Amid Turkey election, a Syrian man’s murder stokes fear among refugees

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Islam is photographed in Istanbul after his close friend Saleh Sabika was killed by a co-worker. (Alice Martins for The Washington Post)

After a campaign marked by anti-immigrant appeals, Syrians worry about their future in the country

ISTANBUL, Turkey — The campaign posters promising to deport Syrian refugees appeared on the morning that Saleh Sabika was killed. They were all across the city by the time he began his final shift in a country that didn’t want him anymore.

Grainy CCTV footage from the Istanbul sock factory around 10 a.m. shows a fistfight between Sabika, a 28-year-old Syrian, and a Turkish colleague. Not long after, eyewitnesses said, the colleague grabbed a knife from a nearby restaurant and returned to stab Sabika in the chest.

He was dead by the time he reached the hospital.

“He wasn’t just killed by a weapon,” said his childhood friend Islam, who spoke on the condition that he be identified by his nickname, fearing for his own safety.

“He was killed by the words of all those politicians who planted the ideology against us in people’s heads,” he continued. “It won’t be the last death like this.”

As Turkey prepares for a landmark runoff in its presidential election, the fate of people like Sabika and Islam are on the ballot. After years of economic crisis here, Syrian refugees and asylum seekers have become easy targets for leaders across the political spectrum, who contend that immigrants are changing the nation’s character and should be returned to their home country by force.

Even before election season, a rising tide of forced deportations, police harassment and violent hate crimes had left many Syrians feeling under siege.

With nationalism rising, Turkey turns against refugees it once welcomed

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who once welcomed Syrian war refugees to Turkey, has struggled to respond to public anger, vowing on the campaign trail to send a million of them home. Ahead of Sunday’s runoff, opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu has gone a step further, making the removal of all Syrian refugees a core campaign promise. In the early hours of Saturday, posters of the 74-year-old former accountant were plastered across Istanbul with a new and ominous message — “Syrians will leave.”

When news of Sabika’s death reached Islam’s family WhatsApp group, the 21-year-old student assumed it was a prank, and resolved to yell at him later. Sabika was always a bit of a goofball, he said, although his jokes had slowed recently. Just walking through the streets made him anxious, he told Islam.

Taha el-Gazi, a legal activist from eastern Syria, said the apparent hate crime was his fourth such case this month. Days earlier, he had been reviewing the case of a 9-year-old Syrian girl kidnapped and killed in the border town of Kilis. The victims, he said, are usually young men or children. Authorities in Istanbul said that they had detained a Turkish man in connection with Sabika’s death, but provided no other details.

Syria’s civil war began in 2011. By the following year, more than 150,000 people had poured into Turkey seeking safety. “You have suffered a lot,” Erdogan told the crowd at a displacement camp in 2012. Turkey would be their “second home,” he said.

More than 5.5 million Syrians — a quarter of the prewar population — ultimately fled the country, and nearly 4 million settled across the border in Turkey. Some 3.6 million are still living there, according to the United Nations; Turkish officials say more than 500,000 have voluntarily returned to Syria, though many are still internally displaced.

Since Turkey allowed refugees to work, they integrated quickly. By 2014, formalized protection measures offered them health care and education. A temporary identification card, called a kimlik, was meant to protect Syrians against forced return. Turkey’s interior minister said last year that more than 700,000 Syrian children had been born in Turkey since the start of the war.

But as the years passed and Turkey struggled with crises of its own, the welcome wore thin. Mainstream media channels, particularly those backed by the opposition, cast the refugees as invaders, and argued, without evidence, that Syrians were taking jobs away from Turks.

Islam and Sabika grew up in Raqqa, a province captured in 2014 by militants from the Islamic State. They arrived in Turkey in 2018, staying together at times; by the start of this year, both had seen their closest relatives move abroad.

“Emotionally, I was the closest person he had left,” Islam said.

Like many Syrians, Islam learned Turkish but at times he wished that he hadn’t — now it was impossible to ignore the racist comments that spread across his social media. “It was almost a curse,” he thought.

For the two friends, even the kimlik came to feel like a trap. It required them to stay in the province where they were registered, even though the jobs there had long since dried up. Sabika was one of many who traveled to Istanbul anyway to find work and live in the shadows.

Hundreds of Syrians are detained for breaking kimlik regulations each year, according to human rights groups. Refugees are arrested during raids on their workplaces or homes before being taken to one of the more than 25 “removal centers,” partially funded by the European Union to keep refugees from reaching its shores.

The most infamous is in Istanbul’s Tuzla district. A mutual friend of Sabika and Islam’s spent a week there, recounting to them conditions so tough that one of the refugees cried at night to be deported. “If you’re going to take us back, then take us,” he remembers the man pleading. “But don’t leave us here.”

Many deportees have told rights groups that Turkish officers have also used violence or the threat of violence to force people into signing “voluntary” return forms.

For many Syrians, going home is unthinkable. Rights groups have documented arrests, harassment and forced conscription among returning refugees. Some have disappeared without a trace.

By the spring of this year, Sabika had found a measure of stability. He took jobs at two Istanbul sock factories — one would provide him with the insurance benefits needed to support a kimlik application in the city, while the other would allow him to save money for a cellphone.

Sabika had been kicked out of several apartments because he was Syrian, Islam said. Sabika’s latest shared room was cramped and his mattress was thin, but he was doing his best. He was proud to wear Zara perfume, and on the morning of his final shift he had been cheered by the arrival of a relative.

On Sabika’s death certificate, the time of death is listed as 12:30 p.m. The cause is simply: “Injury at work.”

In a coastal town some 300 miles away, the news had reached Islam’s social media, and suddenly it was all too real. He didn’t even pause to grab a change of clothes. He was out of the house in minutes, on the first bus that would take him to his friend.

The journey took 12 hours. Islam tried not to think about what might happen if a policeman boarded to check his papers. He couldn’t sleep. In Istanbul, he narrowly avoided a pair of police officers at the metro station.

He was first at the morgue when the gray day dawned. By 10 a.m., a small group of grim-faced relatives and acquaintances had joined him.

With northern Syria divided by warring factions, the vehicle carrying his body would have to cross dozens of checkpoints before reaching his hometown. A relative from the same tribe had been the one to break the news to Sabika’s parents. For now, he said, they couldn’t even grieve.

“Their worry right now is how to get the body back to them,” he said.

Islam was still wearing the same clothes that he had left home in the day before, and the risks ahead were on his mind. Was it worth it? The answer brought him to tears. “I think Saleh would be happy that I came,” he said.

After years of quiet struggle, his friend’s killing had made real the sort of fears he had always tried not to dwell on. “As a refugee you’re meant to go from an unsafe place to a safe place,” he said. “That just isn’t the case in Turkey.”

Sabika’s body was finally discharged around 5 p.m., dressed in a white shroud. Before it was placed in the ambulance for its final journey, Islam wrapped his arm around his friend and cried. He couldn’t accompany him all the way home, even if he wanted to. His kimlik would be invalidated at the Syrian border.

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