Theorizing Hospitality and Integration: Preliminary Insights from Research with Syrian Women in Istanbul

Hospitality & Integration

Insights from Syrian Women in Istanbul

By Dr. Susan Rottmann Özyeğin University

“Eat more.  I know you can eat more,” Dana urges with a smile as she serves me a second helping of sautéed green, mint-shaped leaves, soaked in lemon juice and accompanied by tiny pieces of chicken.  The leaves are imported dried from Syria and taste like chewy Swiss chard seasoned with lemon-y black tea.  It is completely delicious, and I certainly do not mind a second helping.  Dana wants me to feel welcome and therefore does not believe my polite protestations of being full.  She smiles throughout the meal, as we discuss her daughter’s schooling, her older son’s small online business and my research.  After dinner, she serves coffee seasoned with cardamom, accompanied by sugar cookies topped with nuts and dates.  So that I know that she values my visit, she does not immediately accept it when I say that I must leave, only giving in when I explain my obligations in detail.  Then, we embrace, kissing goodbye on each other’s cheeks, before I put my shoes back on and exit to the street.  Throughout my research for RESPOND in Istanbul, I was often treated to this exceptional hospitality in Syrian homes.

“Nobody visits me, and when I try to invite them, they don’t accept!’’

And, yet, almost every woman with whom I spoke described difficulty in forming relationships with some Turkish neighbors, an inability to give and receive hospitality.  For example, 29 year-old Lina explained, “Nobody visits me, and when I try to invite them, they don’t accept…. When I say hello to them, they don’t answer, even though the other women are the same age as I am….  Sometimes I invite them to my house, but they say ‘we are not available.’  They find excuses, so I don’t repeat my invitations.” Dana, a 45 year-old mother of 4, had herself explained in tears, “I am suffering so much.  Imagine that they are my neighbours, and I can’t communicate with them!” 

There are also exceptions to these stories, though.  Many Turks have embraced their Syrian neighbors in big and small ways, and most migrants can name several people—a landlord, an employer or a government official, for example—who was particularly friendly or helpful.  Despite some bad experiences, Rawan explained that she has found gradual acceptance among some of her neighbors.  “My neighbors are old women, and when I come home, they like to tell me about their day, what they cooked, what they are feeling….  They are nice to me.” 

The impact of urban-life and the ensuing fears of strangers on customary norms for neighborliness is a factor

However, a general picture of refusing visits and hosting, of not even engaging in neighborly greetings and small-scale exchanges, emerged.  Indeed, a recent UN Women report found that only half of 1291 Syrian women interviewed socialized with Turks (2018: 7).  There are several explanations for the presence of barriers between Turkish and Syrian neighbors.  Animosity towards Syrians in Turkey is growing for a variety of reasons, including economic and security concerns (Erdogan 2017; Erdoğan and Uyan Semerci 2018; ICG Report 2018).  Syrians are presented as temporary guests in political discourses, which may limit some neighbors’ desires to form long-term relationships.[i]  Aside from potential negative feelings about Syrians, the language barrier between Arabic speaking Syrians and Turkish or Kurdish speakers should not be underestimated.  Finally, the impact of urban-life and the ensuing fears of strangers on customary norms for neighborliness is a factor.  Some women from rural parts of Syria, for example, may be unused to the norms of big cities like Istanbul.

From one perspective, hospitality and rejections of hospitality are minor issues within the broader milieu of Syrian migrant integration in Turkey.  Migrants face serious difficulties in terms of employment, housing and realizing legal rights, among other difficulties.[ii]  Also, it is important to recognize that most interviewees expressed a feeling of comfort living in Turkey due to perceived cultural and religious similarities. 

Nevertheless, the issue of hospitality is important to consider for a several reasons:  For one, anthropologists have shown that hospitality is a key cultural value and source of identity in many societies (Herzfeld 1987; Rozakou 2012).  Research in Syria suggests that being a neighbor is a socially important role for women (Salamandra 2004).  Discussions of rejections of hospitality were one of the times when my interviewees expressed the most negative emotions, even crying in some cases.   Reciprocal relations and hospitality are also highly valued in Turkey (White 2004), where treating a guest well brings honor on the household.  Existing research with Syrian women has pointed to the role of hospitality in conceptualizing gender and social identities as well as integration in Turkey (Dagtas 2018). 

More research is needed on how Syrian and Turkish women enact and perceive hospitality and the broader web of social, gender and labor relations

Importantly, from a theoretical perspective, examining integration through hospitality can help to move integration theory away from identity or functional indicators to agency and exchange of resources. Phillimore et al (2017) argue that we should consider integration resources and how different forms of reciprocity may enable access to community. A focus on exchange relations and hospitality places emphasis on integration as a two-way, interactional process. Many scholars have argued that this is how integration should be conceptualized, but few concrete studies examine community interaction in concrete, specific terms.[iii]More research is needed on how Syrian and Turkish women enact and perceive hospitality and the broader web of social, gender and labor relations in which hospitality is embedded.In the meantime, what policies might address this issue? Ensuring labor market integration of Syrians is key to fostering community acceptance broadly. Better access to Turkish language classes for Syrian women may help them to forge important first steps towards relationships with their neighbors. Another solution is the many initiatives led by NGOs that seek to bring Turkish and Syriancommunities together through social events. Check out some of their great initiatives here:


Dagtaș, Seçil.  2018.  Inhabiting Difference across Religion and Gender: Displaced Women’s Experiences at Turkey’s Border with Syria.  Refuge 34(1): 50-59.

Erdogan, Murat.  2017.  URBAN REFUGEES FROM “DETACHMENT” TO “HARMONIZATION”: Syrian Refugees and Process Management of Municipalities: The Case of Istanbul. 

Marmara Municipalities Union’s Center for Urban Policies.  Available here:

Erdoğan, Emre and Pınar Uyan Semerci.  2018.  Attitudes towards Syrians in Turkey.  2017 Istanbul Bilgi University-Center for Migration Research March 12, 2018 Ankara. German Marshall Fund-Discussion on Turkish Perceptions of Syrian Refugees.  Available here:

Herzfeld, Michael.  1987.  “’As in your own house’: Hospitality, Ethnography and the Stereotype of Mediterranean Society.”  Honor and Shame and the Unity of the Mediterranean.  Washington DC: American Anthropological Association, 75-89.

International Crisis Group. 2018.  Turkey’s Syrian Refugees: Defusing Metropolitan Tensions. Europe Report N°248.  Available here:

Phillimore, Jenny, Rachel Humphris & Kamran Khan.  2017.  Reciprocity for new migrant integration: resource conservation, investment and exchange.  Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, DOI: 10.1080/1369183X.2017.1341709.

Rozakou, Katerina.  2012. The biopolitics of hospitality in Greece: Humanitarianism and the management of refugees.  AMERICAN ETHNOLOGIST 39(3): 562–577.

Simsek, Doğuş and Metin Çorabatır.  2016. Challenges and Opportunities of Refugee Integration in Turkey. Research Centre on Asylum and Migration (IGAM).  Available at:

Salamandra, Christa.  2004.  A New Old Damascus: Authenticity and Distinction in Urban Syria. Indianapolis: Indiana Uni­versity Press.


Utku, Deniz Eroglu, K. Onur Unutulmaz, Ibrahim Sirkeci.  2017.  Turkey’s Syrians: Today and Tomorrow.  London: Migration Series by Transnational Press.

White, Jenny B.  2004. [1994.]  Money Makes us Relatives: Women’s Labor in Urban Turkey.  Austin: University of Texas Press.  

[i] For more information on this framing, see Ayhan Kaya’s post on RESPOND’s blog:

[ii] Some recent studies of Syrian integration are Simsek and Corbatir 2016 and Utku et al 2017.

[iii] See for example, this European Commission Conference Report, Understanding and Tackling the Migration Challenge: The Role of Research, which recommends focusing on host communities and migrant communities together to address integration challenges. Available here: