How a Small Eatery Near the Turkish Border Has Become an Unexpected Oasis for Syrians

Stories from Roads & Kingdoms
March 21 2014 3:36 PM

A Syrian Sanctuary

How a small eatery just across the Turkish border has become an unexpected oasis for Syria’s refugees.

Original Halabi's hummus.
Original Halabi's hummus

Courtesy of David Lepeska

Each Friday Roads & Kingdoms and Slate publish a new dispatch from around the globe. For more foreign correspondence mixed with food, war, travel, and photography, visit their online magazine or follow @roadskingdoms on Twitter.

GAZIANTEP, Turkey—Abu Yaseen won’t take no for an answer.

It’s a bright, brisk February afternoon in Gaziantep, a bustling city in southeast Turkey with a history reaching back to the Hittite empire, and a group of Free Syrian Army soldiers and I are scraping clean a bowl of a fatteh, a rich Damascene dish of chickpeas, yogurt, and tahini. The proprietor, surveying his canteen from behind the counter, quickly dispatches a second serving before we can ask.

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“You like fatteh?” asks Yaseen, with a grin. The 65-year-old owner is from Aleppo, 60 miles south of Gaziantep in Syria. “Then you should eat more.”

The red sign over the entrance reads Orjinal Halep Lokantasi, and the business cards say Original Halabi Restaurant. (Aleppo is known as “Halab” in Arabic and “Halep” in Turkish.) But most customers call it Abu Yaseen’s. By any name, this modest eatery along a ripped-up side street has in recent months emerged as a place of refuge and renewal for Gaziantep’s fast-growing Syrian community—a little slice of their vanished, prewar homeland.

Yaseen with family and friends.
Aby Yaseen with family and friends.

Courtesy of David Lepeska

“It started as a small business, but it’s turned into a social message,” says Abu Yaseen, his kindly face framed by a bushy white beard and crisp white skullcap. “Everyone is coming here, thanks to Allah. Rebels, activists, journalists, all kinds of associations and ministries—the future leaders of Syria are here.”

Entering its fourth year, the war across the border churns on mercilessly, with the death toll crossing 150,000 and more than two-fifths of Syria’s population—nearly 9.5 million people—displaced, including 3 million who have fled abroad. The Turkish government in Ankara, staunchly opposed to Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime, has maintained open borders and spent more than $3 billion on refugees.

Some 220,000 of them have settled in camps on the Turkish side of the 820-kilometer (510-mile) border. Officially, Turkey has taken in 750,000 refugees, but a United Nations official recently put the total at more than 900,000 and rising. As many as 100,000 Syrians have crossed into Turkey since January when Assad began his campaign of barrel bombs—cheap, improvised explosives made from barrels stuffed with TNT and shrapnel that are pushed from helicopters—in Aleppo.

With the camps full, many make their way to Gaziantep, less than 30 miles north of the border. No Turkish city, and perhaps no city outside Syria, has been as altered by the war. Today, the city and surrounding area host at least 200,000 Syrians. Some local NGOs put the number at twice that—which would represent nearly a quarter of the province’s population.

Either way, their presence is unmistakable. Original Halabi Restaurant anchors an emerging “Little Aleppo” in the city center. Around the corner is a sleek new KFC-style chicken joint, with specials written only in Arabic script on the front windows. Nearby are two Syrian barbershops, Syrian-run mobile phone stores, a chocolatier, a café, and a juice bar. Syrian children beg on street corners, and groups of elderly and teenage Syrian men and boys crowd the sidewalks.

Many end up at Abu Yaseen’s—a bright, clean space with gray tiled floors, red tables, and picture windows looking out onto a stout stone minaret. Beneath a flat-screen TV tuned to Syrian opposition news, preteen waiters scurry back and forth with bowls of fatteh, plates bearing creamy hummus, crepe-thin omelets, and balls of falafel, and a steady stream of tea. The air is heavy with chickpeas, garlic, and olive oil, but the atmosphere is light, almost festive. The clientele is mostly young men, plus the occasional female activist or refugee family. On sunny days, they fill tables set up on a patch of dirt and concrete out front.

Abu Yaseen presides over the hubbub, shaking hands, joining in rebel chants, embracing the troubled, and, now and then, scowling at his staff. The wave of new arrivals has been good for business and a strain on local resources. As the lunch rush dies down, a few Syrian women in raggedy clothes totter out of the courtyard of the 17th-century mosque across the street, lugging pails of water.

They make their way to the abandoned stone house—no heat, no electricity, no roof—they recently occupied with their families. “We went to the camp,” says Umm Ali, two small children with runny noses standing beside her. “It looked great, but there was no space.” One local relief worker who has been helping Syrians find makeshift lodging—in basements, tents set up in driveways, even unused warehouses—says finding housing is the biggest problem for new arrivals.

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