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Underpaid but close to home, refugees choose Turkey over Europe

Accepting a life of low-paid jobs and cramped apartments, some Syrian refugees choose Turkey over Europe to stay close to their Middle Eastern roots. Diego Cupolo reports from Izmir, Turkey.

It took Ahmed Ismael two years to earn minimum wage in Turkey. Like countless Syrian refugees living in the country, he worked six days a week, 12 hours a day in a textile shop to make about half of the 1,300 Turkish lira (395 euros/ $440) a legal resident would make for doing the same job. Then he got a raise in January.

"Now I can send money to my mom in Aleppo, so she's happy about that," says the 21-year-old as he enjoys a bowl of traditional fatteh from one of three Syrian restaurants in the Basmane plaza, where he is sitting.

Having left Syria after IS surrounded his city, Ismael compares his recent success to that of his older brother, who's been living in Germany for the past few years, has a full-time job, speaks four languages, is married to a German woman, and yet remains unhappy.

"He has everything, but there is still something missing," Ismael said. "He can't adapt to the culture."

This is why Ismael remains in Izmir, where he rents a tiny room in the Basmane district, an area known as the hub for human traffickers selling boat rides to Greece. Although he could buy a spot on a dinghy, the idea of moving to Europe doesn't appeal to him. Instead, he prefers to keep his low-paid job to stay in a culture where he feels comfortable - and he's not alone in his thinking.

Close to home

Of the 2.5 million Syrians living in Turkey, about 85,000 reside in Izmir, according to government data. Mohamed Saleh, director of the Relief Society of Syrian Refugees in Izmir, argues the real number is somewhere around 150,000 and the term 'refugee' is incorrect.

"I don't think of Syrians in Izmir as refugees," Saleh said. "They are just in a waiting room, like in a bus station, waiting to go home."

To make the waiting period a little easier, Saleh founded his organization in 2011 to help refugees find apartments, jobs and schools for their children. His most popular offering is the free Turkish-language course given by volunteer teachers, but overall, his organization's goal is to convince refugees to stay in Turkey by creating avenues for integration.

Mohamed Saleh

Saleh tries to accommodate refugees and convince them to stay

"I know [the Syrian] psychology very well, and the answer is to stay in Turkey," Saleh said.

A retired professor from Syria's Kurdish region, Saleh scrolls through messages on his phone from disillusioned refugees who arrived in Europe and now wish to return to Turkey.

"No one wants to speak with us," a friend in Sweden texted him. "We can't even find dogs to talk to."

Others complain about extended periods in refugee camps, bland food, bad weather, and the cold attitudes of some locals after the events in Paris and Cologne.

"They are surprised with reality in Europe and understand now that it's not heaven," Saleh said. "An old proverb says drums sound better from a distance."

As an alternative, Saleh says Izmir is a good home for Syrians because it's relatively safe and more affordable than Istanbul or Ankara. For about 300-400 Turkish lira a month, a family can rent a 20-square-meter apartment here. Quarters are often humid and the roof leaks when it rains, but establishing a new life in Izmir is easier than in other Turkish cities.

'Europe hates us'

The main problem for young refugees is education. Just 10 percent of school-aged Syrians in Izmir attend school on a regular basis, according to Saleh, and he recently struck a deal with UNICEF to fund Arabic-language courses for refugees in seven city schools. The afterschool program is expected to start in March; Saleh is anxious to begin addressing one of the less visible tragedies of the refugee crisis.

"My kids go to school every day, but just listen … they don't do anything," said Maher Mahmood (photo above), an Iraqi refugee. "The lessons are in Turkish and they can't understand the teacher."

Mahmood stirs a Syrian brand of instant coffee into a paper cup as he speaks inside a Basmane café. He sits with his Syrian-Kurdish friend, Abdulrahman Ebrahim. They both have families to support, and they're both out of work.

Men walk on a commercial street in Basmane Izmir,

Stores carrying Syrian products have multiplied in Basmane in recent years

Holding a refugee ID card, Mahmood says he recently moved to Izmir after spending two years in Turkey's Cankiri province, where he worked in masonry six days a week, ten hours a day, for a daily salary of 20 lira (6.10 euros/$7).

"In Iraq, I had two cars, a home and a bakery, but I sold it all," Mahmood said. "I just want my children to live in a safe place."

It's been two years and three months since Mahmood applied for asylum in the United States, and though he receives plenty of ridicule from his friend, Ebrahim, he remains hopeful.

"Europe hates us and America hates us," Ebrahim tells him. "Too many refugees went to Germany and we forced them to hate us."

"Even if they offer me a job in Europe, I will stay here," Ebrahim continued.

Across the street, Faisal, a café worker who didn't want to give his real name, agreed.

"If I go to Europe, I will lose my children," Faisal said. "When a child becomes a teenager, you can't say anything to them. Teenagers in Europe are beyond their parents' control."

"Here we can live the way we've always lived so I accept 25 lira a day to keep my family secure."

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