Amid Turkey election, a Syrian man’s murder stokes fear among refugees

Islam is pictured in Istanbul after his close friend Saleh Sabika was killed, allegedly by a co-worker. (Alice Martins)

After a campaign marked by calls against immigrants, Syrians worry about their future in the country

ISTANBUL, Turkey — Campaign posters promising to deport Syrian refugees appeared the morning Saleh Sabika was killed. They were all over town when he started his last shift in a country that no longer wanted him.

Grainy CCTV footage from the Istanbul sock factory around 10am shows a fistfight between Sabika, a 28-year-old Syrian, and a Turkish colleague. Not long after, eyewitnesses said, the fellow grabbed a knife from a nearby restaurant and stabbed Sabika in the chest again.

He was already dead when he arrived at the hospital.

“He wasn’t just killed by a gun,” said his childhood friend Islam, who spoke on condition of being identified by his nickname, fearing for his own safety.

“He was killed by the words of all those politicians who planted the ideology against us in people’s heads,” he continued. “It won’t be the last death like this.”

As Turkey prepares for a historic runoff in its presidential election, the fate of people like Sabika and Islam is up for grabs. After years of economic crisis here, Syrian refugees and asylum seekers have become an easy target for leaders across the political spectrum, who say immigrants are changing the character of the nation and should be returned to their country of origin by force.

Even before the election season, a rising tide of forced deportations, police harassment and violent hate crimes had left many Syrians feeling under siege.

With nationalism on the rise, Turkey is turning against the refugees it once hosted

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who once welcomed refugees from the Syrian war to Turkey, has struggled to respond to public anger, promising on the campaign trail to send a million of them home. Ahead of Sunday’s runoff, opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu has gone a step further, making the expulsion of all Syrian refugees a core campaign promise. In the early hours of Saturday, posters of the 74-year-old former accountant were plastered in Istanbul with an ominous new message: “The Syrians will leave.”

When news of Sabika’s death reached Islam’s family WhatsApp group later that day, the 21-year-old student assumed it was a joke and decided to call her later. Sabika was always a bit of a goof, she said, though her jokes had slowed down recently. Just walking the streets made him anxious, he told Islam.

Taha el-Gazi, a legal activist in eastern Syria, said the alleged hate crime was his fourth case this month. Days earlier, he had been reviewing the case of a 9-year-old Syrian girl kidnapped and killed in the border town of Kilis. The victims, he said, are usually young men or children. Authorities in Istanbul said they had arrested a Turk in connection with Sabika’s death. Local media reports suggested the fight had started over who got to clean a bathroom.

Syria’s civil war began in 2011. By the following year, more than 150,000 people had flocked to Turkey seeking safety. “You have suffered a lot,” Erdogan told a crowd at a displacement camp in 2012. Turkey would be his “second home,” he said.

More than 5.5 million Syrians, a quarter of the pre-war population, eventually fled the country and nearly 4 million settled across the border in Turkey. About 3.6 million still live there, according to the United Nations; Turkish officials say more than 500,000 have voluntarily returned to Syria, though many are still internally displaced.

Because Turkey allowed the refugees to work, they quickly integrated. In 2014, formalized protection measures offered them health care and education. A temporary identification card, called a kimik, was meant to protect Syrians against forced return. Turkey’s interior minister said last year that more than 700,000 Syrian children had been born in Turkey since the start of the war.

But as the years passed and Turkey grappled with crises of its own, the welcome wore thin. Mainstream media outlets, especially those supported by the opposition, cast the refugees as invaders and argued, without evidence, that the Syrians were taking jobs away from the Turks.

Islam and Sabika grew up in Raqqa, a province captured in 2014 by Islamic State militants. They arrived in Turkey in 2018, staying together sometimes; earlier this year, both had seen their closest relatives move abroad.

“Emotionally, she was the closest person left to him,” Islam said.

Like many Syrians, Islam learned Turkish, but sometimes wished he hadn’t; it was now impossible to ignore the racist comments that spread across their social networks. “It was almost a curse,” he thought.

For the two friends, even kimik felt like a trap. It forced them to remain in the province where they were registered, even though the jobs had long been exhausted. Sabika was one of the many who traveled to Istanbul anyway to find work and live in the shadows.

Hundreds of Syrians are arrested for violating kimik regulations every year, according to human rights groups. Refugees are arrested during raids at their workplaces or homes before being taken to one of more than 25 “removal centres”, part-funded by the European Union to prevent refugees from reaching its shores.

The most famous is located in the Tuzla district of Istanbul. A mutual friend of Sabika and Islam spent a week there, telling them about conditions so harsh that one of the refugees cried at night to be deported. “If you’re going to take us back, then take us back,” she remembers the man pleading. “But don’t leave us here.”

Many deportees have told rights groups that Turkish officials have also used violence or the threat of violence to force people to sign “voluntary” return forms.

For many Syrians, returning home is unthinkable. Rights groups have documented detention, harassment and forced recruitment among returning refugees. Some have disappeared without a trace.

By the spring of this year, Sabika had found a measure of stability. He took a job at two sock factories in Istanbul: one would provide him with the insurance benefits needed to support a kimik application in the city, while the other would allow him to save money for a mobile phone.

Sabika had been kicked out of several apartments because he was Syrian, Islam said. Sabika’s last shared room was cramped and her mattress was thin, but she was doing her best. He was proud to wear Zara’s perfume, and on the morning of his last shift he had been cheered by the arrival of a relative.

On Sabika’s death certificate, the time of death is listed as 12:30 p.m. The cause is simply: “Work injury”.

In a coastal town some 300 miles away, the news had hit Islam’s social media and suddenly it was all too real. He didn’t even stop to get a change of clothes. He left the house in a few minutes, on the first bus that would take him with his friend.

The journey took 12 hours. Islam tried not to think about what might happen if a policeman came aboard to check his papers. I couldn’t sleep. In Istanbul, he narrowly avoided a couple of police officers at the metro station.

He was the first at the morgue when the gray day dawned. By 10 a.m., a small group of family and acquaintances had joined him.

With northern Syria divided by warring factions, the vehicle carrying his body would have to pass through dozens of checkpoints before reaching his hometown. A relative from the same tribe had been the one to break the news to Sabika parents For now, he said, they couldn’t even grieve.

“Their concern right now is how to get the body back to them,” he said.

Islam was still wearing the same clothes he had left home the day before, and the risks ahead were on his mind. Was it worth it? The answer made him cry. “I think Saleh would be happy to have come,” he said.

After years of silent struggle, his friend’s murder had brought to reality the kind of fears he had always tried not to dwell on. “As a refugee, you have to go from an unsafe place to a safe place,” he said. “This is not the case in Turkey.”

Finally, Sabika’s body was released around 5 pm, in a white shroud. Before being placed in the ambulance for his final journey, Islam put his arm around his friend and cried. She couldn’t walk him home even if she wanted to. His kimik would be invalidated at the border with Syria.

Alice Martins contributed to this report.

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