Syrians in Turkey camps desperate to return

Refugees grow weary of difficult living conditions within camps as bloody conflict rages inside Syria.

Father and Child in Turkey refugee camp
Some refugees, like Mohamed Al-Arash, believe that life was better in Syria [Matthew Cassel/Al Jazeera]

Ahmed al-Arash bore the expression of a powerless father as he stood over his one-year-old son, Mohamed, in a health clinic in Turkey’s Islahiyeh refugee camp.

Mohamed grimaced in pain, his little frame appearing even frailer in the middle of the adult-sized hospital bed.

Al-Arash, who arrived in the camp with his pregnant wife and their only son just over a week earlier, described how Mohamed hadn’t eaten in five days and said doctors couldn’t tell him what the problem was.

As he spoke a nurse walked past, muttering in Turkish that al-Arash didn’t understand, and went on to take the vitals of another young patient.

“I swear to god it was better in Syria,” al-Arash cried.

Eager for home

As fighting inside Syria continues, almost 350,000 people who have fled to neighbouring countries seeking refuge are becoming increasingly frustrated and eager to return home.

Turkey has already accepted more than 102,000 refugees into the 14 camps built since the refugee crisis began in 2011.

From the outside, Islahyieh looks more like a detention facility than shelter for the displaced. Its fences are lined with barbed wire and rendered opaque with blue tarp. Armed Turkish soldiers sit at lookout posts around the perimeter and guard its entrance.

Om Jamal (centre) fled Syria with her mother, sister and young son earlier this year [Matthew Cassel/Al Jazeera]

The camp’s 7,825 refugees, many of who escaped their homes without passport or any identification at all, are provided with picture ID cards that they must present to camp security upon entry and exit from the camp.

Inside Islahiyeh, Halil Geylan, a representative of Turkey’s foreign ministry stationed in the camp, explained that the measures were for the refugees’ own security with the war raging just kilometres down the road.

He described in detail the Turkish government’s massive operation to take in the refugees. In addition to the health clinic and medical staff, Turkish authorities provide schools, social centres, tents, translators, food, markets, and other means for Syrians to establish some form of transient normalcy inside the camps.

“We don’t like to think of [the Syrians] as refugees, but more as guests,” Geylan said.

Those guests include not only civilians, but also the top military leaders of the Free Syrian Army, the main armed opposition group in Syria, who are being housed in the Apaydin camp.

It’s not only for supporting the refugees, but also the armed opposition, that Syrians like Om Jamal say she and most others are grateful for Turkish support.

“The Turks are better than Arabs,” she said while stitching a purse at a sewing workshop in Islahiyeh’s social centre.
Om Jamal’s younger brother was killed fighting the government in Aleppo city earlier this year, and she fled with her mother, sister and young son to Turkey.

She said she had few complaints about staying in the camps, but that “one can never replace living in [one’s] country by living in another”.

“God willing we’ll go back.”

Life inside

As time goes on, many have started to create small stands from which they sell goods such as food, cigarettes, vegetables, candy, and mobile phone parts.

“We’ll keep fighting until we topple [President Bashar] al-Assad,” said Abu Taha while preparing a falafel sandwich for a young customer, adding that in the meantime people had to eat.

He said he had opened his falafel stand “Freedom Restaurant” because camp residents were growing tired of the free food provided by a local catering company hired by the government.

When later that day the food was delivered by a local catering company hired by the Turkish government, residents were quick to complain about the meal, which included meat stew, rice and apples. 

One man, clenching two fists of bread that appeared crushed from the delivery said, “Look at what they’re giving us, who could eat it?”

With winter approaching quickly, however, food might become less of a concern.

“You have two options: go back to Syria and die, or sleep here on the ground.”

– Abu Omar, a refugee

Residents said they were worried that the tents would not be liveable for the cold winds and rains that were expected in the mountainous region of southern Turkey. Many have begun covering their tents in plastic tarps to further shelter themselves from the elements.

Geylan said that some camps, like Kilis an hour away from Islahiyeh, have freight containers that should make the winter more bearable.

“I hope all the camps can have containers,” Geylan said, adding that the government was working to replace the current tents with warmer ones and provide families with electrical heaters.

People in Kilis acknowledged that their situation was perhaps better than other camps, but still nothing like living at home.

Geylan admitted that the government couldn’t make the conditions too comfortable for the refugees, otherwise “they would never want to return home”.

‘No way to live’ 

But not everyone sees the camps as a better alternative to return home where the fighting still rages.

Walking through Islahiyeh, Abu Omar, a refugee from a village near Aleppo, invited journalists in for tea. Like many tents, outside stood a satellite dish, and inside a TV playing Arabic news channels that regularly cover the news from inside Syria.

Surrounded by some of his grandchildren and neighbours, Abu Omar described how Syrians who took part in the early days of the uprising never anticipated the refugee crisis.

Abu Omar has decided to return home to Syria despite serious risks [Matthew Cassel/Al Jazeera]

“At the beginning we thought the West would intervene to stop Assad,” said Abu Omar, adding that he had four sons fighting with the Free Syrian Army in Aleppo.

Abu Omar said that the outside countries were not doing enough to support the Syrian opposition, and called for them to intervene military. Most Syrian refugees echoed his plea.

He described the decades of repression Syrians faced under the Assad regime, and said they were not going to lay down their arms until Bashar was gone.

He took a brief pause to roll a cigarette. Boxed cigarettes were too expensive, he said, so he and other men resorted to hand-rolled ones.

“You have two options: go back to Syria and die, or sleep here on the ground.”

Abu Omar said he was choosing the former, and in the coming days plans to take his family back to their village near Aleppo, despite heavy fighting not far away.

“The Turkish government is helping as much as it can, but staying in the camp is no way to live.”

Nowhere to go

When the doctor finally came to see young Mohamed, al-Arash’s son, their conversation quickly turned into shouts as it was clear neither side, dependent on an annoyed Turkish-Arab translator in the middle, could properly understand the other.

Al-Arash grabbed Mohamed and marched outside with him squeezed tightly against his chest before being stopped by other Syrians, who tried to calm him down and convince him to return inside the clinic.

Al-Arash took a moment before turning around, realising he had nowhere else to go.

Follow Matthew Cassel on Twitter: @justimage

Source: Al Jazeera