by Burak Akinci, Wang Feng
GAZIANTEP, Turkey, Nov. 23 (Xinhua) -- Turkey's Gaziantep is a medium-sized southern industrial city which has absorbed nearly half a million Syrian refugees who, with the substantial support of the Turkish Red Crescent Society, or Kizilay, have remained hopeful for their future despite all odds.
Because of the size of the immigrant community which has grown exponentially since the Syrian war broke out eight years ago, some districts of Gaziantep, located on Turkey's border with Syria, have been dubbed "little Syria."
According to official data, 452,000 Syrians live in Gaziantep and constitute an amazing 22 percent of its population, making it a role model of tolerance toward newcomers.
"The primary challenge of Syrians is the language barrier. They speak Arabic. The language is truly the first challenge to adaptation into the local Turkish society," said Hayriye Tirnova, a social worker from Kizilay's local headquarters.
Kizilay provides Turkish language courses, health and schooling assistance as well as psychological and social support for the displaced Syrians as part of a multi-faceted program, she noted.
Kizilay also makes efforts to integrate the Syrians into the local labor force by teaching them crafts, Tirnova added.
Gaziantep is known for its distinguished cuisine. It's also a textile city, located just 100 km north of Aleppo, the war-devastated Syrian city.
The majority of Syrian refugees in Turkey are living in cities like Gaziantep where the similarity of cultures has made it more accommodating for migrants, unlike metropolises in the west, where anti-refugee sentiment is rampant amid Turkey's economic hardships.
"It was very hard when I first came here a year ago. We had to live in a house squeezed with more than 25 other people from Syria," Reyan Saber, a 16-year-old Syrian girl, told Xinhua with a smile on her face.
The high school student said thanks to Kizilay, she managed to return to school after a gap year.
She found solace in painting, an art form through which she expresses her inner feelings and keeps a positive outlook on life in a foreign country.
A volunteer herself for Kizilay in the city, Reyan keeps her hope for a better future in Turkey away from the war still raging in parts of her homeland, which tragically took away her mother and two brothers.
Her father Muhammed Saber had to have one of his legs amputated after being wounded in a shelling.
"I have found ... a whole new life in Turkey. I am grateful for the support and assistance that has been handed to us," Muhammed said, calling on international institutions to make more efforts toward people of his kind in Turkey.
The man is a beneficiary of the debit card issued by Kizilay as part of a local and international scheme. The card has been distributed to around 2 million refugees, who can withdraw monthly a small amount of cash in aid.
Salih Elallavi, the patriarch of a family of 18 members, said 17 of them have been handed this precious card, which offers 2,040 liras (356 U.S. dollars) monthly, an amount that is far from sufficient for all their essential needs but able to keep them afloat.
Muhammed Saber and Elallavi insisted that they did not want to leave Turkey, citing concerns for their children.
"I don't want to risk their future. I would like them to graduate and then work here," said Saber.
An astonishing number of Syrians have fled their country to neighboring countries, mostly to Turkey which has shown extraordinary hospitality to the refugees.
However, the mood has changed over political and economic concerns.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has vowed to send millions of Syrians back on a voluntary basis.
Erdogan's repatriation plans have been met with domestic and international criticism.
Experts argued that such a massive undertaking would be unrealistic, urging Turkey to rather focus more on integration as surveys concluded that the majority of Syrians are here to stay permanently.
Most of the Syrians in Turkey came from Aleppo and its surrounding areas, just as Elallavi who is not keen on being resettled with his family in a region unfamiliar to him.
"The region, where the safe zone is to be created, is a part of our country, but still it's not our homeland, making it impossible for us to return," the Syrian man said.
(Xinhua reporter Umut Ozlu in Ankara also contributed to the story.)