Lisa Szepan‘s text evolved as a result of the seminar “Global City Istanbul” and is based on interviews with Syrian students, who had fled the war in their home country to survive and continue their education abroad. During the field trip in May 2014, the young men talked to the researcher personally and kept communicating through digital media afterwards.

On my first visit to Sehir University, I started having a chat with two female students in the West Campus cafeteria randomly asking them where to find the next public park. While chatting, I told them about the student research group I was part of. When we came to discuss the issue of refugees in Istanbul, they mentioned that there were a number of Syrian students that had recently arrived at their university and sent me to the International Relations Office to find out more. 1

We found ourselves in Üsküdar, a middle-class neighborhood on the Asian side of the city that had been described as religious and conservative by the Turkish students I interviewed – naturally, such categorizations of whole districts only tell a part of the story. In the 2014 mayoral elections, 40.5% gave their vote to the Republican People’s Party’s (CHP) candidate and the Justice and Development Party (AKP) won with only a slight majority of 42.2%. Regarding political choices, the district appears to be a lot more diverse than initially expected, although the successful CHP candidate in Üsküdar was described as rather conservative when compared to the secular and left-wing social-democratic CHP. 2 For many Syrian students, Üsküdar is first and foremost a new home they arrive at after fleeing a war – the war in their home country. In the International Relations Office, I met three young Syrian men who shared crucial parts of their biographies with me. We talked about paths that had led them to Sehir University, the situation in Syria, the hardships as well as the positive experiences of their daily lives in the city of Istanbul.


  1. 1 This article was developed in the year-long seminar “Global City Istanbul“ at the University Göttingen under supervision of Sabine Hess and Gerda Heck. My research was partly conducted during a one week-long excursion to Istanbul partly through follow-up Skype interviews with some of the interlocutors I met there.
  2. 2 Cf. Cagaptay, Soner: “Turkey’s Presidential Prospects – Assessing recent trends”, in: Research Notes 18 (2014), The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, pp. 1-8.

According to the International Relations Office of Sehir University in July 2014, 91 Syrian students had arrived at the University between 2012 and 2013, all of them young Muslims, born in 1989 and later, with only a quarter of them being women. Around 70 of these students are supported by an Organization called Homs League Abroad (HLA), with most of them receiving non-material organizational support while a smaller number is granted a full scholarship. One of these students is Maroun, 19, who told me about a telephone call he got from HLA when he did no longer expect it:

“You got a full scholarship’ and I said like ‘Really? Really, I don’t remember’. Yeah I got it for you – you have to come to Istanbul in seven days.” (Maroun, May 29, 2014)

It was in summer 2013 when Maroun got this life-altering information and moved directly from Damascus to Istanbul to join Sehir’s preparation school on time – alone. He enrolled in a bachelor degree program in computer science and engineering and was provided with a bed in one of Sehir Universities’ dormitories in Üsküdar, where he is still living. There, he got to know Isan, a 24-year-old vivid young man, who rushed into the International Relations Office during our interview. Like Maroun, he had arrived in Turkey without any of his family members in 2013. Now, they all live together in Ümraniye, the neighboring district of Üsküdar. Before the war, Isan had already started studying architecture in Damascus, but soon realized that he was not satisfied with this subject. Eventually, he made plans to go to Germany and began learning the language at the Goethe Institute. When it became more and more insecure to stay in Damascus, he took the chance to leave the country with a Homs League scholarship. After some time of living in the Sehir dormitory with Maroun and my third interview partner Nadim, Isan had made almost enough money with his translation job at a call center to rent a place for him and his family. To finally come to Turkey, his father had to sell their car in Syria.

“Well my dad, my father sold his car. So that he can afford the flight tickets and they went to Beirut and from Beirut to here. It is not that hard, actually, to go to Beirut.” (Isan, May 29, 2014)

Since then, Isan, his parents and his two sisters have been renting a small house in Umraniye. While Isan’s older sister got a scholarship from the Turkish government’s turkiyeburslari-program to work on her dissertation in historical science, his parents had not found a job at the time of our last interview. 1

About Sehir University

Sehir University was founded based on the foundation “Bilim ve Sanat Vakfi”/ Foundation for Sciences and Arts, which has been working as an educational non-governmental institution since 1986. 2 Established in 2008, they started academic teaching for students in 2010/2011 as a private, non-profit institution and have, since then, offered several full or partial scholarships to Turkish as well as international students. 3 The area between the Altunizade metro bus station and the three main campus locations (East, West and South Campus) is shaped by car and bus traffic, road bridges for pedestrians, a few non-alcohol serving roadside restaurants, a book shop and a Nissan subsidiary. Further on, you come across a few highly protected private buildings as well as a camera-surveyed and walled park for golf and other leisure activities. Entering the West Campus thus felt like entering an oasis due of the presence of green open spaces, cafés that are halfway outdoors, half indoors and the semi-circular sitting arena looking out over campus life.

Eda Yücesoy, sociologist and urban researcher at Sehir told me about the foundation’s background:

“So the university is in that sense very young and the founding foundation has a strong motivation from the conservative part of Turkey […] and there are also many people who are actively involved in the current government.” (Eda Yücesoy, May 27, 2014)

This statement concerning the party-political involvement of central figures in the universities’ background can be verified for the foundation’s Executive Committee as well as for the Sehir University’s Board of Trustees. The foundation presents itself as aiming at international and interdisciplinary networking as well as at a revitalization of Turkish traditions and roots imagined as indispensable for overcoming “psychological and intellectual barriers” to solutions for current global challenges. 4 The foundation does so by organizing activities like workshops in which they are engaging, among various other topics, with the Ottoman history and its implications for current political and societal life as well as problem solving strategies. 5


  1. 1 For further information, see: (last accessed July 2015).
  2. 2 Cf. Bilim Sanat Vakfı Her Hakkı Saklıdır, “Institutional, About Us” (2011), (last accessed July 2015).
  3. 3 Cf. Eastchance, “2012-2013 Academic Year International Undergraduate Admissions”, İstanbul Şehir University, Turkey,cee,sch (last accessed July 2015).
  4. 4 Bilim Sanat Vakfı Her Hakkı Saklıdır, “Institutional, About Us” (2011), (last accessed July 2015).
  5. 5 Bilim Sanat Vakfı Her Hakkı Saklıdır, “Institutional, About Us” (2011), (last accessed July 2015).

For the three young men I spoke to, the ability to finance their studies and lives in Istanbul was the key issue for their decision to move there – as they had to leave Damascus and Homs, they could have also gone to another country. Personal contacts, either to family members or friends, made them find out about the work of the internationally working Syrian charity organization Homs League Abroad (HLA). Although they transport a clear regional identity through the organization’s name, paid membership is open to all Syrians, as well as those living in diasporas and all over the world. Moreover, the scholarships they provide young Syrians with also target those from other cities such as Damascus, as was the case for Isan and Maroun.


Students at Sehir West Campus

Students at Sehir West Campus © Lisa Szepan 2014


 According to their spokesperson Dr. Yaser Al Hamwe in the Head Office in Münster, Germany, HLA’s educational unit started working with two Istanbul universities in summer 2012, the Istanbul Şehir University and the Istanbul Aydın University located in Küçükçekmece. 1 In 2013, the organization counted 120 university students they supported in Turkey, 95 of these in Istanbul, while planning to support more students from autumn 2014 onwards. To introduce their work in Turkey, they built a connection to IHH Humanitarian Relief Foundation Turkey as well as the Turkish governmental scholarship program  turkiyeburslari to provide them with their expertise. IHH, founded in 1992 in Istanbul 2, has undergone severe criticism due to their contacts to a number of right leaning Islamist institutions and individuals. Yet, it has been a major humanitarian institution in Turkish society ever since as well as the most important foundation providing support for Syrian refugees outside of camps since March 2011. 3 Homs League Abroad’s work in Turkey was presented to me as a success and, at the time of our interview, HLA also awaited help from the German Academic Exchange Service and was organized within a broader network of German-Syrian charity organizations. 4


  1. 1 Email-interview answered on August 15, 2014.
  2. 2 Official Website of IHH, “Corporate“, “Brief History“, (last accessed July 2015).
  3. 3 Özden, Senay: Syrian Refugees in Turkey, Migration Policy Center Reports at the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies, European University Institute, San Domenico die Fiesole 2013, p. 9.
  4. 4 For further information, see the network’s website: (last accessed July 2015).

“So, I had to get out. And well, the obvious option is Istanbul.” (Isan, May 29, 2014) With the beginning of the Syrian refugee crisis, the Turkish government introduced the so-called Temporary Protection Regime in October 2011 allowing every Syrian refugee to enter Turkey legally and be provided with accommodation in camps as well as basic services outside of camps. 1 Talking about mobility and migration strategies, one should acknowledge the fact that many of the routes from Syria are taken out of despair and lack of alternatives, thereby representing variants of forced migration 2. However, this forced migration led my interview partners into environments described by them as relatively promising:

“I did not choose this university, I did not choose this country. I did not choose this city to study in. Or this university. It was the only and the one choice for me, to go, to run from the war and to complete my studies, so that is why. Let’s say it was the only and the one option, but it was not that bad, yeah, it is great.” (Nadim, May 30, 2014)

Istanbul’s academic landscape and Sehir University in particular was described as the only but a “great” option – they expressed a certain pragmatism and determination to work hard for a good and prestigious education, for example when Nadim told me about his and Maroun’s dream to study at MIT University (Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge) one day. In addition to being a place to learn and grow, to move further abroad, Istanbul was appreciated for its cultural richness and the degree of freedom it provided:

“You know it is an open society. And you are free to get whatever you want, you can, you can see they have lots of mosques, lots of them actually, and they have night clubs and they have all of this.” (Nadim, May 30, 2014)

However, my interviewees all preferred the Asian side of the city, to which they ascribed a generally calmer and more authentic atmosphere. For Nadim, it was the area close to the so-called Maiden’s Tower Kiz Kulesi in the southern part of the Bosporus strait that he chose for relaxation and reflection. Maroun expressed a certain fascination with the city as a whole when he said:

“Jane [Arabic expletive], I remember I read a sentence, I think, like ‘the world connects with its history in Istanbul’.” (Maroun, May 29, 2014)

However, he also experienced the European side as disturbingly crowded. Isan spoke similarly about Taksim, which he described as a place with unpleasant expats as well as a dubious nightlife characterized by drug dealing and prostitution.

A lot of the student’s everyday life is organized around the campus facilities. For example, Isan, who is employed as a translator by a call center with its office situated in Mecidiyeköy, Şişli, often works from the university to avoid the daily journey by public transport. To earn his living, he is active in a second job: Partly paid and partly volunteering, he supports the work of the NGO Watan Syria, which is part of set of seven institutions focusing on humanitarian and educational work, as well as research and business opportunities for Syria’s future. 3 At Watan, he tries to realize his ideas of charity work for Syrian people affected by the war.


  1. 1 UNHCR, “2015 UNHCR country operations profile – Turkey”, (last accessed July 2015).
  2. 2 According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the category of forced migration applies to those migratory movements “in which an element of coercion exists, including threats to life and livelihood, whether arising from natural or man-made causes”, including, for example the groups of refugees and asylum seekers, Internally Displaced Persons, environmental and disaster-induced displaced as well as development project induced displaced persons. Cf. (last accessed December 2014, no longer online).
  3. 3 Official Website of Watan Syria, “About Watan”, (last accessed July 2005).

“I am actually more active here in Istanbul than I was in Damascus, because you have like, more freedom now. There is no intelligence following us [laughs].” (Isan, May 29, 2014)

Whilst talking to Isan, he started telling me about his role in the Syrian revolution, where he was taking part in neighborhood coordination and the organization of strikes. He was also seeking to spread information about the incidents in Syria on English facebook pages to a broader international audience. In 2012, however, it was no longer safe for him to stay in his neighborhood due to the threat posed by Syrian intelligence. A few months after arriving in Turkey, he became involved in Watan, to which he referred to as a mainly charitable organization aiming to follow and provide analysis of the situation in Syria. Alongside other offices all over the world, mainly in the Middle East and the USA, there is a bigger team in Gaziantep, a Southern Turkish city close to the Syrian border and the area around Aleppo. Isan is one of the continuously active members in a team of about 20 people in Istanbul. In autumn 2014, they were working on the establishment of a sub-unit concentrating fully on scholarship provision. Their biggest problem is the allocation of funds that can guarantee students reliable long-term support in contrast to experiences made with the Homs League Abroad’s scholarship program:

“They have fallen in troubles of providing more funds for the students they already have leading actually to me being suspended from my scholarship, and trying to look for other sources of funds. And this is one of the troubles. The other troubles are actually, what you may call the ideological forcing, forcing some ideas upon students just because they have, they are supporting them. And well, at Watan we will never do such a thing.” (Isan, October 20, 2014)

Isan’s statement indicated the ambiguities of being financially supported by an organization with an ideological agenda and opacities in the selection and suspension processes of students. At this point, the transnational network established by HLA appears to be fragile for the individuals involved in it. In Isan’s case, the suspension from the scholarship program resulted in an increased mistrust in the organization’s integrity on the one hand and in a determination of building up alternative structures of – first and foremost – financial support on the other hand. When I told him about the scholarship package for 100 Syrian students recently announced by German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier in reaction to a public appeal initiated by German academics, Isan was enthusiastic and ready to carry the information into Watan. 1


  1. 1 Federal Foreign Office: “Press Release: Foreign Minister Steinmeier: Germany launches new scholarship package for Syrian students”, September 22, 2014, (last accessed July 2015).

Despite the active interest in the Syrian war, my interviewee’s reactions towards the recent Gezi-park protests were rather cautious, expressing the will to distance themselves from the events:

“Actually I did not come out, because I do not want to have any problem here, we are, we came from the war and we do not want to get more trouble here.” (Nadim, May 30, 2014)

On the other hand, a lack of understanding was expressed towards the notion of Turkish society feeling oppressed by the current government:

“Well, coming from a country such as Syria, I cannot see that how Turkish people oppressed. I don’t know, maybe from someone from Germany you can see it [laughs].” (Isan, May 29, 2014)

A similar perspective was taken on police violence during the 2013 upheavals:

“They said that the police was, was brutal. In what way was the police brutal [laughs]? Yeah, it’s funny for us, because they were shooting water at people? Oh come on, this is like very luxurious for us to shoot water at people. We get bullets, normally.” (Isan, May 29, 2014)

Against the background of still having family members in Syria living under life-threatening conditions, Gezi protests appeared to be an issue for the Turkish natives to my interview partners. There was a clear hierarchy of relevance with a focus on changing the situation in Syria and not in Turkey, which was mainly appreciated for its function as a loyal host. However, my interviewees expressed some skepticism towards the reasons the Turkish government had had for opening up its borders for Syrians so seemingly unconditionally.

In Aksaray, where many Syrians live, there are currently more than ten Syrian restaurants, Isan told me. Whenever he missed Syrian food, such as bean dishes and humus, he went there. The further broadening of Istanbul’s already global culinary infrastructure is one side effect of the Syrians’ active presence in the city. Outside Isan’s university and work life, he also occasionally had contact to Syrian people living at the outskirts of Istanbul, in areas like Sutanbeyli – there, he said, it is possible to rent a house at around 300 lira per month.

“It’s a, as if it is a village – not exactly a city, but it is still inside Istanbul. It is still considered inside of Istanbul, but it is a poor place, it is a very poor place.” (Isan, October 20,2014)

Far relatives of his stay in the area close to the city’s second airport, Sabiha Gökçen. According to Isan, they received support by the municipality, the Sultanbeyli belediyesi, for furnishings.

For describing the current relationship between Turkish and Syrian people, Isan found plain words when I asked him whether he had noticed the recent protests against Syrian migrants, for example in Ikitelli, Istanbul:

“Right now, you can obviously see that the Turkish people have lost their patience towards the Syrian issue.” (Isan, October 20, 2014)

He explained that the protests have been reactions to criminal acts of poor Syrian refugees, mostly theft, and that he understood both the Turkish people’s anger and the desperation of many of his compatriots.

“[…] as you can expect, people coming from a country that is broken, some of them are going to be broken also.” (Isan, May 29, 2014)

While showing his understanding for the Turkish people’s reaction towards social ‘misbehavior’ of refugees, he nevertheless referred to the protesters as lower educated and “not the most civilized Turkish people”, thereby implying that it is not the whole of Turkish society building up against Syrians. However, in official AKP government statements towards the Syrian issue until the end of 2012, the prevailing discourse was one of Turkey’s grandeur reflected in its selfless and conscientious support of the Syrian population in- and outside the war-shattered country. 1


  1. 1 Demirtas-Bagdonas, Özlem: “Reading Turkey’s Foreign Policy on Syria: The AKP’s Construction of a Great Power Identity and the Politics of Grandeur”, in: Turkish Studies 15 (2014) 1, pp. 139-155.

Reviewing the experiences of Isan, Maroun, Nadim and their families, their situation seems to reflect the almost desperate situation in Syria on the one hand and the fragmentation of Syrian civil society organizations abroad on the other. Chances to flee the war are mostly springing up from personal contacts leading to organizational affiliations and are, even in the most opportune cases, such as that of scholarship holders, accompanied by huge efforts and uncertainties. The fact that scholarship programs often require young people to leave their family members behind in an area of armed conflict and to migrate on their own to take the chance for academic training is just the most obvious hardship. Invoking the widespread pictures of Syrian refugees in Turkey inhabiting large camps or the streets of Istanbul or Gaziantep, the label of privileged refugees popped up in my head and I asked Isan what he thought about it. He hesitated and then replied:

“Probably you can say that. I suppose you can say that, because I mean me being at a private university –  to be honest, I had to work really really hard during the summer. Really hard meaning almost 20 hours a day to be able to gather enough money to pay for this semester and the coming one.” (Isan, October 20, 2014)

His answer made it plain to me that his and the other students’ privileges were fragile and that they were all struggling to pursue their education in Turkey. Their examples show that, once having fled from a war, people need much more than shelter, but rather long-term perspectives, and higher education is one part of it. Despite the activities of transnational organizations, universities and individuals, the Turkish government continues to play a key role in setting the benchmarks for the treatment of Syrians in the country. It remains to be seen how it is going to cope with the rising tensions against Syrian refugees and whether actors like Watan will be able to build alliances with the least fortunate Syrians inhabiting Turkey.