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Empty containers for refugees in Kilis standing ready

The Turkish city of Kilis is preparing to take in refugees returning from Greece. There are already more Syrians living here than Turks. Verica Spasovska reports from Kilis.

The alleyways of Kilis are busy. Colorful shops line the streets of the old city: coppersmiths, tailors, hairdressers. 19-year-old Zeinap from Aleppo is selling lingerie and seems to have come to terms with the situation. A young Kurd, she fled the bombs at home to come to the Turkish border town.

The number of residents has more than doubled

"Actually life here is alright," she says. "But if I could return home I would immediately kiss the ground there. Because when Syrian bombs fall here, the locals blame us refugees for the terror. Such accusations hurt." Just last week bombs fell on Kilis. A woman and a child were killed. Kilis is a mere 20 kilometers (12 miles) from the Syrian border. On the other side of the border, "Islamic State" (IS) is in charge.

The number of Syrian residents in Kilis has more than doubled since the Syrian civil war began. Beyond its original 100,000 Turkish residents Kilis is now home to 130,000 Syrian refugees. Many have been here for years, others for just a few months. 45,000 of them live in refugee centers, the rest have found private accommodations.

Mayor: Refugees are our 'guests'

Bürgermeister von Kilis Türkei Hasan Kara

Mayor of Kilis: Hasan Kara

The mayor of Kilis, Hasan Kara, says that the refugees are guests with which residents are sharing everything they have. One believes that he means what he says. Yet he admits that it is not easy to house so many Syrians in the city.

Not just due to infrastructure problems, like the fact that the water system was designed to supply half of the number of people that now depend upon it.

Kara says that the Syrians refugees are also very different from the Turks in many ways. For instance, Syrian women, even little girls, are very devout about wearing headscarves, and many wear burqas. The Syrians do not speak Turkish, and no one in Kilis speaks Arabic. Affordable housing has become rare, jobs have, too. And many of Kilis' Turkish residents are annoyed that their unemployed Syrian neighbors are out and about late into the night while they themselves have to get up early to go to work.

Back home if possible

More difficult still is that an archaic lifestyle has arrived with the influx of Syrians. Syrian parents have insisted that boys and girls be taught separately in refugee centers. That is something foreign to residents in liberalized Turkey. Still, the authorities in Kilis have fulfilled the request.

The massive effort that the city of Kilis has undertaken to house refugees can be seen most clearly in the refugee center erected just outside the city gate. Just behind the mosque stand rows of fine new containers, complete with street signs and house numbers.

Children on their way to the Kilis refugee school

Children on their way to the Kilis refugee school

Clothes flutter in the wind, hung along laundry lines. A woman attempts to cultivate herbs in rusty old planters. An old man enjoys the springtime sunlight. The littlest ones paint in the kindergarten. More than two thousand children attend school here. A medical center affords health care, for free, of course. And the shelves in the supermarket are fully stocked. "Yes," says a teacher from Aleppo, "it is good here, but also a little expensive." If he could, he, too, would return home.

Containers for another 10,000 refugees

But it is impossible to go back to Syria. Mayor Kara says that when refugees leave Kilis almost all of them want to go to Germany. Many have not heard about the deal struck between Turkey and the European Union. Those who have hope that they can somehow find a way to get to Germany, or Western Europe, nevertheless.

Meanwhile, Kilis has prepared itself to take in another 10,000 refugees. A newly built and currently unoccupied container camp stands ready on the outskirts of the city. It was constructed to house refugees returning from Greece. All refugees that have arrived in Greece after March 20 and cannot prove that they will be persecuted in Turkey must now return there. "In principle the deal between Turkey and the EU is a good thing," says Kara diplomatically. "But if the war in Syria cannot be brought to an end it won't help anyone."

The option of Turkish citizenship

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If Mayor Kara had his way refugees would simply stay in Kilis because then they could quickly return home once the war finally comes to an end.

Yet the longer the war drags on, the more likely it is that many of the 2.7 million Syrian refugees will stay in Turkey for good.

After five years they can become Turkish citizens. They can thank Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for that. Many whisper that he will win new voters with the move.

Turkish citizenship may also be an option for Zeinep. She says that she would finally like to fall in love. And maybe that would be a reason to stay. She does not want to go to Germany anyhow because Syrian refugees are not so welcome there. She saw that on Turkish television.

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