More than 35,000 Syrians who fled to neighboring Turkey over the course of their country’s war have become naturalized Turkish citizens, a controversial step among Turks, but a lifeline for a people that have seen the world’s borders close against them.

It is a status that does not come with acceptance, but which Syrian parents hope will grant their children a future.

Turkish parties opposed to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan see the step as a political one, designed to shore up support for the Islamist AK Party. Syrians who had held Turkish nationality for at least one year were allowed to vote in the recent parliamentary and presidential elections. 

The Ministry of Interior announced last September that the country would naturalize 50,000 Syrians.

As it stands, there are estimated to be 3.5 million Syrian refugees living in Turkey. 

Struggle for acceptance

Turkish nationality has solved the vague legal situation of many Syrians who were in limbo, but many still struggle to integrate within the society because of the language barrier and the discrimination they say they still face in some aspects of their lives.

According to a report by a subcommittee of the Turkish parliament’s Human Rights Committee that focuses on refugees, Syrians eligible for naturalization are often holders of higher-education degrees, including teachers and doctors, as well as students in Turkish universities and those who have purchased real estate. 

Nour, a 31-year-old Syrian, has been living in Istanbul with her husband Mohammed for four years and works in a beauty center. Nour and her husband, who both have work permits, were nominated for naturalization a year and a half ago.

Nour says she fainted from happiness when she got the news.

“We Syrians face a lot of harassment in Turkey, and we can’t fight back because of the fear of being deported back to Syria,” she said.

Nour complains that Turkish police take the side of their countrymen when they get in altercations with Syrians, even if they were in the wrong.

Nour admits citizenship does not prevent ill-treatment. She recounts being recently harassed by a taxi driver when she answered her phone speaking in Arabic.

“I screamed as we were passing by a policeman, and he asked for our IDs, but unfortunately, when he realized I was Syrian because of my broken Turkish he let the driver go without any punishment and I had to just get on a bus and go on my way,” she said.

Turkish nationality, however, saved Nour’s husband from an insecure legal situation. Mohammed, now 35, arrived to Turkey as a military deserter and went from having no documents to becoming a Turkish citizen with full rights.

However, Mohammed feels that his broken Turkish keeps him isolated from society.

“Our children will be the biggest beneficiaries of the Turkish citizenship,” he said.

Syrian in the eyes of Turks

Many Syrians who fled the war in their country have sought a second nationality, especially after most the world closed its doors to Syrians. Only 30 countries allow entry to Syrian nationals, some with complicated conditions, putting the Syrian passport among the four weakest in the world.

Bassem, a doctor who has lived in Istanbul since 2013 with his wife and children, was granted Turkish nationality in 2016 along with his family. Bassem says the birthplace, Damascus, on his Turkish ID “keeps me Syrian in the eyes of the Turks.”

The government is planning on removing this item from the national IDs of Syrians and keeping it only in the passport, he says.

“Of course I’m happy that I was granted Turkish citizenship, but I haven’t been integrated in Turkish society yet.

“All of my patients are Syrian. But the most important thing is that I’ve guaranteed my children’s futures,” he said.

Bassem says his oldest son was beaten by schoolmates for speaking Arabic and that his daughter’s teacher refused to call on her. These difficulties forced the family to change schools several times.

After two years of Turkish schooling, Bassem’s children mastered the language and can now fully integrate. The price is they have lost their mother tongue.

Bassem says his children stopped speaking Arabic in school to hide their Arab origin and avoid mistreatment. They also have no time for Arabic lessons. He said sadly: “My grandkids will definitely not speak a word of Arabic.”

A mixed bag

Ayhem Samys, a 35-year-old Syrian of Turkmen origin who has been living in Turkey for four years, has been trying for the past year to emigrate to Canada.

Ironically, being granted Turkish nationality sabotaged his plan at the last minute. Just when Samys received a Canadian visa, Turkish authorities prevented him from leaving the country because he had been nominated for Turkish nationality.

“I am now a Turkish citizen and I can’t seek asylum anywhere,” he said.

For others, Turkish citizenship was a long-awaited dream.

Omar, a Syrian journalist who was granted Turkish citizenship in mid-2017, said: “I now feel settled and secure, especially in terms of work and investment, and [can] travel to 50 countries with no visa.”

For others who depend on aid, Turkish nationality has stripped them of the little help they had lived on.

“Turkish citizenship has been a nightmare for me,” Umm Ammar said. “It cost me the aid from the Red Crescent and charities and now I’m in need of all life’s necessities.”