Michael Niemann, left, grew up in a small town in Germany, 10 kilometers from the Dutch border. Crossing that border often at a young age sparked in him a curiosity about the larger world. He studied political science at the Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms Universität in Bonn and international studies at the University of Denver. During his academic career he focused his work on southern Africa and frequently spent time in the region. For more information, visit: michael-niemann.com.
No Right Way (Coffeetown Press), the fourth in the Valentin Vermeulen thriller series, is set in the fall of 2015. In this novel, the refugee stream from Syria into Turkey has swelled to unprecedented numbers. Valentin Vermeulen, investigator for the United Nations Office of Internal Oversight Services, is assigned to check that the money sent to alleviate the crisis is spent for the intended purposes. He visits a newly established UN sub-office in Gaziantep, southern Turkey, before making his way to a rough tent camp. His investigation into why the refugees in the camp haven’t received any aid leads to the discovery of an audacious fraud.
In this essay, Niemann discusses the politics before No Right Way.
On the first pages of No Right Way, readers meets Rima Ahmadi. She’s in her mid-twenties, a primary school teacher, and she’s a refugee. She’s fled Syria for Turkey after her home was hit by a missile and her family was killed.
From a purely legal perspective, she is a refugee, at least according to the definition in the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. She is a person who, “owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.”
This definition is the core of the international treaty that was first adopted in 1951. At that time, the definition applied only to persons who became refugees before January 1, 1951. In addition, signatories could choose to limit the applicability to Europe only. In 1967 a protocol was adopted that removed the temporal limitation, but not the geographical limitation.
The treaty also spells out how a refugee ought to be treated. In general, a refugee is entitled to the same treatment and benefits as any other foreigner legally inside the host country, that is, it guarantees access to education, work, social services, etc. Equally important, it prohibits government from returning refugees to the country from which they fled, unless that country is deemed save again.
So, on paper at least, Rima Ahmadi is entitled everything other foreigners in Turkey get. But this is where reality differs from legal documents. When Turkey ratified the original treaty, it chose to limit its obligation to refugees coming from Europe only. In 1967, Turkey made sure that this limitation remained in place. So people, who, like Ahmadi crossed from Syria are not considered refugees in Turkey. Instead the government considers them “guests” of Turkey.
This means that Ahmadi is not entitled to the services and public institutions available in Turkey. Those Syrians who managed to get into the official refugee camps set up by the Turkish government are certainly treated well, they receive services, medical care, etc., but even they weren’t allowed to work in Turkey until 2016.
Those who don’t live in an official camp—and that’s about ninety percent of the refugees—are on their own. There are, of course, local and international charities and NGOs working with refugees, but their resources are limited and they don’t reach all refugees equally.
I tried to capture what that’s like in the character of Ahmadi. Doing that from the safety of my own existence in the U.S. makes me automatically an “unreliable narrator.” No matter how much I read about the conditions of refugees, even in their own accounts, I did not experience being a refugee. The best I can do is to imagine what it must feel like to be displaced. And no matter how empathetic I might be, I’m a white man, so even my empathy is filtered through those lenses. But, I’m a writer, so I have to try. This is what I imagined.
It begins with not having a place to live. Before the war, urban Syrians lived in solid houses. Living in a tent camp is as bad as things can be. Ahmadi lives in a small tent next to other refugees. There’re no showers, no private toilets. Privacy is non-existent. Even basic safety is precarious, there’s no door you can lock. Yes, there is solidarity among many refugees, but it’s important that the mass of refugees included all kinds of folks, including criminals.
The next thing is the lack of money. Syrian refugees, unlike many others in the world, managed tap into their savings before they left, but paying for transport, bribes, etc., and the cost of living quickly makes a serious dent into their resources. Finding work to supplement the meager support form charities is crucial.
Without a work permit, that means entering the informal labor market and that means working lousy jobs for even lousier pay. Sweatshop work abounds for Syrian refugees in Turkey and agricultural work is just as bad. Wages are low and, given their undocumented status, cheating and exploitation abound. Ahmadi experiences that first hand at the vineyard where she picks grapes.
Educational opportunities are scarce and the language of instruction is Turkish, not Arabic. There are some special schools for refugee kids but those are usually in the official camps. Youths skip school, roam the streets, beg, and sometimes get in trouble. Many Turkish citizens have gotten tired of the Syrian refugees. There are after all 3.5 million of them in the country. The treatment has gotten frostier than it was in the initial days.
Imagine all this and then imagine having to navigate that. Everything you knew is gone, you may have lost some or all of your loved ones. You are destitute and your education and degrees mean nothing anymore. You can’t understand the language and people are angry with you because you don’t. You put up with harassment and, if you’re a woman, with sexual advances and assault. You don’t trust anybody anymore, not even your fellow refugees. What little you have could be stolen any moment. And on top of it, everyone expects you to be grateful.
All this is only a very partial, rough approximation of what it must be like to live as a refugee. All you want is things to be again as they were but you know they won’t be for a long time. That’s the meaning of despair.