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.”

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