Vol 3, article posted May 2013

Forgotten in the Crisis: The Dom People of Syria and Turkey on the Streets of Diyarbakir
An Account of Survival

by Ana Oprisan
PhD Candidate, School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS)

Like in many other Middle Eastern towns, modernity makes its way hesitantly through the dusty streets of Diyarbakır. People in traditional clothes push poor vegetable carts that line up in traffic with police armoured vehicles and suited-up passengers in pricy cars. New quarters gradually rise and plans of development are quietly scribbled while anxiously expecting for “peace” to be instated at the end of three decades of armed conflict.

With centuries old history and around 1 million inhabitants, the city preserves its old citadel that used to be the home of various ethnicities. In Suriçi (walled city) area of Diyarbakır, a large number of houses have been deserted and people speak about an imminent demolition as part of the municipal urban transformation. Formerly owned by non-Muslim families that fled the area in the past decades, these ran-down buildings started to be occupied lately by hopeless crowds of families from Syria. The streets of the area are marked by women with babies and children begging in Kurdish or Arabic; others walk between cars with a piece of cardboard spelling “help” in Turkish. Shopkeepers feel suffocated: “They are so many!”. A car mechanic gave three stable looking like rooms he did not use in the back of his shop to a group of “refugees”. 20 people with kids of all ages. The women and children go begging every day and men wait in the green area alongside old citadel’s walls. They speak very poor Kurdish and no Turkish and say that their houses were destroyed in Aleppo. They left the asylum seeker camps in Urfa and have no hope of further destination. Although obvious all over the city, they are hiding; with almost no knowledge of where they are and what to do next.

A local woman talks about another family that settled a while ago in the empty house across the street, but then disappeared. She fed them many times, although it felt unbearable to watch them as they pictured in her mind a long fostered fear of losing everything and starve due to the unceasing conflict in the area. People help them, but authorities find no solution, she says. Then, leaning forward, she whispers that they might not be Syrians. “They must be Gypsies from Syrian villages…, excuse my expression”, she adds. Being Gypsy seemed somehow much more shameful than being homeless and hungry.

Another group has settled at the outskirts of the city, in 4 tents, on a piece of land with a heartthrob owner. Few old cars are stopped on the dusted road on the side, tea is distributed to the men and women sitting in circle on a carpet, kids play around. One boy that looks 10 years old sits on the ground with his legs twisted backwards, with a plate of leftover pasta mixed with rice. He looks at the ground and munches on a handful of earth and… the feces of another child. Asking in shock about what’s going on, the mother says the boy is actually 17 and that “he is like this”. The man that seems to be the head of the group takes out a bunch of carefully folded papers from a plastic bag inside his shirt. There are Syrian IDs, Turkish IDs and a Registration paper from the refugee camp, signed by AFAD (Republic of Turkey Prime Ministry Disaster and Emergency Management Presidency) Accommodation Facilities in Ceylanpınar/Urfa. They say they are Dom (Middle Eastern Roma/Gypsies) from Syria. Some of them used to live in Turkey, but they moved years ago to Syria due to the Turkish-Kurdish conflict. Now, once more because of war, they had to flee again from Syria. The refugee camp in Urfa “felt like prison”, even if they were served three meals a day. It should have felt safe, but it started to be gradually uncomfortable. Now, they hardly find food and mostly wait on the help of slightly less needy Dom relatives in Diyarbakır. The eldest man in the group calls on this humiliation: “Dying is easy. Staying hungry is really hard…” From hands-on experience, I know that the major reasons people refuse to stay in camps are the imposed “commonality” with unrelated families, the lack of “intimacy” of used facilities, the social stratification incompatibilities, as well as the power of casts and customs. The families in this field outside Diyarbakır preferred to look for their relatives as they claim they did not feel comfortable in the Urfa camp. They are suspicious and fear whenever somebody is approaching their site; possibly police or security, journalists or “recruiters” from political factions. They are afraid to approach the authorities, but have to ask the help of relatives or other people in the streets. They have to be vigilant, as the Police might fine or send them away.

The Dom Association president and the Dom tribe leader in Diyarbakır thinks that the arrival of Syrian Dom refugees in the area has added to their problems. Estimating the Dom population in the province at around 14,000 people, Mehmet bey doesn’t have much of a hope for betterment either. In the midst of a troubled area, lacking peace and security, with almost no support from a civil society that started to take sides in a highly politicized environment, the situation of the Dom feels like long being forgotten. He was encouraged almost seven years ago to establish his association and then to insert Roma in the title of his organisation, hoping that interest followed by support might come from the Turkish authorities, European agencies or foreign activists working on Roma inclusion. The billboard that used to sit at the entrance of now inexistent office of the association lies on the porch of Mehmet bey’s house in Yeniköy neighbourhood of Bağlar, mixing up the Turkish words for Roma and Romanians: “Diyarbakır Domlar ve Romenler Gençlik Spor Kulübü Kültür Derneği” (Diyarbakır Dom and Romanians Youth Sports Club Cultural Association). Apparently, what he innocently hoped for did not happened: “I am going to change this name. I didn’t know no better”. Back then he hoped that, if they accept to be called also Roma, from the perspective that they might be “related”, the promises of the Turkish Prime Minister in 2010 would be extended for their needs as well.

The policies for the Roma in Turkey enfold in a slow and hesitant manner and Mehmet bey often feels helpless: too far from what others seem to benefit from, too old and almost alone in his trying, unable to voice his nuisance in language the others crafted to advocate in. In his one and only blue vested suit, with the fresh dark black dyed hair and moustache and a very youthful step, he goes on nocking on officials’ doors, with his demands and plans. Although he is often disappointed, he doesn’t lose his hope: “During the day - I wander, during night - I daydream”.


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