Almost 12 million Syrians – nearly half the country’s population – have been displaced from their homes by their country’s rapacious civil war. About three million of them have ended up in Turkey, an unprecedented number for a single country to take in and shelter. Western media has focused on Syrians fleeing (mostly through Turkey) to seek shelter in Europe, where they believe they will have a brighter future.

While the ‘migrant crisis’ was occupying the news cycle in 2015, I was working mostly in southern Turkey. I’d stopped going into Syria in 2014 owing to the increased risk associated with the rise of ISIS and the Syrian government’s massive barrel-bombing campaign. Several people I knew had been killed or kidnapped, and I came to believe the risk was too high. I started focusing instead on the story in front of me at the border: the lives of the Syrians who were now living in Turkey.

When all the news outlets turned to the streams of Syrians entering Europe, I stayed and continued working in southern Turkey. It was the less glamorous angle, but I’m not really a news photographer; I’m a documentary photographer. I didn’t want to run off and chase a new story without completing the one I was working on.

This is the story of the millions of Syrians who still live in Turkey. Some Syrians have adjusted well, settled in, and are in Turkey for the long haul. Many, if not most, though unhappy to have to be there, are very grateful to the Turks for letting them stay. Despite some grumbling, most of the people I’ve talked to realise that Turkey has done far more for them than anyone else, and has taken in more of them than any other country, under relatively lax conditions, as far as refugees go.

In Turkey, Syrians are not considered refugees. They are called ‘guests’. Once they register they are entitled to health care and ostensibly some food aid or relief.

My goal is to get you to see yourself in these pictures. These people lived lives in Syria not too different to your own

Approximately 250,000 (or about 11%) of Syrians in Turkey live in camps. The rest have ‘self-settled’ in both urban and rural areas. The degree to which they adapt to their new communities runs the gamut from full integration and the ability to obtain legal residency or even citizenship to squatting and being completely out of the system, taking whatever jobs they can get.

There is no single description of life for a Syrian refugee in Turkey. I have met some very poor people who are eking out subsistence living in the countryside, or squatting in abandoned buildings in cities. I’ve also met some wealthy Syrians who have moved their factories to Turkey, craftsmen who have shifted their practice and are doing well, and young people who have taken the opportunity to live in large cities such as Istanbul and blend in with an urban population, finding jobs and building social lives.

The common factor is that they all fled a brutal and relentless war that has literally destroyed their cities. Many are opponents of the regime of Bashar al-Assad, who seems poised to win military victory with the help of his Russian and Iranian allies. They can never go back, even if the fighting stops.

My personal opinion is that Syrians in general are resilient, and they are making the best of a shitty situation. Some are doing better than others. Some are in very grim situations. Trafficking and abuse of women, girls, and boys is rampant and terrible.

The goal of any documentary photography is to get the viewer to gain some insight into the lives of the people in the pictures. My specific goal is to try to get you to see yourself in these pictures. Because these people lived lives in Syria not too different from your own. Try to imagine what your life would be like if a sudden war or disaster had you fleeing your home to a different country with nothing but a suitcase and some documents. 

A Handful of Dust: Syrian Refugees in Turkey by Nish Nalbandian is out now (Daylight Books)