Two boys walk along a stone wall in Istanbul, Turkey

Life Lived in Exile

Millions of Syrians have fled their homeland in search of safety, with more still trying to leave. What happens to life in this limbo?

Some 3.6 million Syrian refugees live in Turkey, having fled their homeland’s civil war in search of safety. Over the years, Turkey has mostly welcomed them with government-financed programs and a degree of freedom typically unavailable to refugees, many of whom are consigned to camps. As a result, Syrians can be found living and working in cities across Turkey—as far from their country’s border as Istanbul and as close as Gaziantep (indeed, closer still).

Gaziantep lies about an hour’s drive from Syria, and refugees here live almost like voluntary immigrants—almost—studying at the local university, working for local businesses, some poor, others wealthy.

Since an economic crisis hit Turkey in 2018, xenophobic sentiment toward Syrians has increased, and refugees have been more and more scapegoated for rising rates of inflation and unemployment. As President Bashar al-Assad’s regime wages a brutal offensive against the last remaining rebel holdout, in Idlib, yet more Syrians are expected to cross into Turkey, piling further pressure on both Turks and refugees.

Among those most vulnerable, both now and through the course of the war, are young Syrians. Taken out of their country by parents hopeful that a short conflict would soon lead to resolution and freedom, they must now spend their most formative years in exile, living in a protracted limbo of not belonging anywhere, and not knowing what steps to take for their future. (Accurate data are hard to gather, but the Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey estimates that about 2.2 million working-age Syrian refugees already live in the country.)

To follow them is to witness a generation struggling to find a foothold in a world that is no longer theirs. Over the years, I have met dozens of young Syrians, both in Turkey and in Syria. I have tracked their life under siege, their road to forever exile, and their longing for a homeland they cannot return to.

For now, and possibly eternally, they have to go on with their life in subtle defiance of a war that has stripped them of their youth.

Mohammed Hassan worked long hours in a textile factory, and sent most of his wages to his family back home.

“It’s past my time to learn and be educated,” Mohammed Hassan told me, his head lowered as he mulled his future. Around us, dozens of young men hunched over sewing machines in the textile factory where Mohammed, 19, had been working for the past year.

He and his family had been living under ISIS’s extremist rule when an American-led offensive against the terror group began in 2016. Mohammed and his relatives fled their village in northern Syria to a camp for internally displaced persons within the country. A year later, with little money and limited prospects, Mohammed made the risky crossing into Turkey to find work to support his family, who remain in the camp. He now makes about $270 a month, most of which he sends to his relatives.

“There is no time, or money, for fun,” Mohammed told me. Every evening, after an 11-hour workday, he returns to the dank one-story house he shares with four cousins. There, they lay out thin mattresses on the floor of the room they sleep in, light cigarettes, and browse the internet on their cellphones for about 20 minutes—a momentary escape before cooking a simple dinner of scrambled eggs, tomato slices, and flatbread, with tea.

Life for Mohammed and his cousins is basic, with little time, or money, for the teenager to have any fun.

Most young Syrians have little choice but to take seasonal work on farms, or in factories such as the one Mohammed worked in, while accepting significantly lower wages than Turks. Life is one of constant instability: Those with some savings cannot return home, and cannot decide whether to put down roots in Turkey or try their luck abroad. Weeks after I first met Mohammed, he told me he was no longer working in the textile factory—demand for their products, which were sold into Syria, had dried up as the military offensive raged in Idlib. He and his cousins had given up their house, and Mohammed was living with friends while he considered his options.

Mira Jerrah would not be out of place in a more cosmopolitan setting than Gaziantep.

At a Starbucks across town, I met with Mira Jerrah, who lives a parallel, though altogether more privileged, life. For her 21st birthday, two friends had surprised her with a slice of carrot cake topped with lit tea candles. Mira shrieked happily and opened her gifts. The trio chatted for hours, whiling the afternoon away over coffee; Mira painted her fingernails vermilion red, a change from the baby blue they had been.

The youngest of four children, Mira was only 14 when her family traded Aleppo for Gaziantep, and although the early period in Turkey was “really tough,” she told me, she didn’t “want to go back to Syria, ever.”

Mira’s life, between classes, shopping, and spending time with friends, is little different from those of other somewhat affluent young people, but her mother finds it harder.

Now in her senior year at Gaziantep University, where she is studying for a degree in Cinema and Television, and where half the student body is Syrian, Mira converses flawlessly in Arabic, English, and Turkish, and would not be out of place in a more cosmopolitan setting than this one.

Yet her family, her mother in particular, has found the move more difficult. “I grew up here, and it was the age when I formed my personality,” Mira told me. “I don’t belong to either Turkish or Syrian culture, but I live here now.” Her mother, however, struggles with speaking Turkish. At one point when I was with them, she waited outside a shop as Mira entered, fearful of discrimination against Syrians, even wealthy ones. “Stereotyping is really the worst,” Mira said in disgust.

Nadra’s parents have yet to meet their granddaughter, Islam.

“Our wedding day was horrible,” Nadra Kazmouz told me, laughing. “We got married in this building without electricity, close to the front line because there was less bombing there.” Still, she continued, “the makeup artist made me look like another person.”

Nadra and her husband moved to Gaziantep for safety, but are separated from much of the rest of their family.

Nadra’s life fits somewhere between Mohammed’s and Mira’s—her husband is an Oscar-nominated producer, yet the couple had to move to Gaziantep for safety without the rest of their family, who were unable to cross into Turkey before Ankara closed off its border with Syria. Nadra’s parents have yet to meet her daughter, Islam. Back in Syria, Nadra had been studying biotechnological engineering, but she is now enrolled in the cinematography program at Gaziantep University.

For Nadra, her husband, and millions of other Syrians here in Turkey, life is a quotidian struggle—whether material, psychological, or emotional. Separation from home has created an inconsolable anguish for these young adults, and they carry scars (mental as well as physical) and the weight of an uncertain future.

This story was supported by The GroundTruth Project.