SGRA Kawaraban (Essay) in English

KABA Melek “The New Turkish Word for “Syrian People”


My home country is Turkey.  It is very rare in our daily conversation to say things like “It is a very beautiful day, today!” Instead of such conversation, the three big issues of  politics, economy and religion are our most popular topics which are talked about and discussed tirelessly. Recently, the word “Suriyelilier (Syrian people)” started appearing in our conversation.

This new word “Suriyelilier” is not a simple nor innocent word which just means “Syrian refugees” or “Syrian” as a race or home country.  We hear about this word very often and on many occasions – when we walk in the streets, when we take the bus, when we attend class and so on.


I would like to carefully consider this word. Refugees from Syria began to come to Turkey on March 15, 2011. According to the Turkish Immigration Bureau, 3.57 million Syrians are living in Turkey as of February 2019.  Syrian refugees are also living in Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and European countries. In the case of Turkey, they can easily cross the border by walking across as both countries are close geographically.     


Is it possible, however, to talk about actual daily life through figures? It is not easy for the refugees of war to blend in with Turkish society which differs in culture and language despite our religious affinity. We have learned that Turkey is a country in which different races can live together since the era of the Ottoman Empire. I have doubts, however, as to whether we are really tolerant of people from other countries.


The Turkish government is trying to support Syrian refugees in various aspects. Special schools are prepared for children and the young, of whom there are many. The government has also prepared special classes for school teachers who teach the children of Syrian refugees. For adults, they have established Turkish language classes and support for finding jobs.  However, despite this I feel uneasy because of the suspicious looks I’ve noticed ordinary Turkish people give Syrian people in their daily lives.


A university student said “Syrian people can enter universities in Turkey without exams. It’s unfair’ We have been studying for entrance exams.”  According to my investigation, Syrian refugees can enter universities through the same procedures as other overseas students as long as they get equal marks in Turkish language tests.  There are some universities which accept Syrian refugees without exams, but this is a small number.


One day, a middle-aged neighboring lady, who is a pensioner, complained to me: “Syrian people seem to be paid a higher salary every month than us. I don’t like it.” I investigated again and found that Syrian refugees, who cannot find any jobs, are paid salaries for which they can afford to go to ordinary restaurants five times a month. I found the headline of a big newspaper claiming “1300 Turkish Rilla Salary for Syrian refugees”. According to the story, 1300 Rilla is the minimum wage for the Syrian refugees who can get jobs. There is a slightly different meaning in the headlines and in the story.    


It is very trying for me to talk about women and the children of Syrian refugees. There are many cases of violence against women. Cases of second wives who are Syrian widows. Cases of prostitution. Some children do not go to school because of their work. On the other hand, when I went to the waterworks bureau to handle some paperwork for my move, I saw a middle-aged lady in the traditional national costume of Cappadocia. She was helping arrange the water procedures for a refugee who came to Turkey who could not understand the Turkish language. Her neighbors had prepared a room complete with furniture for the refugees to live in. That was very heartwarming. 


We can easily see that Syrian refugees who were well-to-do in Syria are rich in Turkey too. But, problems about poverty cannot be solved so easily.


Recently we can find many academic papers on refugees from Syria as a new theme.

A paper examined the words for Syrian refugees which have been used in the media.

The words which were used most were: ‘slave trade’, ‘illegal’, ‘cases of infectious diseases’, ‘betrayers of countries’, ‘beggars’, ‘families which have many children’. When I see such discourses in the media, I recall words such as ‘discrimination’ and ‘prejudice’ which non-European refugees or workers have experienced in European countries. For example, Turkey sent a lot of migrant workers to Germany in the 1950s, and Korean workers have also moved Germany.

As time passed by Turkish people created new words to describe ‘Syrian people’ while labeling them as ‘the others’. From the viewpoint of Turkish people, “we can ill-treat them and feel a sense of superiority over ‘the others’”.  The word “Suriyelilier” means ‘the others’ for Turkish people, and represents what Indian people were for the English, or African people for the French.  We are ”good”, because it is the “Suriyelilier” before us who are “bad.”      


Somehow, I cannot get used to this new word “Suriyelilier”. Somehow, I am concerned with the meaning of the word. We are neighboring countries and have similar cultures.

We are all Muslim. I am sure that the teachings of Islam which loves all things is being forgotten in the Middle East now.


SGRA Kawaraban 589 in Japanese (original)



(KABA Melek / Associate Professor, Oriental Culture, Nevsehir Hace Bektas Veli University (Turkey) )



Translated by Kazuo Kawamura

English checked by Sonja Dale