Lives of Syrian Refugees in Turkey Shatter a Second, or Third, Time

First, Syria’s civil war drove Hind Qayduha from her home in the city of Aleppo. Then, conflict and joblessness forced her family to flee two more times. Two years ago, she came to southern Turkey, thinking she had finally found safety and stability.

But when a powerful earthquake struck a week ago, it destroyed their apartment in the hard-hit Turkish city of Antakya and the family was displaced again. They sought safety nearby, braced against the side of the mountain around a medieval monastery and exposed to a cold rain; like many other survivors, they were too shaken to stay under any roof.

Two days later, they were living on the floor of an unfinished carwash in Antakya.

“This is my room for me, my husband and three kids,” Ms. Qayduha said, laughing as she outlined with her hands a small circle on the black-and-white patterned blanket, a meager cushion atop the gravel floor. She pointed to another part of the same blanket: “And there’s my mother’s room.”

She said other relatives who had been living near her were still buried in the rubble of their homes.

For Syrians, both refugees like Ms. Qayduha and those still living back home, last Monday’s earthquake was a disaster within a disaster. Over the past 12 years, their lives have been uprooted by civil war and the mass displacement and death it brought. Syrians know all too well the loss of homes — walls felled in mere seconds, people trapped under the rubble for days. But the refugees who fled to Turkey thought they had left those traumas behind.

Now, this past week, some said the wholesale destruction wrought by the earthquake was far worse than anything they had seen in more than a decade of war.

A medical helicopter flying overhead while a volunteer rescue worker planted a Turkish flag atop the rubble of a destroyed eight-story building in Antakya.
Aid workers sorting donations at a tent camp erected around Antakya’s soccer stadium.
Destruction on the banks of the Orontes River in the city of Antakya on Saturday.

The civil war displaced more than half of Syria’s 21 million people, and nearly four million of them ended up as refugees in Turkey. Many lived in the swath of territory most heavily affected by the earthquake, which killed more than 29,000 people in southern Turkey and more than 3,500 across the border in northwestern Syria — tolls that keep steadily rising.

At first, the Syrian refugees were largely welcomed in Turkey. The Syrians had relatively decent opportunities to make new lives and livelihoods.

Deadly Quake in Turkey and Syria

A 7.8-magnitude earthquake on Feb. 6, with its epicenter in Gaziantep, Turkey, has become one of the deadliest natural disasters of the century.

  • A Devastating Event: The quake, one of the deadliest since 2000, rippled through neighboring countries; an area along the Syrian-Turkish border was hit particularly hard.
  • From the Scene: Thousands of people have been killed, and dozens of cities have been gutted. Here is how witnesses described the disaster.
  • A Desperate Search: When buildings fell in Antakya, Turkey, families poured in from all over to help. Videos capture the dig for survivors.
  • Syrian Refugees: Millions of people fled the war in Syria for the safety of neighboring Turkey. Now, those killed in the quake are being returned home.

But over time, they have faced growing discrimination and pressure to return home, especially in recent years as the Turkish economy has taken a sharp downturn. The immense humanitarian crisis created by the earthquake reignited and heightened those longstanding tensions.

“And now we are under threat from the Turks, who could kick us out of the country,” said Ms. Qayduha, 37.

A Syrian family preparing tea in their new home, a former carwash, in Antakya.
An aid distribution site in Antakya.
Displaced civilians set up camp in an olive grove in Antakya.

Turkish residents of Antakya have leveled unsubstantiated accusations at the Syrians of looting or grabbing jewelry off corpses.

Tulin Kuseyri, a 62-year-old Turkish woman, stood by the Orontes River in Antakya on Thursday, watching searchers remove a body from an apartment building. Near her lay the body of someone she had known, wrapped in a pink blanket — one of many relatives and friends she said she had lost in the earthquake, along with her family’s cotton factory and her home.

“I don’t want Syrian immigrants in Antakya anymore,” she said, barely able to control herself. “Instead of paying for Syrian people from our taxes, we want them to take care of Turks.”

Yet the relationship between Turks and Syrian refugees is far more complex than fear, blame and resentment. In Antakya and other affected areas, some Syrian families said Turkish ones had shared whatever shelter and food they had with them.

Other Syrian refugees said that the government-run rescue and relief response had not discriminated among the needy.

“Thank God, Turkey isn’t distinguishing between us,” said Jamal Ezzal Deen, a 30-year-old Syrian, as he held his 2-year-old daughter, Fatima. “Even if there is some racism from the people.”

On Thursday at a tent camp erected around Antakya’s soccer stadium, he had watched as a Turkish woman hassled a Turkish Army officer, insisting that the aid should go only to the Turks, not the Syrians. The officer told her they wouldn’t discriminate.

A camp for displaced people in a park in Antakya.
Jamal Ezzal Deen with his 2-year-old daughter, Fatima, outside a tent camp.
Rationed food supplies at a displaced Syrian family’s new home, a former carwash.

Ms. Qayduha said she still had family in Syria, including two sisters in northwestern Idlib Province and an aunt in Aleppo — two of the areas hardest hit by the quake. But she hasn’t been able to connect with them. It’s a constant reminder that Syrians on both sides of the border are united in suffering.

She said this was the second time she had lost her home and all her possessions.

“I don’t own anything except these kids, thank God,” she said in a raspy voice, hoarse from the cold, as she extended her arms toward her 9-year-old daughter.

She and her family were desperate to leave the carwash, which has a large opening that allows in bitterly cold air. They want to find better shelter in the tent camps the Turkish government has been setting up.

But they were spooked by rumors that they wouldn’t be allowed in because they are Syrian, or that roaming groups of armed Turks were looking for Syrians to attack.

And it was not only the potential for rising anti-Syrian sentiment or the fear of attacks that has made some Syrians want to leave Turkey: They dread another earthquake or other natural disaster.

At night in the carwash, the parents sheltering there put their children to sleep dressed and wearing shoes, in case another aftershock should force them to run.

It all turned out to be too much for Ms. Qayduha and her extended family. They used some of their last remaining money and paid drivers to take them farther west, outside the earthquake zone.

“Back when we were living in the war, we would flee to another area and we would feel safer,” said Ms. Qayduha’s mother, Dalal Masri, 55. “But here, we don’t feel like there’s anywhere safe to go.”

A Syrian family near the cave where they are living beside a church in Antakya.
A police car destroyed during the earthquake, in Antakya.
A rescue worker praying at a mosque that was destroyed during the earthquake in Antakya.

Outside a collapsed apartment building in Antakya, a woman in her 50s who said she had come from northwestern Syria to Turkey just days before the earthquake kept a hopeful vigil for days. She did not want to give her name out of concern for her safety.

The building was where her daughter, nine months pregnant, had been living with her family, and the mother had come to Turkey for the birth.

“Can a mother leave her daughter’s side?” she said on Friday, wiping away tears. She squeezed her eyes shut, seemingly willing them to stop. “Everyone here is waiting for someone underneath.”

Wrapped in a navy scarf, she kept an eye on a handful of rescuers who were walking along the upturned edges of the building’s balconies, occasionally calling into the destroyed building’s depths and listening closely for any response, however faint.

When asked if any voices had been heard so far, she began to cry again.

“It’s been 100 hours.”

Nearby, a playground was strung up with sheets and blankets, turned into a rest area for rescue workers. A thin foam mattress stretched across the yellow slide, a makeshift bed.

On Saturday, the mother finally got the grim news. Rescuers had found her daughter’s body and that of her 3-year-old son in the middle of the night. They buried them next to each other.

The mother said she had come to Turkey expecting to welcome another grandchild. Instead, she will return to Syria, having buried the daughter who was her best friend.

A destroyed mosque in Antakya.

Vivian Yee contributed reporting.

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