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Displaced Syrians Find Home on Istanbul Street

People congregate in front of a location of the fast food chain Fez founded by Syrian Mohamad Nizar Bitar, Jan. 19, 2014 in Istanbul. Emily Feldman / For NBC News

Abdullah Binnishy, a baker from the Syrian city of Aleppo, never imagined he'd open a shop with his competitors—let alone that the shop would be in Istanbul, where he can’t speak the language or even find the right kind of cooking fat. But his country’s civil war left him with few other options.

In the summer of 2012, he fled with his family to neighboring Jordan, where he planned to wait out the war. But as the months dragged on and his savings drained, he needed to get back to work.

Binnishy heard life was easier for refugees in Turkey, where a pair of rival bakers had recently landed with plans to open a shop. He reached out: Would they take him on as a partner? Their response: In such difficult times, anyone who could help out a fellow Syrian should.

The new bakery opened late last year on Millet Street, a busy thoroughfare in Istanbul's immigrant district now dotted with Syrian-owned eateries. On a recent Saturday afternoon, Binnishy proudly gave out samples of his freshly cooked pastries. “We've never not felt welcome here,” he said. “Thank God.”

Image: Abdullah Binnishy, a baker from the Syrian city of Aleppo poses for a photo in Istanbul.
Abdullah Binnishy, a baker from the Syrian city of Aleppo who recently teamed up with his former competitors to open a bakery in Istanbul, poses for a photo, Jan. 18, 2014 in Istanbul. Emily Feldman / For NBC News

Turkey was not the first choice for many Syrian entrepreneurs fleeing the war. For one thing, its language made it less familiar and more difficult to navigate than Arabic-speaking countries in the region. But its business-friendly laws—along with its willingness to extend some legal rights to the 700,000 Syrian refugees now living there—has made it a top option for businessmen looking for a fresh start.

EACH BUSINESS A LIFELINE

On Millet Street, homesick families and friends crowd into Syrian eateries to trade news over plates of chicken and rice, Syrian bread, and cups of strong coffee with cardamom. Besides offering familiar tastes, the bulk of these businesses employ mostly Syrians, skirting laws to keep them off the streets, fed and housed.

Binnishy's bakery is a narrow shop with just one table, outside on the street. But it employs seven full-time workers—mostly Syrians—and as many as 20 others come by daily inquiring about jobs. Down the block, Damascus Sweets, another bakery with a sister location and factory, employs a total of 40, again mostly Syrians. Fez, a growing fast-food chain with its own bread factory and two locations on Millet Street, employs more than 120 refugees, each earning daily wages that rise with their mastery of Turkish. Blocks away, other refugees beg on the sidewalk.

Malaz Yasmeen, 16, who recently arrived in Istanbul from Damascus, makes $400 a month working 12-hour shifts at one of the Fez locations. He uses the money to rent an apartment for his mother and brother. Despite the long hours and little time off—just one day for every 15 on the job—he said he was grateful for the work. Without Turkish language skills or a work permit, his chances of finding a job anywhere else would be slim. “What else can I do?” he asked.

While Syrians with start-up funds and a valid passport can usually open businesses in Turkey with little hassle, those simply looking for work—anything to fill their pockets after months of unemployment—have a more difficult time. When Turkey opened its borders to Syrian refugees in 2011, it offered them protection at state-run camps but withheld the right to work. Many chose to do so anyway, desperate to save money for an apartment and rebuild some semblance of normalcy after months of waiting out a war.

Two-thirds of Syrian refugees in Turkey—roughly 400,000 people—lived outside of camps last year, according to a recent Brookings Institute report. Masses have moved into Turkish cities. In response, the government announced last year that it would allow them to apply for work permits. Yet many who lack the required money or ID haven't bothered to try. Instead, they look for work at factories and construction sites. If they're lucky, they can find a job at a Syrian-owned shop where workers are looked after like brothers.

NO QUESTIONS ASKED

“Everyone who comes here, we find a job for him,” said Mohamad Nizar Bitar, the founder of Fez, who opened its first location a year and a half ago. Bitar has exclusively hired Syrians, ignoring a law that requires businesses to hire a minimum number of Turkish citizens. “They close their eyes and we appreciate it,” Bitar said, adding that he was deeply grateful to Turkey for saving so many lives. "It is the hero country for us."

Image: Mohamad Nizar Bitar, owner of the Istanbul located Syrian fast food chain Fez, speaks with workers who are getting his next Fez location ready
Mohamad Nizar Bitar, center, owner of the Istanbul located Syrian fast food chain Fez, speaks with workers who are getting his next Fez location ready, Jan. 18, 2014. Emily Feldman / For NBC News

While Syrian shop owners provide crucial jobs to fellow refugees in their neighborhood, wealthier businessmen are able to help even more.

When Bitar doesn't have an opening for a Syrian job-seeker, he heads to an unmarked building a few doors down from his restaurant to see Hussein Sabasi.

A wealthy businessman who opened an export company on Millet Street after leaving Aleppo last year, Sabasi has become a godfather of sorts to Syrians in the neighborhood. He helps anyone sent his way, no matter which faction the person supports in Syria's civil war. “It doesn’t matter if you're with the regime or against the regime,” Sabasi said.

When a newcomer enters his office, he hands them cash, finds them a place to stay and begins making calls to find them work. “For their first five days, I am responsible for their food and shelter,” he said, estimating that he has made this arrangement with about 100 people in the last month alone—each transaction carefully recorded and entered into a giant yellow binder he keeps in a drawer beneath his desk.

Other Syrian business-owners are using their earnings in Istanbul to help those who chose to stay behind. Mohamad Haboub, the owner of a famous Damascus food chain, Balloon, decided to keep two of his seven locations open when he fled for Istanbul with his family. Though hardly anyone heads to the remaining Syrian shops for pizza and fried chicken, the restaurants' 30 employees still depend on their wages.

To fund those wages and keep his own family afloat, Haboub recently opened Balon's first international location: a two-story restaurant on Millet Street with a 50's diner-feel. If business goes well he'll open the next Istanbul location this summer.

“We are here now,” he said. “Our life is here.”

Image: Servers at the new Istanbul location of a Syrian fast food chain called Baloon, pose for a photo
Servers at the new Istanbul location of a Syrian fast food chain called Baloon, pose for a photo, Jan. 18, 2014. All of the men have recently fled Syria and settled in Turkey. Emily Feldman / For NBC News