Turkish Lawyer Utilizes Her Skills to Serve Syrian Refugees

September 2015

Zehra Sağlam never wanted to work on typical legal issues. She specializes in evolving areas of Turkish law, such as intellectual property rights and real estate. Zehra is also interested in refugees’ and particularly women’s rights. When the president of her local Gaziantep Bar Association asked Zehra if she was interested in participating in the ABA Rule of Law Initiative’s (ABA ROLI’s) program to provide legal information and advice to Syrians in Turkey, she jumped at the chance. 

Saglam conducts a counseling session for Syrian refugees.

Sağlam conducts a counseling session for Syrian refugees.

ABA ROLI is currently implementing a program that assists Syrians living in Turkey in exercising their rights within the Turkish legal system. While Turkish law provides Syrians certain rights, the laws are complicated and difficult to navigate. This leaves Syrians vulnerable to exploitation and abuse, including denial of critical services, such as healthcare and education. Lack of awareness among both Syrians and Turkish civil servants also limits Syrians’ ability to work, and their access to housing and other family rights. In January, ABA ROLI began to train Turkish lawyers to deliver legal awareness sessions and individual legal consultations to urban Syrian populations throughout Turkey. ABA ROLI’s program spans cities along the southern border with Syria, including Gaziantep, Sanliurfa and Hatay, as well as cities with a high density of Syrians, such as Mersin and Istanbul.

Zehra is one of the 74 lawyers ABA ROLI has trained, and she conducts weekly legal information sessions for Syrians in two cities—Gaziantep City and Nizip—on legal topics including family law, labor law, citizenship, access to education, health, housing and legal aid. She also answers participants’ legal questions following each awareness session.

“From my experience with the ABA ROLI program,” says Zehra, “I know … that what most Syrian people need is dignity. They want to live free from fear and uncertainty, they want to get a livelihood.” Zehra has so far led legal awareness sessions for nearly 500 Syrians. She says that her work with ABA ROLI has allowed her to gain practical experience and insight. She has learned first-hand how the Turkish legal system functions in practice for Syrians living in Turkey. She says that understanding the challenges the Syrians face in finding  an answer to many of the issues that may arise empowered her to become an advocate for those in need.

“Before I started with ABA ROLI, I was talking about the Syrians’ issues with my friends, with the representatives of Turkish institutions, because it is a great challenge for Turkey,” she says. “Now, I also understand the point of view of the Syrians, and I can voice their concerns when I meet government officials.”

Zehra also feels a particular responsibility toward helping the numerous Syrian women that seek her assistance. In each of her awareness sessions, women are not afraid to ask questions and appear driven to learn more about their rights. Their questions are mostly related to marriage, divorce and citizenship. She finds their willingness to ask questions very encouraging. She believes that the legal and civic education sessions may result in changing the mentality of the attendees, and encourage women to act as change agents.

Zehra has also started to conduct legal awareness sessions targeting women and other vulnerable populations. She says defending Syrian and women’s rights has become part of her life. She hopes that the ABA ROLI program will continue, she says, and “reach more Syrians, voice their needs and advocate for their rights.”

To learn more about our work with Syrian refugees in Turkey, contact the ABA Rule of Law Initiative at rol@americanbar.org.