Scroll down to read more.

Sadness in the slums

Fathiya Ahmed

From Aleppo, Syria

now in Gaziantep, Turkey

Left Syria January 2013

It’s a big rat, a couple of pounds of long-haired nastiness. He darts between a few rocks next to where Fathiya Ahmed’s grandchildren are playing. The kids squeal with delight and use sticks to prod him into the open. To them he’s not exactly a pet, but certainly a bit of entertainment.

Rats, heat, rain, mud, hunger. It’s what Ahmed’s new life looks like in Gaziantep, an industrial Turkish city near the Syrian border. She and 17 other people live in a tiny compound in a slum that bakes in the heat and floods in the rain.

Only about a quarter of the 2.3 million people who have fled Syria live in refugee camps. The rest have sought shelter wherever they can find it in Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Egypt. For those with money, that means a decent apartment. But many more, like Ahmed and her family, live in crowded misery in swelling urban slums.

“We feel sad that we have to live like this,” says Ahmed, 45, who sleeps, cooks and bathes in a bare, 12-by-12-foot room with four daughters and two sons. “We left our house behind. We left our life. Whatever it was, it was better than here.”

Back in Aleppo, before the war, life was not great, but at least it was clean and safe. Ahmed’s husband was a taxi driver, and he earned enough to support the family and buy a decent apartment.

Then in January, one of President Bashar al-Assad’s planes dropped a bomb that exploded close to their house. A piece of shrapnel hit Ahmed’s husband in the head and killed him instantly.

The family buried him in Aleppo, then decided to join the exodus of nearly 700,000 Syrians who have fled to Turkey. They left in a huge group — Ahmed and all six of her children, who range in age from 7 to 30, plus two grandchildren. They hitched a ride in the back of a truck to a village in the countryside, then walked the final hour to the border.

They crossed over, and she says they have been living ever since on the kindness of Turks — including a “nice Turkish lady” who allowed them to move into their little compound rent-free.

The place has four cinder-block rooms with tile and tin roofs with gaping holes, set around a courtyard of dirt and gravel. The kids sit on the ground, amusing themselves by ripping cardboard boxes into tiny strips.

Clothes hang from lines everywhere, and blankets laid over a cinder-block wall air out in the afternoon sunshine. They have no chairs. Everyone sits on the ground or on a rock.

Ahmed cooks on a tiny blue propane stove, and a city truck comes twice a week to fill their two big plastic tanks for drinking water. They keep all their food in jars, or in plastic bags hung from the ceiling rafters to keep the rats away.

Everyone shares one outhouse, a simple pit in the ground.

The house Ahmed lives in is infested with rats, there is little food and they have no plumbing of any sort.

Their only income is what her sons earn when they can find day labor loading bricks onto a truck. It pays about $10 a day. Mostly, Ahmed says, they survive on donations from Turkish strangers who stop by with bags of clothes or food. One person even donated a satellite dish so the children could watch TV.

“We need to go back to our home country. But we have to be sure it is really safe. We are afraid we could starve if we go back,” says Ahmed, who heard that her house was destroyed by a bomb after they left. “I think it will take five or six years before the fighting ends. If we go there now, we will go to our death.”

Ahmed and the other women in the compound are in constant motion, tending to big sheets of clear plastic laid out on the ground, covered with a bright red, soupy tomato mush.

They are making tomato paste, their dinner staple. A neighborhood grocer gives them his tomatoes that are too rotten to sell. Ahmed and the other women smash them into a puree and lay it out to dry. That usually takes about 10 days — longer if it rains.

Ahmed is constantly scooping water from the mush with her hand or a spoon.

The children laugh as they spot the rat again — now he’s over by the propane stove.

At least, Ahmed says, the rats don’t bother with her tomato paste.

It’s too sour for them.

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

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