“It has been 4 years since we first arrived, it is good here, but nothing replaces Syria, it is home”- Dhiya Sahari[i], 61 years old, a Syrian refugee living at the Harran city camp in Turkey.
Dhiya, is one of millions who fled a war-torn Syria taking a journey into the unknown hoping to reach the other side at least, alive. However, reaching the other side meant in most cases settling in bordering Jordanian, Lebanese or Turkish cities and building lives from scratch within already established societies.
For the past six years, communities hosting refugees have flagged multiple challenges, they have been facing due to the large influx of refugees, ensuring social cohesion ranks high on their list of concerns.
As part of its Mediterranean Refugees and Host Communities Knowledge Action Program, the Center for Mediterranean Integration (CMI) ran a survey about the challenges and achievements facing municipalities hosting refugees in the Middle East and Turkey to which 86% of municipalities who participated have reported an increase in social tensions as a result of the Syrian refugee crisis.
Though being a highly sensitive topic, securing social cohesion is an utmost necessity for co-existence between both communities therefore it had to be approached.
In Sanliurfa, Turkey, a city hosting 23.000 Syrian refugees, according to United Nation High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), the International Migration Management Summit organized by the United Cities and Local Governments Middle East and West Asia Section (UCLG-MEWA) and the World Academy for Local Government and Democracy set the ground for a fruitful discussion regarding the topic. Linked to it, a joint CMI- GIZ’s workshop supported by UCLG-MEWA on Strengthening Social Cohesion in Municipalities Hosting Refugees offered a deeper dive going into the specific concerns irking the hosting communities and the refugees equally.
For three consecutive days, municipality representatives from Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey as well as Syrian Non-Governmental Organizations working on Turkish soil debated what it means to reach social cohesion and how to maintain it in under the constant flow of refugees and the dire economic situation that they are enduring in their respective municipalities, the participants also got to have an inside look into two prominent example of social cohesion reinforcement, through field visits to the Association for Solidarity with Asylum Seekers and Migrants in Gaziantep and The Urfa Community Center in Sanliurfa.
So what is social cohesion and why is it so important?
For Mohamed Saadieh, Mayor of Deer Nbouh in Lebanon “social cohesion is eliminating social and economic differences between both the refugees and the hosting communities”. However, he stressed the fact that reaching social cohesion depends in a large part on the economic situation of the host community. “Being a refugee in Europe is not the same as being a refugee in Turkey and it is most certainly different from being a refugee in Lebanon” he said.
He explained, that hosting over 3 million refugees is a load Turkey is able to manage giving its solid economy, whereas in the case of Lebanon, a country of 4.4 million inhabitants and a crippled economy the load is much heavier. The number of registered refugees makes up 25% of the total population in the country putting it in a hard situation financially.
In the municipality of Sahab, an industrial and commercial city in Jordan that attracts labor force immigration, social cohesion is a must.
In the words of engineer Haneen Hassouneh, head of the development unit in the municipality of Sahab, “our labor force is composed of 15.000 Asian nationals, 20.000 Egyptians and 40.000 Syrians which makes our society so diverse and calls for social cohesion to guarantee security, development and service delivery to everyone”.
While social cohesion is an agreed upon necessity, implementing it proved to be challenging for both sides.
The challenges facing a forcibly displaced person trying to integrate a new community are numerous and a harmonious day to day life is not always guaranteed, especially when communication is obstructed. Yasmine Haloubi, a Syrian living in Turkey and the founder of the Syrian Social Gathering describes not mastering the Turkish language as “the main barrier for social cohesion in Turkey”.
As, Önder Yalcin, head of the migration office in the metropolitan municipality of Gaziantep in Turkey, puts it this way: “the language barrier is one of main challenges the municipality faces working with Syrian refugees, not many Turkish people could understand Arabic and vice versa”.
Though language barrier might be specific to Turkey's host communities, other barriers seem to be more common across the region.
Whether in Jordan, Lebanon or Turkey strengthening social cohesion and peaceful coexistence requires action at the local level.
Municipalities are working to put in place projects that help bring together all the components of the society and build a stronger bound between the refugees and the local communities. But such projects require support from the international community.
Shaker Khaldi, a program management unit engineer in the municipality of Zatari, Elmanshieh, stated that financial support and well-trained staff are crucial for the process of implementing social cohesion: “as small municipalities we lack the adequate financing and staff training to be able to provide services to the local and refugee’s communities”.
Even with the shortage of financial and human resources, the hosting communities have been working on improving the level of social cohesion, implementing projects such as the free-of-charge amusement park in the municipality of Sahab, Jordan that gathers more than 4000 people every year from all communities or the community center in Gaziantep, Turkey that invites Syrian refugees to give classes in different disciplines they were practicing in Syria and so many other examples.
This workshop was an opportunity for these initiatives to be highlighted and for the participants to showcase their experience and learn from their peers. “CMI has organized so many peer to peer learning events for us which allowed us to meet and exchange ideas with our peers in other municipalities and learn from them” says Engineer Haneen Hassouneh, head of the development unit in the municipality of Sahab.
[i] The CMI conducted a photos reportage shedding some light on few more stories like the one of Dhiya Sahari, this is only a glimpse into the aspirations, hopes, challenges and the day-to-day life away from Syria.
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