The past eleven years were not enough for the 3.76 million Syrians to identify with Turkish society, nor were they enough to accept them as a new component imposed by the political and geographical conditions on Turkey. On the contrary, the word ” Syrian” has become more of a stigma than an identity or affiliation, and a burden that exposes its bearer to public contempt by the host society in a proportion that is difficult to ignore and is undeniably a general condition.
Syrian children in Turkey have not been afraid to be rejected as “Syrians” in their surroundings, and have taken partly concealing their identity as a means of ensuring their social and emotional safety and avoiding being excluded. Fleeing from a possible hate speech would lead them to fall into an identity crisis and a fragility of belonging.
Nearly 1.8 million Syrian children live under temporary protection in Turkey, according to immigration statistics. 754,000 of them were born in Turkish health-care facilities, according to the Turkish Health Minister as of March 17th, 2022.
Turkish Education Minister Mahmut Ozer revealed last month that the number of Syrian students studying in Turkey is nearly one million.
Mohammed, a fourth-grade Syrian boy from Aleppo who lives in Esenyurt, one of Istanbul’s most crowded Syrian neighbourhoods, used his transfer to a new school to hide his identity from his classmates and teacher. He was helped by his fluency in Turkish, as his mother Marwa says.
Mohammed justifies his behaviour by saying that he will be able to maintain his friendships and good relationship with his teacher, which he believes he will lose when he says he is Syrian.
Marwa attributes this behaviour to her son’s “excessive awareness” and understanding of the surrounding events and his follow-up to the news as she describes it. She confirms that the cumulative impact of events he witnessed played a major role in denying his identity. Marwa cites – but is not limited to – her son’s experience of violence by some Turks, the destruction of Syrian shops, and their attack on the house of a nearby Syrian family in Gaziantep in July of 2017 during his visit to a relative. Marwa told Syria TV that after the incident, Mohammed suffered from health problems for a long time.
A girl with a double identity
Like Muhammad, who lives in Istanbul, Ola, who also lives in Istanbul, took advantage of her transition to secondary school and changed her school to assume the character of a Turkish girl from Hatay. Ola justifies her strange name – as Turkish – because she is from Hatay.
Speaking to Syria TV, Ola, 16, explains that her great fear of not being accepted as a Syrian among her colleagues came after she heard them repeatedly talking badly about Arabs and Syrians in particular. She follows social media platforms and watches the ongoing attack by racist Turks on Syrians.
“I don’t have to reveal my identity, the moment I tell them that I am Syrian, they will stop treating me as a human being,” Ola says. She added, “When I was telling some of them that I was from Syria, they would all change their behaviour. I was reading their features directly. The nice ones would tell me that I don’t look Syrian as a kind of compliment.”
Giving up identity at school to ensure safety
Despite the different details, Mohamed and Ola share the main reasons for denying their identity: fear of hate speech, peer contempt for their community of origin, and fear of exclusion.
Stenai Kafa, a researcher in childhood trauma and psychotherapy at the Turkish Justice Ministry, told Syria TV that both Mohammed and Ola consider that concealing Syrian identity guarantees their safety and that both want to be socially and emotionally safe.
Kafa explains that both aim to belong to a group of friends and fear abuse and exclusion, so they partially give up their identity – the time spent at school.
Kafa warns that this will not be positive in the long run and will play a role in establishing two fundamental beliefs in their future personality.
“It’s worrying that children of this age think in a similar way, and what is worse is that children generalize these ideas to themselves and their existence,” Kafa said.
This article was translated and edited by The Syrian Observer. The Syrian Observer has not verified the content of this story. Responsibility for the information and views set out in this article lies entirely with the author.