News / Middle East

The Dom: Syria's Invisible Refugees

Dom family setting up camp, southern Turkey
Dom family setting up camp, southern Turkey
Cecily Hilleary
More than 70,000 people have been killed and hundreds of thousands left homeless by the civil war in Syria, spreading misery among all of the nation’s ethnic and religious groups.

But one ethnic minority has undergone more than its share of suffering — both during the current fighting and for centuries preceding it — and few outside of Syria know much about it. The group is known as the Dom and it has been a presence in Syria since before the Ottoman Empire.

Often mislabeled by the pejorative “gypsies,” the Dom get their name from their language, Domari, means “man.”  They have joined the exodus of Christian, Muslim and other Syrians refugees into Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and beyond.  But wherever they go, they generally face a less than warm welcome.  As one source told VOA, "They are the most despised people in the Middle East."

Who are the Dom?

Misunderstood and complicated, Dom have been present in the Middle East for at least a thousand years.  Most information about them is gleaned from their language, Domari, an Indic variation. It is similar to Romani, the language of the European Roma, suggesting their common roots in India. 

Both Roma and Domari are peppered with words borrowed from other languages, reflecting their history of migration through Iran and elsewhere.  Beyond that, little of their origin is known—or agreed upon by scholars.

During the Ottoman period, Dom migrated freely throughout the Middle East as “commercial” nomads, providing services to communities wherever they settled. The fall of the Ottoman Empire following World War I led to the formation of nation states with proper borders, which greatly curtailed Dom movements.


Locals in Syria, as elsewhere in the region, call the Dom Nawar — a word likely derived from “fire,” referring to their traditional work as blacksmiths. But over the years, the word “Nawar” has evolved into a pejorative, connoting someone who is uneducated and uncivilized


They also differentiate Dom by the region in which they live and the work they perform.  In Aleppo and Idlib, the Dom are called Qurbat and work as blacksmiths or untrained dentists. The so-called Riyass live in Homs and Hama, where they sell handicrafts or entertain at parties.  Dom women, dubbed Hajiyat, might dance in Damascus nightclubs, beg or tell fortunes.

The official Dom population could be much higher than estimated, because so many Dom describe themselves as Kurdish, Arab or Turkmen.
The numbers

It is almost impossible to estimate Syria’s Dom population, as they often conceal their identity out of fear of being stigmatized. SIL International’s Ethnologue estimates 37,000 Syrian Dom speak Domari, alongside Arabic.But the Syrian newspaper, Kassioun, reported twice that number in 2010.



Kemal Vural Tarlan is a photographer, documentarian, writer and activist who focuses, he says, on those who live on the sidelines of society, chiefly Dom and Roma.  He also authors the Middle East Gypsies website.

He says Dom are viewed as outsiders and intruders, therefore they are almost universally discriminated against.  So they often hide their ethnic backgrounds through what they call the skill of “invisibility,” which helps them move into and out of communities. 

“The official Dom population could be much higher than estimated, because so many Dom describe themselves as Kurdish, Arab or Turkmen,” Tarlan said.  Whatever the number, he says more Dom live in Syria than anywhere else in the Middle East.


  • Dom in Damascus garden, date unknown.
  • Dom blacksmith, Syria, ca. 1900
  • Dom entertainers at Bedouin wedding, Syria, date unknown.
  • Syrian Dom Refugees at Gaziantep, Turkey
  • Syrian Dom Refugee Campsite, Şanlıurfa, Turkey
  • Syrian Dom refugee tent, Karkamış, Turkey
  • Preparing dinner
  • Coffee Break
  • Syrian Dom child
  • Syrian Dom child
  • Elderly woman
  • Piggyback
  • Dom refugees, southern Turkey
  • Dom refugees from Syria, Gaziantep, Turkey
  • Dom family group, Gaziantep, Turkey
  • Dom Youth


Dom refugees in Turkey

Turkey has been home to “gypsies” since Byzantine times, and in 2005 the UNHCR estimated a Roma/Dom population of 500,000.  Kemal Tarlan has spent much time in recent weeks near the border documenting the influx of Dom from Syria.  He believes as many as 10,000 to 20,000 Dom have settled in southern Turkish towns such as Kilis, Gazientep and Şanlıurfa. 

“İnitially, some were able to register in proper refugee camps,” Tarlan said, “but now they cannot get into camps, because they are full.” 

Some Dom have gone to live with families in the cities.  Those with no place to go live as nomads in tents.  Tarlan says they receive little assistance from the government, so in order to survive, they beg or work in the fields. 

“But  the majority are unemployed,” he said, and this has given rise to local tensions.  Recently, after citizens of Şanlıurfa started to complain about a rise in petty theft, Turkish authorites dismantled and burned a makeshift tent city.  The media referred to the campers as “Syrians.”  But Tarlan says most were Dom. 

They are all living in dire conditions. They can’t find any work except for recycling things from the garbage dump, like aluminum or iron or cardboard, just to be able to survive.

Into  Lebanon

With Beirut only about 65 miles away, many Dom from Damascus have fled into Lebanon.  Catherine Mourtada is co-founder of Tahaddi (“Challenge”), a non-governmental assistance group that serves Beirut’s underprivileged, many of whom are Dom.

“They are excluded from the normal school systems, either because they don’t meet admission requirements or because public schools are full.

"So they come to our place,” Mourtada said.

Mourtada has seen increasing numbers of Dom from Syria, looking to stay with their Lebanese relatives. 

“Already, they are very poor, and now they must welcome other very poor members of their family coming from Syria, so it is very hard for them.They are all living in dire conditions,” she said.  “They can’t find any work except for recycling things from the garbage dump, like aluminum or iron or cardboard, just to be able to survive.”

In some cases, Beirut Dom are forced turn their Syrian relatives away.  “So they have to find a room somewhere to rent. They are lucky if they can get a bathroom or running water,” Mourtada said.

Because there are no official refugee camps in Lebanon like those built in Jordan and Turkey, Mourtada says Dom have begun to settled in tent cities in the Bekaa Valley.

Into Jordan

In 1999, Amoun Sleem founded the Domari Society of Gypsies, a cultural and educational center in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Shu’fat.  Herself a Dom, she says she has first-hand experience with discrimination, cultural marginalization and poverty that most Dom face as a result of illiteracy. 

“Whenever disaster strikes in the Middle East, no one gives a thought to how it will impact the Dom,” she said. 

Sleem says she has received word that many Dom refugees are living at or near the Zaatari camp in Mafraq, Jordan.  She has been trying to get a permit to visit the camp, but has run into a lot of red tape.In the meantime, she is trying to encourage Jordanian Dom families to host the refugees. 

“It’s not very easy,” she said, “but if it could happen, it would be a very good thing.”

You May Like

Video Genome Initiative Urgently Works to Freeze DNA Before Species Go Extinct

Smithsonian senior research botanist Vicki Funk says ultimate goal is 'trying to get one-half of the diversity of plant life on Earth at the genus level in two years' More

Video Russia Accused of Abusing Interpol to Pursue Opponents

Report from member of British think tank says Russian extradition requests keep targets from traveling More

US Lawmakers Weigh Turkish Anti-terror Moves

Turkey’s two-pronged campaign against Islamic State militants, Kurdish PKK forces provokes mixed reactions on Capitol Hill More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Russia Accused of Abusing Interpol to Pursue Opponentsi
X
Henry Ridgwell
July 28, 2015 9:53 PM
A British pro-democracy group has accused Russia of abusing the global law enforcement agency Interpol by requesting the arrest and extradition of political opponents. A new report by the group notes such requests can mean the accused are unable to travel and are often unable to open bank accounts. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Russia Accused of Abusing Interpol to Pursue Opponents

A British pro-democracy group has accused Russia of abusing the global law enforcement agency Interpol by requesting the arrest and extradition of political opponents. A new report by the group notes such requests can mean the accused are unable to travel and are often unable to open bank accounts. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Genome Initiative Urgently Moves to Freeze DNA Before Species Go Extinct

Earth is in the midst of its sixth mass extinction. The last such event was caused by an asteroid 66 million years ago. It killed off the dinosaurs and practically everything else. So scientists are in a race against time to classify the estimated 11 million species alive today. So far only 2 million are described by science, and researchers are worried many will disappear before they even have a name. VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports.
Video

Video Scientists: One-Dose Malaria Cure is Possible

Scientists have long been trying to develop an effective protection and cure for malaria - one of the deadliest diseases that affects people in tropical areas, especially children. As the World Health Organization announces plans to begin clinical trials of a promising new vaccine, scientists in South Africa report that they too are at an important threshold. George Putic reports, they are testing a compound that could be a single-dose cure for malaria.
Video

Video Special Olympics Athletes Meet International Friends

The Special Olympics are underway in Los Angeles, California, with athletes from 165 countries participating in an event that gives people with intellectual disabilities the chance to take part in an international competition. VOA's Mike O'Sullivan reports that for athletes and their families, it's also an opportunity to make new friends in an international setting.
Video

Video 'New York' Magazine Features 35 Cosby Accusers

The latest issue of 'New York' magazine features 35 women who say they were drugged and raped by film and television celebrity Bill Cosby. The women are aged from 44 to 80 and come from different walks of life and races. The magazine interviewed each of them separately, but Zlatica Hoke reports their stories are similar.
Video

Video US Calls Fight Against Human Trafficking a Must Win

The United States is promising not to give up its fight against what Secretary of State John Kerry calls the “scourge” of modern slavery. Officials released the country’s annual human trafficking report Monday – a report that’s being met with some criticism. VOA’s National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more from the State Department.
Video

Video Iran Nuclear Pact Wins Few New US Congressional Backers

Later this week, President Barack Obama returns from a trip to Africa to confront a U.S. Congress roiled by the nuclear accord with Iran, an agreement that has received the blessing of the U.N. Security Council. Days of intensive lobbying and testimony by top administration officials have won few new congressional supporters of the pact. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports.
Video

Video Washington DC Underground Streetcar Station to Become Arts Venue

Abandoned more than 50 years ago, the underground streetcar station in Washington D.C.’s historic DuPont Circle district is about to be reborn. The plan calls for turning the spacious underground platforms - once meant to be a transportation hub, - into a unique space for art exhibitions, presentations, concerts and even a film set. Roman Mamonov has more from beneath the streets of the U.S. capital. Joy Wagner narrates his report.
Video

Video Europe’s Twin Crises Collide in Greece as Migrant Numbers Soar

Greece has replaced Italy as the main gateway for migrants into Europe, with more than 100,000 arrivals in the first six months of 2015. Many want to move further into Europe and escape Greece’s economic crisis, but they face widespread dangers on the journey overland through the Balkans. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Stink Intensifies as Lebanon’s Trash Crisis Continues

After the closure of a major rubbish dump a week ago, the streets of Beirut are filling up with trash. Having failed to draw up a plan B, politicians are struggling to deal with the problem. John Owens has more for VOA from Beirut.
Video

Video Paris Rolls Out Blueprint to Fight Climate Change

A U.N. climate conference in December aims to produce an ambitious agreement to fight heat-trapping greenhouse gases. But many local governments are not waiting, and have drafted their own climate action plans. That’s the case with Paris — which is getting special attention, since it’s hosting the climate summit. Lisa Bryant takes a look for VOA at the transformation of the French capital into an eco-city.
Video

Video Racially Diverse Spider-Man Takes Center Stage

Whether it’s in a comic book or on the big screen, fans have always known the man behind the Spider-Man mask as Peter Parker. But that is changing, at least in the comic book world. Marvel Comics announced that a character called Miles Morales will replace Peter Parker as Spider-Man in a new comic book series. He is half Latino, half African American, and he is quite popular among comic book fans. Correspondent Elizabeth Lee reports from Los Angeles.
Video

Video Critics of Japan Defense Policy Focus on Okinawa

In Okinawa, many locals have long complained that Tokyo places an unfair burden on the tiny island by locating most of Japan's U.S. military bases there. As Japan's government moves toward strengthening and expanding the country's defense policies, opponents of those plans are joining local protesters in Okinawa, voicing concern about where the country is headed. VOA’s Brian Padden reports from Okinawa.
Video

Video IS Uses Chemical Weapons in Syrian Attack

Islamic State militants have added a new weapon in their arsenal of fear: chemical weapons. VOA Kurdish service reporter Zana Omer was on the scene within hours of a recent attack in Hasakah, Syria, and has details of the subsequent investigation, in this report narrated by Miguel Amaya.
Video

Video Historic Symbol Is Theme of Vibrant New Show

A new exhibit in Washington is paying tribute to the American flag with a wide and eclectic selection of artwork that uses the historic symbol as its central theme. VOA’s Julie Taboh was at the DC Chamber of Commerce for the show’s opening.

VOA Blogs