Syrians struggling to begin new lives in Istanbul

By Anna Shea, Legal Adviser on Refugee and Migrant Rights at Amnesty International.

What struck me most when I met Zeinah (not her real name), a 29-year-old Syrian refugee in Turkey, were her warm personality and marvelous smile. But her past and present experiences give her precious little to smile about.

Zeinah arrived in Turkey four months ago, having fled her native Syria.

Like other Syrians I met in Istanbul, Zeinah had experienced horrors in her country of origin, and was desperate to start a new life. A teacher by profession, she was jailed by the Bashar al-Assad regime for allegedly providing assistance to opposition groups. She said she was raped and beaten multiple times over the several months she spent in prison and was eventually released due to lack of evidence.

The abuse she suffered in jail has left her with injuries to her spine – and serious psychological trauma – which remain untreated.

Although Syrians in Turkey are entitled to visit hospitals free of charge, this right is not always implemented in practice. Zeinah was able to get an MRI scan and a diagnosis at a local hospital, but she doesn’t have enough money to pay for the medicines she needs. Furthermore, the abuse she experienced urgently requires that she obtain psychological and other support, which she is not receiving in Istanbul.

Zeinah’s story is not unique. Like her, hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees are struggling to survive in Turkey and in other countries.

When we spoke in Istanbul last week she had just been evicted from her fourth home since arriving in the city. She said she had already paid her rent, but the owner of the building told her she had to leave immediately – no reason was given.

There were five women living in a two-bedroom apartment. Zeinah shared her 3m by 2m room with two others. Her rent consumed $250 of the $350 she earned each month making bags.

But now she was being denied capriciously even these cramped and overpriced lodgings. Because she was smuggled into Turkey, she had nowhere to turn when she was evicted. Zeinah has no passport and is not registered with the Turkish authorities. Non-governmental organizations I spoke with told me that for people without documentation in Turkey, complaining to the police can lead to detention.

While she was speaking with me Zeinah kept apologizing, saying she was afraid that her story would give me nightmares. But I felt that it was me who should apologize, on behalf of Canada – my home country – and other wealthy nations of the world who remain shamefully inactive in resettling refugees from Syria. Meanwhile this crisis, which aid organizations are calling the worst humanitarian disaster in recent history, worsens daily.

Remarkably, as we said goodbye she told me “I am still hopeful”. The courage and resilience of people like Zeinah demand not only our admiration; they demand action.