On the Border in Kilis

Wednesday, October 20, 2021

I saw an interesting article in the New York Times today. The article relates to the small Turkish city of Kilis, located not far from the border with Syria. The focus of the piece was that, whereas much of Turkey is now demanding that Syrian refugees go home, Kilis is somehow different. 


Here are a few paragraphs from the article: 

“To be honest, we received a lot of help from the Turkish community here,” said Muhammad, a Syrian refugee who asked that only his first name be published in case it affected his application for Turkish citizenship. “We always hear there is a lot of racism, but I learned Turkish and I never had a problem,” he added, saying he had found work in Turkish restaurants and businesses.

Still, even in Kilis, Syrians were cautious about discussing their lives in Turkey, where the police are quick to deport anyone without legal documents. Those who did speak pointed out that both sides have benefited, with Syrians finding safety and Kilis getting a much-needed infusion of energy.

“It was a miserable town when we arrived,” Muhammad said. “Everyone was asleep by six in the evening, and at night you would only see ghosts.”

This is obviously a more optimistic-sounding story than what I normally hear about Syrian refugees in Turkey. Increasingly, this is the message that I have been seeing: 

Of course, as I pointed out in an earlier post, an enormous number of Turkish citizens today can trace their family backgrounds to the Balkans, Russia, and elsewhere. Indeed, even the country's founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, came from a family that ended up immigrating as refugees to what is today Turkey. Kemal was born in Salonica, today's Thessaloniki, in Greece, and his family joined millions of other Muslims--many of whom were not ethnic Turks--who immigrated to Turkey in the 1920s. 

Nor did these waves of Muslim migration into what is today Turkey begin with the 20th century. Dating back to Russia's first annexation of the Crimea, in 1783, there were several cases of massive Muslim emigration from Russia and the Balkans in the 18th and 19th centuries, with particularly large spikes coming in 1856, following the end of the Crimean War, and in the immediate aftermath of the Ottoman-Russian War of 1877-78. While many of these incoming refugees were Turkic-speaking Muslims, many others were not. 

In the Ottoman Empire, religion was what mattered most when it came to making decisions regarding whether or not to accept refugees, although Christians and Jews were also, on some occasions, allowed to immigrate into the empire. And frankly, the Ottoman government was far from being in the position of exercising total control over its borders, anyway. Even if there had been policies forbidding certain groups from coming into the empire, there was no guarantee of the state's ability to keep them out. 

For the most part, however, the migrants, refugees, and other border-crossers coming into the Ottoman Empire in its last centuries were Muslims. In 1912-13, meanwhile, Muslims from Bulgaria, Greece, and Serbia fled in large numbers into the remaining territories of the Ottoman Empire, patterns that were repeated in the years immediately following the conclusion of WWI and the War of Independence in Turkey. 

There's a very long history of Muslims coming into what is today Turkey. During Ottoman times, what mattered most to the government was the loyalty of the incoming populations, but ultimately it was relatively easy for newly-arrived Muslims to become Ottomans. With the religion-based understanding of national identity that dominated Turkey in the early years of its existence, anyone who was Muslim--whether they were Turkish, Kurdish, Arab, Chechen, or of some other ethnicity--came to be seen as a "Turk." That's partly where the slogan "Happy is s/he who calls her/himself a Turk" comes from. Just call yourself a Turkish, the young state's leaders appeared to be saying, and we won't give you any more reasons for being unhappy. 

Nor was this form of mass migration into the country solely a feature of the Ottoman Empire or the Turkish Republic's earliest days. There were large waves of Muslim migration into Turkey from Bulgaria in the 1950s and 1980s, and tens of thousands of Bosnian Muslims immigrated to Turkey during the wars in Yugoslavia in the 1990s. 

Many of the Turks who are today bitching so loudly about the presence of foreign refugees in their country are themselves the descendants of foreign refugees entering the Ottoman Empire and Turkey. 

So what's the difference today? Obviously part of it has to do with the sheer size of the Syrian influx--their numbers are estimated at 3.6 million in a country with a total population of about 85 million. 

But I think there's more to present-day anti-immigrant sentiment in Turkey than this. True, in Ottoman times and in the early years of the Turkish Republic, most people didn't see themselves in terms of ethnic concepts like "Turk." Perhaps, to a certain extent, incoming Muslims were not seen strictly as "foreigners" by ordinary Muslim Ottomans in quite the same way as today's Syrians are. But still, being a refugee is never easy and even incoming Muslims were often treated badly by other Muslims. 

I think the real difference lies in the fact that we're living in an age of closing doors more generally. Anti-immigrant feelings are by no means unique to Turkey these days. Our present age is, unfortunately, an era of intolerance toward border-crossers, especially poor and vulnerable ones who can't speak up or fight back. So, they make for easy targets for weaklings around the world who need someone to pick on. 

How did we get into this situation? Just a few decades ago, it seemed as if all of the walls that had been erected during the Cold War were finally tumbling down. Now, people in Turkey and elsewhere are clamoring for them to be put back up again. 

If anything, I think the NYT article on Kilis shows us something important about border towns. For as long as the border is sealed, border towns tend to be drab and sleepy places. Kilis has more life today precisely because the nearby frontier has become more porous. 

That's the case with Turkey more generally, too, only those who are looking for scapegoats to pick on will certainly do their best to ignore this. 


Are you a Turk across empires? Order a copy today, then get another one for your library.

More commentary, photos, and links can be found in the Borderlands Lounge

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