Vol 3, article posted August 2013

Syrian Refugees are being Ignored: The Gypsies

by Kemal Vural Tarlan
Documentary Photographer

A young graduate peddler initiated the civil commotion known as “Arab Spring” in Tunisia on the 17th of December, 2010. This uprising took place on an Arab street which then spread throughout the Middle East. As a result of this uprising, several dictatorial regimes in the Middle East, which have been in power almost half a century, have been losing power one by one. When the uprising reached Syria in March 2011, it was assumed that the Baas regime would lose power shortly thereafter. The expectation was that there would be a regime change in Syria. On the contrary the Syrian regime is still standing due to religion, the ethnic diversity of Syria, geographical location, political links among diverse groups under the Bass regime and international stability.

The war is now in its 3rd year and has caused over 70 thousand deaths throughout Syria. Millions from various ethnic groups have had to flee their homes and hometowns. Over a million Syrians have left their country to flee to neighboring countries some of them were force to immigrate to comparatively safer cities outside of Syria. Today, they are trying to survive in camps and rental flats in these neighboring countries. For over a year, I have been conducting a photographic documentary with regard to Syrians who are acknowledged as “guest” in cities near Syria`s borders and as refugees or asylum seekers by international law. I have been photographing these individuals as they are working on farms or as they are sweating through daily factory work fleeing minefields in fear, staying in their tents or flats in tears. Most recently, I have been trying to photograph every moment in their lives in order to be a witness to history. The reality of the Syrian people is as similar as in this region itself, together among different ethnicities, beliefs and cultures.

Throughout these people and communities, there is an ancient group who have been living not only in Middle East but also throughout the world. There are hundreds of thousands of Gypsies, known as Dom, Dummi, Nawwar, Kurbet and Zott, who are able to speak several of local languages in addition to Kurdish, Domari, Turkish and Arabic. These Gypsy groups live throughout Syria as nomads or have established themselves, settling and integrating among Syrian locals. In the beginning of this century, Gypsies were divided by artificial borders of other nations. Even though they are living in different countries, they have been being in communication between their relatives. There have also been marriages between relatives. After the outbreak of the most recent civil war, they were exposed to discrimination by other people and have tried to flee to cities where other relatives are living. There is a simple reality for these people even if they live in different countries; they share the same destiny. These people, who have a very low quality of life, are humiliated, scorned, discriminated against and ostracized out of work by groups more dominant than the Gypsy groups.

Gypsies who have lived in Syria over the last 2 years have found themselves in a war where they have no side. In an empty area, in a station near Gaziantep I came across a group of people who try to live in cloth and plastic tents. This camp consists of mostly women and children. The men have moved to districts closer to the city in hopes of finding jobs. Children run around inside the tents, with a piece of dry bread in their hand and nothing other than few blankets inside the tents. They came from Aleppo. “Opponents entered our hometown. Syrian Army came to tell us war planes are going to come and bomb our homes and that we must leave. So we abandoned our houses and property and left. News has since arrived that it is now bombed. We no longer have houses.” said young women, who had tattoos on her hands and face. Then I asked the question “Which side were you supporting?” She answered, “For us there is no difference between sides. Our houses are bombed; we were miserable all the time, and now we’re all in need of food.”

A man named Hasan and I have had a conversation about Dom people in Syria. Hasan is 17 years old, married and has 2 children. He placed his tent in a district in Nizip where Dom people live. He pitched his tent with help from people who live in the district. In their tent there are 9 people in total, including his father-in-law, sisters and brothers. Hasan can speak fluent Domari, Kurdish and Arabic. He admits that he is a Domari. Gypsies who came from Syria cannot speak Turkish. They introduce themselves as Kurdish and those who speak Turkish are primarily Kurdish and Gypsies from Turkmenistan. He points his finger to another tent and says: “don’t believe them they say they are Kurdish but they my relatives and used to live on the road behind my house in Aleppo.” We continued to talk about his relatives in and around Syria.

I have gained this information from Hasan and other people that I have spoken to. Latakia is the place Gypsies fight hard to live, and air attacks happens regularly. They say that people had to immigrate to cities that in west Syria for example like Sham or cities controlled by Kurdish community/ society like Afrin, Kobani or Qamishli. Those, who are indeed craftsmen such as dentist, blacksmith, circumciser, sieve-maker, musician and tinsmith, can`t carry out their crafts due to industrialization, modernization in production and laws. Hasan was a construction worker in Syria; if they needed him to work in Turkey that is where he went for work. "Turkish employers work for 80 lira; however, we work for 40 lira even though there isn't much work for us. We usually only work once a week. Soon, my family will move to Mersin where children and adults alike will harvest strawberries. It looks like this war will never end; and when it does, I will go to Aleppo."

A crowded group of asylum seekers under an almond tree, which just came into bloom on the edge of a wasteland, get irritated when they see me behind the Imam Keskin district of Urfa. They don’t speak more than a few words even if they were sure that I’m not a public servant. The old ladies curse people who they feel caused “their current situation” as they leaned their backs against an almond tree, among the almond flowers. When I was leaving there, one of them was yelling at me “don’t let them know where we are by taking pictures.” Two days ago, Syrian Gypsies` tents were burned to ruins in the nearby Yenice district by police who acted upon complaints from residents around that district. There were no references to Gypsies in the news, only mentioning that the “Syrians` tents were burned” in national press. The asylum seekers had been trying to run away from police for the last two days here. They were forbidden from staying in the tents in these districts by local authorities due to prejudice, complaints and visual pollution.

In recent days, the Gypsies sought asylum from Syria fleeing to our country mostly to try to live in crude flats, sheds, and around poor districts. Their relatives, who live here, set up tents near their house walls even if they don’t have any bread to share. They go together to collect papers, dilapidated goods and a piece of bread from streets. But many of them still live in crude tent which are set up near cities, towns or villages along with border from Mardin to Antakya.

They were accused of stealing and immorality, discriminated against by Arabs, Kurds, and Turkish residents in camps even if they managed to hide themselves in those camps due to their ability to speak Arabic, Turkish and Kurdish somehow after entering the camps successfully. On the other hand, they were discriminated against and exposed the same prejudiced acts of the camps` management until they no longer have the desire to stay in those camps.

Most of them have been staying away from camps and have returned to a nomadic life style again in order to be not humiliated by “gadjos” and not being imprisoned in wire netting. They have been preparing to go to work as joppers in Mediterranean and Mid Anatolian region as a cheap labor force as temperatures increase. It is said that they are working in those areas for 5 TYL per person per workday.

In conclusion, the Gypsies were the victims of the “civil war” which started among those who have been living together among various religious and ethnic groups. Gypsies in the Balkans suffered significantly during the disintegration of Communist Bloc countries. Thousands of Gypsies were forced to immigrate from where they had lived by armed radical Shiites in Iraq due to “their insufficient Islamic beliefs”. At that time, most of them had to take refuge in Syria. During the uprising in the Middle East which has now entered its third year, the Gypsies find themselves in the middle of conflicts as history repeats itself. News coming out of the press claims that the living conditions among Gypsies is becoming more troublesome.

The new authorities in these countries have taken on a new strategy as a result of these uprisings; regarding religious and ethnic minorities, including Gypsies, and have not taken any physical steps, only evasive promises. As long as these subjects are neglected by politicians, and the equality of religious and ethnic minorities, in addition to overall peace and equality are overlooked, the multicultural structure of the Middle East will continue to deteriorate.

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