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A Nationalist Mob In Turkey Attacks Syrian Refugees' Home And Businesses

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The possible destinations for Afghan refugees include Turkey. It's already home to some 4 million refugees, most of whom fled the war in Syria. But because Turkey does take in so many refugees, public opinion has been turning against new arrivals. This month, a nationalist mob attacked the homes and businesses of Syrians in Turkey's capital city of Ankara. Durrie Bouscaren reports.

DURRIE BOUSCAREN, BYLINE: When the mob started breaking down windows and looting businesses in the neighborhood known as Little Aleppo, this shopkeeper and his wife gathered their kids in the hallway and turned out the lights. He described it through an interpreter.

UNIDENTIFIED SHOPKEEPER: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: He was telling his daughters that those people are bad people - they're thieves, and the police will come and take them away - so that they don't learn to hate.

BOUSCAREN: The riot started after a street brawl between Syrian and Turkish young men in which a Turkish teenager died, so the shopkeeper knew that night that his family was in danger.

UNIDENTIFIED SHOPKEEPER: (Through interpreter) I'm OK to take a beating, but it's for my kids and my wife that I was very, very concerned.

BOUSCAREN: This shopkeeper asked us not to use his name due to ongoing threats in the neighborhood. We met him at a restaurant on the other side of town.

UNIDENTIFIED SHOPKEEPER: (Non-English language spoken).

BOUSCAREN: He says that by the time police controlled the rioters, dozens of businesses were damaged and looted. A health clinic for refugees was destroyed. Photos on social media show rioters holding up an ultranationalist hand signal.

UNIDENTIFIED SHOPKEEPER: (Through interpreter) Wherever we go, we're not wanted. The racism against refugees is everywhere.

BOUSCAREN: A few days after the riot, police checkpoints monitor traffic in and out of the neighborhood. Stores are boarded up. Windows are broken. Almost everyone stays off the street. To hear what Turkish residents think, I went to a park in central Ankara. It's green and lively, as street musicians play for tips.

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICIAN: (Singing in non-English language).

BOUSCAREN: I meet a Turkish university student. He doesn't want his name used because he has a job with a company that might not want him speaking out. But he says people in Turkey are hardening their stance against refugees because they blame them for the economy here getting worse.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT: It's a lot cheaper to make refugees work in industries. That's why people lose their job. And plus, people see them as a threat.

BOUSCAREN: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan initially welcomed Syrians, but political pressure is building against him and getting more intense with the prospect of Afghans fleeing the Taliban takeover of their country. This week, Erdogan said 300,000 Afghans currently live in Turkey. Turkey has ramped up construction on an extension of a wall along its eastern border with Iran, the route most Afghans take to get here. Omer Ozkizilcik is a policy analyst for SETA, a pro-government Turkish think tank.

OMER OZKIZILCIK: There's quite decisiveness inside Turkey to prevent new refugees from coming in.

BOUSCAREN: So the door could be closing for Afghans. Even for Syrians who have been here for years, life remains difficult. You can't register a car without getting an M on your license plate, marking you as a foreigner. Can't answer the phone in public and risk speaking Arabic, says the shopkeeper who escaped the mob.

UNIDENTIFIED SHOPKEEPER: (Through interpreter) Even when our kids grow up, at some point, even if they get Turkish citizenship, they'll still be labeled as Syrians and refugees in Turkey.

BOUSCAREN: He's thinking of moving to another city now to get his kids away from the bad memories.

For NPR News, I'm Durrie Bouscaren in Ankara.

(SOUNDBITE OF KENO AND TRISTAN DE LIEGE'S "WHELVED") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.