In a suburb of Istanbul, several dozen bedraggled Syrian refugees pick at their lunch. Their stories echo those of many others who have fled Syria’s brutal civil war: homes destroyed, family members killed, a harrowing escape across the 900km border with Turkey.
But, unlike most of the 500,000 Syrian refugees now on Turkish soil, these people see President Bashar al-Assad as their protector.
“Before everything was OK, when the regime was controlling our area,” says Mohammed, a 27-year-old electrician from near Aleppo, who tries to make money in Istanbul by shining shoes. “Now it is not safe because the rebels are in charge.” He says he and 20 other members of his family had no choice but to seek refuge in Turkey.
Their hosts, who have erected two large tents and are helping the refugees with food and jobs, are members of Turkey’s Alevi Muslim religious minority. Like Mr Assad’s Alawite sect, they and the refugees revere Imam Ali, cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Mohammed. Many of the Syrians who have fled to Istanbul are also ethnically close to Turks, speak Turkish and make regular pilgrimage to Alevi shrines.
And the refugees and their hosts complain that Turkey, with its Sunni majority, favours Sunni refugees over Syrian Alevis and Alawites amid religious tension within Turkey itself.
After they crossed the border, they saw the camps in Turkey full of the Syrian opposition they are trying to escape from
All five of the protesters killed during Turkey’s summer of unrest were Alevis, and Alevi leaders say they were disappointed by a government “democratisation package” last month that contained few steps towards their recognition by the state. Many of Turkey’s millions of Alevis add that they are deeply frustrated by what they allege is Ankara’s Sunni sectarian approach to the war in Syria, notably its strong support for the Syrian rebels – a charge the government denies.
Vedat Kara, who helps co-ordinate aid for Alawite and Alevi refugees in Istanbul, says there are some 3,000 of them in Istanbul alone, including about 700 who sleep by roadsides and bridges. He says more than 600 people have passed through a refugee centre in Sultangazi – a predominantly Alevi district of Istanbul.
“We saw the Syrian Alevis as part of the Syrian state; we never thought they would experience a problem like this,” Mr Kara says. “They are twice refugees,” he continues. “After they crossed the border, they saw the camps in Turkey full of the Syrian opposition they are trying to escape from.” Several of the refugees said they were frightened to enter the border camps for fear they would be pushed by the rebels into fighting against the Assad regime.
Meanwhile, greater information about rebel atrocities against Alawites in Syria is emerging. Last week, Human Rights Watch, the campaigning group, said 190 Alawite civilians had been killed during an opposition offensive led by forces including the al-Qaeda affiliates Jabhat Nusra and Islamic State of Iraq in the coastal province of Latakia, the Syrian regime’s heartland.
The slaughter, the largest rebel killing documented by the group to date, occurred in early August, just before the Syrian Alevis’ influx into Istanbul. HRW said 67 of those killed were unarmed and trying to flee as fighters went from house to house, sometimes killing entire families.
“Given that most foreign fighters in these groups reportedly gain access to Syria via Turkey, from which they also smuggle their weapons, obtain money and other supplies, and retreat to for medical treatment, Turkey should increase border patrols, restrict entry of fighters and arm flows to groups credibly found to be implicated in systematic human rights violations,” HRW said in its report.
Many of the people in the Sultangazi centre came from near Aleppo, almost 200km away from Latakia. Some of their stories suggest that they had been forced out of their homes by regime attacks on rebel-held territory and they declined to say exactly who they were fleeing from.
“The war made us come here,” says 11-year old Nadya, sitting at the lunch bench in Sultangazi. “But I preferred it in Syria – I wish to God we can go back.”
The people around her are united in complaining at what they see as the Turkish state’s indifference to their plight. “We need IDs, so we can go to the hospital,” says Mohammed. “We want homes we can live in.”
Mr Kara adds that unlike the children in the Sunni-dominated border camps, children in Sultangazi were going without education. “It’s difficult because these people were already poor, even in Syria,” he says. “We do not know if they are going to stay two days or two years.”