Letter from the Syrian Border

An on-the-ground report from the growing Syrian refugee camps in Turkey.

Stephen Franklin

Syrian refugees at a camp in the Turkish town of Yayladagi in Hatay province, bordering Syria. More than 112,000 refugees are currently in camps in Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan. (Photo by Adem Altan/AFP/Getty Images)

YAYLADAG, Turkey (On the Syrian border) — Yasser Jani huddles in a tiny sliver of shade. He wants to escape from the heat and crowding and an uncertain future. But the small patch of trees just outside the camp for Syrian refugees here didn’t offer one and his face shows it.

Most of the people here are hopeless,” says the short, middle-aged Syrian, who taught high school science before fleeing last year with his wife, two small children, mother and brother. They lost their homes, their work, and their money and they don’t know anything about their future,” he said.

And I feel the same way,” he flatly adds.

As Syria boils, its diaspora lives in disparate worlds of faith and despair, of denial and acceptance, and many places in between. The young bodybuilder whose stomach was plugged with bullets from Syrian soldiers nurtures old dreams while the husband, whose seventh-month pregnant wife was killed as they were fleeing, is frozen in shock.

Daily the specter grows of yet another massive population of uprooted and wounded souls in the Arab world.

Already more than 112,000 refugees are jammed in camps in Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan, with thousands more are surviving on their own in these countries. Many more Syrians appear ready to join these ranks and flee their country as the fighting grows fiercer in Syria’s largest cities.

Dr. Moustafa, a Syrian psychiatrist now living in the United Kingdom who would not give his last name, worries about the indelible scars that he says will last long beyond any resolution to the crisis. The only Syrian psychiatrist on hand here, he is forced to flit from camp to camp, dealing with panic-stricken refugees, dispensing medication and trying to measure the depth of the problem.

Yasser Jani is one of those refugees living somewhere between hope and darkness. Despite his frustration about spending the last year in the small, crowded camp, where he complains about the daily inconveniences, he has helped out with classes for young children. It’s all he can do, he adds.

Likewise, Ahmed Hassoun, 56, follows the same daily routine, which gives him meaning in Antakya, a large city in southeastern Turkey, where many Syrians have gathered. A lawyer from Idlib in northwestern Syria, where the fighting has been intense, Hassoun puts on a clean shirt and well-pressed dark pants early in the morning in an almost empty apartment, where he lives with his children, and heads to an office where he works with another 20 Syrian refugee lawyers. His wife stayed behind in Syria.

He gets no pay for his work. None of the lawyers do. But they have gathered daily, meeting with clients and taking careful notes for the last month and a half. Their goal is to produce an accurate and detailed account of the abuses suffered by Syrians under the Assad regime. They hope to turn it over to the International Criminal Court or to a court in Syria when they return, he explains.

They are also working with attorneys within Syria to compile their records.

From the handful of refugees, who visit the office daily to tell their stories or the stories of others who are too ashamed, as is the case for female rape victims, or too overwhelmed to personally recount the events, they have catalogued more than 30 kinds of torture, and at least 1,500 rapes, some of them in groups.

His records show that Syrian torturers use metal and wooden sticks and often electricity on their victims. They also use acid and it is not unusual for victims to die of their burns and wounds, he says.

Soldiers caught escaping, are executed right away by gun or they slaughter them with knifes,” he says.

As a fellow attorney sitting beside Hassoun coolly recalls seeing someone beaten to death on the street by Syrian soldiers with a rock, Hassoun adds softly, I feel terrible when I hear these stories.”

Many of the tortures that Hassoun has been recording were suffered by Dr. Mohammed Sheik Ibrahim, 38, a soft-spoken pediatrician, who didn’t want to leave Syria even after eight months in prison.

They put me in a small cell for 28 days and they interrogated me four times a day for an hour or two each time. Or they would make me stand for hours. They beat me. They used wooden sticks and metal sticks,” he says. I heard them raping women and girls in the rooms nearby.”

When Ibrahim came home to Latakia from prison, he continued to speak out to his clients, colleagues and anyone else about the regime’s abuses. I wasn’t afraid,” he explains. Then one day a high-ranking official warned him that his life was in danger. He fled the next day, nearly nine months ago.

Ibrahim has since been working with injured fighters in Turkey from the Free Syrian Army. When thousands of fellow Turkmens from Syria poured across the border recently, driven by aerial attacks, he rushed to the camp that Turkish officials quickly set up for them here in Yayladag.

He is committed, he says, to work with the fighters and follow them into Syria when they launch a large battle. His father has asked him not to go, fearing for his life, but he remains determined to go with the fighters, he says.

He explains that he is a doctor treating one wound after another with no end in sight.

When I am fixing them (the soldiers), I tell myself that Bashar Assad is the man with the knife and he is the one causing all of these wounds,” he says intensely, moving his arms, and raising his voice.

Like Ibrahim, Dr. Khaula Sawah knows much about the refugees’ medical needs, because she has been organizing the help coming from expatriate Syrians medical experts like herself. The expats arrive here in waves from across Europe, the United States and the Arab world. They stay several weeks and leave. Many return.

Sawah also works on finding medical supplies needed inside of Syria. A clinical pharmacist at a Cincinnati hospital, she has come to southeastern Turkey five times this year so far for this kind of work. This time she brought her two sons along with her.

Born in St. Louis, Sawah moved as a child to Syria with her Syrian-born parents. When her father was put in prison by the government, the family waited 12 years in Syria until he was released.

Now vice-president of the Turkish branch of the Union of Syrian Medical Relief Organizations, Sawah has lately been filling up a small warehouse with medicine and then finding safe ways to smuggle it into Syria.

The needs are humungous,” she says. We’ll pitch in $100,000 worth of medicine (in Syria) and it is gone in a few days.”

At the warehouse — the basement of a nearby apartment house in Reyhanli — people are unpacking a new delivery of blood absorbing bandages. A U.S. manufacturer had donated the supplies, worth nearly $500,000, Sawah says.

From visits to the Turkish-run camps as well as clinics that the Syrian physicians have set up, she is familiar with the refugees’ frustration.

It’s been especially difficult, she says, for those who didn’t want to live in the camps because of their stark conditions or isolation. As a result, they struck out on their own, renting apartments and often doubling up with other families. In many places, rents doubled with the refugees’ arrival, the refugees say.

They are all illegal and they don’t have any rights,” she explains. Soon they run out money and then discover that can’t get help at the Turkish hospitals because they are not registered. I just got a call from a woman who went to the state hospital and said they wouldn’t check up her child.”

But the greatest discontent, she says, is felt by those who have been in the camps the longest. It wells up into squabbles between groups and complaints about conditions. Indeed, there have been three disturbances in refugee camps by Syrians asking for refrigerators, or water and food. Turkish security forces used tear gas and fired bullets into the air to calm an uprising at one camp.

But Sawah has also seen the way the refugees have struggled to accommodate each other and adjust to a future on hold. Some have set up small stores in the camps to earn money and make life more hospitable. And at overcrowded clinics, older patients have given up their beds and slept on the floor to make room for new arrivals.

At the Yayladag camp, where a recent fire took the lives of a newlywed couple who had arrived only a few days earlier, Yasser Jani worries about the young children who he says need more food and clothing, and the teenagers who need a school. He worries too about the women who have to put up with a lack of privacy and other difficulties.

After the fire at the camp, an old factory warehouse minutes from the Syrian border, Turkish officials talked of moving the refugees to another camp. But overcome by the arrival of as many as 1,000 refugees a day and the need to open at least two more camps, the camp here has stayed open.

Privately, Jani worries about not having money and what’s ahead. But on another day in the low 100s, he worries about just catching his breath. Most nights he cannot sleep because of the heat.

But I’m trying to make my life better,” he adds.

The Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting supported this reporting.

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A former labor writer for the Chicago Tribune, Stephen Franklin is a Pulitzer Prize finalist and an adjunct professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign School of Labor and Employment Relations.

Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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