Syrians' plight touches Turkey's "Little Afghanistan"

OVAKENT, Turkey Wed May 9, 2012 8:12pm IST

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OVAKENT, Turkey (Reuters) - When Abdul Maraf Yildiz looks at the thousands of Syrian refugees flooding across the border into southern Turkey, he sees himself, 30 years ago.

Yildiz was only two in 1982 when his family fled the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and found sanctuary in Hatay, the Turkish province that has become a magnet for Syrians escaping President Bashar al-Assad's repression.

"You know that feeling when you watch a film for the second time? This time the Syrians are the actors and we are watching the film. We have experienced the same things," Yildiz told Reuters in the village of Ovakent, just a few km (two miles) from Hatay's airport.

"We lived in refugee camps in Pakistan and Iran. Then we came to Turkey and found peace. They will face far less problems than us because they are in Turkey," he said.

Three years after Soviet forces invaded Afghanistan, the Turkish government flew some 170 Afghan families from refugee camps in Pakistan to Turkey, a fraction of the millions of Afghans who fled the occupation.

As most of these families were ethnic Uzbek and Turkmen, the move was seen as a humanitarian gesture by Turkey to help its Turkic brothers in a time of need. The families were settled in Ovakent, then nothing more than a poor, tiny settlement. Friends and relatives gravitated there later.

The Afghans were granted Turkish citizenship and three decades later, Ovakent has grown into a large village of several thousand people.

Sitting outside his grocery shop, 52-year-old Abdulkerim Turkmen recounts how he arrived in Ovakent from the northern Afghan province of Kunduz in the mid-1990s, this time fleeing the Taliban militia as it extended its grip across the country.

"It took us 15 days to cross overland from northern Afghanistan. We travelled through Iran and then into Turkey and had to enter both countries illegally," Turkmen said as he flicked prayer beads in his hand.

"Now we are Turkish citizens. The Turkish government really helped us," he said.

It is now the Syrians' turn.

Some 23,000 Syrian refugees are living in camps in Turkey. More than 2,800 people fled in just one day last month after a surge in attacks by Assad's forces in the Idlib region just across the border.

Tens of thousands more have fled to Jordan and Lebanon and the United Nations estimates around 200,000 Syrians are displaced within their own country. Thousands of refugees also go unregistered, choosing to stay with friends or relatives.

Most of the refugees have no intention of staying in Turkey, and Ankara hopes Assad will be persuaded to step aside to allow a political transition which would allow them to go home.

Turkey refers to the Syrians as "guests", free to come and go as they choose.

"We feel their pain. We have experienced what they are going through," said Turkmen. "The Syrians are lucky they have a good neighbour in Turkey."

PRIDE AND PREJUDICE

To most of the Turks in Hatay, the Ovakent village is simply known as "Little Afghanistan", and it is easy to see why.

Bearded old men dressed in traditional baggy Afghan clothes with long turbans wrapped around their heads sit on benches in the village square chatting in Uzbek or Turkmen, while a teenager fans coals on an Afghan-style barbecue nearby.

Shops around the village sell green tea, sacks of Indian rice and fisherman-style waistcoats worn by nearly every man in Afghanistan. Through half-opened gates, women in brightly coloured outfits stir big pots of rice in open courtyards.

Yildiz runs a Turkish-Uzbek association in Ovakent aimed at breaking down some of the prejudices surrounding their village.

"We organise Afghan cultural days and serve Afghan food for example. We hold Newroz (New Year) celebrations and invite people so they see that we are just normal people," said Yildiz, a small Afghan flag sitting on the desk in front of him.

"There are prejudices, yes, but we are trying to break these down slowly but surely," he said.

Like many who were optimistic after the Taliban were overthrown, Yildiz went back to Afghanistan in 2003 and got married, but returned five years later.

At the peak, Afghan refugees numbered more than eight million around the world, most of them in camps in Pakistan and Iran. Almost six million have since returned but renewed violence still deters many.

Abdul Jalil, 72, came to Ovakent 12 years ago and continues his metalwork trade in a little shop front, banging out stove pipes and weighing scales to sell to other villagers. Old trinkets lie around his shop that would not look out of place on a street in Kabul.

Sitting at his workshop table Jalil sips on a small glass of green tea and offers fresh almonds from a bag next to him. With violence in Afghanistan showing no sign of abating, chances are that he will never return.

"Our home is back there, it is our homeland, but now I am here. Life is peaceful. If there was peace there, I would return, of course," he said. "But now, I am also a Turk."

(Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore and Sonya Hepinstalll)

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