Photographs and text by Nish Nalbandian

Published on 03/31/ 2018

Almost twelve million Syrians, almost half the country’s population, have been displaced from their homes by their country’s rapacious civil war. About three million of them have ended up in Turkey, an unprecedented number for a single country to take in and shelter. Western media has focused on Syrians fleeing (mostly through Turkey) to seek shelter in Europe, where they believe they will have a brighter future and more opportunity.

While the “migrant crisis” was occupying the news cycle in 2015, I was working mostly in southern Turkey. I’d stopped going into Syria in 2014 due to the increased risk associated with the rise of ISIS and the Syrian government’s massive barrel-bombing campaign. Several people I knew had been killed or kidnapped, and I came to believe the risk was too high. I started focusing instead on the story in front of me at the border: the lives of the Syrians who were now living in Turkey.
December 8, 2015, Reyhanli, Turkey. One of the boys plays with roots, the only toys the children have.

At first I wasn’t consciously working on it. I was just mostly hanging out around Syrians who I knew from my work inside. As I spent time with them and their families I began to document what I saw. When all the news outlets turned to the streams of Syrians entering Europe, I stayed and continued working in southern Turkey.

It was the less glamorous angle, but I’m not really a news photographer; I’m a documentary photographer. I didn’t want to run off and chase a new story without completing the one I was working on.

“I haven’t talked to every Syrian; I can’t make a generalization.”

This is the story of the millions of Syrians who still live in Turkey. My writing partner, Carmen Gentile, whose essay appears later in the book, was once asked what the Syrians thought about the Turks and living in Turkey. His answer was brilliant, “I haven’t talked to every Syrian; I can’t make a generalization.” And the same holds true for me. I’m not a social scientist, all I have are anecdotal stories from the interviews I’ve done with Syrians from many walks of life.
December 8, 2015, Reyhanli, Turkey. Men stop in to drink tea. There is little work in the countryside, especially in winter.

Some Syrians have adjusted well, settled in, and are in Turkey for the long haul. Many, if not most, though unhappy to have to be there, are very grateful to the Turks for letting them stay. Despite some grumbling, most of the people I’ve talked to realize that Turkey has done far more for them than anyone else, and has taken in more of them than any other country, under relatively lax conditions, as far as refugees go.

In Turkey, Syrians are not considered refugees. They are called “guests.” Once they register they are entitled to access to health care and ostensibly some food aid or relief. How this is received seems to vary wildly, and depends on the situation in which they’ve settled.

A Syrian refugee boy plays with a stick. He is wearing his father’s shoes because he has none that t him. More than 200 Syrian refugee families live among this cluster of seven villages next to the Syrian/Turkish border.

March 9, 2014, Gorentas, Turkey.
July 28, 2016, Gaziantep, Turkey. Perla imitates her dad talking on the phone.

February 22, 2016, Gaziantep, Turkey. Ali’s sons Hassan and Bashir were able to move out of their shared house and both have rented homes for their own families and are doing well.

There is no single description of life for a Syrian refugee in Turkey. I have met very poor people eking out a subsistence living in the countryside, or squatting in abandoned buildings in cities. I’ve also met wealthy Syrians who have moved their factories to Turkey, craftsmen who shifted their practice and are doing well, and young people who have taken the opportunity to live in large cities like Istanbul and blend in with an urban population, finding jobs and building social lives.

The common factor is that they all fled a brutal and relentless war that has literally destroyed their cities. Many are opponents of the regime of Bashar al-Assad, who seems poised to win military victory with the help of his Russian and Iranian allies. They can never go back, even if the fighting stops.
December 4, 2015, Reyhanli, Turkey. Psychologist Mirfat Suleiman, who specializes in Gender Based Violence (GBV) counseling.
September 14, 2015, Reyhanli, Turkey. The staff continue training under doctors in Ankara and Germany and are seeking ISPO certi cation (International Society for Prosthetics and Orthotics).

My personal opinion is that Syrians in general are resilient, and they are making the best of a shitty situation. Some are doing better than others. Some are in very grim situations. Trafficking and abuse of women, girls, and boys is rampant and terrible.

March 16, 2014, Gaziantep, Turkey. Hannan is worried about their kids. They have not been in school for years, and they have some emotional problems because of what they have seen. The family doesn’t pay rent, the homeowner allows them to live there for free, but they are worried that at some point they will be forced to leave.

My intent in this book was not to produce a “poor refugee” story, showing sad pictures of exotic Middle Eastern people living in poverty. I do have some pictures like that. But I challenged myself to show a wide swath of the Syrian population from all walks of life.

I do not claim to show a complete picture, just a broad picture of what life is like for these people in this place at this time. I also tried to leave people’s politics and specifics of the war out of it.
December 2, 2015, Gaziantep, Turkey. Mahmoud left Syria after being detained by the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda. “I was arrested once for two days at a checkpoint that belonged to Jabhat al-Nusra just for wearing a necklace, which is forbidden in [extreme interpretations of] Islam,” he says. Being a gay man led him to seek asylum in Germany, where he now lives with his sister.

“These people lived lives in Syria not too different from your own”

The goal of any documentary photography is to get the viewer to gain some insight into the lives of the people in the pictures. My specific goal is to try to get you to see yourself in these pictures. Because these people lived lives in Syria not too different from your own. Try to imagine what your life would be like if a sudden war or disaster had you fleeing your home to a different country with nothing but a suitcase and some documents.

I think the most telling illustration of that is the ubiquity of mobile phones—smart phones in particular. When images of Syrians getting off boats and walking along roads in Europe started coming out on television, many commentators were outraged that these refugees were carrying mobile phones, even iPhones. Some of these commentators declared that people carrying expensive mobile phones could not possibly be refugees, they were economic migrants just trying to get free stuff in Europe.
July 30, 2016, Gaziantep, Turkey. Syrian refugee Taher Hamada takes photos as his nieces, who live in the U.S., care for his four-month-old daughter, Tamara, at his apartment in southern Turkey.
September 17, 2015, Reyhanli, Turkey. A therapist hugs an autistic boy during a therapy session.

The failure of that viewpoint is an inability to put yourself in the shoes of that iPhone-carrying Syrian on TV. It’s an ignorance of what Syrian society was like before the war, or indeed what the world is like now. These devices are ubiquitous. If you were forced to leave your home with a matter of a few minutes notice, what would you grab first? Phone, documents, cash, a few clothes, and your kids.

These people had jobs and they were a part of a small but growing middle class. Syria was a well-educated society before the war. And so all those people with mobile phones had to flee when war came knocking on their door. I hope this book helps you see them as no different than you.