As the battle in Aleppo edges closer to a decisive phase that could determine the fate of the 17-month-old political unrest in Syria, a relief organization led by a Turkish citizen in the southern province of Antakya has mobilized resources to help thousands of Syrians trapped in beleaguered cities and escaped the atrocities of the Bashar al-Assad regime.
Thousands of Syrians have fled to Antakya, a multi-religious and cosmopolitan city, since the regime intensified its brutal onslaught on civilians through the agency of Shabiha militants, paramilitary armed groups loyal to Assad, in both rural and urban areas.
While most Syrians have been placed in refugee camps and container cities by Turkish officials, others Syrians have been housed with relatives in the southern provinces.
Some refugees have declined to live in a tent city and sought residence in Antakya. Syrians in this category had prosperous lives before the political unrest and armed struggle erupted, in which they have lost most of their assets, but some of them are still able to maintain themselves in Antakya using their own means.
Mehmet, who withheld his full name due to security concerns, is a Turkish citizen of Arab origin. He runs an office that operates as a center for coordinating and consolidating relief efforts in order to alleviate the suffering of the Syrian people. It tries to arrange accommodation for them and deal with other problems they may face in Antakya.
When protests erupted in Syria, Mehmet formed the organization and began to provide financial and logistical assistance first to relatives and then to friends in Syria. Before the Syrian uprising, he had been in the tourism industry.
“Events in Syria took a different turn, and my friends and other people have poured into Antakya, escaping the massacre at the hands of the regime. I invested all I had in this and decided to help my brothers,” he said.
The office provides financial assistance to hundreds of Syrian families, mostly coming from the northern province of Idlib, which has been the scene of ferocious fighting in Syria. He and other volunteers have rented 100 houses for families that have suffered the loss of at least one member in the ongoing conflict, and also provide a monthly stipend to these families. Each family, he stated, receives nearly TL 1000 per month to meet their needs in Antakya.
Moreover, the organization has rented several houses that operate as medical centers, providing treatment for wounded Syrians, mostly rebels.
The medical centers are financed by the Syrian diaspora across Europe and the US. Mehmet said that the organization has spent more than $1 million providing necessary assistance to Syrian families in terms of medical centers and rental properties.
In the meantime, he strongly denied any link between the organization and the Free Syrian Army (FSA), saying that he is only heading a relief organization to grapple with problems faced by Syrians in Antakya.
'Real estate sector booms during the Syrian crisis'
The local economy of Antakya has been affected by the prolonged Syrian crisis, and the coming of Syrian refugees has added a new dimension to the city's economy. Real estate prices have skyrocketed due to a surge in demand, and it is now extremely expensive to rent a flat in comparison to previous prices.
In the past, on average, residents were paying TL 300 to TL 600 per month for a rental house, but the cost has risen to between TL 1000 and TL 1500 amid increasing demand in the city.
“I called 30 estate owners today and couldn't get a positive answer,” Mehmet said, addressing the difficulty of finding new rental houses for Syrians.
He lamented the profit-oriented mentality that seeks to make money from the war, citing the unbearable cost of renting a property today.
One of the major problems faced by his charitable organization, Mehmet stated, is that landlords do not want to rent to Syrians.
Furthermore, social differences often play a central role in quarrels and problems that emerge between local residents of Antakya and the new arrivals.
“I can't blame them. Even Sunnis do not want to rent their houses to Syrians any more. For instance, while Turks wake up early in the morning and go to work, Syrian Arabs sleep during the day and work evenings or nights. They got used to living like that in Syria because of the climate there. Syrian Arabs have still not adapted to life here. Consequently, this creates problems, as a lot of noise occurs in the evenings. In the first months, local residents showed tolerance for this, but after a point they were fed up,” said Mehmet.