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

Islam was photographed after his close friend Salih Sabika was killed by a co-worker in Istanbul. (Alice Martins for The Washington Post)

After a campaign marked by anti-immigrant appeals, Syrians are worried about their future in the country.

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

Grainy CCTV footage from an Istanbul sock factory shows a fight between Sabika, a 28-year-old Syrian, and a Turkish colleague around 10am. A short time later, the accomplice grabbed a knife from a nearby restaurant and returned to stab Sabika in the chest, witnesses said.

He was dead by the time he reached the hospital.

“He wasn’t just killed with a weapon,” said Islam, his childhood friend, who spoke on the condition that he be identified by his nickname, out of fear for his safety.

“He was struck by the words of all the politicians who had put the ideology against us into people’s heads,” he continued. “This will not be the last such death.”

As Turkey prepares for one. Historic run-off in his presidential electionThe fate of people like Sabika and Islam is on the ballot. After years of economic crisis here, Syrian refugees and asylum-seekers have become easy targets for leaders in the political arena, who claim that immigrants are changing the character of the country and forcing them back to their homelands. Must go back.

Even before the election season, forced deportations, police harassment and a growing wave of violent hate crimes had many Syrians under siege.

As nationalism grows, Turkey turns against the migrants it once welcomed.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who once welcomed Syrian war refugees to Turkey, is struggling to respond to public anger, and is on the campaign trail to send a million of them home. Ahead of Sunday’s run-off, Opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu It went a step further, making the removal of all Syrian refugees a core campaign promise. Earlier in the week, posters of the 74-year-old former accountant were put up in Istanbul with a new and offensive message – “Syrians will leave.”

When news of Sabika’s death reached Islam’s family WhatsApp group, the 21-year-old student thought it was a prank, and later vowed to shout at her. He said Sabika had always been a bit of a goofball, although recently her jokes had slowed down. She told Islam that just walking on the streets made her nervous.

Taha al-Ghazi, a legal activist from eastern Syria, said the apparent hate crime was the fourth such case this month. A few days ago, he was reviewing the case of a 9-year-old Syrian girl who was abducted and killed in the border town of Calais. He said that the victims are usually young people or children. Authorities in Istanbul said they had detained a Turkish man in connection with Sabika’s death, but did not provide further details.

The Syrian civil war began in 2011. By the following year, more than 150,000 people had entered Turkey seeking safety. “You have suffered a lot,” Erdogan said to the crowd In a homeless camp in 2012. Turkey will be their “second home”.

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

As Turkey allowed refugees to work, they quickly integrated. As of 2014, formal protection measures offered them health care and education. A temporary identity card, called a Kymlik, was intended to protect Syrians from 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 went by and Turkey continued to struggle with it. own crisis, the reception wore thin. Mainstream media channels, especially those supported by the opposition, label refugees as invaders, and argue without evidence that Syrians are taking jobs away from Turks.

Islam and Sabika grew up in Raqqa, a province captured by Islamic State militants in 2014. They arrived in Turkey in 2018, sometimes living together. By the beginning of this year, both had seen their close relatives go abroad.

“Emotionally, I was the closest person he had left,” Islam said.

Like many Syrians, Islam learned Turkish but sometimes wished he hadn’t — now the racist comments he made on social media were impossible to ignore. “It was almost a curse,” he thought.

For both friends, Kamlak also started to feel like a trap. This required them to remain in the province where they were registered, even though the jobs there had long since ceased. Sabika was one of the many who traveled to Istanbul anyway to find work and live in the shadows.

According to human rights groups, hundreds of Syrians are detained each year for violating the Kamalk regulations. Asylum seekers are arrested during raids on their workplaces or homes before being taken to one of more than 25 “removal centers”, which are partly run by the European Union. Funding is provided to prevent migrants from reaching their shores.

The most notorious is in the Tuzla district of Istanbul. A mutual friend of Sabika and Islam spent a week there and told them the conditions were so harsh that one refugee cried out at night to be deported. “If you’re going to take us back, take us,” he recalls the man pleading. “But don’t leave us here.”

Many exiles told rights groups that Turkish officials have also used torture or the threat of torture to force people to sign “voluntary” return forms;

For many Syrians, going home is unthinkable. Groups have rights. Documentary Arrests, harassment and forced recruitment of returning refugees. Some have disappeared without a trace.

By the spring of that year, Sabica had found a measure of stability. He took a job at two Istanbul sock factories—one would provide him with the insurance benefits he needed to support his application for a job in the city, while the other would allow him to save money for a cell phone.

Islam said Sabika was kicked out of several apartments because she was Syrian. Sabica’s latest shared room was cramped and her ass was thin, but she was doing her best. She was proud to wear Zara perfume, and was delighted by the arrival of a relative on the morning of her last shift.

On Sabica’s death certificate, the time of death is listed as 12:30 a.m., the cause simply: “Injury at work.”

In a coastal town about 300 miles away, the news reached Islam’s social media, and suddenly it all became reality. He didn’t even pause to change his clothes. He was out of the house within minutes, on the first bus that would take him to his friend.

The journey took 12 hours. Islam tried not to think about what might happen if a policeman rode in to check his papers. He could not sleep. In Istanbul, he narrowly escapes a pair of police officers at a metro station.

When the gray day dawned he was first in the morgue. By 10 a.m., a small group of grim-faced relatives and acquaintances had joined him.

With northern Syria divided into warring factions, the vehicle carrying his body would have to cross dozens of checkpoints before reaching his hometown. A relative belonging to the same tribe was about to convey the news to Sabika. Parents for now, they said, can’t even grieve.

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

Islam was still wearing the same clothes he had left the house in the day before, and the dangers that came to his mind. Was it worth it? The answer brought him to tears. “I think Saleh will be glad I came,” he said.

After years of silent struggle, his friend’s murder had made the kind of fear he’d always tried to dwell on a reality. “As a refugee your goal is to go from an unsafe place to a safe place,” he said. “Not so in Turkey.”

Sabika’s body, clad in a white shroud, was finally exhumed around 5 pm. Before he was placed in the ambulance for the final ride, Islam wrapped his arms around his friend and began to cry. He could not support her throughout the house even if he wanted to. On the border of Syria, his Kamlak will be invalid.

Alice Martins contributed reporting from Istanbul.

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