Struggles of the Syrian Kurds: Inside the Turkish Refugee Camps

Andrew Arnett
Mar 25, 2015 · 5 min read

by Andrew Arnett

All photos by Andrew Arnett

The curved grey canvased tents, home to thousands of Syrian refugees, have become a ubiquitous sight in southern Turkey.

Last December, I traveled to southern Turkey, documenting the plight of Syrian refugees there.

The stories they shared with me were filled with hardship and lost, but I was struck by the nobility of the Kurdish spirit. These were not defeated people running in fear for their lives. Rather, these were warriors eager to fight ISIS, and regain their lost homeland.

“We get hurt too much inside Kobane,” Basi told me. “ My son (6yrs) lost two fingers and a hand from an explosive. My other son was captured by ISIS and let go after nine months. They tortured him so much.”

I’m at a refugee camp in Suruc, Turkey, speaking with Syrian refugees who have recently fled Kobane in order to escape the cruelties of ISIS.

“Where are your sons now?” I ask her.

“The youngest one is here with me in the camp. The other one I do not know where he is.”

She beckons to her children and we are joined by two young boys and two young girls.

“These are my children,” she say’s.

She holds up the hand of the injured son, pointing out the two missing fingers. The other hand is gone, a thick white bandage covers the stump where his hand had been.

Basi with son holding injured hand © 2014 Andrew Arnett

Basi has been living in the camp for the past three months, but her spirit is indomitable.

“I want to go back to Kobane today,” she tells me, smiling with enthusiasm.

This resilience of character, found in all Kurds I’ve met, may be the main reason for why they have been the only group able to defeat ISIS in battle.

Since the start of the Syrian civil war in 2011, upwards to 2.8 million Syrians have fled their country. Most have entered into Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey, with an additional 100,000 declaring asylum in the European Union.

It is an ongoing problem with no end in sight. The United Nations estimates that 3000 Syrians flee their country everyday.

When factoring in Iraqi Kurds displaced by ISIS, we are looking at the largest forced migration since World War Two.

Indeed, the situation has caught the attention of Hollywood, initiating visits to Syrian refugee camps by high profile personalities such as Angelina Jolie.

“The situation is going to deteriorate,” Meltem told me as she sipped a Turkish coffee in the lobby of the Gaziantep Holiday Inn. She works for the United Nations, assisting Syrian refugees in Turkey.

“The Middle East has always been a problem and it is more of a problem now, more than ever. Before, we had Al Qaeda but now we have ISIS, cutting the heads off of the people.”

“What is the scope of the problem?” I ask her.

“The problem is huge,” she tells me. “There are many camps established in the border areas but it’s not that easy to live in a camp and most of them are not really happy. They’d like to be at their homes, of course, because they were ordinary people, used to their ordinary lives, and being in a camp is difficult for them. They can’t go back, they can’t go somewhere else, so they are stuck. And it is a big problem for Turkey to satisfy them. Most of them are looking for opportunities to go into big cities for employment purposes.”

“How is the Turkish government helping with that?” I ask.

“Turkey has granted residents permits and work permissions,” she says “They’ve taken steps, recently, in the legal framework, to change many things so that these people can find ways to be accommodated into Turkey through legal means but still, it’s not that easy because unemployment is a problem for Turkish citizens as well. It is not a problem for only the Syrian people, and especially when we talk about this region like Gaziantep, it is now becoming a social problem as well.”

“In addition,” she adds, “The refugees are given certain allowances, either by the government or by the United Nations.”

In January 2015, the Turkish Disaster and Emergency Management Presidency (AFAD), based in the border city Suruc, opened the largest yet refugee tent city for refugees coming in from the besieged Syrian border town of Kobane.

Refugee camp in Suruc © 2014 Andrew Arnett

Covering an area of 1000 acres and containing 6500 family tents (16 square-meters each), the camp includes schools, play grounds, psycho-social support areas, sport areas, market and picnic areas.

It will accommodate 32,500 people, of which 17,590 have entered during the first stage in January. An additional 14,910 will move in during the second stage in March.

In addition, a water treatment system will be installed, including 20 washing machines. A field hospital and a fire unit will be set up to service the camp.

Currently, 60,000 meals are served to the refugees on a daily basis, in addition to 700 tons of fresh water.

On January 26, Kurdish forces reclaimed the embattled town of Kobane from Islamic State militants.

The Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) stated that Kobane had been “completely liberated” from Islamic State, adding “the defeat of Daesh (ISIS) in Kobane will be the beginning of the end for the group.”

However, the struggles of the Syrian refugees continue. There are no plans for any large scale return to Kobane. After four months of fighting, the city has been reduced to rubble, and Syria continues to disintegrate from the inside out.

The problem is expected to worsen before hope of improvement can become realistic.

You can follow Andrew Arnett on Twitter at @AndrewArnett.

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