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

Syrian Rebels Poised for Anti-Russia Collaboration

Forty-one insurgent groups issue joint statement vowing retaliation for Russian air offensives More

Political Maneuver Revives Export-Import Bank's Chances

Parliamentary tactic gets bill out of committee, but it faces opposition in the Senate More

Beijing Warns US on S. China Sea Patrols

Warning follows news reports Thursday that US military is planning to sail warships close to artificial islands Beijing has been aggressively building More

This forum has been closed.
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.
House Republicans in Chaos as Speaker Favorite Withdrawsi
Jim Malone
October 09, 2015 12:32 AM
The Republican widely expected to become the next speaker of the House of Representatives shocked his colleagues Thursday by announcing he was withdrawing his candidacy. The decision by Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy means the race to succeed retiring Speaker John Boehner is now wide open. VOA National Correspondent Jim Malone reports.

Video House Republicans in Chaos as Speaker Favorite Withdraws

The Republican widely expected to become the next speaker of the House of Representatives shocked his colleagues Thursday by announcing he was withdrawing his candidacy. The decision by Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy means the race to succeed retiring Speaker John Boehner is now wide open. VOA National Correspondent Jim Malone reports.

Video German, US Officials Investigate Volkswagen

German officials have taken steps to restore some of the reputation their car industry has lost after a recent Volkswagen diesel emissions scandal. Authorities have searched Volkswagen headquarters and other locations in an effort to identify the culprits in the creation of software that helps cheat on emission tests. Meanwhile, a group of lawmakers in Washington held a hearing to get to the bottom of the cheating strategy that was first discovered in the United States. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video Why Are Gun Laws So Hard for Congress to Tackle?

Since taking office, President Barack Obama has spoken out or issued statements about 15 mass shootings. The most recent shooting, in which 10 people were killed at a community college, sparked outrage over the nation's gun laws. But changing those laws isn't as easy as many think. VOA's Carolyn Presutti reports.

Video Hungary Criticized for Handling of Refugees

Amnesty International has accused Hungary of breaking multiple international and European human rights laws in its handling of the refugee crisis. As Henry Ridgwell reports, thousands of migrants and refugees continue to travel through the Balkans to Hungary every day.

Video Iraqi-Kurdish Teachers Vow to Continue Protest

Sixteen people were injured when police used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse teachers and other public employees who took to the streets in Iraq’s Kurdish north, demanding their salaries from the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG). VOA’s Dilshad Anwar, in Sulaimaniya, caught up with protesting teachers who say they have not been paid for three months. Parke Brewer narrates his report.

Video Syrian Village Community Faces Double Displacement in Lebanon

Driven by war from their village in southwestern Syria, a group of families found shelter in Lebanon, resettling en masse in a half-built university to form one of the biggest settlements of its kind in Lebanon. Three years later, however, they now face being kicked out and dispersed in a country where finding shelter as a refugee can be especially tough. John Owens has more for VOA from the city of Saida, also known as Sidon.

Video Bat Colony: Unusual Tourist Attraction in Texas

The action hero Batman might be everyone’s favorite but real bats hardly get that kind of adoration. Put more than a million of these creatures of the night together and it only evokes images of horror. Sarah Zaman visited the largest urban bat colony in North America to see just how well bat and human get along with each other.

Video Device Shows Promise of Stopping Motion Sickness

It’s a sickening feeling — the dizziness, nausea and vomiting that comes with motion sickness. But a device now being developed could stop motion sickness by suppressing certain signals in the brain. VOA’s Deborah Block reports.

Video Making a Mint

While apples, corn, and cranberries top the list of fall produce in the US, it’s also the time to harvest gum, candy, and toothpaste—or at least the oil that makes them minty fresh. Erika Celeste reports from South Bend, Indiana on the mint harvest.

Video Activists Decry Lagos Slum Demolition

Acting on a court order, authorities in Nigeria demolished a slum last month in the commercial capital, Lagos. But human rights activists say the order was illegal, and the community was razed to make way for a government housing project. Chris Stein has more from Lagos.

Video TPP Agreed, But Faces Stiff Opposition

President Barack Obama promoted the Trans-Pacific Partnership on Tuesday, one day after 12 Pacific Rim nations reached the free trade deal in Atlanta. The controversial pact that would involve about 40 percent of global trade still needs approval by lawmakers in respective countries. Zlatica Hoke reports Obama is facing strong opposition to the deal, including from members of his own party.

Video Ukranian Artist Portrays Putin in an Unusual Way

As Russian President Vladimir Putin was addressing the United Nations in New York last month, he was also being featured in an art exhibition in Washington. It’s not a flattering exhibit. It’s done by a Ukrainian artist in a unique medium. And its creator says it’s not only a work of art - it’s a political statement. VOA’s Tetiana Kharchenko has more.

VOA Blogs