Mülteci: How the Refugee Crisis Changed the Culture in Turkey

Since 2011, millions of refugees have fled war-torn Syria and sought new lives in Europe. One of the primary destinations for Syrian refugees is Turkey, a Mediterranean country bordering Syria’s northern edge.

While the Turkish government is welcoming “Mülteci,” the Turkish word for refugees seeking asylum in the country, the government want the immigrants to be documented and only reside in certain cities so they will have better opportunity.

Since Turkey is the closest European country to Syria, it only makes sense that over 50 percent (roughly 3.3 million) of Syrian refugees migrate to this country.

Afshin Bahiraei is an Iranian refugee who had a long and arduous journey seeking asylum in Turkey. Bahiraei and his American wife, Sarah, met after he resettled in Turkey.

“The most challenging part of coming into Turkey was that I didn’t speak the language,” says Bahiraei.

As if re-establishing a new life in a foreign country is not difficult enough, the language barrier and cultural differences further alienate the refugees. Not only is Arabic vastly different from the Turkish language, the Syrian people’s cultural habits naturally contrast Turkish traditions.

Here is a piece of conversation between Afshin, his wife Sarah, and myself.

“There are so many things that the media does not show or tell that is happening with the refugees in Turkey,” says Bahiraei. “The media shows the numbers: 5 million people, and not the stories behind each person.”

“Not all refugees are terrible and dangerous.”

Bahiraei was featured in a podcast Beyond Soundbytes Podcast earlier this year. In Episode 2, under the pseudonym “Peter,” he tells the story of his displacement journey.

Presently, Bahiraei and his wife reside in Turkey, and are dedicated to sharing their story to encourage compassion towards refugee people.

“Not all refugees are terrible and dangerous,” says Bahiraei. “There are many success stories, like mine, and I am a hardworking refugee. I even am currently getting my master’s degree online with a university in Michigan.”

Next, I had the opportunity to speak on the phone with Kerry and Sharilyn Lammi, photographers who have resided in Turkey for the past 17 years. Over the years they have been there, especially in more recent years, the Turkish culture has evolved.

“More people dressed in Muslim dress and sometimes sunglasses,” says Sharilyn Lammi.

She also notes that before the influx of refugees, traditional modest Muslim dress was not in the wardrobe for Turkish women.

With the cities becoming more crowded due to approximately 5 million Syrians seeking asylum, many stores now sell Middle-Eastern styled clothing, and some stores have distinctly Arabic signage to solicit Syrian business.

Even in Istanbul, a major city in Turkey, the culture has adjusted to accommodate the refugees who speak Arabic, so many signs now have Arabic writing.

The Lammis said that while looking for new apartments in Istanbul, many of the signs to apartments to lease were in Arabic because of the number of refugees in the neighborhood seeking housing.

“That’s how the culture has changed,” says Sharilyn Lammi. “The majority people [Turks] living here see refugees as people who are taking their jobs and taking a lot of money from the government.”

When asked how the native Turkish people view the influx of Syrian refugees, Kerry Lammi said that Turkish people do not really trust people outside of their own family, unless they are good friends, so outsiders from another country are definitely not trusted.

“The trust is not high to begin with,” says Kerry Lammi. “The people from [Syria] are very “dirty” people, and historically, Turkish people have a distrust with the people from [there].”

Even though the Turkish culture is shifting due to the Muslim influence, the refugees face a crisis that is deeper than a culture change. It is difficult for refugees to find jobs, even if they are documented by the government.

“They are taken advantage of at work, and [the refugees] do not get paid very much because they do not speak the [Turkish] language,” says Kerry Lammi.

However, according to the Lammis, the Turkish government is working hard to provide for the massive influx of about millions of refugees.

“[The government] is doing their best and is doing a good job. They’ve gotten help from the EU, and they’re doing their best. Lots of organizations that are trying to help, and government was open to having them come.”

So, how can we help the refugee crisis in Turkey?

“Pray for us,” says Kerry Lammi. “Pray for the people and our government. Because we believe God is one and God is good, and God wants to lead all leaders, and leaders are put in place by God. Pray for justice.”

Before ending my phone conversation with Afshin Bahiraei, he mentioned to me that it is important to tell the stories of the refugees, to humanize them, because that makes the numbers actual people, not just statistics.

“Let people see what the media doesn’t show you,” he says. “That is how we will bring change.”

human. | writer, creator, artist | digital portfolio: Instagram @yujo.studio | connect on linkedin: https://www.linkedin.com/in/ariel-sutherland1/