From The Occupation of Iraq to “The Arab Spring”: Gypsies in the Middle East
Although our history as Gadjos have been written by war and heroism, there is no place for war and heroes in Gypsy history, a history that is unwritten and remains confined to the magic of the spoken word. This community stays away from this Gadjo madness as much as possible and mostly remains neutral in wars. For them, the state has no meaning except to make their lives miserable with police forces and prohibitions. Furthermore, the notion of Nation also has no meaning for them except tribe. Borders are rings hung around the necks of the people and the land. In other words, these concepts, sacred to the Gadjo and for which the Gadjo die and kill, have always brought the Gypsies death, famine, pain and poverty.
In these chaotic times, this community has always been the one that suffered most, confronting famine, poverty and all kinds of violence. These people, who were discriminated against and othered even in the years of Sulhun (Peace), do not benefit from basic rights like health, education and shelter, and have been intensely affected by conflicts in spite of their neutrality. These people, who try to live at the “ground zero” of life, have been obliged to leave their ramshackle houses and take to the road. Such conditions, combined with the destructive and violent environment of war, appears to have aggravated their living problems, from social security and shelter to nutrition and health.
This people, whose roots trace back to India, have been living in a balance between nomadism and semi-nomadism for hundreds of years; today, however, they find themselves at the lowest place within the social order of the countries where they live. As a consequence of the minority politics implemented by these countries, the problems that Gypsies are facing are not limited to cultural and historical demands but also include subhuman experiences of poverty, prejudice, discrimination and violence.
According to historical data, Gypsies dispersed around the world from their homeland in India due to war as well. Looking at the previous century, it is clear that millions of Gypsies have had to change their migration routes and traverse different geographies during the period from the Balkan wars to the First and Second World Wars and beyond. Hundreds of thousands of Gypsies were massacred by fascism during the Second World War and the survivors have been scattered to the four winds of Europe ever since. The Gypsies thought they had found freedom in the eastern bloc countries after those countries started to splinter in the early 1990s. However, as these countries fell apart and chauvinism began to spread, Gypsies were the first to be targeted by racist attacks and xenophobia. Although they stayed neutral in the civil wars of Central and Eastern European countries, Gypsies were again subject to massacres. During the civil war in countries like Bosnia and Kosovo, hundreds of thousands of Gypsies were obliged to leave their homes and countries. Thousands were killed and tens of thousands were injured and mutilated during the war. Their houses were destroyed and their lands were dispossessed. In Kosovo, for example, where there had been hundreds of thousands of Gypsies before the civil war, there were only eight thousand Gypsy families left after the war.
Gypsies in Middle East from The Occupation of Iraq to “The Arab Spring”
Gypsies, an ancient people that resides in almost every country of the Middle East—especially Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Lebanon—and whose population is over 5 million, have fallen on dark times as the result of civil war and conflict. The majority of Gypsies who live in the Middle East are Doms, one of three primary groups of Gypsies. In the languages of the Middle East, much like in other languages, all words signifying and meaning “Gypsy” (such as Dom, Dummi, Nawar, Kurbet, Barake, Abdal, Helebi, Koli, Ghorbati, Jat/Zott and Zargar) connote an insult and are used in this way.
The experiences of the “Gajar” Gypsy community in Baghdad after the United States occupied Iraq in 2003 is only a small example of what they have suffered and can shed light upon those times. The members of this community, with a population of approximately fifty thousand population, were trying to make a living during the era of Saddam by providing music and dancing at weddings and celebrations in their own languages outside Arabic. After Americans occupied and overturned the regime, public and private institutions were looted by rebels.
The houses, workplaces and holy places of regime supporters as well as ethnic and religious minorities were destroyed; Gajars were also seriously affected by this destruction. Districts where Gajars lived were totally destroyed and their homes were burned down. All Gajars, including women and children, were subject to indiscriminate violence, and women suffered from every kind of violence, particularly sexual violence. Near the district of Abu Ghraib, well known with its torture houses during the American occupation, there was a very famous Gajar district. Like Gypsy districts in other cities, it was totally destroyed and people’s homes were leveled by bulldozers, forcing many to migrate. After the occupation, Gypsies were exposed to a great number of barbarian attacks by radical groups such as Al Qaeda and Shia militants in cities all across Iraq. As a consequence of these attacks, thousands of women, children and men lost their lives while the central Iraqi government remained silent about these attacks. These attacks became so brutal that a great number of Gypsies were beheaded from the back of a neck, a type of execution that according to Arab tradition is reserved for victims who are worthless and from the lowest groups of society. Because the central Iraqi government closed its eyes to these massacres, thousands of Gypsy families left their villages and towns and took shelter in the crowds of big cities. They got caught up in illegal work such as begging, robbery and prostitution. A majority of them had to resort to nomadism as a consequence of the discrimination they were exposed to in each place they went. Many groups took shelter outside of the country, in places like Syria, Jordan and Lebanon. The leaders of the new regime would say, “There’s no place for alcohol sellers and prostitutes in an Islamic country.” As one Gypsy told a journalist, “Iraqi people became Muslims after occupation and that’s when living here became difficult for me.” Today, radical Shia leaders are continuously warning Gypsies to behave in accordance with morality and to maintain Islamic lifestyles and living conditions. They are provoking society against Gypsies by claiming that Gypsy women wander around naked, dance, and sell and consume alcohol and drugs. Nowadays, Gypsy communities in Iraq are trying to survive without basic living needs such as drinking water, electricity and healthcare. As a result of the systematic attacks by Radical groups, tens of thousands of Iraqi Gypsies were forced to migrate to the province of Kurdistan. Given that their population has increased in cities such as Duhok, they are now demanding political representation in the government of Iraqi Kurdistan.
A street peddler and university graduate in Tunisia initiated the process of civil rebellions known as the “Arab Spring” by setting his body on fire on the December 17th, 2010. The voices that rose in the streets of Arab countries quickly spread across the Middle East and the dictatorial regimes that had been ruling for almost half a century were toppled one by one. All these rebellions altered the religious and ethnic balance of many societies in the Middle East, and produced a chaotic environment in which scenarios for establishing a new Middle East intersected with interventions in economic and political interests. The dynamic state of the Arab streets along with international balances and interests are perpetuating this chaotic atmosphere. This ongoing situation is a source of anxiety for ethnic and religious minority groups, and in conjunction with the gains being made by radical Islamic groups like the Salafis, it is causing these ancient communities of the Middle East to experiment with new routes to get to Europe and other countries as immigrants and refugees.
The revolution has come, but what then?
While an old Gypsy women was sitting and drinking at Nile riverside, a reporter asked her the question: “Let’s say the revolution has come, but what then?” The woman answered: “I hadn’t hoped for it for more than ten years but now at least I have hope. Regardless of what happens now, it can’t be as bad as what we’ve gone through over the last few years.” It is estimated that there are nearly two and half million Gypsies living in Egypt now. The state has particularly avoided keeping records on this community, most of whom do not have identification papers. They have no official birth registrations or identity cards and they are socially isolated and forced to live in the impoverished regions of Egypt. They live in extremely bad conditions in homes around dirty water channels in the Nile Valley, and they generally work as metal workers, dancers, fortunetellers, or in other day-to-day labor. After Mubarak was toppled in 2011, many Gypsies living on the shores of the Nile, like the woman above, tied their hopes to the revolution; but it soon became clear that the Islamists, who were gaining strength and were worse than what we’d had before, did not see ethnic and religious minorities as equal to themselves. With the last coup, uncertainty about their future has risen exponentially. Recently, there have reportedly been attacks on Dom groups, particularly in Sinai and Alexandria. Gypsies, whom Egyptians call “Ghagar” (meaning “rambler”), continue to be the invisible people of Egypt. 
The Gypsies: Other Refugees of Syria
When the civil rebellions in the Middle East that toppled regimes in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya reached Syria in March 2011, it was expected that the Ba’athist regime would also be toppled. Contrary to expectations, however, the regime remains in power, owing in part to the ethnic and religious structure of Syria as well as its geographic location, the hierarchical and differential power relations articulated by the Ba’athist regime, and the international balance of power. As a consequence of the war, which has entered into its fourth year, millions of people from all ethnic groups have been forcibly displaced from their homelands. While some have migrated to cities that experience fewer conflicts and therefore have comparatively higher security, almost six million Syrian people have fled their country and taken refuge in neighbouring countries. Today, the Gypsies are trying to survive in the extraordinarily difficult conditions of the camps and homes in the countries where they have taken refuge. According to recent statistics, as of November 2014, 1,645,000 Syrians have been taken under temporary protection in Turkey. This number is estimated to have reached 2 million, including undocumented refugees, in the first month of 2015. If we consider the fact that all these people from Syria who are taking shelter in Turkey may belong themselves to ethnic and religious minorities, we will realize just how little information we have regarding what these groups experience within the refugee population itself. According to reports from both national and international media and officials, Christian communities and the Armenians are becoming more nervous day by day; immigration to Europe and Armenia has started; and people who stayed within the country have also sought refuge in lower-conflict cities. Since the days when the Kurdish rebellions started, the Kurds have created secure regions that are managed by their own security forces own safety regions and provided their security. We know also that religious and ethnic minority groups, including Assyrians, Armenians, and Ezidis have been living in relative safety within these regions. Before 2011 over five hundred thousand settled and semi-nomadic Gypsies were spread across Syria and known variously as Dom, Dummi, Nawar, Kurvet, Abdal, Helebi, and Zott peoples. These communities, originally composed of craftsmen who worked in ironsmithing, tinsmithing, sieve-making, dentistry, circumcision, and music, have become increasingly unable to do this work due to the industrialization and modernization of production as well as legal prohibitions. Only musicians were able to keep making a living by performing at weddings and celebrations. In recent years, however, these communities have been doing temporary jobs such as collecting scrap metal and paper and working for very low wages as seasonal agricultural workers. These restricted working opportunities have largely disappeared due to the environment of ongoing conflict and the virtual collapse of Syrian production. According to the Gypsies who took refuge from Syria in Turkey, they were forced to migrate by both regime and its opponents in spite of staying neutral in conflicts between the warring groups, and their houses and properties have been destroyed and plundered as a result of the war and the conflict situation that have been going on for four years. As a consequence of air strikes on Aleppo, neighborhoods like Haydariye that were mostly populated by Gypsies have suffered many mortal attacks; these neighborhoods have been almost completely vacated. Gypsies are subject to violence especially in regions that are under the control of radical Islamist groups that have recently gained strength. These radical groups have also seized Gypsy properties and subject them to mortal violence under the justification that they are not “Muslim enough.” These groups, which are perpetuating conflict in the name of sectarian and religious motives, are committing more and more violence against different religious groups day by day. Because of the the oppression by radical Islamist groups, Gypsy communities such as the Abdals, who believe in the Alewi-Bektashi faith, have been forced to leave their homes in cities such as Aleppo, Idlib, Hama, and Manbij and to live in regions under control of regime or to seek refuge in neighboring countries. According to many witnesses, there have been deaths and severe injuries as a result of these attacks; some childrens’ hands were cut off on the grounds that they stole; and many women have been kidnapped and afflicted by sexual violence. Syrian Gypsies who have taken refuge in Turkey say that the Gypsies who remain in Syria have had to migrate either to provinces farther west such as Latakia and Damascus where there have been fewer air attacks, or to cantons under the control of the Kurds, such as Afrin, Kobanê, Qamishli. Because of the violent conflicts in cities, inadequate healthcare and the scarcity of food, many of these communities have begun quickly migrating to neighbouring countries. Today, tens of thousands of Gypsies are struggling against hunger and poverty to survive as refugees in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq.
The Invisible Refugees of Turkey
Like all peoples in Middle East, the Gypsies were also divided by artificial boundaries. Although though they may have lived in different countries, they nonetheless remained in contact with their relatives. In their words, they were “intermarrying.” With the beginning of the wave of migration, when these groups began to be subject to discrimination by other peoples, they tried to reach the cities where their relatives had been living. Although they had been living in different countries, in fact, all Gypsies shared the same fate. Districts once known as a city’s suburbs and where Gypsies had lived for hundreds of years have been destroyed in the name of “urban transformation” in order to generate profits. This phenomenon forces these people, who are already struggling economically, to become homeless and therefore to migrate. Racist and nationalist groups attack and burn down the homes of anyone who tries to resist this oppression.
This people, who have suffered every kind of discimination and have been expelled from society even in times of peace, are struggling to survive in the incredibly difficult conditions of the places where they live today. Although those who manage to take shelter in refugee camps in neighbouring countries may try to disguise themselves as Kurds, Turkmen, or Arabs according to the languages they know, they are nonetheless marginalized by the Arab, Kurdish and Turkmen residents of camps. Exposed to the same prejudiced attitudes in the camps, even by the camp management, they are quickly recognized, excluded, and eventually unable to take shelter in the camps. Many of them have begun to return to nomadic life in order to keep out of those wire fence prisons and to avoid the contempt of the Gadjos.
The Gypsies from Syria who are refugees in Turkey are living in cities such as Antakya, Kilis, Osmaniye, Mersin, Gaziantep, Maras, Urfa, Adıyaman, Mardin, Batman, Diyarbekir, and Izmir. Most of them are trying to survive in hovels and sheds in the poor districts of these cities. Though they may not have any bread to share, their relatives have set up tents outside the walls of their homes and go out to collect scrap metal, paper and a piece of bread. In the summer months, they are a cheap labor force going to the Mediterranean and Central Anatolia regions as seasonal workers. They take shelter in the derelict buildings destroyed by urban transformation in Fikirtepe in Istanbul, in Dikmen Deresi in Ankara, and in Kadifekale in Izmir, with the hope of becoming lost in the crowd and finding a job. However, the majority of them part of them are still trying to live along the border, from Mardin to Antakya, in ramshackle tents around cities, towns and villages. They still hope that the war will finish one day, and that they will return home. Local governments in particular do not give them permission to reside in tents on the grounds that they cause visual pollution and cause local people to complain, based on their prejudices. As the people’s complaints increase, their tents are taken down and set on fire.
The Ministry of the Interior has recently published a memorandum about “Gathering up the Syrian refugees who try to live by panhandling in streets.” This memorandum was sent to the governships of every province. Police forces have presented all Syrian refugees who are living in streets or in tents they own with two options: they forced them to settle, either in empty camps or by renting houses. If they don’t comply with the first two options, they were verbally instructed to return to Syria. This memorandum was actually targeted specifically against this community. Many governors have rigidly implemented this memorandum and given police forces a mandate to carry it out. In some provinces and cities, they have started a virtual cattle drive. Children begging for helps on streets have been sent to camps without providing any notice to their families. People and groups that do not want to go camps under the control of AFAD (The Disaster and Emergency Management Presidency of Turkey) are displaced and then forced to return to Syria, into the midst of the war. People living in old, derelict buildings in places like Gaziantep were taken personally by police forces and sent across the border. On this matter, the pro-government media attempted to redirect the increasing anti-Syrian sentiment in Turkish society towards Gypsies and beggars. They interviewed the leaders of the Syrian opposition, who made statements like “these are Gypsies, they were begging in Syria, we don’t want them either, they’re not Arabs.” Such statements provoked society and the police forces against this community.
Approximately thirty to forty thousand Gypsies who have fled Syrian and sought shelter in Turkey are trying to survive in these difficult conditions. They represent a very small fraction of the Syrian refugee population whose number has reached nearly two million. This community doesn’t want to live in camps for various reasons. On the one hand, Arabs, Kurds and Turkmens living in the camps discriminate against them and the management of camps also don’t want them there. On the other hand, this community doesn’t want to live in camps surrounded by wire fences, guarded by the gendarme, and closed off from the outside world. Furthermore, Abdals of the Alewi faith are afraid of living in camps with Sunnis. And, these communities are still in contact with their Turkish relatives, and therefore want to live in the same districts and cities with their relatives.
Recently, “the fear of being forcefully resettled in camps” has been disturbing Syrian Gypsy refugees and they have started to change the places where they settle. This kind of dual state of “escaping and migrating” (“kaç-göç”) carries a significant risk to health and life, particularly for women and children.
To conclude, Gypsies have always been the victims of “civil wars” between peoples and ethnic/religious groups among whom they have been living for centuries. Over the past four years, during the course of the popular uprisings in the Middle East, just as in the past, the Gypsy groups of the Middle East have been caught in the middle of warring factions. In their collective memories, they carry the centuries of massacre and pain that they experienced during wars and civil wars, transmitting those “difficult times” to future generations through the magic of the spoken word. These painful days have been again engraved into the hearts of the “free spirits of world.” But hard times await those “others” with whom the Gypsies have lived together for centuries in Middle East.
What do the new governments in countries altered by the uprisings have in store for the future of religious and ethnic minorities, including Gypsies? There have been no concrete steps taken to address this question except some half-hearted promises. As long as politicians’ declamations on this subject do not find their counterpart in the law, as long as these people’s right to live humanely in “peace and equality” is not guaranteed by the law, the multicultural structure of the Middle East will become even more distorted.
by Kemal Vural Tarlan
 Gadjo: One who is not Gypsy; a foreigner; a stranger; used by Gypsies to describe people who are not part of the community.
 The Iraqi Gypsies After the Collapse of Hussein's Regime, Yasunori Kawakami http://www.domresearchcenter.com/journal/22/index.html, Accessed: 18 January, 2015
 The Gypsies of Iraq – meetings with a people in isolation, http://www.yourmiddleeast.com/features/the-gypsies-of-iraq-meetings-with-a-people-in-isolation_12455 (Accessed: 18 January, 2015).
 Gypsies and Society in Iraq: Between Marginality, Folklore and Romanticism, Ronen Zeidel http://www.tandfonline.com/…/a…/10.1080/00263206.2013.849696 (Accessed: 18 January 2015).
 The Iraqi gypsies living on the fringes of society, http://observers.france24.com/content/20150304-iraq-gypsies-villages-minorities-diwaniya (Accessed: 4 March 2015).
 No More Singing and Dancing: Iraq`s Gypsies Want to Vote, A.-K. Dosky, http://www.niqash.org/articles/?id=3062 (Accessed: 18 January 2015).
 M. Paul Lewis, ed., ―Domari,‖ in Ethnologue : Languages of the World (Dallas, TX: SIL International, 2009) http://www.ethnologue.com/show_language.asp?code=rmt (Accessed: 18 January 2015).
 Gypsies inside the Egyptian circle http://www.domresearchcenter.com/news/egypt/egypt1circle.html(Accessed: 18 January 2015).
 Egypt's Invisible Gypsies, Alexandra Parrs (http://isa-global-dialogue.net/egypts-invisible-gypsies/). (Accessed: 18 January 2015).
 http://www.cnnturk.com/haber/turkiye/turkiyede-suriyeli-multeci-sayisi-1-9-milyon (Accessed: 18 January 2015).
 Suriyeli Sığınmacıların Türkiye’ye Etkileri raporu; http://www.tesev.org.tr/suriyeli-siginmacilarin-turkiye’ye-etkileri/Icerik/1757.html (Accessed: 18 January 2015).
 http://www.radikal.com.tr/turkiye/suriyelilerin_cadirlari_sokulup_yakildi-1125685 (Accessed: 18 January 2015).
 http://t24.com.tr/haber/81-ilin-valiliklerine-suriyeli-dilencileri-kamplara-toplayin-talimati,266309 (Accessed: 18 January 2015).
The Dom of Syria: The “other” refugees
I believe that the current conditions of globalization require us to debate the rights of individuals from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds, that is, the rights of the “others.” I will draw on Kant’s essay entitled “Perpetual Peace” to strengthen my argument. Today, as we seem to stand on the verge of global war, the current conditions of globalization correspond to a reality which spans from the “European Constitution” to the increased blurriness of the century-old borders in the Middle East. This reality also points to humanity’s progress towards “days of perpetual peace.” On the one hand, we witness and experience how the masses “longing for spring” took to the squares to bring down the remnants of dilapidated, dictatorial nation states; and how the bloody retreat of those uprisings evolved into medieval barbarism. Women are now sold on slave markets due to ethnic, religious and political/ ideological differences, children’s dead bodies hit the shores of the Mediterranean, massacres and executions are broadcast live, radicals raised in the Western education system organize serial killings with cold blood in the neighborhoods in which they used to live. On the other hand, the defeated masses, with their hopes exhausted, abandon their homes and lands to reach the borders of Europe, a place they had thought to be the homeland of the concepts of “rights and equality”, and come face to face with the real Europe. On the one hand, the civilized world drops tons of bombs every day on this region, on the other, another region that had lifted its internal borders and wrote equality and justice on its flag confronts the “other.”
The perception of Gadjos
In his articles on being the “other”, living with the “other” and opening up a space for the “other” between different cultures, Jürgen Habermas suggests that “Embracing is not turning on oneself and closing oneself to the other. Embracing the other means keeping the social borders open to everyone—especially to those who are stranger to each other and wish to remain so.” From Kant’s era to the present day, the debates around the concept of nation have necessarily included issues such as inequalities across the globe, human rights and “the rights of the others.” All of this urges us to ask ourselves whether we will live together with the “other.” The distinction between the other and the local becomes blurred in many times and places. This in a way resembles the ambiguity about the location of the border between the East and the West. Just like every region has its “East,” everyone has an “other.” The most obvious example can be seen in us Gadjos’ perceptions of the Roma people.1 For centuries, this people has been discriminated against and ostracized across the world. The Dom people are an ethnic community thought to number around 5 million and live in almost all Middle Eastern countries. They speak the Domari language of the Indo-European language family. Having worked as ironsmiths, tinsmiths, tanners, basketmakers, dentists, circumcisers, musicians and fortunetellers. The Dom are facting employment as these crafts become obsolete. For hundreds of years, the Dom led a nomadic life in order to perform these crafts and met the neighboring peoples’ demand for work tools, kitchenware, etc. With the increase in population and the development of manufacturing and mass production, they have simply become unable to make a living with their traditional crafts. They had to take refuge in the cities, working there as day laborers or unskilled workers.
The tumultuous political and social life, civil wars and conflicts in the Middle East have rendered daily life increasingly difficult for these people.
Living at “degree zero
In this era of upheaval, the Dom people suffered significantly, experiencing famine, poverty and all kinds of violence. Discriminated against and othered even in times of peace, these people could not meet their most basic needs such as health, education and shelter, and were very adversely affected by the conflict during civil war although they remained neutral. Obliged to a life at “degree zero,” the Dom were obliged to hit the road, abandoning their makeshift tents and huts. The destruction and violence created by war and civil war has further aggravated their basic problems in terms of social security, shelter, nutrition and health. The Syrian civil war makes life extremely hard for all the ethnic groups and religious minorities of this country. Today, the Dom who left Syria to take refuge in Turkey state that they are being forced to migrate by both the regime and opponents, and their houses and belongings are being demolished and plundered although they have remained neutral during the four-year conflict. Among others, Aleppo’s Haydariya neighborhood that was inhabited by the Dom was heavily bombarded from air, leading to countless deaths and forced migration. Especially in regions controlled by radical Islamist groups, whose power has recently increased, the violence against the Dom is on the rise. These groups seize the Dom’s homes and belongings on the pretext that they are not “true Muslims” and subject them to lethal violence. These groups which base their war effort on religious and sectarian grounds exert increasing violence on groups with different belief systems. Especially groups such as Abdals of the Alevi-Bektashi faith were forced to abandon their homes in Aleppo, Idlib, Hama or Mumbuc due to radical Islamist pressure, and sought refuge in regions under regime control or in neighboring countries where they were obliged to live as nomads. Witnesses state that these attacks lead to death and serious injury, children’s hands are cut off on charges of theft, and women are abducted and subjected to sexual violence. The Syrian Dom seeking refuge in Turkey state that their relatives who stay behind have had to flee to the western provinces of Latakia and Damascus where conflict and air raids are not as intense, or to the cantons of Afrin, Kobane and Qamishli under Kurdish control. The heavy fighting in the cities and lack of access to health services and nutrition have driven some of these communities to other countries. Nowadays, tens of thousands of asylum seekers try to survive in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq under conditions of famine and poverty.
Refugee camps and the Dom
Dom refugees do not generally stay in refugee camps, and do not want to. The main underlying reasons are the prejudice and discrimination they face from other camp dwellers and the management. Due to the ethnic, religious or political polarization in the camps, limitation of free circulation, tight controls on entry and exit, the feelings of isolation and imprisonment, these groups do not perceive these camps as spaces where they can live freely. As such, Dom refugees choose to stay in their own tent camps, in makeshift tents, or in derelict or abandoned buildings. Those without a roof sleep on the streets and in parks. Only a handful of families can afford to live together in rented houses. Such houses are mostly located in neighborhoods where local Roma communities live in Turkey. Due to a decree recently issued by the Ministry of Interior, their tents are frequently burnt or torn down. Groups survive on petty jobs they find on a daily basis and have no money for rent; therefore, they are obliged to move frequently. Since they face more pressure in small towns, they choose to migrate to large cities such as Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir in order to get lost in the crowd. The lifestyle of the Dom refugees makes it almost impossible to register their activities. The Disaster and Emergency Management Presidency (AFAD), which registers the activities of Syrian refugees in Turkey, either cannot access these groups or is unwilling to register them due to prejudice. Today many members of the community lack the ID cards normally given out to refugees by registration centers. The Dom list the reasons for these as their undocumented passage through the border, lack of information about the registration process or misinformation, and the tendency to avoid state officers. On the other hand, the members of the community who live in tents or ruins, cannot obtain the certificate of residence which is required for registration. Even those who meet all the criteria are made to wait for no apparent reason, and are sometimes denied their documents. On the other hand, not everyone wants to obtain a foreigner identification card owing to their return to nomadism to find jobs, and the fact that such cards are valid only in the province of issue. Individuals who lack these cards cannot access health services and assistance.
The NGOs’ and aid organizations’ demands for assistance to these individuals are ignored by officers on the grounds that this would encourage people to live on the streets. Dom refugees who live in makeshift tents, ask for assistance or work on the streets are always prone to the arbitrary interventions of security forces and become their targets. Dom refugees in Turkey have immense difficulty in finding jobs. They walk the streets with the hope of finding casual work, and collect waste for recycling. When they find a job, they usually have to work very long hours for a very low pay. They are obliged to cede to exploitation. Women and children either peddle small necessities (kleenex, lighters, etc. ) or collect food and aid on the streets. For four years, these refugee groups who try to survive in Turkey despite all these adversities have been discriminated against and othered. What are the reasons for this? NGOs and refugee aid organizations, unfortunately including the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, lack information about this community. This renders a 40,000-strong community invisible. Syrian refugees are generally perceived as a homogenous group of Sunnite, Arab individuals; there is some knowledge about relatively larger ethnicities such as Turkmens, Kurds and Circassians, but groups such as the Roma—seen by the remaining groups as the “other”—continue to be ignored, disregarded, ostracized as ever. Among over two million Syrian refugees in Turkey, there are roughly 40.000 Dom people. They constitute the most invisible and excluded group of all refugees, even within the refugee community itself as well as for the NGOs working with refugees..
The unraveling of communal life
In these communities, dispersed groups and families become vulnerable to all kinds of danger. The Dom communities living in the Middle East are composed of smaller tribes, which are further divided into large families living together. Each group is composed of 5 to 15 families which in fact lead a communal life. Although they live in separate tents or houses, the tradition of solidarity persists. A leader who directs and orients the group also manages their relations with the outside world. This communal lifestyle also protects such a self-enclosed society against external threats. Their ancient tradition lives on in this manner. This communal living leads to the virtual absence of the sense of private property, the group’s compensation for any individual or familial shortcomings, particularly the protection of children and women, endurance against tough living conditions—in short, the strength to resist assimilation into the social and economic system of Gadjos. The fragmentation of these relationships in periods of upheaval, such as war and conflict, thrusts individuals and families who are not adapted to living alone into an unknown world. The fragmentation of groups creates tears in the social fabric. Forced to engage with an unknown system in order to find employment, shelter and food, these individuals become vulnerable to danger. Children who sell things on the street, women who ask for help, or men who are willing to do any kind of work easily get tangled up in crime.
Caught between security forces and the media
On the other hand, the media in Turkey tends to cover Dom refugees in a negative way, as “beggars from Syria” or “Syrian Gypsies,” portraying their tough living conditions as their own lifestyle choice. Articles written in this vein fuel further discrimination against Dom refugees. The anti-Syrian sentiment which grips the Turkish society at times is directed mainly at this community, with the encouragement of some media outlets. Unfortunately certain individuals including some spokespeople of Syrian refugees tell the media “These people are Gypsies who were beggars back in Syria. We do not want them; they are not Arabs.” As a result, the society and security forces are mobilized against the community. The Ministry of Interior has issued a decree which orders the “internment of Syrian refugees who beg on the streets.” The decree was sent to the governors’ offices of all provinces, and security forces offered two options to Syrian asylum seekers who live in the streets or in makeshift tents: Either settle down in a refugee camp or rent a house. If they refused to do one or the other, they were to be sent back to Syria. In fact, the Doms were the direct target of this decree. Many governors applied the decree to the letter and authorized the security forces. A witch hunt took place in certain provinces and districts. Children asking for aid on the streets were sent to camps without the knowledge of their families. Individuals and groups who refused to live in AFAD-controlled camps were driven away, forcing some of them to return to Syria despite the ongoing war.
Lots of talk, no legislation
To conclude, the Roma people are the victims of “civil wars” waged by different peoples, ethnic and religious groups with whom they had been living for centuries. During the recent Middle Eastern popular uprisings that started out four years ago, groups of Dom were again caught between the warring sides, as had happened in previous experiences. For centuries, this ancient people carried in their collective memory the massacre and suffering they have gone through in various wars and civil wars, and transmitted these “hard times” to younger generations with the magic of the word. Now, more suffering is inscribed on the hearts of “the world’s free souls.” Tough days await the “others” of the Middle East. Recent political negotiations, lump sum payments and promises for keeping refugees away from the borders of Europe are yet another indication of the fact that we are still tangled in the nation state mentality. However, did not Kant aspire to days of perpetual peace in a Europe without borders? The events of recent years in the world show us that, in the age of globalization, war is global just like everything else. What do our governments, those who rule Middle Eastern countries reshaped by the popular uprisings, think about the Roma and other religious and ethnic minorities? As long as their discourse of equality is not translated into concrete legislation, as long as these peoples’ right to live humanely in “peace and equality” is not guaranteed by law, the multicultural structure of the Middle East and the world is due to degenerate.
1* Gadjo is a term used by Roma people to denote someone who is not Romani, a stranger.
by Kemal Vural Tarlan