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How Turkey's Syrian refugees are getting by

Some 85% of Syrians in Turkey who live outside the refugee camps are forced to accept meager wages due to their continued lack of work permits.

On Jan. 15, the Turkish government’s handling of the humanitarian crisis in neighboring Syria took a major turn when officials introduced regulations to grant many of the 2.5 million Syrian refugees work permits. While international human rights organizations welcomed Turkey’s decision, the action has yet to improve the lives and working conditions of many Syrian refugees in Turkey’s workforce.

Ali works in a small sweatshop in Zeyntinburnu, a working-class neighborhood in Istanbul hidden to passersby and regulatory bodies. Inside a dingy basement, 15 Syrians are assembled in two lines, sitting in front of sewing machines whose constant hum overcomes the Arabic songs blasting from the radio.

“I am a math teacher with 20 years of experience, but none of the Syrian schools in Istanbul want to hire me," Ali told Al-Monitor. Originally from Idlib, he arrived in Istanbul with $6,000 in his pocket a year and a half ago, after teaching in a public school in rebel-held Idlib became a deadly profession. Unable to find a teaching job in Turkey, he now works 11-hour workdays six days a week and earns 1,000 Turkish lira (about $350) per month, which goes directly into paying his rent (800 Turkish lira) and utilities (200 Turkish lira). “The salary is not enough but it’s better than nothing,” he said. To get by, his two sons, 12 and 14, also work 11-hour days in a sweatshop where they only make 500 Turkish lira each per month. “I don’t want to be rich," he said, "but I’ve lost hope.” All that is left of Ali’s life savings is 50 Turkish lira, which the stress-ridden man keeps in his pocket.

About 85% of Syrians in Turkey who live outside the refugee camps try to join the unofficial workforce due to lack of work permits. Turkish employers take advantage of low-cost refugee laborers, who earn roughly half the normal wages.

Diaa Ajaj works in a small pastry factory in Izmir. His family owned a pastry shop in Damascus before they fled the war. Since 2014, Ajaj has worked 10-11 hours a day, six days a week, for 1,300 Turkish lira a month. Because he doesn’t have a work permit, he is vulnerable to exploitation.

“The guy before me was Turkish and earned 2,200-2,500 Turkish lira,” Ajaj told Al-Monitor, meaning he earns a staggering 40% less. While he speaks fluent Turkish after living there more than three years, he doubts he can find a better opportunity. “The average [monthly] salary for unskilled Syrian refugees is 1,000 Turkish lira. I live just to work,” he said. “There is nothing else in my life.”

Ossama Darwiesh was a general surgeon in Aleppo. Since he arrived in Turkey 10 months ago, he hasn’t been able to perform a single surgery. Instead, he provides general health care to Syrian refugees in a temporary field hospital in Kilis. Turkey doesn’t recognize Syrian medical degrees and lacks a system to license refugee doctors. “The problem [for doctors] is not salary, but how to continue as a doctor,” Darwiesh told Al-Monitor by phone. “How can I continue as a surgeon without surgery?” he said.

Syrian doctors are thus restricted to providing their patients with other services. “The kimlik [temporary protection status] allows Syrians to go to government hospitals and get care, but language is a big problem,” Darwiesh said. “Turkish doctors just give [them] medicine and tell them to go.” According to Darwiesh, Syrian doctors find work in clinics supported by humanitarian aid organizations and nongovernmental organizations, earning on average 2,800-4,300 Turkish lira ($1,000-$1,500) per month.

Although a large number of Syrian doctors have risked passage to Europe on inflatable boats, “There are about 30 doctors without work in Kilis,” said Darwiesh, noting that many resort to opening their own informal, private clinics. “The Turkish government is flexible," but it would be preferable if there were formal rules and certifications. As it stands now, the government allows Darwiesh to work today, "but maybe the situation changes tomorrow,” he added.

For now, Darwiesh plans his life six months at a time, unable to look further ahead. Under his current plan, he will stay in Kilis and work on improving his language skills. “The situation is similar [in other cities]. It’s terrible for me,” he said.

Khaled plays music on Istiklal Street, one of Istanbul’s main arteries and the site of the latest explosion in Turkey. He plays with five or six Syrian musicians on average nine hours a day. Their performances attract hordes of Arab tourists drawn by the wistful Arab tunes. During breaks, the musicians lament over their financial woes. The group earns 40-100 Turkish lira per day, sometimes more in the summer months. They split every cent that falls into Khaled’s accordion’s case. All his earnings go toward paying his monthly rent of 500 Turkish lira and utilities of 400 Turkish lira. “I started playing music in the street after I was [only] earning 900 Turkish lira a month in a sweatshop,” the musician said. 

Mohamed is fortunate to work for a German aid organization in Gaziantep, yet his income is still not enough. While he earns 3,000 Turkish lira a month — a salary that the majority of Syrian refugees in Turkey can only dream of — he is constantly looking for ways to cut his family’s expenses. “I can’t save anything,” he told Al-Monitor by phone. “Life is very expensive." The father of two is also responsible for his family back in northern Syria. His rent is 550 Turkish lira, “but we are living in a place that is like a dungeon,” he said. “I am struggling to have a life of dignity."

Despite his relatively high salary, Mohamed doesn’t have a work permit or permission to live in Gaziantep, since he registered under temporary protection in one of the camps along the Syrian border. Mohamed lived a few years inside a refugee camp, where he was working “for a pack of cigarettes, teaching English.” His situation has improved since then, but like the other Syrians interviewed for this article, he is unfamiliar with the new labor law and is mostly concerned with just getting by. “There is no improvement for Syrians,” said Mohamed, “but I am satisfied. I am more than happy to help my people who are in need.”

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