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  • Writer's pictureBroderick McDonald

A Second Aleppo

Fieldwork Notes from Gaziantep & Kilis

Broderick McDonald

Gaziantep Kilis Near Syria Border

Gaziantep is a quiet city in the far southwest of Turkiye that is not far from the border with Syria. It rarely is mentioned in international media but the city is one of the most important in the history of the conflict directly to its south. The city has also seen significant changes and upheavals over the past decade with Syrian Civil War raging just south of the border. More than 600,000 Syrian refugees fleeing the conflict tearing apart their home have come to Gaziantep seeking safety and these newcomers have helped shaped the city in important ways.

Historically, Gaziantep was known as the ‘city of pistachios’ due to the orchards of pistachio trees that were scattered around the city. Even today, pistachio trees flank either side of a beautiful river that runs through middle of the city, with larger farms on the outskirts producing the crop for commercial uses. Not surprisingly, Gaziantep is famous in Turkish cuisine and the culinary museum on the centre of the city chronicles its development. The peace of Gaziantep and stands in stark contrast to the the nearby conflict across the border in Syria. Many Syrians travel frequently between the northwest of Syria and Gaziantep for family or business, but until all of Syria is safe it is impossible to return home permanently.

As part of my field research, I lived in Gaziantep for several months while conducting interviews in south Turkiye along the border with Syria. The experience threw me into a new world. With more than 600,000 Syrians living in the city, Gaziantep is home to more Syrian refugees than most countries. As elsewhere, the Syrian community in Antep is hard-working, entrepreneurial, and community minded. They have brought significant economic benefits to the southern Turkish city which has experienced rapid growth over the past decade. The Syrian community in Gaziantep has started successful businesses, restaurants, and shops across the city — contributions are often overlooked. There is a strong anti-Syrian sentiment amongst some locals which has made life hard, and sometimes dangerous, for Syrian refugees living there. Economically, Syrians are often paid less than their local counterparts for the same labour, and this is when they can find jobs as unemployment remains painfully high. At the same time, Syrian families are charged more when the rent an apartment or house, leading to a . During public events, many Syrian friends preferred to stay inside and avoid the crowds. homes out. Western media often focusses on the challenges Syrian refugees have faced in Germany or the UK, but we should also remember how many Syrians are living in Turkey and the significant obstacles they face.

Despite the significant challenges they face, the Syrian community in Gaziantep is resilient and has created new cafes, restaurants, and community centres where they can find a sense of community and preserve their distinct culture. Many, though not all, of the Syrians in Gaziantep and Kilis are from Aleppo or Idlib, and the surrounding countrysides. During Iftar dinners, my Syrian friends plied me with traditional dishes from Aleppo and Deir Ezzor elaborately prepared and served on dishes they managed to bring with them. At a local concert hosted by a community music program set up by the Syrian friend in Gaziantep I saw how traditional Aleppine music was being kept alive, along with all of its Arab, Kurdish, Jewish, and Circassian influences. These local Syrian-led initiatives are rarely funded by donors in Europe or North America but there are essential to preserving the culture of Aleppo despite the destruction of the war. In these small ways, even making traditional music and food can become important forms of defiance to the regime which has displaced millions.

While the conflict has caused immeasurable human suffering, the region has also been hit with natural disasters that have multiplied the problems faced. The earthquakes which struck Southern Turkey and Northern Syria in early 2023 were devastating for Turks and Syrians and the region. While rebuilding was well underway when we were there, it will take a very long time — years if not decades — to fully recover. Unfortunately, there is a tendency to move on from natural and humanitarian disasters as soon as they fall out of the news cycle. The international community can improve this by committing to sustainable funding which does not only focus on the responding to emergencies but places long-term planning at its heart.

Despite all of these challenges, Gaziantep remains an important city for Syrians. Beyond serving as a haven, the urban landscape of Gaziantep shares many characteristics with Aleppo that have helped remind many Syrians of their homes in Aleppo before they were forced to flee. In the centre of Gaziantap, a large citadel — initially built by the Romans and reconstructed by the Ottomans — towers over the old city, just as in Aleppo. In the old city below, the narrow streets and souqs follow a similar style to Aleppo. Outside the city, the surrounding countryside is filled with farms and villages similar to those in Rif Halab (the countryside around Aleppo) allowing many Syrians to get the same produce they used. Gaziantep has not always been easy for the Syrian community forced to flee there but its geographic proximity to their old home has helped in small ways. As one of my friends told me at a small Syrian restaurant in the centre of the city, “Antep has become a second Aleppo for us”. While the Syrians living in Antep have not changed the city, they have managed to create a community with important reminders of the culture, music, and food that they share. Different challenges have made this tenuous at times, Gaziantep can serve as a safe haven near to Syria. However this will not continue without engagement from civil society, government, and international donors to support its development.


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