Scattered on the stony hills of Idlib, forgotten by almost everyone, the displaced Syrians are struggling to survive with the everlasting thought of returning to the cities and villages they forcibly abandoned.
The view from the Kah Ahrabat hill is reminiscent of a foamy torrent flooding the valley that is sculptured, as houses and tents are scattered and irregularly occupy the entire area. A compact cluster of houses and tents hide the narrow streets found between the buildings.
Plastics cover the ceilings to protect from the rain, while photovoltaic panels light the houses or the tents after the war and the bombing destroyed all electricity infrastructure. Scarce water supplies are distributed from aquifers or wells scattered in the area.
Up on the hill, the all-seeing Syrian shepherd with the herd he brought from his homeland gazes beyond the hills, perhaps looking for his village and his home.
On the damaged roads which our armored vehicle can hardly traverse, shops almost empty of goods pop out to the right and left among numerous garages for cars and two-wheelers, which are the majority of vehicles and drive around chaotically.
The children in this anarchic settlement of 60,000 houses, holding their bags are heading to school. Small clans which, much like every child around the world, walk carefree on the muddy paths and fields.
Women wearing the traditional clothes of the Arab world, alone or in groups are talking, shopping and looking at us with curiosity. The men, some climbing on the roofs of the houses and others preparing the mix for the cement, continue their work while looking at us rather indifferently, and then there are also those who greet us after recognizing the insignia of the escort cars.
The road was difficult until we reached the AFAD-built settlement in the Meshed Ruhin area, our first stop to a close-up look on refugees’ everyday lives.
The settlement accommodates people with disabilities with their families. It was the first priority for the people of AFAD, as Hatay Deputy Governor Eyyüp Batuhan Ciğerci explained to me.
I chose to wander alone to get lost and mingle with the refugees as much as possible. The little Arabic I could speak became my ally, alongside a kid who became my shadow and almost never lost sight of me as I walked through the settlement.
I left the only paved road that had been completed by that time as the rest were under construction, and I was curiously looking at the details of the houses. Elevated to avoid problems from rain and floods, a roof tank for water and photovoltaics for electricity. I could not see the interior anyway, as the houses are inhabited, and cultural norms prohibit uninvited guests.
Children, like all children in the world, were playing. Some of them had sticks in their hands for weapons and were fighting; I wonder whom. Others got on the motorcycles and pretended to ride them. If you could switch the location, those could have been children from any part of the world.
Searching through the streets I found myself in a Π-shaped building with many small rooms, some of them still under construction, others full of Arabic textbooks, and some rooms almost ready to receive students.
Opposite the school lies a large alley where shopkeepers have arrayed their produce. So much people. Clothes, shoes, spices, toys and more are scattered everywhere. Motorcycles and classic cars are driving between the pedestrians honking and causing a commotion which very well resembles that of any other market in the world.
At the end of the field lies the mosque, a place of prayer and communication with the deities, an ultimate hope of salvation and help. Outside the mosque, a Syrian in his wheelchair is looking at me. I greet him in Arabic. He calls me to come up close, opens a basket and gives me a hot Arabic pie full of hot vegetables. He points to the oven that is still burning. I took the pie and thanked him. It was not the first time I had received such an offer from a stranger in a Muslim country. I had experienced it in Iran, Egypt, Lebanon, Libya and elsewhere. But under these circumstances, it was verily something unique.
Time passed and I crossed through the settlement one last time, as always with the youngster next to me. A motorcycle passed in front of me out of the blue. The rider stopped in front of the makeshift gas station where the cans were waiting for customers to choose fuel. He filled his tank with a funnel.
As we were getting ready to leave, the children who followed the rest of our mission walked us out looking to take a picture with us. Our next destination awaited so we left the refugee settlement which, according to the tenants themselves, is managed by the council of the elders in a peculiar form of self-government.
Next stop were the settlements of the Turkish Red Crescent where, according to Hakan Sari, 39-square-meter houses with two rooms, a kitchen and a bathroom will be delivered by the end of February. Being good hosts, the men of the Red Crescent offered us tea and refreshments, sitting in one of the courtyards of the houses that eagerly awaited their new residents.
And if the houses built by AFAD, the Turkish Red Crescent and other NGOs were a ray of light in the dark days of the refugees, there are still refugees living in tents, in miserable conditions. It is not always possible to make your wishes come true, but it is worth the effort.
Obviously the 9 busy hours I spent in the refugee settlements did not make me fully aware of the situation. I did not see everything; I did not hear every side of story; I did not understand everything.
Neither time was enough, nor did I visit all parts of the area where almost 4 million refugees reside; I did not talk to most of them, although AFAD and the Red Crescent had provided translators to contact the Syrians and ask anything.
But what should one ask a refugee? How’s life? What do they want? What are they missing? What are their hopes? But you can clearly see all that in their eyes, in their lost smile, in the borrowed houses or tents hosting them until the nightmare ends which, however, has been lasting for years.
And what if they tell some journalists? Will anything in their everyday life change? After all, those who should have listened, seen and solved their problems have never stopped by. They sit in their warm offices and study reports, numbers, income and expenses, to organize another program that will drive away the guilt that should burden them, being good religious people and all.
The Idlib area, with more than 4 million displaced Syrians from the east of the country, is currently a relatively safe area, although the military regime that controls the area is indefinite. When I asked the soldiers who were accompanying us for safety, they said they were Syrians as I was impressed that they did not have a badge on their military uniforms, while the license plates of the moving cars were also Syrian. They certainly did not belong to Assad’s army.
Turkey, which has received strong criticism by some governments and the media for its involvement in the Syrian crisis, is the only country -based on what I saw and recorded- that has had a positive intervention in resolving the humanitarian crisis in the Idlib region.
Through AFAD, the Red Crescent and other Turkish NGOs, there is support and care for Syrian refugees with the construction of refugee camps, the strengthening of local economy and the creation of a safe environment in an area that is anything but easy to secure.
Possibly, if not for sure, there certainly can be found latent motives in the Turkish government’s policy choices in the war zones on the Turkish-Syrian border. This is what the three major Turkish military operations in Syria are pointing to, as they aimed to create a security zone on the Turkish-Syrian border and quash the flow of refugees inside Turkey, which now numbers 3.6 million Syrians and 600,000 other ethnic groups, Asians and Africans. A difficult situation that would be further aggravated by new refugee flows from an uncontrolled civil war, in which several Western countries are involved.
Much has been written about Syria and much more will be written in the future. The policies, the consequences, the geopolitical changes will be analyzed, but most of them will not make any reference to the souls of the innocent people who, suddenly and without them being responsible, lost their world.
Despite the numerous difficulties that arise from living under these conditions, in tents or houses built by organizations, always with the fear of an armed attack and the shadow of death hovering over the settlements, hope and desire for life empowers refugees. /ibna