How a city on the Turkish Riviera became a refuge for displaced Syrians
Khadija clutches her son Ahmed’s arm as he edges toward the door. “I want to go back to Antakya,” he tells her leaning forward. The city became to feel like home for them ever since they left their native Latakia in Syria six years ago.
The February 6 earthquake, however, destroyed their adopted hometown.
Khadija, Ahmed and her youngest son Raed, who asked only for their first names to be used, sat amid the rubble for five days before her cousin managed to have a car sent to bring them to his apartment in Mersin.
"The city is typically characterised by the geriatric community ambling along the corniche next to the turquoise waters of the Mediterranean Sea, but now has become a refuge for displaced Syrian and Turkish earthquake survivors"
A series of crises have upset Khadija’s life. Divorce. War. Displacement. “But the earthquake was much, much worse. It was like a science fiction film what we lived through,” she said.
Still, her son keeps saying he wants to return. Ahmed is a person with severe autism, and Khadija explains how he keeps trying to run outside and back to the ruined city of Antakya. She sleeps restlessly at night as she needs to keep watch over him. “Life goes on no matter how hard it gets,” she said.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed to go on a building blitz in the wake of the disaster that flattened thousands of homes. "We will start to move our citizens living in tents and container cities to their sturdy, safe, and comfortable homes within a year," he said on February 20, vowing to build "a new Antakya, Iskenderun, Arsuz", referring to some of the cities heavily damaged by the quake.
Over 1.9 million people now need shelter in the southwest of the country.
Nearly half a million have fled to the unscathed port city of Mersin, a retirement town on the Turkish Riviera, located west of the quake’s epicentre.
The city is typically characterised by the geriatric community ambling along the corniche next to the turquoise waters of the Mediterranean Sea but now has become a refuge for displaced Syrian and Turkish earthquake survivors.
The Mersin Directorate of Migration Management has provided travel permits to 18,000 Syrians under temporary protection to enter the province. Government regulations that typically restrict the movement of Syrian refugees were lifted in areas hit by the earthquake.
However, local Syrian civil society groups say the number of Syrians who have come in the last month is easily double the government figure, possibly even more.
These Syrians have sought shelter in hotels, apartments, office buildings, tents and more, Ammar Samman, the head of a local organisation named the Syria Future Group, told me as we drove around the city to deliver food out of the back of his blue minivan. “The [Syrian] community was working on getting Syrians into schools and jobs,” Samman said before the February earthquake hit. “Now we are just struggling to get people into houses.”
That has proven to be a tall task. Syrians reported being kicked out of a shelter set up in a girl’s dormitory in the city to make way for Turks. Samman said that the PDMM told him to close down any of the temporary shelters he helped set up in business spaces.
And rent has skyrocketed in the largely intact city with an unregulated housing market. “I was told this place cost 500 lira before the earthquake,” Rubaa said, who brought her four children from their damaged apartment in nearby Kahramanmaras, a city that experienced both the force of the initial earthquake and the devastating aftershocks. “But we have to pay 3,000 lira for it,” a sixfold increase.
We all sat on the floor in the dark. The narrow room was situated on the roof of an unfinished building. The studio had little else but a few strewn mattresses and polyester blankets splashed in green and pink floral motifs.
The Turkish government doled out 10,000 lira ($531) per household across the 11 affected provinces. Rubaa has already used half of that for the security deposit and the first month’s rent for their apartment. Both her mother and husband died prior to the earthquake, so it is up to her to find work to support her family. “But I am too scared to leave them alone at this point,” she said. A string of aftershocks has made it impossible for her children to leave her side.
Upon leaving the room, I told her how I was struck that she was still able to smile despite everything that happened to her. “It used to be bigger back in Syria,” she grinned before locking the door.
As most displaced Syrians in Mersin are just trying to get by from one day to the next, others are looking to thrive in their new situation. Over the last decade, adaptability may have become a national trait for Syrians. After dinner, a crowded café buzzes with the din of promise. Every table is full of Syrian men chatting over coffees and salted snacks.
Mohammad Obaid invites me to sit with his friends who are jewellers, shopkeepers, exporters and more. He has known them since childhood in his native town of Jadriya in Idlib before they each eventually moved to Antakya and now have ended up in Mersin.
A sharp dresser with even smarter business acumen, Obaid sees the advantage of his newfound proximity to the Mersin port, one of the largest harbours in the country. He periodically picked up the phone, sourcing customers to buy containers of Chinese solar panels that would come into the seaport.
His friends rattled off number after number between them. The price to rent office space. The cost of faraj, the Arabic term to buy out an existing tenant to take over their space. They did not appear moved by the fact that the Turkish government had only provided them with a two-month waiver to be outside the city they are registered in.
“All of Antakya is now here,” Obaid said with a smile. “Welcome.”
Joshua Levkowitz is a fellow at the Institute of Current World Affairs where he writes about Syria and the Syrian diaspora