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Syrian refugees say they're feeling unwelcome in Turkey, but have nowhere else to go


For more than a decade, Syrians have been finding refuge from their country's civil war in neighboring Turkey. The U.N. says more than 3.6 million refugees are sheltering there. But NPR's Peter Kenyon visited the Aegean port city of Izmir, which for years has had a sizable Syrian population. He found Turkish residents increasingly wish they would go home, leaving refugees to wonder and worry about their future.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Izmir is an ancient port city long used to seeing travelers. But judging by recent comments, many residents no longer welcome refugees from Syria.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

KENYON: In a teahouse near Izmir's Kemeralti Market area, 58-year-old Ebru, like many of the people who agreed to speak with a reporter, asked that her family name not be used. She's concerned about repercussions for speaking candidly about a sensitive subject. She says partly the problems are economic. Her friends' adult children are mostly unemployed, and she thinks it's because the Syrians will work for less money. Beyond that, she says, the Syrians have completely overrun certain neighborhoods. She was shocked to see the changes when she visited one recently.

EBRU: (Through interpreter) They have moved into many sectors. I went there. I couldn't believe my eyes. That place is no longer Izmir. It's Syria now, with loads of their shops. In addition, another thing I oppose is allowing them to own places here.

KENYON: Ebru repeats a stereotype common among the Turkish Izmir residents I met, that the Syrians have too many children, which she says is, quote, "not good for our country." Government figures estimate there are nearly 150,000 Syrians in Izmir, and the 2.7 million people who live here think that's more than enough. Fifty-two-year-old Nihat sits at the entrance to a small shop. He started it for his 24-year-old son and minds it on weekends. He says his son couldn't get the job he really wanted because of competition from Syrians.

NIHAT: (Through interpreter) We have a lot of unemployed young people. Their jobs have been taken by the people coming here. That's my observation, people from other countries finding jobs here. Why shouldn't our own citizens be earning their bread here?

KENYON: Turkish politicians have seized on the issue. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, seen by some as a hero for opening Turkey's doors when most of Europe and the U.S. were closing theirs, is now promising to send 1 million Syrians back to their homeland. Leaders of the main secular opposition party are also promising to send, quote, "our Syrian brothers" back to their country. One of the most outspoken politicians is Umit Ozdag, who was twice expelled from Turkey's far-right MHP party. He founded the Zafer or Victory Party and uses the platform to rail against foreigners.


UMIT OZDAG: (Non-English language spoken).

KENYON: The party released this animated video which shows two of Ozdag's aides asking how he plans to get rid of the foreigners. Their eyes widen in amazement as they see the giant catapult standing behind him as Ozdag says, he will get rid of all of them. It's a depressing shift, says Gizem Metindag, who works for a group providing assistance to Syrians. She says politicians are finding it easy to attract attention and supporters by attacking refugees.

GIZEM METINDAG: (Through interpreter) Umit Ozdag is the ugliest example. But I observe this in all of the opposition parties. They cannot offer anything new. They pretend this is the main issue, as if they can solve it with their rhetoric.

KENYON: Syrians here say they can definitely feel the rising discontent with their continued presence. Outside a barber shop in Izmir, Mohammad Hamza says after nine years in Turkey, he doesn't see how he can go back to his home in Aleppo, which suffered heavy damage when government forces recaptured it. He says his daughters are excelling in Turkish schools. They love their teachers and don't even speak Arabic. Hamza says he has dozens of relatives already in Europe and doesn't think there's anything left for him in Syria.

MOHAMMAD HAMZA: (Through interpreter) My house is gone. I had a workshop. That's also gone. What will I do in Syria - translate for my daughters? We want to go to Europe. I wish that Europe can take us.

KENYON: But Europe, which gave billions to Turkey to keep the refugees from traveling further north, has shown no sign of opening its doors. In Turkey, people are proud of the role their country played. But after a decade, they feel they're competing with Syrians for jobs and benefits. And political leaders are stoking that tension as they prepare for elections next year. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Izmir, Turkey. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.