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7 March 2016updated 27 Jul 2021 6:43am

Letter from Kilis, the Turkish town on the frontline of the refugee crisis

As EU and Turkish leaders meet in Brussels to discuss how to get to grips with the crisis, Laura Pitel reports on the mood among people at the Turkey-Syria border.

By Laura Pitel

In a white-tiled, brightly-lit, poultry shop in the Turkish town of Kilis, a tense exchange has erupted. A young Syrian behind the counter has just been explaining the challenges of life in this refugee hotspot – and mulling whether it deserved its nomination by a Turkish MP for the Nobel Peace Prize. The girl, 18, is not sure about the idea – she is sad that she had to abandon her studies four years ago in order to work long hours for little pay. One of her customers, a burly fifty-something in a black leather jacket, popped in mid-way through this discussion to collect a film-wrapped chicken. He could not resist butting in.

“They can keep their Nobel Prize to themselves,” he says, waving his arms in disdain at the imaginary Oslo committee. “We don’t want it!”

He pauses. “But if they do give it to us, we should have it three times over! We deserve it.”

For five years now, Kilis, which lies just three miles from the border with Syria, has been on the frontline of the refugee crisis. Turkey, a country of 79 million, has taken 2.5 million Syrians. In Kilis, once a town of around 100,000, the population has been doubled by the influx.

Refugee camps have sprung up along the border but most Syrians live in the town itself. Rents have soared, and the outskirts are crawling with cranes and bulldozers working to fling up more blocks of apartments. The hospitals are full of wounded Syrians.

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The Nobel nomination came about last month after a chain of Greek islands were put forward for the prize for their role in helping thousands of people who arrived last year on dinghies. In a nice bit of refugee one-upmanship, Ayhan Sefer Üstün, an MP with Turkey’s ruling party, announced that Kilis was more deserving. Its residents “share their jobs, houses, trades and social spaces” with Syrians, he wrote in his submission, before asking: “What would the British think and do if 3 million refugees, who fled the war or natural disaster for shelter, came to London?”

The episode reflects a wider feeling in Turkey that it is both over-burdened and under-appreciated compared to Europe. It’s not hard to see why. Desperate to avoid a repeat of last summer’s huge wave of people arriving on their shores, EU leaders have concluded that the best option is to keep more of them in Turkey.

Like the chicken shop customer, many people in Kilis say that they can take or leave a Norweigan accolade – but they wish that Europe was less hypocritical. “Prize or no prize, it’s not important to me personally,” says coffee shop owner Mustafa Polat. “But it’s important for the city and for the country.” Kilis, he says, deserves the recognition.

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Syrians, however, are far more circumspect. Their lives in the town are not easy. A language barrier makes it hard to integrate. Stories abound of the sexual exploitation of young women from poor families.

Some are pleasantly surprised by their Turkish neighbours. In a tiny clothes shop tucked away in a small covered market, the owner – who fled northern Aleppo two years ago – says he was warned to expect hostility from other shopkeepers. In fact, they had all been lovely. “Kilis is a good place,” he says. “The people are respectable. Turkey is the best neighbour for Syria.”

One of his customers, a bespectacled man from the nearby Syrian town of Azaz, flatly disagrees. “There are good people but many of them don’t accept us,” he says. “If one person makes a mistake, they turn against all of us Syrians.” He is grateful that Turkey provided a refuge for him – but is angry that the border is closed to tens of thousands of others who fled Russian airstrikes in February.

Kilis clearly is not perfect. But the sheer numbers involved make it difficult as an outsider even to broach some of the problems.

Back in the chicken shop, I try to steer a middle ground between the young shopworker and her agitated Turkish customer. Turkey has done a lot, I say, but for refugees life is still pretty tough.

This does not go down well.

Turning to me accusingly, the customer asks: “How many Syrians has your country taken?” I know the answer – Britain will accept 20,000 people over five years. But, given that this tiny town has already welcomed five times that number, how can I possibly admit it?