The first question asked of you in Turkey is often "Where are you from?" When you say, "Palestine", Turkish eyes light up, because the people love Palestine and the Palestinians. Theirs is a very popular cause in Turkey.
Moreover, although Istanbul in particular is well-known for its great mosques, there is great love there for Jerusalem and the Noble Sanctuary of Al-Aqsa and its mosques, including the Dome of the Rock. Many Turkish streets contain Arabic billboards advertising Palestinian shops and restaurants, often named after places in occupied Palestine.
"I have lived here for 30 years and I can say that the Palestinians are treated exceptionally well in Turkey," said Hazem Antar, the President of the Palestinian Community in Turkey. "Over all these years, every Turkish government has agreed unanimously about support for the Palestinian cause and the Palestinian people." Palestinians in Turkey, he told me, have a very good standard of living compared with other communities.
Such a connection, as well as a shared religion and similar culture, has made Turkey an attractive destination for Palestinians. The relatively empathetic visa process makes it an easy place to go to. So much so, in fact, that there are now an estimated 30,000 members of the Palestinian community in the country.
"The Palestinians are the oldest Arab community in Turkey, established officially in 2004," explained Antar. "The community has three distinct sections: the older residents have been here for 30 years or more, like me; the second group arrived after the Arab Spring revolutions; and the third are refugees from Syria."
He confirmed that the migration of Palestinians to Turkey for the past 30 years and more has produced a rich cultural legacy and social bonds with the Palestinian people. Indeed, Turkey is now the destination of choice for Palestinians from the Gaza Strip in particular.
Every time that the Egyptians open the Rafah Border Crossing, Palestinians try to escape from life under the Israeli-led blockade. Many head for Turkey. The simple visa process, Turkish hospitality and the ease in which people can settle there and be welcomed make it an attractive proposition. It's also seen as a possible gateway to Europe.
At one time, the Palestinian passport was classified as one of ten weakest in the world. Nevertheless, according to the head of the Tourism and Travel Agents Association in the Gaza Strip, Wasim Mushtaha, between 2,800 and 3,500 visa applications for Turkey are received monthly, sometimes more.
One Palestinian from the Gaza Strip who has made the journey to Turkey is Alaa Mahdi Kudaih. She went to study there in 2018 after getting a full scholarship from the Turkish government. Kudaih is a third-year student in the Psychology Department at Sakarya University. The scholarship programme is one of the most famous in the world, helping more than 17,000 students from all over the globe. It provides students with their travel tickets, university housing, meals, a regular income and free health insurance.
"Turkey has given me an opportunity to continue my studies, to work and then be able to go back home in a strong position," Kudaih pointed out. Employment opportunities for Palestinians in Turkey are often available even if they are not expert in the Turkish language, which is an enormous advantage. "There is respect for the Palestinians over other Arab nationalities," she believes.
Hind Khoudary is a Palestinian journalist from the Gaza Strip. She had different reasons for going to Turkey last year, as she wanted to meet her brothers in Germany, and Turkey was the best option as a transit point while she waited for a visa. Unfortunately, she couldn't travel to Germany because of the Covid-19 pandemic, so she decided to stay in Turkey. "Changing my reason for being in Turkey wasn't difficult, because there are many people from Gaza here," she explained. The heady mix of Western and Eastern culture is no obstacle, because the eastern side makes it easier for Palestinians to integrate.
"I have never felt alienated here in Turkey, where there are a lot of us from Gaza. A religious and Islamic character dominates Turkish society, and it is easy to obtain Arab products."
It has always been a feature of migration that people tend to congregate where they feel at home, and the Palestinians in Turkey have created a home from home which is attractive to others. That alone is enough to make Turkey a prime destination for Palestinians no matter where they are, but especially those from the besieged Gaza Strip.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.