ISTANBUL — Over a million Syrian refugees have fled to Turkey.
Most have been housed in camps along the border, but growing numbers are now fleeing to cities like Istanbul, which is estimated to have as many as 200,000 refugees. Others are looking for work or trying to get to Europe.
But for others, Istanbul has become a center of resistance to the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, with Turkish-based opposition radio stations being set up to broadcast into Syria.
Radio Al Kul broadcasts into Syria from atop a building in a commercial district of Istanbul. According to Obi Sukkar, Al Kul’s founder, the station's strictly uncensored and independent news reaches an audience of around 100,000 via a network of secret transmitters.
As Sukkar shows me around, he explains he fled Syria after his wife - a doctor - began fearing for her life when the regime found out she was treating opposition forces. Leaving with just a suitcase, they ended up in Istanbul, courtesy of the Turkish government’s open door policy for Syrian refugees.,
"In Turkey, the situation is really good because we have what we need to be treated as human beings, more than people feeling sympathy. We don’t need sympathy. We just need to live our lives normally," he said.
Sukkar's radio station is backed by wealthy Syrians, making his transition in Istanbul relatively easy. But for others, Istanbul has not been a seamless transition.
At a mosque in Istanbul’s Fatih district, local residents give out food and aid to Syrian refugees. Many of them, like Ayse and her two children, are struggling to survive.
"We fled Syria, after my brother was kidnapped by Islamic jihadists," she said. "The whole region has become to unsafe."
She says she did not want to go to the refugee camps. "Many say it's like prison - you cannot work, you cannot go out," she said.
She thought she might find work in Istanbul and maybe even get to Europe. "But everything is so expensive," she said.
In local parks and shopping districts, Syrians begging for money is an increasingly common sight.
Bulent Yildirim, head of the Humanitarian Relief Foundation, an Islamic charity supported by Turkey's ruling AK Party, is critical of some of the refugees.
"If you see refugees in the street, you can call us and we will take them to the camps of the government," he said. "But they don’t want to go. For some of them, begging on the streets has become a habit."
Observers warn the growing number of Syrian refugees in Turkey, especially on the streets of the country’s main cities, is threatening to become a political embarrassment for the government.
The AK Party strongly back the Syrian opposition and predicted the Syrian regime would quickly collapse.
Kadri Gursel, diplomatic columnist for the Turkish newspaper Milliyet and al-Monitor website, says the growing number of refugees underlines a failed policy.
"The AKP foreign policy is a wreck, because Syria is soaking up financial resources," he said. "We have a huge refugee problem right now. There are nearly one million Syrians on our soil and we don’t know what we will do with them. Because this crisis can last years and years, maybe a decade more - we don’t know."
While Radio Al Kul primarily broadcasts to Syria, its founder says he is looking into broadcasting inside Turkey because of the growing number of Syrian refugees now living in the country.