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By Kristina Jovanovski
ISTANBUL — Mahmoud Maktabi starred on Syria’s national under-20 basketball team before abandoning his hoop dreams and fleeing his war-torn homeland.
Maktabi, an Aleppo native, arrived in neighboring Turkey in 2013, leaving most of his family behind. Their home was later damaged by a bomb.
Maktabi studied engineering in Istanbul and joined his university’s team to help him integrate.
But a conversation with a cook during breakfast at his dorm made him realize that he wasn’t welcomed by everyone here.
“He came to me and said: ‘Hey, what are you doing here? Go back and fight in Syria,’” recalled Maktabi, 27.
He has heard such sentiments so often, from taxi drivers and in stores, that Maktabi now avoids revealing his nationality.
“When they hear that I’m Syrian, they will treat me bad,” he said while sitting in a restaurant started by another refugee. “They show their anger, I don’t know why.”
The eatery is one of many in this area known as “Little Damascus,” “Little Aleppo” or “Little Syria,” depending on whom you ask.
In the conservative Fatih neighborhood where many refugees have settled, the streets are lined with stores selling Syrian perfume, jewelry, food and spices.
The Arabic writing on signs normally signal that the owners are Syrian, and that you are in an area unlike most of Turkey, which uses the Latin alphabet.
These signs are becoming increasingly common, to the unease of many.
Turkey has the largest refugee population in the world, including more than 3.6 million registered Syrians, according to the U.N.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan opened his country’s border to refugees when the war begin in Syria in 2011, and officials of his religiously conservative government talked of the need to support their fellow Muslims. And Monday marks the third anniversary of a historic deal with the E.U. to stem the flow of migrants going into Europe, in return for billion to support refugees in Turkey.
But the mood has since changed and tensions are now rising amid concerns about competition for jobs and cultural differences. This has led to a rare unifying sentiment across political lines that Syrian refugees must eventually leave.
A survey conducted at the end of 2017 by Istanbul Bilgi University found 86 percent of respondents wanted all Syrians to return home when the war ends.
And in early February, local media reported that a fight had broken out between Turks and Syrians in the district of Esenyurt, another area where many have settled. A video posted online apparently of the brawl shows a group of men chanting: “This is Turkey, not Syria!”
Ahmad Alhasan, 17, a high school student, has learned Turkish in the five years since he arrived from Syria, but said he still gets mocked when he chooses to speak Arabic in public.
While Alhasan was swimming with his younger female cousins, a group of Turkish men approached them and called them the Arabic word for “donkey,” Alhasan said.
“When it comes to my safety or the safety of others with me, that’s when it disturbs me,” he said.
Turkey is divided between citizens who want the government to reflect the religious beliefs of the country’s Muslim majority and those who staunchly cling to the secular roots of a republic founded on the basis of separation between state and religion.
Turkey’s interior minister last year said Syrians have had 380,000 babies in their adopted country since 2011.
Some in Turkey, with a population of around 80 million, worry that the influx will mean secular culture is left behind.
Umit Ozdag, the deputy chairman of the nationalist IYI party, worries that Turkey is going to become “a Middle Eastern country.”
Ozdag is a lawmaker from the border town of Gaziantep, where a quarter of its around 2 million residents are Syrian refugees.
He says integrating all Syrians is impossible, and not just because of the need to learn the language.
“To be integrated,” he said, “is to be ready to die for this country.”
Unal Cevikoz, who challenged Erdogan last year as the presidential nominee of the CHP, the country’s leading opposition party, campaigned on a promise to send all Syrians back.
Cevikoz, a lawmaker and the CHP’s foreign policy vice chairman, insisted his party isn’t anti-Syrian but admits some members may have expressed such sentiments.
Cevikoz says his party wants to help stabilize Syria so its citizens voluntarily return.
How does CHP expect to do this? By talking to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whose bloody crackdown on dissent has resulted in more than 5 million people fleeing the country. The U.N. stopped counting those killed in the conflict in early 2014. However, the death toll is estimated at around 500,000.
“It’s not a matter of morality. It is simply a matter of stopping the civil war,” Cevikoz said.
On the campaign trail, even Erdogan promised to “facilitate the return home of all our guests.”
But Samir Hafez, a Syrian member of Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), insisted the majority of refugees were likely to remain but said “even a few hundred thousand” leaving would potentially reduce pressure on the government.
“Turkey wants them to go back to where they belong,” he added.
Turkey’s economic nosedive, with unemployment rising to 12.3 percent in the last quarter of 2018, may further influence public opinion about Syrians.
Omar Kadkoy, a Syrian refugee and a research associate focused on migration with the Ankara-based Tepav think-tank, said Syrians were a convenient scapegoat.
The government grants few Syrians work permits, leading most to work illegally, which allows employers to pay them less, feeding into perceptions that Syrians are stealing jobs and lowering wages.
Misinformation spread through social media is also partly to blame. In February, the government was forced to deny that Syrians were getting into universities without taking exams.
Kadkoy said Erdogan’s military intervention in Syria fueled negative feelings toward refugees.
“Locals started saying, ‘Well, while the Syrian men are here enjoying their lives, our soldiers are spilling their blood for the Syrians’ country.’”
Maktabi, the basketball player, has no plans to go back to Syria. If he returns, he could be forced to join the military.
Instead, he’s started a YouTube channel to build up his profile as a personal trainer.
But while he became a Turkish citizen last year, allowing him to work legally, he fears Turkish clients will reject him for being Syrian.
“Being a refugee, you don’t know what’s next,” he said.