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Syrian family finds shelter, job in Mardin church

In the multicultural city of Mardin, a Syrian refugee made her life taking care of a church.

MARDIN, Turkey — Walking along the narrow roads of Gul Mahallesi (literally translated as the Rose Neighborhood), one of the central districts of the southeastern city of Mardin, one stumbles upon a small church called Mor Petrus and Mor Pavlus Church. This rectangular building is relatively obscure in this city known for its many churches, from Syriac Catholic to Protestant, most of them centuries old.

Neli Haddid opens the large, wooden door of the church, which has been attacked with paint blocking its name, to visitors. Haddid, a 48-year-old refugee who has fled from the civil war in Syria, arrived in Mardin in 2016 with her husband, two sons and a daughter. With the help of Christian Syriac relatives in the city, they took refuge in the church, where she now works as a cleaner and helps out with the ceremonies. It is the first job this homemaker from Aleppo has ever had.

"We fled from the war; we had no other choice. We came to Mardin that was both close to home and had schools for my children, who were teenagers. We also have relatives here, which made it easier. It has been two years now. I do not think we will ever be able to go back,” she told Al-Monitor.

Haddid and her family live in a small house with two rooms in the churchyard. She does not receive a set salary for her work, and the family gets by with the help of the Syriac community. Haddid's husband, Sami Hannush, works in temporary jobs for small sums of money. Her daughter is married and one of her sons is still in high school. Her other son wants to go to Europe to work. “It is not easy,” Haddid said.

"We don't have citizenship here in Turkey,” she said. "If you are an engineer, a doctor or an artist or if you have a lot of money, you can go to Europe. Otherwise, there is no hope [either for obtaining Turkish citizenship or going abroad]. I am lucky I found a place in this church.”

Haddid and her family members, except for her daughter who married a Turk, have not applied for citizenship, believing they would be rejected anyway.

The Mor Petrus and Mor Pavlus Church is the most recently built church in Mardin, a multicultural and multifaith city that had a lively Armenian and Christian community in the early 20th century. The church was built in 1914 as one of the last acts of the Ottoman Empire in the city before the start of World War I. No new churches have been built in Mardin in the last century, although quite a few were renovated — some with European Union funds. This church has a community of 50 people consisting entirely of Syriac Orthodox. 

Other Syrians took refuge in the churches in Mardin in 2013-15. In 2013, the Catholic News Service reported that Turkish churches and monasteries faced a rising number of Syrian Christian refugees, quoting Suleyman Saikali, program officer for the US bishops' relief and development agency, who said that many Christian refugees lived in and around the southeastern Turkish cities of Mardin and Midyat, and that some lived in churches and two ancient monasteries, putting their number at 200. A group of Syrian Christian refugees took shelter in the Syriac Church in Istanbul's Samatya neighborhood.

Gabriel Akyuz, pastor of the Kirklar Church in Mardin, told Al-Monitor that when the refugee influx was at its most intense, some 250 churches in Turkey were providing assistance to Syrian refugees who sought shelter.

"We have provided both shelter and financial assistance to the refugees using the money that belonged to the church foundation. We handed out aid from other organizations. Some Syrians slept in the church gardens," he told Al-Monitor.

Akyuz said that most of the Syriac asylum-seekers from Mardin went to Europe, noting, "They used Mardin as a base. Many have left and there are just a few families still here. The Haddid family is one of them, and we continue to host them in the church house. They can stay as long as they want and need."

Mehmet Baran, former deputy mayor of Mardin, told Al-Monitor that many of the Syrian Christians who crossed the border in the first years of the civil war took refuge in churches rather than in refugee centers. “Some received help both from the churches and the government,” he said. “But nearly all of the Syrian Christians have left.”

According to Akyuz and Baran, none of the 20 churches in Mardin are currently hosting refugees except for the Haddid family.

Turkey currently hosts more than 3½ million Syrian refugees, according to figures of the Interior Ministry’s General Directorate for Migration Management; 92,265 of them reside in Mardin.

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