Later that afternoon, I am summoned to Metropolitan Saliba Özmen’s monastery office. Representatives of three Christian religious denominations have gathered to discuss what kind of help Christian refugees from Syria would need. A Jesuit priest says it upsets him that the small number of refugees in Turkey should be banished to a camp. Christian organizations should be able to provide food and shelter for them. Özmen defends the idea: “We have been taking care of them for a year and a half. They have lived and eaten for free in the monastery. We fear that they will arrive in large numbers; we can’t possibly help them here in Mardin. That is why we turned to the Turkish government and asked for help. Moreover, it’s the tourist season; besides being a historical holy site and a convent school, it is also a tourist attraction.”
The Jesuit rolls his eyes. “It’s a good thing if the tourists can see that the monastery is helping refugees, isn’t it?” No one speaks for a while; the only thing you can hear is the rattle of the rain against the window pane. The Jesuit and the representatives of the various churches get up and take their leave.
When they are gone, Özmen asks for more tea for us. He confesses that things have not gone as planned. “We asked the government for barracks, not tents,” he tells me. “The whole thing has turned out so wrong. Anyway, the refugees that are here, and are coming to Mardin, will live in apartments. A Syriac Orthodox organization from Sweden, Youth Initiative, is helping with rents for four apartments. So the people living in the monastery can be moved.”
Eliye Kirilmaz, chairman of the local church board, says the monastery cannot continue to bear the strain of the displaced Syrians. “We have 30 employees, teachers, caretakers, gardeners and kitchen staff, among others. Moreover, we owe a large sum to the local electricity company; we have not been able to pay for electricity over the winter. Of course we are not throwing out any refugees, but we simply can’t afford it anymore. We are grateful to Youth Initiative who understood the need to rent apartments for the refugees.”
The next day, at lunch in the monastery refectory, I sit down next to five young Syrian men. They are all in their twenties. Some have deserted the Syrian army; others have fled not to be conscripted into the war. “We have tried to find jobs, but no one wants to employ us,” says one of the men, who gives the name Sano. “We only have temporary permits, you see. This means that we can’t work, as we don’t have work permits. It’s very hard to have nothing to do all day long. The transfer into apartments brings us closer to the centre of Mardin and we won’t be isolated as we are now in the monastery.” Another young man says he wants to go back; most people are trying to get to Europe with the help of smugglers, but he and a few others have decided to stay in Turkey until the situation in Syria has improved.
When we go out, the courtyard is full of enthusiastic tourists brandishing cameras, unaware of the Syrian refugees living upstairs. The young men walk discreetly past the tourists and slip up the steps. I follow them. The sun peeps out from behind the clouds. We sit outside; you can almost feel the tide of history. We are in northern Mesopotamia, the cradle of civilization according to archaeologists. “First my grandparents fled from Turkey to get away from the genocide of Christians during WWI. Now we, their grandchildren, are fleeing back here to get away from new persecutions”, Sano says with a lump in his throat. “We were doing fine under Bashar’s regime, before the so-called revolution. Certainly, everything wasn’t okay, but at least we weren’t oppressed because of our religion. It was much better before. Now, al Qaeda and Salafists have taken over certain parts of Syria and are about to occupy more territory. It is really scary.”
When Sano first came to Turkey he stayed with a Muslim Kurdish family in the city of Nusaybin, right at the Syrian border. His paternal grandmother and the Kurdish man’s maternal grandmother were sisters; the Kurdish man’s grandmother had been kidnapped and forcibly converted to Islam during the genocide in 1914, but the families have been in touch with each other for several years now. “After six months it felt as if I was in the way,” he says. “There were young unmarried daughters in the house, and rumours can start very quickly. Leaving them was better for me. That’s how I came to the monastery.”
The refugees say they each have received 150 Turkish Liras, about 80 US dollars, from the Turkish government. It’s the first time any of them has received government support. Most of all they’d like to have work permits and to be integrated in Mardin, which is one place in the country where Turkish is not the predominant language. “Luckily, we have come to a place in Turkey where almost everyone speaks Arabic,” Sano says.
My photographer and I leave the Deyr-ul Zahfaran monastery, and drive the farm roads through sheep herds to Midyat, where the refugee camp is to be built. We are met by a committee formed by the Board of the Churches, with the task to help refugees. Around 40 of them are staying at the monastery; others are living in apartments in the centre of Midyat, at the premises of an association, in a Catholic church, and in villages around the city. The board is eager to get the camp built.
“They have to move to the camp as soon as it is ready, whether they like to or not. They can’t stay at this monastery anymore, it simply doesn’t work,” says the board vice president, Yusuf Türker. He can’t understand why Christian refugees would have a problem moving out of monasteries and into tents. Besides, he says, the camp is an economic opportunity for local Turks. “Many Christians in Midyat will be able to find work; we are going to need interpreters and people with other professional skills in the camp,” he says.
The members of the refugee committee are pleased that many other Christian associations have assured them that they, too, are going to pitch in with what is needed. Türker says proudly that the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs has promised that it’s going to be a state-of-the-art refugee camp with sports grounds, food stores, health care and many other facilities lacking in other camps.
“Of course we are going to see to that they get all possible help from the Church,” says Ergün, the priest. “I mean, the religious leaders will be there for the Syrian refugees in the camp at all times.”
“We hope and pray that there will be peace in Syria and the situation for Christians will improve,” Türker says. “The camp will be there if the situation gets worse, in other words, just in case.”
To be continued…
A text by Nuri Kino, of Assyrian (Syriac Orthodox) background, who is an award-winning TV/radio journalist now living in Sweden. In Jan, 2013 he wrote a report “Between the wire” in which he did 100+ interviews with Syria’s minority Christian community.
©2013 World Watch Monitor
World Watch Monitor is distributed to raise awareness of Christians worldwide under pressure for their faith. Articles may be reprinted, with attribution.
For subscription information, contact: email@example.com