“It started as a small business, but it’s turned into a social message,” says Abu Yaseen, his kindly face framed by a bushy white beard and crisp white skullcap. “Everyone is coming here, thanks to Allah. Rebels, activists, journalists, all kinds of associations and ministries—the future leaders of Syria are here.”
Entering its fourth year, the war across the border churns on mercilessly, with the death toll crossing 150,000 and more than two-fifths of Syria’s population—nearly 9.5 million people—displaced, including three million who have fled abroad. The Turkish government in Ankara, staunchly opposed to Bashar Assad’s Syrian regime, has maintained open borders and spent more than $3 billion on refugees.
Everyone is coming here, thanks to Allah: rebels, activists, journalists.
Some 220,000 of them have settled in camps on the Turkish side of the 820-kilometer border. Officially, Turkey has taken in 750,000 refugees, but a United Nations official recently put the total at more than 900,000 and rising. As many as 100,000 Syrians have crossed into Turkey since January when Assad began his campaign of barrel bombs—cheap, improvised explosives made from barrels stuffed with TNT and shrapnel that are pushed from helicopters—in Aleppo.
With the camps full, many make their way to Gaziantep, less than 30 miles north of the border. No Turkish city, and perhaps no city outside Syria, has been as altered by the war. Today, the city and surrounding area host at least 200,000 Syrians. Some local NGOs put the number at twice that—which would represent nearly a quarter of the province’s population.
Either way, their presence is unmistakable. Original Halabi Restaurant anchors an emerging “Little Aleppo” in the city center. Around the corner is a sleek new KFC-style chicken joint, with specials written only in Arabic script on the front windows. Nearby are two Syrian barbershops, Syrian-run mobile phone stores, a chocolatier, a café, and a juice bar. Syrian children beg on street corners and groups of elderly and teenage Syrian men crowd the sidewalks.
Many end up at Abu Yaseen’s—a bright, clean space with gray-tiled floors, red tables, and picture windows looking out onto a stout stone minaret. Beneath a flat-screen TV tuned to Syrian-opposition news, pre-teen waiters scurry back and forth with bowls of fatteh, plates bearing creamy hummus, crepe-thin omelets, and balls of falafel—plus a steady stream of tea. The air is heavy with chickpeas, garlic, and olive oil, but the atmosphere is light, almost festive. The clientele is mostly young men, plus the occasional female activist or refugee family. On sunny days, they fill tables set up on a patch of dirt and concrete out front.