A smartphone app called "Merhaba Umut" (Hello Hope), designed by mobile phone operator Turkcell, helps Syrian refugees arriving in Turkey to learn the local language and integrate. It was launched in September 2016 and has been downloaded by more than 600,000 users until now.

In many historic quarters of Istanbul, as in different areas of southeastern Turkey, signs in Arabic have stood side-by-side with signs in Turkish. For those who arrive, the signs symbolize the presence of a record number of Syrian refugees, who were forced to flee from war and begin a new life far from home.

For many, it's a shock on several levels, from emotional and social to linguistic.Now, a new app called "Merhaba Umut", which means "hello, hope), aims to help Syrian refugees overcome the linguistic barrier in their new home in Turkey.

The smartphone app was launched by Turkish mobile phone operator Turkcell in September 2016. Since then, it has been downloaded by over 600,000 users. It helps Arabic speakers learn both written and spoken Turkish by using pictures as well as simultaneous translations. It also has a Turkish-Arabic dictionary. The app is available for both Android and iOS. 

Turkcell has received several international awards for its project, according to Turkish daily Milliyet.  It is one of many tools with which Turkey is trying to improve integration for the more than 3.2 million Syrians it is hosting, which according to UNHCR figures is higher than any other country in the world.

Problems in Turkey

It's a complex process, especially given the high concentration of refugees in certain areas of southeastern Turkey, where the number of Syrian refugees is nearly that of the local population. Less than 10 percent of Syrian refugees in the country have found places in reception centres, which are available mainly in border areas. Others have spread throughout Turkey, often in overcrowded makeshift camps. Istanbul has highest number of Syrian refugees, with a total of 511,000 registered. 

However, when viewed in terms of percentages compared to the local populations, the highest concentrations of Syrian refugees are to be found in the southeastern provinces. There are 445,000 Syrian residents in Sanliurfa, 416,000 in Hatay, and 341,000 in Gaziantep. The record for hosting goes to the border city of Kilis, where the number of refugees has drawn even with the local population.

The figures include all Syrians registered with a biometric ID card, which is needed to be able to obtain temporary protection status and access the country's social services, as well as the national healthcare and educational system.

Since last year, Turkish authorities have also started to give work permits to Syrians. However, according to the EKP research centre in Istanbul, in 2016 just 7,000 authorisations were issued. Many NGOs have criticized the fact that most refugees continue to work illegally, with low pay and without adequate safety measures.

More articles