Hope, Resilience and Uncertainty: A Day with Displaced Syrians in Southern Turkey

The conversations that figure in this text took place in October 2015 during a 18-months field research that extended from June 2014 to April 2016.

“Look! All the paths are closed!” Hanan says pointing at the drawings the coffee left in her cup. “There is no opening… This is not a good sign!” she continues while turning the small white coffee cup in her hands. It is early morning, Hanan and I are the only ones awake in the flat. The children are still asleep on the floor of the living room, where we are sitting drinking our morning coffee, and reading our future. Hanan has been obsessed with coffee reading for the last couple of weeks as she is looking for signs and answers about her future. Will she stay in Turkey? Will she go back to her parents’ village in Syria? Or will she cross to Europe? In this morning cup, rather than giving a possible direction, the coffee just shows that the future is dark and with no much hope.

I have been subletting a room in Hanan’s flat since September (2015) in a city near the Turkish-Syrian border where I am doing my PhD fieldwork. My research looks at Syrian revolutionaries’ everyday life in exile, and the ways in which involvement in the revolution and the climate of uncertainty, mainly due to the absence of clear status for Syrians in Turkey, generate different temporal horizons and economies of hope. The small ethnographic vignettes I present in this piece reveal the everyday practices and worries of Syrians in Southern Turkey and their links with their revolutionary past and their hopes for the future, whether they imagine it in Syria, Turkey or Europe. It also gives a glimpse into what a life in displacement means on personal, familial and intimate levels for people whose families are scattered in different countries.

It has been a week now that I have been awaken by Hanan early Skype calls with relatives and friends either in Europe or in Syria. Everyday she announces the departure or the arrival of another person. Since the summer, the number of Syrians fleeing to Europe has increased greatly, and she hears everyday of another acquaintance who is on her way or arrived in Europe. But to her leaving the border town where we live means abandoning her country and most importantly giving up her hope that the regime will finally fall and the revolution will succeed, which she is not ready to do yet.

When I ask her what she is planning to do, she says she doesn’t know: “As long as I can stay here I will, but as soon as the border opens I will be on my way home…” But in order to be able to stay in Turkey she needs to find a job, as she will not be able to survive another six months with the money she managed to save. She is pulled apart between three horizons: going back to her hometown, living in exile, becoming a refugee in Europe. She doesn’t find an answer in today’s coffee cup. She only notices that everything is dark and all the paths are closed. She points towards the white lines that close up towards the edges of her cup, and shows me that those lines are wide open in my own cup. We go to the kitchen to finish our morning ritual: she flips the cup on the saucer and observes the drawings left by the coffee on it. She does not notice any relevant pattern so we decide to leave it here for today. “Let’s see what we’ll have tomorrow!”

I hurry to get ready as I promised my friend Amal to accompany her to the gynaecologist. I met Amal a year ago while volunteering in a Syrian local organisation. She is also the one who introduced me to Hanan as she was looking to sublet one of her rooms. Amal is visiting a Syrian doctor despite the precariousness of some of their ‘underground’ practices, as she has no trust in Turkish doctors, and doesn’t speak the language. Officially, Syrian doctors are not allowed to work in Turkey although surgeries have been opening in incongruous locations all over the city. Officiously the authorities turn a blind eye to Syrian surgeries as long as they only treat Syrians. The doctor’s surgery is located in a recently built neighbourhood far from the centre, in a former shop on the ground-floor. A woman unlocks the door of the surgery covered with old newspapers and white paint to go unnoticed. In the waiting room, there are a dozen of white plastic chairs where female patients sit accompanied with their children or female friends (men are not allowed in the surgery). The receptionist sits behind a small school desk when she does not have to run to unlock and lock the door after each patient. She asks Amal for her card – they made this carton card with a number and the patient’s name so they can find them easily – and 10TL for the consultation.

As we wait, Amal shares with me her worries about her unborn baby: how will she take care of him without her family around and a full time job? Would her baby be stateless or will she be able to get him a Syrian passport? She thinks that the later option is rather unlikely her husband and herself being wanted by the regime for their participation in the revolution. Most importantly Amal wonders whether staying in Turkey is a good idea for her baby’s future as Syrians are ‘guests’ and not refugees in Turkey and therefore do not have the rights and protection refugees usually have. She is thus worried that they could find themselves in a position where they would no longer be welcomed to stay in Turkey, yet, they wouldn’t be able to go back to their home. Amal wants to offer her unborn child a safe and stable future, which to her includes mainly a protecting legal status and a proper education.

We are finally called into the doctor’s room. Amal wants me to come with her so I can take pictures of the ultrasound. She wants her husband to see the pictures. She is also planning to send them to her mother, who took refuge in another country, and cannot travel to Turkey as she wouldn’t be able to leave again because of visa requirements. The doctor makes us sit in front of her large desk, and looks for Amal in a wide black notebook, where she keeps a double page for each of her patient. The desk is separated by a small curtain from the medical chair and the screen for the ultrasound. The doctor points at the screen and tells the future mother ‘look this is her head, here are her legs (…)’. Amal and I look at one another puzzled by the description as we don’t recognise any of the body parts she points at. The doctor goes back to her desk and writes down on a small piece of paper, that replaces prescription, the formula of a medicine they used to find in Syria. ‘Give me the name so I can try to get in from Syria’ Amal asks. The doctor tells her ‘No one managed to find it anymore, even in Damascus…’ before to bring us to the door.

As I go back home later that day I find the children sitting on one of the sofas of the living room watching videos of the protests, which took place in their city during the revolution, one of their favourite pastime. The children spend most of their day indoor, watching the news, archive videos of the revolution, or TV series. They arrived from Syria recently with one of Hanan’s brothers, as the situation deteriorated in their city. They had to be smuggled through the border, which has been closed for several months already. They now live with us as they wait to receive the travel documents to join their father in Europe. They were not admitted to school, as they do not have a kimlik, a document all Syrians must have, but that the city in which we live stopped delivering. Their lives thus turned into some kind of unlimited waiting as they do not know how long it will take for their visas to be delivered, so they can join their father in Europe. Their everyday seems shared between memories of the past and Skype and WhatsApp calls with their parents respectively in Syria and Europe.

Hanan arrives a couple of minutes after me from a meeting with a group of Syrian revolutionaries, in which they discussed news from their cities and political options for their country. She gives me a summary of the meeting as we eat a quick meal before relaxing smoking arguileh. As we sit next to one another on a sofa facing the living room, drinking tea and passing one another the pipe, the house is animated by the voices of the children speaking with their mother and one of their younger siblings who are a couple of hundred kilometres away on the other side of the border. We spend the rest of the night chatting with the TV on showing the latest news from Syria. When we go to sleep it is already early morning, the children do not sleep before an extra hour or two as they don’t have school next day. They continue chatting online with whoever is still awake, laying down on the mattresses they installed for the night.

Written by Charlotte Loris-Rodionoff, who is writing her PhD at the University College London on the topic of ‘Syrians in Revolution and Exile: an Ethnography of the Everyday Life on the Syrian-Turkish Border’.