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Being an Honoured Guest in a North Syrian Refugee Camp: Inside Muqawama

In Damascus

The stranger sleeps in his shadow

Standing like a minaret in the bed of eternity

Not longing for anyone or any place.

Mahmoud Darwish

Yes. I am writing about Syria again. The complicated, sorrowful, unheeded and vexing topic that I have been excited and stressful since I’ve visited there in 2017. I would say that my life has totally changed after that visit, nearly. Okay, “totally” might be a bit exaggerating, but I could easily say that my geographical, economical and political perception and absolutely, my feelings of Syria has changed a lot. Frankly, it’s always so simple to make some comments about somewhere by looking at what media tells, but these kind of comments are often false, wrongly-made and insincere.

Thus, despite the fact that I was following the news about Syria before I’ve been to there, I had almost no idea about what was expecting me. In the first day I’ve entered from Öncüpınar Border Gate, where is located in Kilis city, a very oddly-mixed smell consisting of diesel oil, arabian hookah and myrrah -an arabian bitter coffee with cardamon- has flew over me, I sniffed it up and my story has begun. To be honest, before I’ve seen nothing inside country, visiting Syria was like an exotic oriental adventure to me. With an extreme hot weather, extravagantly sugared Ceylon tea and so much Arabic speaking practice –in Syrian dialect of course.

Surely, my unrealistic and romantic thoughts of Syria has flown away after a while. We were in a bus going to the University built by IHH Humanitarian Relief Foundation named Sham International University, I suddenly saw a pick-up with a heavy machine gun passing by our bus very fast. Only a few seconds later I was be able to hear the shooting sounds. There were people fighting each other with heavy machine guns and our team, in which most of the members are coming from Istanbul and their average age was 22-23, have witnessed all of this horrific war scene. Most of us were shocked since what we saw but we said nothing and kept going.

This is my first memory in Syria. I was there as a volunteer of IRRA (International Refugee Rights Association) in No Borders Festival. This was the first time that I met Syrian war victim children. This was the first time that I noticed a deep sadness hidden under half smiles. This was the first time that I saw children begging for a small kiss on their cheeks. And this was the first time that I saw children asking for a hug.

As I mentioned in the first lines, nothing was the same for me after I’ve had an active role in No Borders Festival in Syria. After my return to Istanbul, I couldn’t recover myself quite a while. Even someone told me that I had a secondary trauma but I denied, as always. Anyways, I was not be able to stop thinking about there and I had a profound desire to go to Syria and do something for Syrians’ future. Hence, my prayers came true and I went there after a few months.

In No Borders Festival, our aim was entertaining the children and taking them out of war atmosphere, which I believe that we have achieved at least to some extent. But this time was highly different. It was a humanitarian aid mission. We had to disburse the boots that we bought them with donations. It was in the middle of winter, so it was cold and besides the refugee camps were full of mud… Literally.

There is no pavement or infrastructure work in most of the camps, so it’s getting worse when it rains. As it’s known, Northern Syria -where we call Euphrates Shield territory- under the influence of Mediterranean climate, so it’s dry in the summer and rainy in the winter season. In fine, the situation in the camps was heartbreaking, you may see barefoot children wading through the road which has turned into a swamp, or some tents having no stove or any kind of heater…

Our aid campaign’s name was “Child in Boots” (Çizmeli Çocuk). We supposed to be in Syria for a week. In the first day of the project, I made an expedition to Muqawama Refugee Camp. My team leader, Sumeyye Nur has told me to take some photos and to report the circumstances of the camp. I was really excited for what I was going to see, since I’ve never been to heart of a camp. Actually I had seen some of the camps, but from far away. So, visiting Muqawama was my first experience.

I do not know why, but I always thought that Syria was an extremely hot country, just as if it never snows, rains or even gets cold. Being in Muqawama in the middle of winter has overcome that ridiculous idea of mine at first. It was really sad to face this “cold” fact. When I arrived to Muqawama, all the scene I’ve seen was a road covered in mud, and children without shoes and jackets. Besides, it was more heartbreaking to see the desperation of people’s eyes…

It is tough to say that, but the situation in Muqawama was enough to make the angels weep… I was trying to smile at people, especially the children and striving to raise a smile on their grieved faces either… After a while, some children neared to me to greet. On the contrary of Turkish children, they all were so fearless to meet the strangers. Maybe they all were used to see some Turkish guys wearing activist vests and giving them something like candy, food or toys etc… So I met some of them. I told my name and asked them how they were doing in Arabic. I hardly kept smiling, since some of the children had no shoes and their clothes were miserable. Thank Allah, they found my arabic sympathetic and started laughing. I took a deep breath. It seemed like the misty atmosphere in the camp has gone away for a short while. I made a few jokes and felt relaxed a bit.

But then number of the children got increased. A lot of children who saw their peers approached me and started saying something. I couldn’t understand what the crowd wants first. Then I unfortunately understood. They were asking for anything like food, drink, clothes or baloon. Anything. I was already disappointed enormously, but it had not been finished yet. A twelve or eleven years old child, I cannot remember his name but I’m sure that it was Ahmad or Muhammad, like half of Arabs, elbowed his way towards the front of the crowd and gave me his hand to shake. I shook his hand. His hands were tough, strong and sore. Just like his eyes… I daresay that I won’t forget his wailful and angry gaze… He looked at my eyes directly and said “What you’ve got to give us? We are starving. And we are poors. We even do not have any proper clothes.” He really was dressed in tatters. My heart was hurting so bad. I was about to weep, but I knew that I had to be strong and remain struggling for them… I gulped and said him that I was a journalist, just came to take some photos and the disbursement would be tomorrow. He stared at my face angrily and said “I feel cold. Look, you have gloves, I do not.” I looked at my gloves and immediately cast my eyes down. I wish I could give him my gloves… But if I had done this it would be unfair to the other children. It was one of the toughest moments in my whole life.

I wanted to leave that children and take some photos around the camp, it was hard to keep talking anyways. So I started to walk around the tents trying to escape from the mud which was impossible. I kept walking to get rid of the children but they also kept following me. My walking had become a funny scene from Italian neo-realist movies. There were nearly sixty kids tagging along with me. After a short while I lost my way and went away from my team. I knew that I should not do this, it was really hazardous and you would never guess what were expecting you in Syria. But I didn’t feel worried. I’ve just started to think how I could go back and suddenly a strong hand held my arm. It was the unexpected moment which I mentioned about above, I couldn’t understand what was going on. The man holding my arm, pulled me aside and yelled at the children to go home. Then he asked me to become his guest and visit his bayt.

The bayt (house) was an old and cold tent. I didn’t refuse to come, actually I had no choice but accepting the invitation. We entered inside. There was just a simple, old and torn cushion on the floor as furnishing in the bayt. They had me sit on the cushion and sat down the floor. Grandmother of the house greeted me and immediately began complaining about the life conditions, mercilessness of the people and the cruelty of their leaders. I hardly understand what she were saying, her lahja (dialect) was too heavy and she was speaking extremely fast. I kept listening, I was feeling so bad but I couldn’t do anything. I also didn’t want to give them any promise such as I would help you, or find you a job or even give you some bread. It was really hard to explain them that I was just a simple, poor Arabic teaching student came there as a volunteer. On their perception,  everyone coming from Turkey was a “glimmer of hope”. I felt same when I was in Bangladesh’s Rohingya camps. It is also a very sad point for me. Their desperation is so deep that despite the fact that they all know the situation in Syria is much more complicated, they are grasping at straws, more’s the pity.

I was having a quite hard time inside the tent, there were people asking me for help but I was not be able to do. Happily, the lady of the house asked me if I’d like coffee or tea. I smiled huge. This question was epic! This question was itself a respond to the life. In a moment that I stopped thinking anything pozitive and felt a bit disturbed despite the condition, she reminded me that “life goes on”. I told her I prefer tea. After short while, our excessively sugared Syrian tea was ready, it was served in an elegant glass, as is Syrians’ custom. My host also offered me a Syrian hard cigarette, J&J. I gave him a turkish one and we relaxed. It was a great experience to be there.

I’d like to state explicitly that my ideas about humanitarian relief is totally different from most of the NGOS’ in Turkey. Woefully, non-governmental organisations usually prefer giving people some blankets, clothes and food rather than creating them opportunities for a proper job, or psychological assistance. The answer of why the NGOS do not revise their ways is simple: People like being the “merciful lords helping the poors” more than taking the bull by the horns together and building a fair society. I know that most of the people help for the sake of Allah though, so I cannot judge anyone’s intention, yet still we have to criticize the old methods of humanitarian aid and develop a new understanding.

To clarify, camp people get used to have their needs easily, with no effort and therefore they slowly turn into beggars due to our behaviors. This occasion has created deep moral, religious and social problems. I can easily say that their traumas are much more intense than we are able to guess. The war changed not only their living conditions, but also their entire lifestyles.

Nevertheless, life goes on. New babies are coming into the world, men are falling in love with girls and children are playing in the streets. Although the cruel war lords have devastated our lovely Syria, they couldn’t imprison our dreams. We will never be slaves. They will be defeated, and go away. We will win and keep living these fertile lands. Freely and proudly. I say them as a voice of more twenty thousand innocent children: “Ye shall be overcome and gathered unto Hell”. Finally, I would love to quote here from great author Fyodor Dostoievsky’s masterpiece Crime and Punishment and finish my article“Where is it I’ve read that someone condemned to death says or thinks, an hour before his death, that if he had to live on some high rock, on such a narrow ledge that he’d only room to stand, and the ocean, everlasting darkness, everlasting solitude, everlasting tempest around him, if he had to remain standing on a square yard of space all his life, a thousand years, eternity, it were better to live so than to die at once. Only to live, to live and live! Life, whatever it may be!”