The neighborhood of Narlıca sits on the outskirts of the small city of Antakya, Turkey. A spread of low-rise, brick-and-cement buildings separated by unpaved roads, Narlıca was a lightly populated working-class suburb prior to the outbreak of civil war across the border in Syria. Today, with that war dragging into its sixth year, the neighborhood has taken on a new identity as Antakya’s “little Syria.” The population has more than doubled, with Syrian residents now outnumbering Turks; most of the storefront signs are in Arabic; and newly opened schools teach the Syrian curriculum. Initially attractive for its affordable rents and proximity to downtown, Narlıca now offers its Syrian residents something less tangible, but no less significant—a sense of community and place.

But life in Narlıca can be difficult. Turkey hosts more Syrian refugees—almost 3 million—than any other country in the world, and over 80 percent of the Syrians reside in neighborhoods of Istanbul or in border towns like Antakya. But the Turkish government devotes far more resources, and the foreign media far more attention, to the 25 refugee camps in the country than to refugees living in urban areas. The international non-governmental organizations that have set up offices in Antakya tend to direct their efforts at relief inside Syria rather than refugee aid. With little access to welfare and unable to secure jobs, many of the first arrivals to Narlıca quickly fell on hard times.

Into this vacuum emerged the Narlıca Association. The initiative was formed during Ramadan of 2012, when community volunteers began preparing iftar dinners for needy families. These efforts soon expanded. Today, the Association is a thriving charity, with modest funding from Turkish and regional philanthropies that provides the refugees in Narlıca with a range of services including health care, food aid and vocational training. It is the only NGO operating in the district, which is home to the greatest concentration of Syrian refugees in the city.

The Narlıca Association is but one example of a widespread phenomenon: In towns and cities across the Middle East, informal initiatives—led and run by Syrians—have sprung up to serve Syrian communities in exile. In the southern Turkish provinces of Gaziantep, Urfa, Mersin and Kilis, and in the Istanbul neighborhood of Aksaray, thousands of organizations have formed. In Lebanon, the country that has taken in the second largest number of refugees, Syrian associational life is similarly vibrant, in many cases filling gaps left by a government that is both unwilling and unable to respond to the crisis.

There are now almost 5 million Syrians living as refugees in the Middle East. Despite movement on the diplomatic front in the spring of 2016, there is no long-term plan to end the war and rebuild the country, raising troubling questions about when the Syrians who have fled will be able to return home. In the face of these challenges, the grassroots efforts of Syrian activists in exile are a striking feat. Not only do these activists deliver aid and relief where it is absent or lacking, but they have also contributed to the reconstitution of Syrian community life, which is being woven into the fabric of cities across the Middle East.

Syrian Mobilization in Antakya

Antakya is the largest city in Hatay governorate. Historically part of Syria’s Aleppo province, Hatay has been a point of contention between Syria and Turkey since 1939, when it came under Turkish control through a referendum of sharply disputed validity. Syria still considers the area part of its territory, a conviction manifest on many Syrian maps. These political legacies are reflected in cross-border social and economic relations, and many Hatay residents of Arab descent still have relatives living in Aleppo and the Mediterranean coastal city of Ladhiqiyya. With the surge of new Syrian residents fleeing the war, the joke in Antakya is that the city has effectively been ceded back to Syria.

The locals in Antakya trace their roots to both Anatolia and Syria, belong to various religious denominations, and speak both Arabic and Turkish, as well as some Armenian and Assyrian. Many residents proudly bring up this diversity as evidence of their city’s uniqueness, and indeed the pluralism is grafted onto the built environment of the city itself. In the southern part of town, ‘Alawis and Christians of Arab descent live in blocks of modern medium-rise apartments. On the western bank of the river one finds a denser neighborhood of mostly Turkish and Arab Sunni Muslim working-class families. Today Syrians cluster in Narlıca.

The Narlıca Association was founded by Hamid, a chef and restaurateur from Ladhiqiyya who left Syria in 2012. Because he knew how to cook for large numbers, Hamid was soon asked by a group of philanthropists to run a soup kitchen during Ramadan. Hamid happily agreed to make use of his own kitchen, where he began preparing daily dinners for 50 families living in the neighborhood. By the end of the month he was serving iftar to 350 families.

When the food drive ended, Hamid decided to hold a community meeting to gauge interest in an ongoing aid campaign. He posted flyers in Arabic at the main stores and mosques. About 250 Syrians attended this gathering; yet only 26 of them, most of whom had been middle-class professionals back in Syria, were convinced that the community could do much without outside help or subsidy. The cohort met regularly for two years at Hamid’s apartment, but when his Turkish neighbors complained, the landlord demanded that they stop. They then found an empty shop—with unpainted walls, no doors and no window frames—available for a modest 350 Turkish lira (approximately $115) per month. Despite their precarious finances, all 26 of the original volunteers chipped in to make the first month’s rent and renovated the building by hand. “We did everything on our own. I worked here in my overalls,” Hamid explained as he passed around photos of the project. “There weren’t any workers or foremen. We took care of everything.” [1. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes in this article are from interviews conducted by the authors in Lebanon and Turkey in the summer of 2015. All names of interviewees have been changed.] When they finished, they had constructed functioning offices for what is now called the Narlıca Social Aid and Solidarity Association.

The Association’s first task was to survey the households in Narlıca to assess the community’s needs. Teams of two volunteers went door to door in order to record basic information and issue ID cards to be used in aid distribution. After evaluating the data, the volunteers decided that, first and foremost, the neighborhood needed a health care facility. While Syrians have free access to state hospitals in Turkey, there is no hospital in Narlıca, and the smaller Turkish clinics that do exist are not authorized to treat Syrians. The trip to hospitals elsewhere in the city can be costly, and very few Turkish doctors can communicate in Arabic. The Association converted two of its offices into examination rooms and the storage space into an improvised pharmacy. But the group still needed to find doctors, as well as money for salaries, rent and medicine. For the former, Hamid returned to the household survey and identified all the physicians in the neighborhood. Two of them agreed to serve in the clinic. The medicine was donated by a Turkish health NGO. For the doctors’ salaries and the rent, Hamid contacted friends back in Ladhiqiyya, who promised to send $1,000 per month.

On this shaky foundation the Narlıca Health Center was able to see patients for seven months, at which point the Turkish authorities ordered it to close, on the grounds that it had not received government authorization. The clinic continued to operate in secret for three months but eventually shut down when the police showed up to seal the door. In the summer of 2015, the Association was told it could reopen the clinic on the condition that it hire at least one Turkish doctor, at a salary three times that of a Syrian doctor. Despite the steep additional costs, Hamid remains optimistic that the group will somehow manage to keep the clinic running.

The Narlıca enterprise exemplifies a pattern of Syrian organizing and welfare provision that has emerged, despite the odds, across southern Turkey. In nearby Reyhanlı, a town of 60,000, one international NGO has identified 47 grassroots Syrian initiatives, including health clinics, schools, orphanages and legal aid centers. In Yayladağı, home to 6,000 people, the governor estimates that there are 16 independent Syrian associations.

Not all of Syrian associational life in Turkey is focused on relief and aid. On a quiet residential street in downtown Antakya is a cultural center called Qamishlo House. Upon entering, visitors are welcomed by a map of Syria cut out of construction paper, surrounded by phrases celebrating the variegated ethno-religious composition of the country (“I am Syrian Christian,” “I am Syrian Arab,” “I am Syrian Kurdish”). In one corner is a stand displaying Syrian newspapers and magazines, mostly produced by the Syrian Network of Print Media based in Gaziantep and southern Turkey, and circulated both in Turkey and across the border in Syria. Colorful children’s artwork covers the opposite wall. The only permanent staff member is Farhad, who lives in the rear apartment with his wife. Though he used to live in Damascus, he is originally from Qamishlo, a Kurdish-majority town in eastern Syria after which the center is named. Farhad is also an amateur photographer and he often documents the center’s cultural events, including Saturday film screenings, concerts and daytime activities for children. He stresses the importance of building a gathering place for the Syrians in the city (Hamid from the Narlıca Association occasionally attends the events). “This is a place for all Syrians,” he explains.

Associational Life in Lebanon

Unlike in Turkey, the locus of Syrian associational life in Lebanon is the capital, Beirut, where many middle-class Damascenes relocated when the civil war escalated in 2012. Some of them had been activists in the 2001 “Damascus spring” movement and had participated in the peaceful anti-regime protests in the early days of the 2011 uprising. Others had been closer to the regime, participating in the NGOs connected to presidential spouse Asma al-Asad’s Syrian Trust for Development, before the uprising turned them into opposition supporters. In Beirut they congregated in neighborhoods like Jaytawi and Hamra, reconstituting networks that they had formed back in Syria and forging new ties with other young exiles. Prevented from working by Lebanon’s residency policies for Syrians, many of them devoted themselves to volunteerism, assisting poorer refugees who were often living in harrowing conditions in Beirut’s slums or makeshift rural camps.

A good example is Hisham, a young man from Damascus who moved to Beirut in 2012. Hisham had worked as a photographer in Syria but had trouble finding similar work in Lebanon. Shortly after he arrived, in early 2013, fighting intensified around Damascus, sending waves of Syrians fleeing across the border into Lebanon. Hisham and six Syrian friends he had met in Beirut started a Facebook campaign to collect clothes and blankets, then drove to the isolated region of ‘Arsal, near the Syrian border, to distribute the donated goods. When they returned to Beirut they launched another campaign, then another. Eventually, they decided their group needed a name—they called it Syrian Eyes.

Syrian Eyes is different from most local and international NGOs in Lebanon. It has no formal registration status in Lebanon—in fact, Syrians are prohibited from registering their own organizations. It is essentially a network of Syrian and Lebanese volunteers who come together to execute projects when they have the time or resources to spare. Hisham is one of the few full-time members. They receive a little funding from a group of Syrian women living in Germany, and occasionally they partner with an international or Lebanese NGO for a specific effort.

Like the Narlıca Association, Syrian Eyes is also different in its philosophy toward aid and welfare. In Lebanon, the government has deliberately taken a hands-off approach to the refugee crisis, outsourcing most of the relief work to the UN and its partners, who have created a byzantine system whereby responsibilities are divided up by sector and region. The problems are exacerbated by the dispersed settlement patterns that the Lebanese government has promoted. Given Lebanon’s fraught history with Palestinian refugee camps, the government has actively prevented Syrian refugees from concentrating too heavily in any one place, meaning that thousands of small encampments are sprinkled across the countryside of the north and the Bekaa Valley. While most large NGOs have been charged with providing services to tens or hundreds of these settlements, the Syrian Eyes founders quickly realized that they could not hope to supply such breadth of services. So instead they decided to invest in just one settlement.

Hisham and his colleagues selected a fast-growing camp in the Bekaa, which they noticed had been neglected by the international NGOs. They began visiting the place regularly, getting to know the residents and local leaders. They opened a community center, which they used to hold meetings, hand out aid, host events, and offer art classes and performances for the children. Eventually, members of the settlement came to them with their own idea: to build a small bakery that could be a source of both bread and income for the camp members. The bakery was so successful that other NGOs replicated it in nearby settlements.

According to Hisham, this level of engagement with a single refugee settlement is rare: “I admit we have a special relation with the camp. In the beginning, even if we didn’t have money or had nothing to distribute, we would still go to the camp. We didn’t have the money to do the center right away. So we would go and give a party; we would stay there for three days; we slept at people’s tents. Other NGOs don’t try to do that. And you hear it from Syrians in the camp: ‘They don’t know us. They don’t know anything about us.’”

Other Syrian associations in Beirut have more willingly embraced the professionalized Western NGO model, but many of them manage to retain a grassroots spirit. Basma and Zaytuna (Smiles and Olives), headquartered in the Shatila refugee camp, is a good example. One of the largest Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, Shatila is almost entirely enveloped by the city. With its cheap rents, it began attracting Syrian migrants shortly after the start of the war and its population has now doubled to roughly 40,000. Basma and Zaytuna started out with two friends (one a Jesuit priest from Aleppo, the other a teacher from Damascus) handing out aid in Shatila, where needs were particularly high. They learned that a major concern for Syrians in the camp was the lack of employment options for women, many of whom had lost their husbands in the war and had to feed their families on their own. So the two volunteers founded a workshop, where women could make handicrafts that the NGO would sell in local markets. Today the NGO is officially registered (though the registration had to be done under the name of Lebanese partners), and runs a two-building community center in Shatila as well as three smaller centers in the north and the Bekaa. It has 110 full-time staff and tens of programs, and thousands of Palestinian and Syrian receive its aid. It remains the only NGO working in Shatila.

Syrian Eyes and Basma and Zaytuna often collaborate with other Syrian or Syrian-Lebanese NGOs based in Beirut but with operations across the country. Basma and Zaytuna, for example, partners with an organization called Nisa’ al-An (Women Now) in the Bekaa to administer an embroidery workshop for women. In the same Bekaa camp where Syrian Eyes built a community center, the international NGO Jusoor, which specializes in education, partnered with the Syrian-Lebanese NGO Sawa for Development to open a school. Just up the road, Sawa manages its own school and a bakery modeled on the Syrian Eyes prototype. Occasionally these NGOs engage in politics, though they must be careful not to antagonize the Lebanese authorities, who could easily put an end to their activities. In early 2015, after the Lebanese government passed a law severely limiting the UN’s ability to register new refugees, 17 Syrian and Lebanese NGOs signed a petition raising objections. [2. The petition is available here.]

The NGOs that spearheaded the petition represent another current of Syrian associational life in Lebanon, one concerned with the rights and duties of citizens in the Syria they envision for tomorrow. According to a volunteer at the Syrian League for Citizenship, which convenes workshops and training sessions and publishes booklets, international and Lebanese NGOs sometimes criticize such efforts as a waste of time. “Of course we think relief is important,” the activist says, “but you have to work on other issues in parallel. Because, ultimately, this war will end. It will stop. And when it does the people will come back to their homes and you need to rebuild this country. How will we do that? That is what we’re focused on; we want to build good future citizens.”

A similar ethos infuses the work of most of the Syrian NGOs, even those dedicated to traditional relief. In 2015, for example, Syrian Eyes ran a project called Syria in Mind. [3. See more here.] In partnership with a Lebanese NGO, the Syrian Eyes volunteers traveled around Lebanon to teach children in camps about their heritage. “Many of them aren’t linked to Syria anymore. Some of them can’t remember it,” Hisham explains. “So we sit the whole day on a map of Syria—literally to be on Syria. We have a small car that moves along the map, which gives them the space to think and imagine: ‘We are going from the mountains to the beach in Ladhiqiyya and then to the Euphrates.’”

Institutional and Political Challenges

Even in places where they are welcomed, refugees who seek to organize themselves must overcome significant hurdles. Experiences of violence, dispossession and trauma, coupled with a lack of resources and often tenuous legal status, make the task of forming new associations daunting. But Syrians have also confronted a thicket of additional barriers presented by their host countries’ political and institutional environments.

The most basic set of challenges are legal. In Lebanon, where Syrians cannot officially register organizations, they must register as a Lebanese organization (which requires Lebanese partners), register in a third country or eschew formal registration. But without formal registration even routine activities become near impossible. As one activist put it, “How am I supposed to operate an NGO when I can’t even open a bank account?” Even in Turkey, where Syrians are granted more legal rights and where their residency status is less uncertain, government regulations sometimes force NGOs to shut down. The reason the Narlıca Association’s clinic never registered with Turkish authorities was that it could not afford to hire the Turkish doctor required by the government’s regulations.

Sometimes activists face overt hostility from members of host communities who feel threatened by the rising number of Syrians in their neighborhoods. Qamishlo House, for instance, used to operate a second center in another district of Antakya, until the founder showed up one morning to find the windows shattered. “In Turkey, this is how it is,” he shrugged. “If a Turkish person complains to the police about a Syrian, they arrest the Syrian. And if a Syrian complains about a Turkish person, they also arrest the Syrian.” In Lebanon, the state’s antagonism toward Syrians is, if anything, more explicit. The Lebanese government has been accused of trying to make the country as inhospitable as possible for Syrians, in hopes of encouraging them to return to Syria, move to another Middle Eastern country or attempt one of the dangerous migration routes to Europe. One method is the onerous, ever shifting residency rules—for example, requiring Syrians to find Lebanese sponsors or requiring that they pay high fees to renew temporary permits every six months. An adviser to the Lebanese interior minister explained that police will often detain Syrians without residency permits for four hours, release them and then rearrest them days later. “It’s a bit nonsensical,” he admitted, “but we have to enforce the law.” The strategy seems to be working, at least partly, as many Syrians with the means to do so have left Lebanon for other countries. These departures have also taken a toll on the Syrian NGOs: Of the seven founders of Syrian Eyes, only three remain in Lebanon—the rest now live in Germany or Sweden.

Funding is another quandary. Activists quickly burn through their own savings, as well as donations from friends and neighbors, and then must seek out third-party assistance. But the donor landscape in each host country differs markedly. In Lebanon, where there is a flourishing civil society and a long history of international NGO work, Syrians are more likely to find outside support. But Turkey has less contemporary experience with humanitarian crisis and war and so, paradoxically, its independent philanthropic sector is less well developed than Lebanon’s. Syrian groups may therefore go directly to the government or, more frequently, to one of a handful of quasi-governmental organizations involved in relief. The Narlıca Association, for example, has received monies from charities like IHH, Yeryüzü Doktorlari, Deniz Feneri Derneği and Kimse Yok Mu, all four of which have ties to the Turkish government.

Of all the actors responding to the refugee crisis, international NGOs (INGOs) have perhaps the most complex relationship with Syrian activists. In both Lebanon and Turkey, INGOs provide services to refugees, though in Lebanon their role is far more central. In some cases, Syrian initiatives have received sizable grants from INGOs. The Danish Refugee Council gave funds to the Narlıca Association to pay for iftar meals and refurbish a playground in the district, and UNICEF funded Syrian Eyes’ Syria in Mind program. But Syrian activists have also been frustrated by the ways in which INGOs, without meaning to, may undermine their efforts. In 2014 the founder of Basma and Zaytuna, Fadi Hallisso, wrote that “instead of empowering Syrian civil society and helping it to build its capacity, the aid community is rendering us more fragile,” and pleaded with INGOs to think more carefully about the unintended consequences of their activities. [4. Fadi Hallisso, “Syrian Civil Society in Lebanon: Challenges and Opportunities,” Open Democracy, October 27, 2014.] INGOs eager to hire local Syrians pluck away staff or volunteers from Syrian associations. For example, Narlıca’s data analyst quit to join a prominent INGO operating in Antakya that offered him higher pay (though still far below the salaries of international staff). Syrians often also resent the implicit hierarchies that exist between international and Syrian NGOs. One activist told a story of a partnership between his NGO and an INGO funder that went sour when the INGO removed the overhead costs from their proposed budget. “It’s fine for them to budget in huge overhead—for cars, hotels and restaurants, and photographers—but for Syrian and local NGOs no overhead is allowed.” Moreover, INGO grants often come with strings attached, particularly reporting requirements that force Syrian NGOs to divert time and energy from their core activities. Some argue that the pressure to adopt the model of the bureaucratic Western NGO saps Syrian associations of the grassroots ties and flexibility that made them so effective in the first place. Still, most activists admit that without Western funding their initiatives would fizzle out, and so the collaboration continues despite the tensions.

Organizing for the Long Term?

Perhaps the biggest question facing Syrians in exile is the inherent uncertainty about the future: When will the war end? When will return be possible? Should they put down roots in their new Middle Eastern homes, attempt the dangerous crossing to Europe or hold out hope of going back to Syria?

There are no good answers. But one thing is sure: Syrians have not remained idle in their temporary homes. Despite tremendous needs and significant structural barriers, the Syrians who have settled in cities across the region are demonstrating surprising resilience and tenacity in forming networks of communal self-help. These efforts should not be romanticized or overstated, of course; the Syrians’ circumstances remain dire. But in contrast to humanitarian caricatures of refugees as passive victims in need of international care, Syrians are fighting to keep their communities intact and retain their dignity.

Regardless of what the future holds in store, most actors involved in the refugee crisis response have an interest in seeing these initiatives succeed. The international aid community is already tiring of the crisis, and money has begun to dry up. International NGOs are cutting back operations, trimming staff and closing offices. But the number of Syrians is not diminishing—and the task of providing for them will be left to host states, local NGOs and their own community organizations. Building these communities’ strength will allow them to better support themselves in exile and, eventually, contribute to rebuilding a post-war Syria.

How to cite this article:

Gözde Guran, Killian Clarke "Mobilizing in Exile," Middle East Report 278 (Spring 2016).

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