Syrian refugees live in limbo as Turkey’s ‘guests’

Inside a temporary metal shelter in a dense refugee camp, Abdelwahed, a mason and father of seven, sat in contemplative silence for nearly a week after his shell-shocked family arrived here in June. His children’s legs hurt from the three-day hike into Turkey across the mountainous border from war-torn Syria. It was the lost look in their eyes that hurt him.

Then, the weathered, thin 50-year-old had something of an epiphany. “I had no answer when they asked when we would go home. So I thought, I will build our town here.”

Five months later, the Syrian town of al-Haffeh — former population 6,000 — is literally taking shape in the corner of their small living space. Only, in the lovingly detailed scale model Abdelwahed labors on each day, there are no bullet holes in his favorite local mosque. A bustling line of tractors and hay carts lines the streets of what became a ghost town after pro-government troops seized it back from the opposition in an infamous battle last summer. The roofs of his miniature buildings are undamaged by the mortar rounds that sent his family fleeing into Turkey, where more than 135,000 Syrian refugees — including 106,000 in officially established camps — have crossed from war into limbo.

“I will make another model later, a real one showing the town damaged as it is today,” he said, sitting in a corner and chiseling one of the final touches — a replica in pumice stone of a neighbor’s house. “But this is my hope of how it will look again someday. Hope must come first.”

In the purgatory of these camps, engaged young women struggle with shared cellphones to reach fiances fighting in the opposition. War-hardened men with missing limbs shout bitterly about the lack of Western support for dying Syrian civilians. As weeks have turned into months and, for some, months into more than a year, children ages 5 to 16 have enrolled in makeshift schools, learning the native Turkish of their host nation and striving for a sense of normalcy in art and math classes.

The Turkish government still prefers to call them “guests,” not refugees, and granted permission to a reporter for a rare visit inside what appeared to be among the best outfitted of the 14 camps constructed since the Syrian conflict went critical last year. Turkish officials authorized the supervised visit on the condition that the name of the camp and the surnames of refugees interviewed be withheld.

As the violence escalates, more and more refugees are bottlenecking at the border, leading the government in Ankara — which is funding the relief operation with minimal international aid — to sharply limit the number of those allowed in. Aid workers describe the conditions of the precarious encampments on the Syrian side as substantially worse.

Not surprisingly, scores of refugees are crossing the porous frontier illegally every day. The poor rely on hope for a space in the camps as well as Islamic aid groups and personal resourcefulness to find roofs over their heads. Those with wealth and connections are renting private accommodations — local housing prices have spiked in recent months as a result — or finding routes into North Africa, Europe and beyond.

The majority, however, are landing in Turkish-funded camps that Western diplomats describe as largely exceeding international norms, one reason the government tab has already surpassed $400 million. Diplomats say national pride appears to be keeping the Turks from allowing U.N. agencies to lead the relief effort here, a level of extra accountability that Western governments say would be necessary before they can agree to contribute large-scale aid.

There are strong indications that opposition fighters — and, some complain, an increasing number of extremists — are using the Turkish side of the border as a staging area, particularly escalating tensions with Alawite Turks, who are from the same religious sect as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

“Unfortunately, some of those accommodated in the camps are going back to Syria to fight and then return to the camps,” said Refik Eryilmaz, a national legislator from the Hatay border region for the opposition Republican People’s Party. “The local people in Hatay have had no problem with the ordinary, innocent people who fled the war and took shelter in the camps. But there have been people from al-Qaeda and other radical groups who came from Libya, Iraq, Chechnya and Afghanistan and rented homes in the city centers.”

And yet, the vast majority of camp dwellers are people like Aysha, an 18-year-old from the coastal city of Latakia who fled nine months ago with her family, paying smugglers a good chunk of their life savings and arriving with the clothes on their backs. Before fleeing a shower of government mortar shells, she and her fiance were planning their wedding. A date had been set. A restaurant for the wedding party had been booked. Her excitement was uncontainable.

Now, her fiance is fighting in the resistance, and she has been unable to reach him by phone for the past three weeks. She constantly watches Arabic-language channels — many families have managed to fit their aluminum-walled units with old televisions — for news. But there is no sense of self-absorption about her concern.

“It makes no difference that I am engaged and waiting for my future husband,” she said. “We are all suffering. Syria is suffering. The pain among our people is equal.”

While they wait, the refugees have begun to build a sense of normalcy, of things familiar. Allowed out of the camp from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., some of the men have begun working as olive pickers and day laborers. The children, as they did back in Syria, head to a nearby hillside to catch wild songbirds, keeping them in cages hanging outside their shelters.

Some, like Abdelwahed, the brick mason and model maker, have taken upon themselves the task of boosting morale. It is not easy; he has not heard from his seven siblings since fleeing Syria, and his face darkens as he considers their possible fates.

But just as his building of a replica town out of found stones and old crayons, he finds writing poems and songs of hope cathartic, both for his youngest children and others in the camp who frequently gather to hear him sing.

“We are not losing hope in all this waiting,” he said. “But sometimes, we need to be reminded of it.”

Sibel Utku Bila contributed to this report.

Anthony Faiola is The Post's Berlin bureau chief. Faiola joined the Post in 1994, since then reporting for the paper from six continents and serving as bureau chief in Tokyo, Buenos Aires, New York and London.
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