In Turkey, feeding the Syrian refugees no one counts

January 2, 2013

It was dinnertime at the dilapidated four-room house where at least 75 members of the Jasem family have been living since they fled the flooded cave in Syria where they first sought shelter when their village was shelled, and Hasnan Jasem was planning to serve potatoes and bread. Nothing else, just potatoes and bread.

The refrigerator was almost bare. It held only a small bowl of dried yogurt that a neighbor had brought, half a stuffed baby eggplant left over from breakfast and a bowl of parsley the family had picked in a field. On the kitchen counter were six loaves of bread and two big bowls of fried potato slices. That was it, for 75 people, or 80 — they really hadn’t counted.

“We haven’t had green vegetables since we got here a month and a half ago, only bulgar and rice” said Jasem, whose husband, Amr, was mayor of their destroyed village of Shaharnaz, near Hama. “The mayor here gave us some meat when we arrived. But none since then.”

Despite the millions spent on humanitarian aid for Syrian refugees in neighboring countries such as Turkey, unknown thousands of Syrians are living with hunger and deprivation. That’s because they walked into the bordering countries illegally, so they cannot go to the camps set up for registered refugees.

In Turkey, the 13 government-established camps are full with more than 140,000 refugees. Now, the government is denying official entry to any more refugees trying to escape the brutal civil war in Syria. Turkey has not authorized many international humanitarian groups to operate within the country, so most nongovernmental organizations are focusing their efforts on refugee camps inside Syria, close to the Turkish border in areas where Syrian planes have dropped bombs.


A look at the Syrian uprising one year later. Thousands of Syrians have died and President Bashar al-Assad remains in power, despite numerous calls by the international community for him to step down.

But still the refugees come, walking over mountains, trekking through minefields and traveling across rivers in small tubs pulled by rope from one bank to the other.

Often it falls to ordinary Turks, such as the villagers of tiny Davutpasa, to provide the refugees food and shelter. The 700 residents of Davutpasa, most of whom are farmers or government workers, have taken in about 400 Syrians in the past two months. Local men bring them firewood, and women come by to teach them how to bake bread in the outdoor ovens that are common.

“The Syrians are escaping death,” said Semseddin Cunedioglu, the mayor of Davutpasa. “We can’t close our doors to them.”

Though the surrounding area is heavily Alawite, the Shiite sect that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad belongs to, many residents around Davutpasa are Sunnis and sympathetic to the Syrian uprising. For Cunedioglu, it’s more basic. “I’m a farmer and a Muslim, too,” he said.

He has turned over his entire three-bedroom house, where his family of five normally lives, to a Syrian family of 60 and moved to an apartment he owns in nearby Reyhanli, where he is taking in more Syrians. He shows receipts for more than $500 in food and a separate set of utility bills. His wife, Yuksel, frets that they will have to pull their three daughters from college because of the bills he often pays from his own pocket, though he has gotten a small donation from a humanitarian worker. Yuksel describes herself as not angry at her husband’s generosity, but worried about the expense.

The mayor is concerned the money will run out, too.

“We’re helping them in any way we can,” he said. “But we have our limits. At a certain point, we will need help as well.”


Timeline: Major events in the country’s tumultuous uprising that began in March 2011.
Escape from the fighting

The mayor’s house, a one-story abode painted golden yellow, is occupied by the Sheikh Ahmed family — four brothers and a sister, plus their spouses and 50 children. Three of the women are pregnant, including one due to give birth any day.

All farmers, they said they fled their village near the Aleppo airport because government troops were bombing rebel positions.

“We never expected the regime to shell its own people,” said Talal Sheikh Ahmed, 45, the oldest of the five siblings.

They took cars to the border with Turkey and then walked across the mountains on a night of heavy rain, arriving in Davutpasa a month ago. Cunedioglu’s house is comfortably furnished, with carpets covering every floor. The men sleep in a separate, one-room guesthouse, while the women sleep in the main house. About 13 people bed down in the living room, which is lined with pale yellow mattresses that serve as sofas by day and beds at night. The rest are scattered on thin mattresses they spread around the three bedrooms, the hallway, even on the kitchen floor.

“We sleep on top of each other,” Sheikh Ahmed’s wife, Bushra, said with a laugh.

A step up from a cave

The house where the Jasem family is staying is smaller and unfurnished save for a few mattresses lining the walls of one room. No one lived there before, and the structure had fallen into disrepair. Cunedioglu, feeling responsible for the family, brought plastic sheeting to tack up on the open windows and keep out the rain. Only two rooms have carpets. The other floors are bare, and the chill seeps through socks. The only heat comes from a wood-burning stove that the older children feed with a few branches of kindling.

Still, it is a step up from the cave they lived in for several weeks after Syrian forces bombed and shelled Shaharnaz. It was among a dozen mountainside caves the townspeople used to shelter sheep and cattle before it became a refuge for humans. The family remained inside, never venturing out, for as long as 10 days at a time.

As Amr Jasem described it, the cave saved them from the shelling but took its toll on their health. The children developed asthma from breathing the fetid air. The adults got skin diseases from the filth. When the caves flooded, Jasem decided to leave for Turkey. The only remnant of their old life they brought with them was his father’s family book listing 39 children he sired with his four wives.

The father, who came with them, is remorseful.

“My father said to me that he was sorry he had all these children and Bashar comes to kill them,” said Jasem, who at 40 has gray peppering his black hair.

Squeezing so many people into such close quarters requires making accommodations. There are not enough mattresses to go around, so they sleep head to toe, putting two people onto narrow mattresses the size of a typical air mattress. Nor do they have enough blankets, so four children must share one covering. Villagers bring them some food, but it is never enough. With only one bathroom, there is always a line to use it.

Holding on to dignity

Some of the men have found work picking olives, earning about $11 a day. Even Jasem’s 12-year-old son has a job, paying $3 a day to carry sand to brickmakers. Money is always short. When Jasem’s father got bronchitis, they paid a doctor to see him but could afford only half the medicine he prescribed.

“The worst part is when the children ask for food and they have to go to bed hungry because we can’t give them anything,” Jasem said.

As they were leaving Syria, Jasem’s father told him it was important that they maintain their dignity outside their own country. Jasem and his wife tried to press a visitor who was leaving the crowded house into accepting one of the only things they had to offer — a loaf of bread.

Carol Morello writes about demographics and the census, as well as a lot of other stuff that comes down the pike. She has worked at the Washington Post since 2000.
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