Exiled in Babylon: Refugees and the Politics of Language

by Noga Malkin

In the city of Madrin, the Tower of Babel cliché holds particular relevance. The old city—a beautiful array of historic stone houses stacked on a mountain slope in southeast Turkey—is located at the northern edge of Mesopotamia, once the land of Babylon. More than geography, the linguistic panorama of the area evokes the Genesis Babel story, the myth used to explain the variation of human tongues. Mardin is a microcosm of the Ottoman Empire’s ethnic, religious, linguistic and cultural diversity, largely eroded by nationalism’s drive for homogenization. A large Kurdish population lives in Mardin, holding on to their mother tongues despite decades-long Turkish “assimilation” policies. A sizable Arab population lives here too, separated from Arabs in Syria and Iraq after the fall of the Ottoman Empire. Linguists classify their language as “Mesopotamian Arabic,” related to bygone Iraqi dialects. Most Mardinites grow up speaking at least two—sometimes three—languages, learning either Kurdish or Arabic at home, the other on the streets, and Turkish at school. Further adding to the linguistic diversity, there remain several hundred neo-Aramaic speaking Assyrians and even fewer Armenians who once made up the majority of the city’s population; despite their now meager numbers, they attract tourists who come for the locally-produced Assyrian wine and traditional Armenian and Assyrian silver crafts.

Noga Malkin- DispatchesNot all is as romantic as it sounds. Syrian, Iraqi and Yazidi refugees have flooded the area recently. The two-year truce between the Turkish government and the Kurdish movements was broken last summer, and tourists are absent from the nicely renovated wine, spice, and silver shops on the old city’s main road. Hidden from view are decaying stone houses, now overcrowded by Syrian refugees who suffer through snowy winters in unheated homes. Most locals live down the hill in New Mardin, a typical-looking modern Turkish town. The Turkish government has been exceedingly generous to refugees—more so than any other country in the area, and certainly more than Europe—but it has not allowed refugees work permits, thereby forcing them into the informal market which pushes down wages for both citizens and refugees, leaving refugees too poor to afford New Mardin prices.

Unlike most Syrian refugees in Turkey, those in Mardin communicate well with the locals, since many of them come from bordering Kurdish areas in Syria. Even so, the ethnic, religious, and linguistic diversity compounds the challenges of designing good refugee programs. For instance, I recently began running a new project establishing a refugee community center in the old city through one of the only international humanitarian ngos in the area—most organizations have been too wary, or unable to obtain permits, to work in this volatile area. One of our first challenges has been to hire local staff with both professional and linguistic qualifications, which in this area means quadrilingual candidates. Even though it has only been a few months, already the towering Babel has raised exceptional questions: In which language will we hold staff meetings? Or conduct the center’s activities? Turkish excludes the refugees, while Arabic overlooks many local Kurds and Turks. Kurdish—a language shared by most locals and refugees—is, alas, out of the question, banned as a language of instruction in Turkey for nearly a century. Unfortunately, the same diversity that makes Mardin so remarkable also makes it vulnerable to Turkey’s language politics and necessitates creative, sensitive humanitarian programming that can meaningfully serve the diverse refugee and local populations. As more and more countries in Europe receive refugee populations that unsettle ideals of national homogeneity, the challenges faced by local and international actors trying to thoughtfully address Mardin’s mishmash of languages, cultures, and religions may become more relevant elsewhere, and worthy of our attention.

Noga Malkin graduated from MAAS in May 2015, where she focused on refugee studies and gender. She previously worked for UNHCR and Human Rights Watch on refugee and human rights issues. Over the summer of 2014, on a MAAS summer fellowship, she conducted research at a community center for Syrian refugees run by a Turkish humanitarian NGO, and later published her analysis in the Journal of Peacebuilding and Development. Since September 2015, she has been working for humanitarian NGO Welthungerhilfe (World Hunger Aid) in southeast Turkey, leading the establishment of a new refugee community center.