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The Turkey Diaries, Part II

Reem Alsalem is the public information officer for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), based in Beirut. Earlier this month, she traveled to the Turkish-Syrian border to work with urban refugees and others living outside of designated refugee camps. As she worked, Alsalem agreed to keep a diary for us, recording what she saw.

Written by Reem Alsalem Published on Read time Approx. 7 minutes

June 4, 2013

Finally I make it into one of Turkey’s famous refugee camps. I am quite intrigued to see how they’ll look. We walk through a camp called Nizip 1. The camp hosts 10,604 people, mainly from Aleppo and Idlib. The tents have been erected in an orderly fashion. The camp has kitchens, a small shop, a school, a clinic. But there is a heavy atmosphere. Refugees are mostly sitting in their tents, or are going about their business in slow motion. Speaking to people isn’t difficult. In fact, they are surprised that we want to speak to them, given that visitors to the camp tend to hurry through it. They’re approachable.

Refugees we speak to are quite appreciative of Turkey’s generosity to them.  They wish language wasn’t such a problem – communication is made difficult by their inability to speak Turkish and the inability of their hosts to speak Arabic. The camp has a few translators, but they’re described unenthusiastic. This makes access of services at times challenging, especially healthcare. One woman describes to us how one lady was unable to explain to the doctor at the clinic how serious her daughter’s condition was. Only when her daughter got extremely dehydrated and collapsed was she evacuated to the hospital outside the camp.

Movement in and out of the camp isn’t easy. But if a refugee wants to join the refugee residents that are working in the fields outside the camp, it is possible. Salma, a 50-year-old woman we speak to, tells me that work is arranged by a Syrian refugee in the camp who acts as a “middle woman.”  This woman seems to have hit the jackpot. Of the 20 Turkish Lira (about $10) that a refugee would make for working 10 hours, she would get 5, paying the refugee 15. “Not worth the hours we put in, but what can we do?” Salma says.

On our way out, we see Abdel Gani, sitting behind his little shop at the entrance of the camp. He has come here from Lebanon, where he had lived in Sidon. When one of his relatives was kidnapped, Abdel Gani became very worried about his own security and decided to come to a place where he felt safer.  He came to Turkey and settled in Reyhanli. And he did feel safer, until May’s Reyhanli bombings, which changed the mood in the city.

We leave Nizip 1 to go next door to Nizip 2. It hosts 4,000 Syrian Arabs and around 800 Circassian Syrians. The latter live in containers that have been specially allocated to them.

It somehow had escaped me that Syria has a Circassian minority. Googling it later that day, I learn that they are a very small group, making up  less than 1% of the population. There was a substantial Circassian minority in Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine, Turkey and Syria. My own grandmother was a Circassian from Jordan. If there is anything that can be said about the minority in Jordan is how extremely well integrated they are, while maintaining at the same their culture and traditions. Looking at these girls and boys, some of who certainly looked very similar to the Circassians of Jordan, I wondered whether they share other common characteristics or living conditions.

A Circassian NGO had provided them with the necessary support to make their flight to safety possible. Most had fled because of the fear or threat of kidnappings that started to become rampant.

Most of the teens we meet, aged between 17 and 19, have spent less than six months at the camp. Two of them have formed an art club in the camp, where they teach their fellow refugee children how to paint, draw and sing. They are supported by a Syrian teacher, who leads the singing practices for the children. All of them are excited about their first “show” next week. Part of the objective of the show, in which they are going to share their talents with the world, is to convince camp management to give them more support in terms of material and space.

June 5

Today is a particularly interesting day. We head off to the province of Kilis, home to 13,400 refugees, who live in camps. Kilis hosts the only open border point so far. Syrians can come in freely as long as they have a valid passport.

Our day starts off with a visit to a school. Getting the school director to open up to us is one of the most challenging tasks I perform in the course of my trip. The director is not only disappointed in the UN’s “inaction” on Syria and believes our organizations are different sides of the same coin, but also makes sure we know it. It takes a lot of discussion to get him to see that UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the UN Security Council are not the same thing, that we have different mandates. He is skeptical about me, not believing that I’m actually an Arab, but that I’m just pretending to be one.

The conversation reveals the second most cited concern that refugees have (after rent): the education of their children. It does not matter to which country they’ve fled, Syrians are completely consumed by it. The school, which caters to 2,500 students and has around 87 teachers (all Syrians), has secured the support of the Governorate of Kilis, which made three floors in three different buildings available to the teachers.  Other Turkish organizations have provided one-off incentives, school material for the kids. We are surprised to hear that an international NGO, the International Medical Corps, is also working in the school, giving trauma counseling to the refugees. The teachers inform us that their main concern is to find a way to recognize the exams that their students sat in Syria, so that there’s an incentive for these youths to continue with their education.

Not all the teachers of the school had been teachers.  Take Abdel Hamid. Back in Aleppo, he owned a food factory that was manned by 15 staff. Conflict destroyed his factory and therefore his source of income, so he crossed over to Turkey. “We had heard it was receiving Syrians without problems,” he says.

He has made trips back to check up on his house, which he misses. Abdel realizes that he and others who came early last year were better off than the Syrians who try to come over now. He has relatives who feel compelled to stay back in Syria, because they don’t have money to survive in Turkey outside of a camp. These days, if you have no money to survive in the city, you will not find a spot in the camps either, as the ones that exist are completely full. New camps (there are four in planning stages) will take time to build. Even with three border points closed, and only two currently fully open, Turkey still gets an average of 700 new arrivals every day. This is not to mention those who make it through the informal routes.

We wander about, then decide to check out the camp community center. A dozen women sit around the table. They are working on handicrafts. On the tables next to them lie handmade bedcovers, table covers, head scarfs, shawls – you name it. None of them knew how to make these back home. They all learned here.

Tens of boys and girls are crowding the entrance to a hall, rap music blasting from inside. We see two guys rapping in Arabic. Even the camp manager, Zafer, is there – all are cheering. I am taken aback by how upbeat this all feels, and how normal. This must be how youth used to spend their time and behave back in Syria. No less surprising is the fact that the camp manager, a man with hundreds of responsibilities, is here. “Well, having bored kids with nothing to do can become a big problem. [Creativity] will make sure that when they go back to Syria, they contribute to their society,” he says. Management is providing the kids with halls where they can train and play sports and musical instruments.

If there is one thing that consistently comes to the forefront no matter where Syrian refugees are, is that they want to be active participants in managing their situation. I meet a young volunteer named Hani. He and others here have made arrangements for the provision of trauma counseling to those pouring across the border. The group has received substantial support from a Saudi medical institution, which came to the camp for two weeks and provided the volunteers with psychological training. The volunteers sometimes walk 3 km to get to their patients.

Hani tells me of one man who had lost his wife and four kids. He was so depressed that after a couple of sessions, he refused to see the volunteers, saying that it was futile. He said he had nothing to live for and did not want to live any longer.


Having now gotten to know a camp setting in Kilis, we venture out into the urban area to see how refugees live and how they cope. We make our way to a clinic run by Syrian doctors.

People are coming and going, doctors in their white uniforms. We ask to see one of the head doctors and are introduced to Dr. Majd from Aleppo. Dr. Majd was a forensic doctor at home. At one point he was investigated for four hours, so he realized that he needed to get out. Majd, together with 23 other relatives, left Aleppo illegally. He came to Kilis and rented an apartment, paying the owner for 10 months up front.

He started a free clinic. He and three other doctors started working out of an abandoned space. A Turk by the name of Hajji Ahmed Orfali, who was also working in the municipality, stepped in once he knew about this initiative. He had the building renovated, got them additional medicine, and raised money from other organizations. The municipality also provides free electricity.

That evening, sitting in a nice restaurant with my colleagues, I feel my head spinning. Now that I have been to all the surrounding countries hosting large numbers of Syrian refugees, I am always amazed by how different the dynamics in each country are. For refugees living in Turkey, there are two worlds that exist side by side: life in the camps, and life outside.

(This piece represents Alsalem’s views and not those of her employer.)

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