The Turkish economic crisis is having a domino effect on the more than 2.5 million Syrians in the country as workshops shut down and families find themselves unable to support dependents and sustain remittances.
Alaa, a 36-year-old father of two, fled to Turkey from his hometown of Idlib in 2015.
“With great difficulty, I learned the Turkish language, found housing and work at a Syrian sewing workshop,” he told Asia Times. That job gave him the stability he needed to send for his wife, mother and two children.
But this summer, Turkey’s economy took a turn for the worse with its currency slipping sharply against the dollar and inflation rising.
In July, Alaa lost his job and was forced to send his family back to Idlib.
“The rise of the dollar has ruined my life,” Alaa said, echoing the sentiments of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has blamed the economic downturn on American financial hegemony.
“I lost my only source of livelihood along with 70 other young men who were working with me in the same workshop,” he said.
“Some of these young people have decided to return to Syria, while others are still trying to be smuggled to Europe. I am trying to find any work so that I can overcome this crisis and bring my family back to Turkey. I am afraid my children will die either by bombs or hunger.”
The devaluation of the Turkish lira against the dollar has led to an increase in commodity prices, including food and ration items. Syrian laborers are especially impacted because many are working without documentation, or adjustments for inflation, and for pay below the minimum wage.
Fighting to collect bottles
Mohammed (a pseudonym) fled Syria four years ago with his wife and children to escape mandatory military conscription in Syria.
The 33-year-old holds a university degree from a Faculty of Commerce and Economics in Damascus, a qualification that enabled him to find work as an accountant at a garment manufacturing company in Istanbul.
When Turkey’s lira began slipping in July, Mohammed lost his job.
“The Turkish employer decided to temporarily close the company that I was working for, because the materials used in the apparel industry had become too expensive,” he said.
“[My boss] said he would contact us when the value of the Turkish lira improved, but unfortunately that did not happen, and I don’t think it will happen soon,” he added.
Mohammed’s brother, Abdel Rahman (pseudonym), also lost his only source of income in a sewing factory due to the currency crisis.
The two brothers were forced to get by collecting plastic bottles from the streets to earn a living and move their families, a total of seven people, into one cramped room.
“I never imagined that I would set my diploma aside and collect plastic containers,” Abdel Rahman said. “We face a lot of harassment from Turkish plastic collectors and sometimes we get beaten up, but what choice do we have?
“We didn’t find work and we didn’t want to send our families to Damascus,” he said, citing fears of government persecution.
Winter is coming
The impact of the Turkish currency’s fall has not only hit Syrians in Turkey hard, but also their families still in Syria.
Thirty-year-old Louay has spent three years in Istanbul and has struggled every month to send money to his family in Damascus.
“Most of us have family back in Syria relying on us to transfer money to them each month, and so we’re affected by the continuous decline in the value of the lira,” he said.
“Syrian workers get paid in Turkish lira and then we have to convert part of the salary into dollars to send [some] back home.”
Louay said he and many others used to send 500-600 lira home each month, or about 150,000 Syrian pounds. But after the depreciation of the lira, that same amount isn’t even worth 50,000 Syrian pounds.
“Now we need to send 1,000 lira, which in the end represents an employee’s whole salary, so we are very affected,” he said.
Sahar, a single mother from Damascus, says she fled with her mother and child to Turkey after her father and husband were killed while being tortured in Syrian detention in 2015.
“After my arrival in Turkey I worked in factories and also in sales until I mastered the Turkish language. I’m also fluent in English and Arabic, and I found work in the field of translation at a Turkish company,” she said.
For the past year, Sahar was able to comfortably support her mother and child at the translation company, but this summer the economic crisis changed everything. The company, seeking to cut costs, asked the young woman to work from home at half her salary.
“Now I earn only 1,500 lira ($250), while my rent can be as much as 1,200 lira with bills, not to mention the cost of medicine, which adds up to 100 lira per month. Imagine — we have only 200 lira ($33) left at the end to buy food. We only eat one meal a day,” she said.
“I am very concerned with winter coming. We’re going to feel very cold because of the decline of the Turkish currency.”