As conflict, war and oppression continue unabated across the world, so does the flow of people fleeing persecution and violence. At the crossroads of this crisis is Turkey, a bridge to the west from war-ravaged nations like Syria, Iraq and Yemen as well as African countries to the south and Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan to the east.
For many Westerners, the refugees’ journey is experienced only through the lens of the media, but for legal professional and native New Yorker Amel Ahmed, the plight of refugees became woven into her daily life last autumn while on a month-long trip to Istanbul.
After a week vacationing in Turkey, Ahmed grew restless and, troubled by the humanitarian crisis unfolding around her, began to search online for organizations working with asylum seekers and refugees. Soon she found an Istanbul-based NGO [non-governmental organization] that did just that. Ahmed, who had previously worked as a journalist, thought: Maybe I can help.
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When she offered to volunteer her knowledge of law and Arabic language skills (her parents had migrated to the US from Yemen), she was invited to apply as a legal fellow. Established less than three years ago, the independent nonprofit NGO operates with a staff of mostly Turkish lawyers who provide legal assistance to asylum seekers and refugees. Due to the widespread crackdown on NGOs and humanitarian aid groups in Turkey in recent months, the organization is not named in this article.
As a legal fellow, Ahmed works with people scattered across Turkey who are hoping to be granted refugee status from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) with the aim of resettling to a third country.
According to the latest UNHCR data, Turkey currently hosts over 3.25 million asylum seekers and refugees, the vast majority of them from Syria, but more than 250,000 people from Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Palestine, Pakistan and Somalia, who have fled war, persecution or other forms of violence since 2011.
Ahmed handles cases that have been processed by the UNHCR but, whether on procedural or legal grounds, were denied. When that happens, claimants can file an appeal which Ahmed or her colleagues will review, checking for possible filing or translation errors. Before she does that, however, she must determine whether each case meets international guidelines to be classified as asylum — based on religious discrimination, gender violence, political persecution or flight from war. Ahmed conducts initial interviews that can last between two and four hours, followed by a second interview of similar length.
After Ahmed has reviewed each case and interviewed the subject, sometimes up to four times, if she determines errors were made in the original assessment, and the case is eligible for an appeal, she will resubmit the claim to UNHCR, which makes the final determination whether or not to grant refugee status. When cases are accepted, that individual or family then undergoes additional vetting and security screenings.
Ahmed explains that the small proportion of asylum seekers who are granted refugee status are eventually turned over to third-party organizations who assist in the resettlement process. Following original geographic limitations to the 1951 Refugee Convention, and in accordance with Turkey’s Law on Foreigners and International Protection, Turkey retains the option to limit non-Europeans refugees to a temporary, conditional basis, requiring those refugees to eventually settle in a third country. According to an Amnesty International report, Turkish government officials have argued that the limitations are necessary to avoid being overwhelmed by refugees from the Middle East and Asia.
Ahmed communicates with her clients in English, Arabic or with the aid of a Persian-speaking interpreter. These interviews are a window into the suffering her clients have endured, whether from Taliban or ISIS violence; religious, political or gender persecution, such as genital mutilation; war; or other conflict.
When her clients share their stories, some break down in tears mid-interview. “That’s not something law school prepares you for,” Ahmed says. “Interestingly though, that is something my journalism background has helped with. As a reporter I focused on human interest stories. I interacted with subjects who were violated in some way.”
Even as she shows compassion for her clients, she remains resolute and focused on the task of serving as a legal advisor. “You have to, in order to be an effective conduit for delivering people’s message.” The job, which she explains is not for the faint-hearted, has given her a greater appreciation for what asylum seekers and refugees face. Ahmed’s role as a legal worker, she says, is to highlight the abuses she witnesses.
Legal Life Preservers
When surrounded by suffering and war, Ahmed takes some comfort in international law. “The great thing about the law is that it can be very clear-cut,” she says. The United Nations’ International Framework for asylum seekers and refugees and the UNHCR’s 1951 Refugee Convention aren’t just laws, they’re tools that can alleviate suffering.
Ahmed discusses how cases involving single women and mothers with children that are especially heart-wrenching. She points out that because women are frequently denied education and have unequal access to already limited jobs, women experience poverty differently than men. As a result of this uneven playing field, external factors like war and poverty hit women and children disproportionately hard.
Of course, while some international laws have great potential to be leveraged for human rights, anti-immigrant laws and policies are brewing in countries around the world — including the US. Watching the early days of the Trump administration from halfway around the world, Ahmed sees the US framing of the debate over immigration, and Trump’s contested six-nation Muslim ban, as being founded on what she calls “irrational fears.”
Through her own work, Ahmed bears witness to the intense scrutiny would-be refugees face. “These asylum seekers go through such a lengthy and comprehensive vetting process,” Ahmed says, calling the background checks “a grueling, long process.” NPR produced a concise explainer of the vetting process here.
Too Dangerous to Study, Too Deadly to Stay
Living in Istanbul, Ahmed sometimes has chance encounters with refugees from around the region. One of those is 28-year-old Fadi, a Syrian asylum seeker who has been living in Turkey since 2015. Born in Idlib province, Fadi studied civil engineering at the University of Aleppo and then later, marketing at Al-Baath University in Homs when the war broke out in Syria. When dangerous conditions kept him away from his university, he was left facing the prospect of forced conscription into the Syrian army, something Fadi described as tantamount to a death sentence.
At that time Fadi’s parents and three younger brothers fled the bombing to a small coastal town but Fadi sought refuge in Lebanon. Speaking with Truthout by Skype, Fadi tells of how, through the friend of his cousin, he found a job and place to stay, spending over four years in Lebanon. Fadi said stress caused by reports of sectarian violence and curfews imposed on Syrians made life in Lebanon difficult.
During his first year in Lebanon, Fadi’s father, who had been working casually as a taxi driver, disappeared in Syria. One day his father went out and never came home. “We were waiting, waiting, and we didn’t find the car, didn’t find my father [till] now….” Fadi says. His younger siblings wait with their mother as she refuses to leave home, holding out hope that her husband will return. She doesn’t want him to come home to an empty house.
But after Fadi’s older sister fled to Turkey, his mother encouraged him to join her in Gaziantep, just north of the Syrian border. After nine months in the conservative Turkish district, Fadi accepted a friend’s invitation to move to Istanbul. Speaking Arabic, Turkish and some English, Fadi was able to find a job in a clothing store. However, he says he feels isolated, spending all his time working in the shop until after midnight, or at home sleeping or preparing meals in a shared room.
Last January Fadi applied for refugee status with the UNHCR, followed by interviews in Istanbul and Ankara. But after five months there’s been no word, so Fadi must remain patient. He knows that ultimately he will need to resettle elsewhere or go back to Syria, something he does not want to do.
Fadi isn’t picky where he ends up. He thinks France might support his modest hopes: “I want to work, I want to learn new things,” he told Truthout.
As he stares into the Skype window on a tablet borrowed from his roommate, Fadi’s voice is melancholy. “When people go out from Syria, they just want a normal life without being scared for their children … without bombs, without problems, without guns.”