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.