When Yusuf al-Abudullah got married more than a year ago, he and his new wife moved into an apartment in Aleppo. The newlyweds went furniture shopping and made plans to have a child. About a week later, Syrian rebels entered the city and attacked fighters loyal to President Bashar al-Assad. Soon a bloody battle ensued, and Abudullah’s apartment became little more than a pile of rubble.
The couple fled across the border to Turkey, taking nothing to remind them of their home but a receipt for an LG washing machine—a wedding gift from better days. Their son, Ahmed, was born in a provincial town in southern Turkey called Gaziantep, near the border with Syria. “When Ahmed was born, the doctors measured and weighed him and handed me a slip of paper with only his mother’s name on it,” Yusuf says. “The paper does not even have Ahmed’s name on it.”
Three years after Syria’s civil war began, not only are many Syrian refugees struggling to find steady work and a decent place to live, but more than 6,000 of children like Ahmed are “in effect stateless,” according to a recent report from the Brookings Institution. They can’t return to their war-ravaged homes because they aren’t Syrian citizens, but they’re not recognized as Turkish citizens, either.
Turkey is faced with a massive influx of Syrian refugees, which continues to grow every day. The latest estimates put the number at roughly 600,000. By most accounts, Syrians included, the country has handled the issue well – establishing fully functional refugee camps and offering free health care to their displaced southern neighbors.
But this is little solace for Syrians such as Abudullah and his son. During a recent trip to Gaziantep, I spoke to half a dozen families facing similar problems. Many asked me to not include their last names in case they decided to return home. (The Turkish government agency responsible for refugees declined to comment.)
Mohammed, a 4-month-old, quiet, smiley baby is one of them. His father travels back and forth to war-ravaged Aleppo, where he has steady work as a merchant. Now Mohammed’s mother, Sawsan, and 13-year-old brother, Omar, look after him. The only official proof that Mohammed exists is a card-stock birth certificate with a cartoon stork on it, issued from a private hospital.
“I am the head of the family now,” Omar says proudly, as his two younger sisters watch Sponge Bob on a tiny television in a two-bedroom Gaziantep apartment. “I am responsible for keeping the house in order, buying things and taking care of everyone. My father told me to watch out for the family, so I do.”
Since Turkey does not offer citizenship outright to foreigners born in the country, the only option for Syrian refugees is to make the dangerous journey home, where they can try and acquire birth records.
“To get Syrian identity papers, I must travel to a regime held area, and they have my name on a list because I participated in demonstrations in 2011,” Yusuf says. “The shabiha [pro-government paramilitaries] from my area gave my name to the government. And the office of the [rebel] Syrian Coalition told me, ‘That’s not our problem. You need to pay the shabiha to do it for you.’ Can you imagine?”
Across town, 42-year-old Ziyad Omar nervously smokes cigarettes and paces around his living room, wondering how he will continue to feed his family of six. He recently lost his job at a restaurant in Gaziantep. And like the others, he has no papers for his 8-month-old son, Tarek. He is too afraid to travel to a regime-held part of Syria to acquire the proper documents.
“If the regime knows that you are in Turkey, they will assume your are with the opposition,” Ziyad says. “I am not a political man. And my home is right on the front line in Aleppo.”
Like many countries in the Middle East, Syria keeps the majority of its official records in handwritten ledgers. About a week before the fighting came close to Al Bab, a town near Aleppo, the government finally bought computers to create electronic records, Ziyad says. Soon after, however, the building where all the records were stored, he says, was destroyed in the fighting.
“This is all we have now for Tarek,” Ziyad says, showing a single-page medical report from a state-run hospital in Gaziantep.
Bilal, a 30-year-old from the southern city of Deraa, where the anti-government uprising began in March 2011, has a unique problem. He was an anti-government activist. Like the majority of the rebels, he is a Sunni Muslim, but his wife is an Alawite, the sect to which Assad and many of his loyalists also belong.
“I am wanted by at least four different security agencies,” Bilal says. “I have heard from friends that if you are willing to pay enough money for lawyers, you can get Turkish citizenship.”
Bilal, unfortunately, doesn’t have the money. His daughter, Selene, is just two months old, and was born in Gaziantep. “She is gorgeous,” he says with a wide smile, proudly showing off her black hair.
Abudullah doesn’t have the money either. Nor can he and his family apply for asylum in another country. ”Ahmed,” he explains, “has no papers.”