A First Hand Look at the Syrian Refugee Crisis in Turkey
“My future has been taken from me,” the solemn faced doctor told me. He could have been speaking on behalf of so many other Syrians too who now must piece together a new life in Turkey.
In November, I visited Hatay province and Reyhanli a town-both of which together now have 500,000 Syrians – a ratio of 3:1 Syrians to Turks and Gaziantep, a modern city where Syrians also struggle.
We were standing outside a government sponsored camp near Reyhanli that started with tents early in the war and is now a pin neat reconfigured place with paved streets, a 24-hour hospital, schools and container apartments that could hold a maximum of 10,000 people. There were only 2,700 in residence. I’m told Syrians were offered money to leave the formal camp, only to find how hard it was live on their own. Some wanted to return to the facility. It wasn’t possible.
Throughout Hatay Province infrastructures groan under the weight of housing construction underway, addressing the need for expanded water and sewer facilities and providing medical care. Efforts to handle this influx of refugees are impressive. There are at least 15 centers in the region sponsored by the Turkish municipality providing food and clothing for the refugees. Still, the “to do” list is long and needs funding.
Medical care is needed for Syrian amputees, cochlear implants for children who have lost hearing from concussion bombs and treatment for Syrians of all ages for post-traumatic stress from their injuries and the death that surrounded them constantly in Syria.
Formally, the border is closed, and guards use force to stop smuggling. But there are times when the restrictions are eased, and hundreds fleeing Russian and regime bombing in Idlib are permitted in.
Regardless, Turkey does have a special system for the sick and wounded. If you are a “cold case “on the Syrian side, (as the term is used for medical needs that are not critical), you wait at the Bab al Hawa gate (controlled on the Syrian side) in hopes you’ll be one of the 35 allowed in each day for Turkish medical care. (Emergency cases have no limit from that or other gates supervised by Turks).
The Vice Rector at the Mustafa Kemal University hospital center said they handle the most complex medical cases-some 200 Syrians among them each day out of 2,000 they would have. Twenty five percent of the budget goes to Syrian care. During the week, my colleague asks: “Why not let in more ‘cold cases’ each day from the other gates into Turkey (ones controlled by the Turks) where only emergency cases are currently allowed to pass?”
The answers are a mix of explanations that don’t ultimately add up.
Reyhanli seems packed with a Syrian population that seemed to be “waiting.” Some are waiting to get prosthetics for limbs blown off while they were going about their business in Syria. Or they may be waiting to figure out how they will keep open a rehabilitation center for pre-op and post-op care that will run out of funding by March.
As you drive along busy Reyhanli roads, there are tent encampments dotting empty dirt lots or people living in half finished buildings.
At one of the tent encampments a group of women (from early 20s to late 30s for the most part) usher me into one tent with rugs running up the side of interior walls.
Only three of at least 12 children in the group go to school. The rest play outside in the dirt, or weirdly may watch a TV that’s on with a VCR plugged into purloined electricity tapped from a local source.
This is a tent colony frozen in time. Some have been living there for five or six years.
A Syrian journalist “A” tells me the poverty and hardship can’t be easily overcome. Rents are high, and many fall through what we would consider safety nets. Wryly she adds, “If parents don’t find work, their children eat from the trash.”
As we walk two streets away from a glittering mall in Gaziantep, I am stunned to see two children sitting by a dumpster with their scavenged meal spread out in front of them. She says her young daughter has seen so much of that she has asked, “Mummy, why do children eat out of the trash?”
To sum up the week of meetings with high-level officials whether their political party is pro-or anti-refugees, Turks have demonstrated impressive determination in getting on with the job of a changing Turkey. They do not play a blame game. But in describing what still lies ahead, they politely and consistently add they need help from outside Turkey to do more.
Meanwhile, activists, refugees and other displaced Syrians in Turkey pointedly ask why has the US turned its back on them? I can’t answer that.