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3Novices:Syrian businesses offer solace to refugees in Turkey

GAZIANTEP, TURKEY // When Ali Saloura arrived in the southern Turkish city of Gaziantep two years ago after fleeing Syria, reminders of home and were hard to come by. But "if you walk in the streets here now, you will feel like you are walking in Aleppo", the 24-year-old says.

Turkey shelters nearly three million Syrians displaced by civil war, more than each of Syria's other neighbours. But unlike Lebanon and Jordan - the other main destinations for refugees - Syrians in Turkey find themselves in an alien society with an indecipherable language and different food, culture and ways of doing things. Unable to communicate with those around them, they find fitting in and getting by more difficult.

With smuggling routes to Europe largely cut off and the five-year war showing no signs of abating, Syrian refugees are confronting the fact they may be in Turkey for the long haul. Those in Gaziantep like Mr Saloura are trying to make Turkey feel more like home by opening businesses that cater almost entirely to Syrians.

Last year, Mr Saloura's family opened a sweet shop on a street in Gaziantep now crowded with Syrian businesses, giving it the same name as the one they ran in their home city of Hama - Saloura. It might seem like a risky business plan in a city renowned in Turkey for its baklava, but Mr Saloura says the diversity of Syrian sweets makes it popular.

"Syria is famous for baklava. We have our own style - and our baklava is better than theirs," he says. "Maybe they have three or four kinds of sweets. We have hundreds in Syria."

The shop makes some sweets for Turkish customers but mostly focuses on specialities from home such as sticky pistachio ice cream, rolls of sweet cheese bathed in sugar and Syrian-style baklava.

"It's very important to help people feel at home," says Mr Saloura.

According to the Hurriyet Daily News, a Turkish newspaper, Gaziantep had 600 Syrian-run businesses as of March of this year, serving more than 350,000 Syrian refugees. Besides small shops and restaurants, some Syrian factories have also migrated across the border.

Despite the boom in Syrian-owned businesses, shop owners say the authorities insist their businesses carry Turkish names and signs. In predominantly Syrian areas of Gaziantep, shops either have the Arabic-language signs above their doors scratched out or replaced with the Latin characters of Turkish.

While Mr Saloura's shop and Syrian restaurants in Gaziantep offer refugees tastes of home, other businesses cater to those who cannot speak Turkish or cannot afford to shop in Turkish stores.

Abu Ahmed, 60, fled from ISIL-controlled Raqqa less than a year ago and opened a shop that sells second-hand furniture and household goods to Syrians in Gaziantep. Away from the harsh punishments of ISIL, he now chain-smokes cigarettes - banned by the extremists - as he drinks sweet, red hibiscus tea and deals with his customers in his cluttered shop.

"Our goal is to serve the Syrians here," he says. "We sell the new things for Turkish people and old stuff for Syrians. The new stuff is expensive - refugees are looking for cheaper stuff."

But Abu Ahmed says life remains difficult in Turkey. His family has not joined him as business is still tough and he cannot speak Turkish.

"The young people get the language better than the old people," he says.

At a mobile phone shop nearby called Alo Suriye, 21-year-old Mohammed Tasho has settled into life in Turkey a little more easily. He fled Aleppo with his family four years ago and spent a year learning Turkish, which he now speaks fluently. Earlier this year, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan unveiled a plan to give hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees Turkish citizenship, and Mr Tasho says he hopes he can eventually get a Turkish passport.

Still, "even if you speak Turkish, there's always a wall between us and them," he says.

While there are many shops selling mobile phones and accessories, often at quite reasonable prices, the language barrier ensures a steady flow of customers for Mr Tasho.

"They come here because of the language. If they go to a Turkish shop, maybe they will not understand," he says.

While some like Mr Tasho are confident about staying in Turkey, others wish they had left when they had the chance.

Ibrahim Baha Al Deen, 24, fled Palmyra last year after ISIL took over. His family opened a Syrian restaurant in Istanbul that catered to the waves of refugees on the trail to Europe. But when increased restrictions cut down the number of refugees passing through, business dried up and they were forced to close.

A few months ago, his family purchased the Orijinal Halep Lokantasi restaurant in Gaziantep, which serves falafel, shawarma, fattah, foul and other Syrian dishes. A mural of ancient Palmyra's Arch of Triumph, destroyed by ISIL last year, is painted on one of the walls.

The restaurant is popular, but Mr Baha Al Deen says it caters to Syrians who do not have enough money to eat elsewhere. Years of exile and a lack of well-paid jobs have left many Syrians in Turkey and around the region with little disposable income.

Now, he thinks he should have joined the waves of refugees on their way to Europe whom he served at his old restaurant in Istanbul.

"Now I wish I had gone to Europe because life is getting harder and harder," he says. "You are working, working, working, only for the rent of the house. I never had to work so hard to get money."

jwood@thenational.ae​



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