Earlier this month I took a flight to Istanbul and journeyed South to the Turkish city of Gaziantep and nearby town of Kilis, which sits on the Turkish-Syrian border. Gaziantep is the capital of Turkey’s verdant south, the proud centre of the country’s olive oil-based Nizip soap industry and a place known for its pistachio orchards.
Nearly 12,000 Syrians live in a refugee camp near Kilis. Yet Turkey’s official (so-called) open-door policy towards its embattled neighbour has led to an ever-growing influx of Syrians to Gaziantep, now in the hundreds of thousands. Some have even started calling the city “Little Aleppo”.
Unsurprisingly, this has caused a host of socio-economic problems. Escalating housing costs and an ultracompetitive job market are testing the limits of Turkish hospitality. In Kilis town square, former rebel soldiers (eager to show me their battle scars: a stab wound here, a gun shot there) sit waiting for odd jobs, mostly in construction.
The Syrian war is a political and humanitarian headache for Turkey – and a security one too. A visible police force is a constant reminder that peace on the Turkish side has to be vigilantly protected. On the border, police cars stand guard and trucks undergoing stringent security checks form a long line, which barely nudged when I visited. A forbidding metal gate to the refugee camp is equipped with electronic fingerprint verification.
One thing I did not expect to find here was the frenzied pace of economic activity. Gaziantep has been embarking on an aggressive economic-development project since before the revolution across the border started. Export revenues from the region reached a record-breaking €4.8bn in 2013, a 10 per cent increase from the previous year. Textile exports represent around €700m alone. Money is also being pumped into the renewable-energy sector.
It is a young city. More than two thirds of the population is under the age of 35 and investors, keenly aware of this, have set up two private universities since 2009 with another on the way. All the while the war rages on.
Gaziantep is also home to a new society of diplomats, journalists and aid workers who want to be as close to Syria as possible. This has been a boon for the city: these expats have deeper pockets. Many shop at the Sanko Park mall, the first of its kind and the biggest in southeast Anatolia. Another macabre reality is that injured fighters seeking treatment in Turkey have driven up demand for doctors and nurses, giving the health sector a boost.
One might think that an economic boon two hours’ drive from Syria is incongruous at best, distasteful at worst. But that's precisely why Gaziantep is, and should be, sticking to its economic plan. Investing in industrial projects and infrastructure will create an environment where both the Turkish engineer and the Syrian labourer waiting at the town square have jobs. After all, the one thing Gaziantep has in abundance, besides pistachios, is an eager workforce.
Jason Li is a researcher/writer in Monocle Toronto bureau.