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Syrian Refugees Have What They Need, Not What They Want

Syria Refugees
A view of the Kilis refugee camp less than 100 yards from Syria in Kilis, Turkey, in June 2012. Photographer: Nicole Gaouette/Bloomberg

Purgatory comes with world-class services in Turkey’s camps for Syrian refugees. Residents enjoy free health care, an open-air cinema and Internet cafes. If they marry, they get a complimentary night in a five-star hotel.

The one thing inhabitants of the Kilis camp on Turkey’s southeastern border with Syria don’t have is what they want most: A road home.

“You know you can return to your country tomorrow,” said a 15-year-old girl named Qamer. “It’s not up to us when we go home. We don’t know when we’ll ever go back.”

Qamer, like most of the people I spoke to, wouldn’t give her last name for fear that relatives in Syria would be targeted and killed by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. The 16-month conflict already has claimed more than 10,000 lives.

So a makeshift town of 10,500 men, women and children is rising on the flat, sun-baked fields at the foot of Syria’s hills. Children toss balls in the narrow roads. Men in ankle-length robes hunch in the shade of improvised awnings, smoking and pumping the latest refugees fleeing attacks by Assad’s regime for news that only gets worse. Beyond the 10-foot walls, gunfire echoes from the border about 109 yards (100 meters) away.

On the 2,051 metal shipping containers that serve as homes, people have scrawled the names of their towns and slogans such as, “We will return!” The only question anyone has for a visiting reporter is how the U.S. will help them get home.

Seven Camps

Kilis is one of seven camps dotted along Turkey’s 511-mile (822 kilometer) border with Syria, which together hold more than 27,000 people. It is easily the nicest refugee camp I’ve ever seen, a far cry from Asian or Palestinian camps that have calcified into makeshift cities or decomposed into haphazard slums. Even so, there’s no escaping the despair of so many scarred and suspended lives.

The conflict across the border between Assad’s Alawite-dominated regime and a largely Sunni Muslim uprising is ever-present, borne in by new arrivals, hourly newscasts, and peoples’ need to share their stories. I spent hours sitting in the 226-square foot (21-square meter), two-room shipping-container houses, cradling sugary cups of black tea and listening to people talk about their experiences.

Qamer, like 20 percent of Kilis’s residents, comes from the seaside town of Latakia. After soldiers shot her 23-year-old uncle and let him bleed to death in the street, she and her family ran, stumbling north toward the border through the hilly countryside.

Qamer pulled her five-year-old sister by the hand, convinced that the army was in pursuit and would get them before they could reach the border. It took them four hours.

“The whole way, we were feeling they would kill us, too,” she said.

Young Deserters

Women and children make up two-thirds of the camp, which is geared toward families. There are also many young men who have fled service in Syria’s conscript army.

Ibrahim, a chain-smoking 20-year-old, decided to defect after he watched his officer stop a man at a checkpoint. When the man asked why he was being questioned, the officer shot him in the leg. Then another officer approached the man, now prone and bleeding, and shot him dead.

Abdullah, a beefy 20-year-old from Idlib, served in Damascus as part of the Republican Guard that protects Syria’s capital city. At checkpoints, he was told to inspect every mobile phone. If one held footage or photos of a demonstration, he arrested the owner. When it came time to stop protesters, his orders were “shoot to kill.” The night he deserted his unit, 57 others went with him, he said.

Cut Off

The young men spoke about the isolation they felt in their army units. Mohammed, a soft-spoken six-footer with reddish hair, fled four days before we spoke. For months, his unit had no home leave, no access to telephones, radios or TVs. Instead, they got daily lectures about terrorists raping women and killing children across Syria.

When Mohammed and his friends were deployed, they saw other soldiers hammer old men with rifle butts and beat sons in front of their mothers. When a friend decided to go AWOL to join the opposition Free Syrian Army, Mohammed jumped at the chance to join him.

His friend is still in Syria with the opposition force. Mohammed used a fake ID to get to Turkey. His friend faces a fierce fight, he said. “If someone is not afraid of Allah, you have to be afraid of them,” he said. “The Syrian army is not afraid of Allah.”

Later, sitting elbow-to-elbow in a tiny room with 10 others, I watched two blond toddlers play while the TV behind them showed Al Jazeera footage of dead, bloodied babies. No one muted their words or softened their stories as they spoke through a translator.

Spies Everywhere

My host, a former school director named Mahmoud Mosa, said the regime’s violence isn’t just physical. Camp residents are wary of one another, a legacy of 40 years of the Assad family’s pervasive network of informers, he said.

Suphi Atan, the Turkish Foreign Ministry official in charge of the camps, had already told me that Turkey’s concerns about infiltration by Syrian intelligence had led the government in Ankara to bar access to some camps.

Mosa was talking about what he considered the more ordinary and insidious way neighbors inform on each other, about the suspicions camp residents had of each other, and of him.

Suspicion “is so deep in us,” he said. “Sometimes people even suspect themselves.”

Before going to the refugee camp, I spent a night in the city of Kilis, about three miles (4.8 kilometers) and a world away, chatting with local officials at a high school graduation ceremony.

Smoke, Laughter

The air was thick with cigarette smoke and laughter. The tables were laden with hummus, patties made of ground lamb and bulgur wheat, and non-alcoholic drinks. (A travel tip: If you’re ever offered Salgam, a ferociously spicy drink made of fermented turnip and pickled carrot, proceed with caution.)

The town’s 84,000 people have mixed feelings about the camp, the official to my right said. While businesses benefit as camp residents shop, the local smuggling industry is suffering as border security on both sides tightens, he confided. Prices for Sri Lankan tea, sugar and fuel will edge up soon, he said, asking not to be identified discussing the underground economy.

In places, the border is little more than strands of limp barbed wire hanging off tilting wooden posts. Syrians don’t need visas to enter Turkey and are now getting “temporary protection status” that guarantees them entry.

Thin Veneer

The Kilis camp is approaching its capacity of 12,000 refugees, and other camps aren’t far behind. One Turkish government official, who asked not to be identified discussing the sensitive matter, told me Turkey is only now asking for international support after spending $150 million on refugees this year.

I joked that Kilis camp’s amenities made me want to move in. I pressed him for details on the plush Ottoman Palace hotel in Antakya three hours away, the type of hotel where camp newlyweds spend their one-day honeymoons. He laughed and said ruefully that residents of the city of Kilis don’t get such amenities.

The services in the Kilis refugee camp offer a thin veneer of dignity to people who have lost almost everything, including people they love and any certainty about the future.

Their new home is ringed by coils of razor wire and secured by a steel gate six inches thick. The camp uses biometric screeners to track their comings and goings. In the stark Mediterranean sunlight, it looks like a sterile, brand-new suburb.

Cypress, Oleander

Turkey has tried to soften the surroundings, landscaping Kilis with little cypress trees and oleander bushes. It’s clean, orderly and divided into five districts with names such as “Revolution” and “Democracy.” The roads have been carefully laid with interlocking bricks. Small satellite dishes sit atop many of the white containers.

Residents are grateful to be here. I asked one mother of three who spent the previous year in a tent camp whether she was happy. She pointed at the walls of her shipping container with an “Are you kidding?” look. “We have a window, we have a door, we have hot water,” said the woman, who declined to share even her first name. “Yes.”

There are three schools where her children go, two mosques and a hospital. Two social centers for women teach hairdressing and carpet-weaving. A Turkish company buys the rugs, paying each woman who worked on one $200. Men learn carpentry. There are chess clubs and Turkish-language lessons. People have started up little markets to sell vegetables and cigarettes.

Chicken Coop

They’ve hung rugs and blankets to create rooms outside their shipping containers. Fences have become laundry lines. One man who wouldn’t give his real name fashioned a chicken coop out of mattress springs. His family had carried the birds over the border with other prized possessions.

Against the odds, there is some hope. Qamer, slight and brown-eyed under her headscarf, has ambitions. She wants to get back to Syria. And once she’s there? “I want to be a minister and run the country,” she said. “I know I can do a better job.”

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