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War widow

Huda Khalaf

From Hretan, Syria

now in Oncupinar Camp, Turkey

Left Syria April 2011

Huda Khalaf told her husband not to fight.

She remembers telling him: “I don’t want to lose you. I don’t want my kids to grow up without a father.”

She said she would leave him if he insisted, which they both knew was an empty threat. They had known each other since they were babies. They married when she was 18, on Sept. 1, 2000.

She loved him, and as much as she loathed the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, she did not want him to pick up a gun and join the revolution.

“He told me, ‘I will give my soul to my country, and I will leave my kids to God,’ ” she says. “Nobody could change his mind.”

In a firefight on Feb. 25, 2012, Assad’s forces put a bullet through the heart of her husband, Imad, 34, who worked in his father-in-law’s appliance shop before the war.

After they buried him, his three brothers told their father to take the women and children to safety in Turkey. They would stay and fight with the Free Syrian Army.

So the family — Imad’s parents, Khalaf and her four small children, and a handful of other relatives — started walking. They walked for three nights, lying low in fields during the day to avoid Assad’s forces. They hitched rides in the back of passing trucks, crouching low as shells fell nearby.

“No words can express what I was feeling,” says Khalaf, 31. “I lost my husband. My kids lost their father. We were going to an uncertain future, and I couldn’t stand it.”

Eventually they crossed the border and started a new life in the Oncupinar camp, near the border town of Kilis, one of 21 camps run by the Turkish government, which has spent more than $2.5 billion on housing, food, medical care and education for nearly 700,000 Syrian refugees.

HE TOLD ME, ‘I WILL GIVE MY SOUL TO MY COUNTRY AND I WILL LEAVE MY KIDS TO GOD,’ NOBODY COULD CHANGE HIS MIND.

The camp opened in 2011 and covers 86 acres directly on the Syrian border. About 14,000 refugees live here in more than 2,000 prefabricated metal trailers — neat white boxes lined up in vast, straight rows along paved streets.

The containers are about 22 feet wide by 9 feet deep. Inside, two small rooms, each with a window, are separated by a bathroom. They have built-in heaters/air conditioners, and most have a small sink, refrigerator and hot plate. White and blue plastic tarps cover most, helping with the relentless sun in the summer and the rains in the winter.

The minarets of two mosques tower over a health clinic and three schools: the Olive Kindergarten, Peace Middle School and Freedom High School. Residents shop at several well-stocked grocery stores, using about $55 a month per person in food vouchers supplied by the Turkish government and the U.N. World Food Program.

Fifteen members of the Khalaf family share two trailers, sleeping on mats they roll up at night. A photo of Imad is taped to the wall in the room where Huda Khalaf sleeps with Imad’s parents and her children, ages 5, 7, 11 and 12. There are no decorations.

Huda Khalaf walks amid the shipping-container-like houses inside the refugee camp in the city of Kilis, Turkey.

She wears a traditional long black robe as her children crowd in around her. She worries about Imad’s three brothers who are still fighting. She has already suffered two losses, including her 23-year-old brother, another Free Syrian Army fighter who was killed.

Khalaf’s dark eyes are bright and hopeful, even when she is describing misery. She explains that practically every town in Syria now has a “martyrs cemetery,” and they are filling fast.

Her husband was the first one buried in her village.

“I am so proud,” she says.

She still wears her gold wedding band.

Every day, about 3,000 Syrians leave the country.

Since you started reading, roughly ## Syrians have left the country.