Meet the Teams Bringing Hope to Syrian Refugee Families in Turkey

In southern Turkey, front-line team members known as field monitors are going door-to-door — including makeshift accommodation and even caves — to find vulnerable Syrian refugees and connect them with assistance. These field monitors see up-close the situation that many recently arrived refugees find themselves in, and share in the relief and joy when families receive life-saving support.

Field monitor Semira Albano (far left) and head of the Hatay field team Eren Ozdemir (far right) with a Syrian refugee family in southern Turkey. Photo: WFP/Jonny Hogg

The Antakya bus stop was shrouded in evening darkness but two Syrian women spotted Semira Albano, a World Food Programme (WFP) field monitor, as she walked past. Hugs, laughter and questions followed. Both Syrian women were clearly delighted by this chance meeting with the person who first registered them as recipients of WFP’s e-food cards which allow people to use monthly credit uploaded by WFP to buy nutritious food to feed their families.

A while later they part, Semira smiling broadly. She may be off-duty in the city where she grew up, but her job tends to follow her. “When you see that they are happy, that you mean something to someone, that’s the motivation to continue. It’s the best feedback you can get,” she says.

Semira is one of around 20 WFP field monitors in Turkey. Their job is to work with vulnerable Syrians, initially in Turkish Government-run refugee camps and now also in communities that informally host refugees, and to monitor pricing and quality at contracted shops where the e-food cards can be used.

In July 2015, with the generous support of the European Union and other donors, the field teams took on the daunting task of registering some of the estimated 2.4 million Syrians struggling to survive outside the camps in Turkish towns and cities. If there was any doubt about the difference the e-card has made to those who receive it, you only need to accompany Semira and other field monitors as they walk through the impoverished neighbourhoods where they work. They are warmly welcomed, wherever they go, by grateful families who invite them into sparsely furnished apartments to drink coffee or eat fresh fruit. Other people, as yet unregistered, flock to ask how they too can qualify for assistance.

Right: Cemil and the other field monitors have built strong relationships with the Syrian families they work with. Photo: WFP/Jonny Hogg

It is perhaps unsurprising that the field monitors have forged such close bonds with the Syrians they are helping. The programme is currently reaching more than 280,000 people, of whom 130,000 live outside the camps. A new programme funded by the European Union will see WFP and its partners reach 1 million refugees in Turkey, helping cover all their basic needs.

Currently, in five cities across southeastern Turkey, accompanied by staff from WFP’s implementing partner Turkish Red Crescent (TRC), WFP field monitors carry out house visits to register each family. They are welcomed in by some of the poorest refugees in Turkey, to see how they live and to check the level of vulnerability which qualifies them to be signed up.

“We go door-to-door whether it is snowing or raining, cold or hot,” says Cemil, a Syrian-Turkish WFP field monitor based in Gaziantep.

And it’s not just one visit. WFP and TRC teams go back and follow up, witnessing first-hand the difference that 62 Turkish Lira (US$ 20) per person, per month can make to families who were previously unable to put food on the table. Field staff tell stories of children hugging cartons of milk after tasting it for the first time in months, families crying with joy at finally being able to afford to eat chicken or rice, formerly malnourished infants shrugging off illness as their diets improve.

Former army colonel and now part of WFP’s team in Turkey, Eren Ozdemir (right), speaks with a young Syrian boy during a house visit in Hatay, southern Turkey. “We’re not just humanitarians, we’re social workers too”. Photo: WFP/Jonny Hogg

Cemil’s own journey has seen him abandon his life in Syria to flee to Turkey, so he knows some of what the refugees are experiencing. “When we enter a neighbourhood, the kids run around us and the adults welcome us with joy. They celebrate our arrival — the arrival of help,” he says.

For all the joy the programme brings, the work is physically hard and psychologically tough — often a procession of shattered lives and personal tragedies — witnessed up close by the field teams.

Semira sympathizes with those whom she assists, and is troubled when she feels unable to support people through the registration process with the Turkish authorities. She tells the story of a young man, his hand and leg taken by a bomb blast, unable to travel to the registration centre. Unable to shake the memory, she is still looking for ways to work with partners or the government to help the injured man.

Another story concerned a 12-year-old girl, who is registered in the programme, having lost her lower leg to a bomb in Syria. She cries now, not for herself, but for her cat, killed in the same blast. When Semira’s own cat died she went round to visit the child, and they wept together.

“This job’s been harder than I thought. You’ve heard what war is the injured, the orphansbut now I feel I’ve experienced it. Sometimes it seems almost worse than war itself, because you see the effects of war. You have time to think about it.”

Left: “There’s a real risk of feeling like a hero — we’re not,” says field monitor Halaf Takus. Centre: Semira Albano (standing) speaks with a woman at a bus stop. Right: Semira with 12-year-old Ravan, who still mourns her pet cat that was killed in a bomb blast in Syria. Photos: WFP/Jonny Hogg

The monitors, used to the impressive conditions in Turkey’s refugee camps, have been shocked to witness the poverty of some families living outside the camps, a situation referred to as ‘off-camp’.

Cemil’s team found a group of five unattended children in a ruined house. The mother had fled and the oldest, just 9 years old, was in charge.

“She had such a serious and sad face that it broke your heart. We tried literally everything to make her smile. We even asked her what would make her most happy. “I want my mother,” she replied. At that point, there was nothing we could say.” The child’s father was eventually located and the family signed up to the e-food card.

The year since the off-camp programme began has been characterized not only by hard work, but by the teams going above-and-beyond, personally collecting food, clothes and even money to help the very poorest families while they wait to be registered. There has been exhaustion and tears at the sheer scale of the task, and frustration at the inevitable delays, with the field teams acutely aware that so many more families need help.

Left: Semira Albano checks prices in a supermarket that participates in the European Union-funded e-card programme. Centre: Eren Ozdemir visiting Mohammed, once a well-known musician in Syria who now benefits from the e-card programme. Right: Semira and the other field monitors say they have built close bonds within communities. Photos: WFP/Jonny Hogg

Away from work, field staff often get together to celebrate each other’s birthdays, reinforcing already strong bonds. They have different ways of coping. Hobbies help relieve the stress — everything from relaxing with friends and family to constructing beautifully intricate scale models of military vehicles.

Eren Ozdemir is the model builder and heads up the Antakya team, covering Hatay province. A former Turkish army colonel, he is the picture of professionalism. But he admits at times to being overwhelmed when confronted by the depth of suffering endured by those they help.

It is striking how committed each staff member is to helping Syrians in Turkey. In the town of Sanliurfa, the team has had to go to extreme lengths to find some families, climbing steep hillsides to caves where the Syrian refugees were forced to shelter. Halaf Takus started working in Sanliurfa last August.

“We have to keep reminding ourselves that we are doing our job. It’s important because there’s a real risk of feeling like a hero, and we’re not,” he says. “We face a very depressing situation in the field: destroyed lives, traumatized children. The kids are the most affected. [But] I do feel I am touching their lives, and that I can make changes with the little things we do.”

Story by the World Food Programme’s Deniz Akkus, Berna Cetin and Jonny Hogg.

The World Food Programme and Turkish Red Crescent e-food card programme has been running in Turkey since 2012.

The new Emergency Social Safety Net (ESSN) is financed with €348 million by the European Union and is the largest EU humanitarian aid programme. It is being rolled out by the World Food Programme in partnership with the Turkish Government and the Turkish Red Crescent. It marries international humanitarian know-how and government services to reach one million refugees across Turkey through direct cash transfers via e-cards.

Learn more about the World Food Programme.

World Food Programme Insight

Insight by The World Food Programme

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store