A Tale of Two Cities: From Aleppo to Istanbul

By Ayhan Kaya | Istanbul Bilgi University

A vulnerability assessment study of Syrians in Istanbul that was conducted under my supervision by the Support to Life Association in 2016 found that around 87 percent of Syrians in Istanbul originated from the province of Aleppo, while only a small minority of 7.2 per cent came from Damascus (Vulnerability Assessment
of Syrian Refugees in Istanbul, 2016
). The ratio has not changed much since then. Many of our interlocutors that we interviewed in Istanbul in the summer of 2018 were also of Aleppo origin. One of the most striking images from Aleppo relating to the war was seen on 17 August 2016, when the image of a five-year-old boy, Omran Daqneesh, was filmed and circulated by the Aleppo Media Centre, an anti-government activist group which posted a video on YouTube showing him sitting dazed and bloodied in the back of an ambulance after surviving a regime airstrike on the rebel-held Qaterji neighbourhood of Aleppo. Like the images of Ailan Kurdi’s dead body lying on the Aegean shores of Turkey in the summer of 2015, Omran immediately became another icon symbolizing the devastation and tragedy caused by the war in Syria, like all other wars. Like most Syrians residing in Turkey, Ailan was also from the province of Aleppo.

Aleppo Province of the Ottoman Empire in the early 20th Century

Aleppo Province of the Ottoman Empire in the early 20th Century

Aleppo is one of the fourteen provinces of Syria. It is located in the northern part of the country, between Idlib to the west, Hama to the south and Ar-Raqqah to the east. Before the war, it was the most densely populated province in Syria, with a population of more than 4,868,000 in 2011, almost one-fourth of the total population of Syria. The province of Aleppo is territorially the fifth largest in Syria. Its capital is the city of Aleppo. The city of Aleppo was the second largest city in Syria with a population of more than 1.5 million people. It was the country’s most important centre for trade and manufacture and its central market area –souq (bazaar) – stretched out for more than 10 km in the middle of the city. The city is in ruins now and its inhabitants have scattered, mostly to Turkey. The reason why almost all the former inhabitants of the province of Aleppo have found refuge in Turkey is more complicated than its geographical proximity: there are strong historical, cultural and religious links between Aleppo and Anatolia dating back to the Ottoman Empire.

Aleppo in the 2000s

Aleppo in the 2000s

Wherever the social networks take you…

“… When the crisis started… when the war started in Aleppo, when did it start? [asking the researcher], in 2013[?], you all know the situation in Aleppo, when it started, they gave no time to the people. Immediately everyone left, we abandoned our homes, our food, our stuff, we didn't take anything from our homes, we left just with theourir clothes on our skin.” (Fatih, Istanbul, 1 August 2018, time 10.00 am).

These were the words of our 25-year-old-male interlocutor we interviewed in Fatih, Istanbul, on 1 August 2018. Similar to this young man, in the field research that we conducted in Istanbul together with our Syrian neighbours in the summer of 2018, many of our interlocutors were also from Aleppo. The survivors left their homes without any earlier warning. It was a sudden decision in most of the cases. There are several theories, such as push and pull theory and rational choice theory that can be used to define the reasons and motives of migration. The network theory is probably the most applicable to the case of Syrian refugees living in Istanbul. The network theory is one of the theories that try to provide an empirical explanation of migration motives: networks which serve as strong ties between migrants and potential migrants can be regarded as one of the main reasons for migration. These connections often become a social formation, which helps potential migrants as well as new migrants find their way in the society where the old migrants have already established their lives. 

Potential migrants and refugees tend to choose their places of migration according to the countries where they already have friends or family members or people they know, who come from their home countries. In this way, they can easily get information about the city they are planning to migrate to. The information reduces anxiety that potential migrants tend to have before they make a decision about their destination. Networks can be regarded as one of the important factors in migrants’ location choices. Having networks eases the process of making decisions about the country of migration and renders the process of integration much faster. Therefore, having networks in the country of destination can be one of the main reasons for migration for refugees, as well as for regular migrants. Once the first wave of migrants has settled in their new places of residence, they assist family members or friends in joining them. This is not very different for refugees either. Accordingly, the migration process for the second wave is made easier with regard to the costs and risks. Due to having information from previous examples, the migrant has a feeling of security and protection. This is what our research team has come across very often in the field. Most of the refugees try to establish strong ties with people who have previously migrated in order to reduce their own costs and risks. 

Even though one of the strongest components of the network theory can be the family networks, weak ties may also play a significant role in the migration process. Relations between refugees and potential refugees may be weak, but once they are in a foreign environment these ties become closer as they share the same language, ethnicity, culture and religion. Therefore, they develop a mutual reliance on each other. This is what we have observed in our interviews, where we encountered many refugees originating from different neighbourhoods in Aleppo, and who had established closer links in their places of residence in Istanbul. These relations often turn into close friendships as the migrants try to provide information for each other, reducing costs and comforting and consoling each other in terms of relieving the pains experienced in the migration process. Most importantly, new refugees are eager to become familiar with the experiences of the people who have migrated before them. It should be highlighted that networks, as one of the significant reasons for migration, have become more evident and useful as the internet has become more accessible to society at large. Networks may also play a significant role before the act of migration. Being aware of existing networks, potential migrants are likely to walk the same path taken by other refugees, rather than taking the risk of migration without any actual information. Such networks have the potential of providing refugees with a shield protecting them against the detrimental effects of a difficult journey and everyday life, as well as with a sense of ethno-cultural, religious, musical, visual and linguistic affinity that gives them comfort in a new land. And thanks to the growing visibility of the internet in everyday life, refugees have been utilizing such networks to decide their routes even more.

Istanbul is safe!

Our semi-structured indepth interview findings have shown that the primary rationale behind moving to Istanbul is to find a job. The second most expressed reason is to follow existing social networks such as family ties, relational links and other relevant social, ethno-cultural and religious networks. The third reason for refugees to settle in Istanbul seems to be providing security and safety for their families. What is striking here is the very low percentage of Syrians who are willing to live anywhere other than Istanbul. One could argue that Syrians residing in Istanbul are rather satisfied with where they are, and they are not considering going elsewhere. A 50-year-old male interlocutor whom we interviewed in Fatih (a conservative, historical and touristic district in the European side of Istanbul), expressed his feelings about Istanbul with the following words:

“… I came to Istanbul here, thank God, my son had an operation, I got introduced to someone, may God reward him, he brought me and settled me here in Fatih, nearby Ismail Aga [a conservative neighbourhood], he told me ‘my friend stay here and the rent you can pay it’. And thank God I started to work, and work to provide for my kids, but the issue as I told you, isn't enough. I have my father whom I need to send money to, and my kids as well I need to provide for them. We also have the bills here, the water and electricity bills, and the rent. And for the food, we eat anything, with what our neighbours bring us, thanks to God.” (Fatih, Istanbul, 1 August 2018, time 1 pm).

What attracts him to Istanbul is the cultural affinity that the city offers as well as familial links already existing there. The selection of places of residence by the Syrian refugees is made in accordance with various factors, some of which have been explained earlier. Cultural and ethno-religious affinity are the decisive elements shaping the decision regarding the selection of places of residence. The ways in which the host communities perceive the Syrian refugees is also a very important factor in shaping this decision. It is also revealed in other scientific studies that the host communities living in the border regions form their approach towards Syrians in accordance with their own ethnic, religious and political identities. For instance, there is sympathy towards the Kurds and a dislike against the Arabs in the places where Kurds constitute the majority. Kurds strongly assume that Arabs support radical groups such as al-Qaeda, ISIS, or al-Nusra, who are believed to be fighting against the Kurdish PYD (Democratic Union Party) and YPG (People's Protection Units) forces in Syria. Whereas, Arabs believe that Kurds seek to divide Syria and support the PKK-affiliated parties. A large number of the Turkish citizens sympathize with the Turkish-speaking Syrians, Turkmens (mostly with Alevi background and Syrian citizenship), while most of the Arab-Alevis with Turkish citizenship (indigenous population of southeastern Turkish cities at the Syrian border) consider the Syrians entering Turkey as traitors to their own country. This is the reason why Syrians tend to move to places in Turkey where people with similar ethnic, religious or sectarian identities live.

A Syrian diasporic space, Fatih, Istanbul

A Syrian diasporic space, Fatih, Istanbul

We also encountered various statements made by several of our interlocutors regarding the repetition of the rhetoric of Ansar spirit reified by the government and state actors in general. The Ansar spirit has also been embraced by the pious Muslim Turkish citizens who live in conservative districts such as Fatih and perceive the Arabs and the Arabic language they speak as sacred. The fact that the Prophet Mohammad was of Arab origin, and that the language of the Quran is Arabic makes a lot of sense for the pious Muslims in Turkey as well as in other non-Arabic Islamic regions. The members of the local communities in many districts of Istanbul such as Fatih, Zeytinburnu, and Bağcılar run by the municipalities of the Justice and Development Party have often referred to the cultural and religious affinity which they have practiced in everyday life with the Sunni Arabs coming from Syria. Hence, religious and linguistic similarities are not only instrumentalized by the Sunni Muslim Syrian refugees, but also by the members of the Sunni Muslim local communities who have already reified the language and the ethnicity of the Sunni Arabs.

This kind of cultural affinity is not only limited to the religious and linguistic levels, but also includes the gastronomic and musical tastes of both sides. The number of Syrian restaurants is rapidly increasing in Istanbul, not only in those six neighbourhoods where we conducted our research on the vulnerability of the Syrian refugees, but also in the touristic centres of the city such as Beyoglu and Sultanahmet. These restaurants do not only attract the Arabs who feel a kind of cultural affinity with the food and beverages served there, but also the locals of Istanbul who feel a similar cultural affinity with Arabic cuisine, which has always been an essential part of the cosmopolitan Ottoman cuisine. Similarly, the number of Syrian street music bands is also increasing. Radio stations such as Al-Kol, Muftah and Alwan were established in Istanbul to broadcast not only to the Syrian Diaspora in Turkey but also to the homeland in Syria¹. The sound of Arabic music echoing in the streets of Istanbul as well as in the Arabic radio stations constructs new bridges between the Syrian refugees and the members of the local communities who find appeal in its resemblance with popular Turkish Arabesk (or “arabesque”) music.


Ethnographic Research: Cultural Intimacy

“Cultural and religious similarity” discourse is the strongest one instrumentalized by Syrians who want to incorporate himself/herself in one way or another to societal life in Turkey. However, this discourse does not find its counterbalance among the locals in Turkey. On the contrary, there is a growing resentment among the local against the Syrians who are becoming more and more visible in everyday life in Istanbul. When the Syrian youngsters celebrated the New Year’s Eve (2018/2019) in the very centre of Istanbul, Taksim Square, they were highly criticized in the social media with the accusations that they are supposed to be defending their country in the trenches, but not enjoying themselves in Turkey.

In his path-breaking ethnographic book, Cultural Intimacy: Social Poetics in the Nation-State, Michael Herzfeld (1997- Second Edition 2005) elaborated on what he called “cultural intimacy” generated by the Greeks, which is a strong sense of difference between what they presented to the outside and what they know about themselves on the inside. Herzfeld defines cultural intimacy as “the recognition of those aspects of a cultural identity that are considered a source of external embarrassment but that nevertheless provide insiders with their assurance of common sociality” (2005:3). However, he later draws our attention to the fact that the term “cultural intimacy” was often perceived in the literature as the simple idea of acquaintance with a culture (Herzfeld, 2013: 491), a definition that I am more inclined to follow in my research. What I mostly witness on the field is that Arabic-Speaking-Sunni-Syrians have already created comfort zones in various diasporic spaces such as Fatih in Istanbul, Çarşamba and Yavuzselim in Bursa, or Ahmet Yesevi and Süleymaniye in Urfa. These spaces of cultural intimacy seem to provide them with an opportunity to homify their new place of residence with regard to religious, moral, architectural, urban, and sometimes linguistic similarities originating from the common past of the Turks and the Arabs.

A Syrian Bookstore in Fatih

A Syrian Bookstore in Fatih

Tolerance threshold has recently declined and the political discourse of return has been introduced to legitimize the military operations in Syria. It seems that the political discourses of guesthood and Ansar do not correspond with the societal expectations. What is being vocalized as a rhetoric by the state actors at national level is the return. There is a tension between the rhetoric and the practice. In the meantime, the number of societal tensions is increasing at local level. These tensions mostly appear in the relevant local media, but not in national media. The absence of such news in the national media creates a veil of ignorance to what is going on in the public space. Here, the main problem is the absence of what is called public space where different stakeholders at national level can deliberate, negotiate and resolve the emerging tensions with the idea of providing the decision makers with some policy proposals to be implemented at national level.

Empowerment: From charity-based approach to rights-based approach

The target should be to empower the refugees so that they could become active and reflexive agents to resolve existing social-economic and political problems. Otherwise, they have the risk of being imprisoned in the culturalist and charity-based frameworks where they will continue to play with the cultural intimacy tactic to connect themselves to the majority society. As the American anthropologist Renato Rosaldo stated earlier with regards to the Mexican immigrants in the US, there is a negative correlation between power and culture. Those who do not have material power, refugees in our case, do not have any other choice but revitalizing a culturalist discourse.


1: For the media coverage of the Syrian-origin radio stations founded in Istanbul see some examples: 1, 2, 3, 4.