm Yusuf and her husband said they were not prepared to return to the part of Syria recently captured by Turkey. Their portion of Syria’s Idlib province remains beyond Turkish control.
“People will not go back unless it’s to their own homes,” her husband said.