For Syrian Refugees, a Border Separates ‘Heaven’ from Hell

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ZAC BAILLIE / AFP / Getty Images

A Syrian child helps a man collect wood at a refugee camp on the Syria-Turkey border on Jan. 9, 2013

Were it not for the white, nondescript container houses, Turkey’s Oncupinar refugee camp could easily pass for a small, lively town. On a recent afternoon in the camp that houses nearly 14,000 Syrians, young families sauntered past dozens of stalls stocked with anything from jeans to falafel and tea. Children, having just sat through exams, poured out of a newly built school. Inside a shed covered with sheets of blue tarp, Ahmet, a barber all of 16 years old, cropped a customer’s mustache. It was his first day in business, he said, and it felt good to have work.

Life is far from perfect in Oncupinar, of course. Its residents are there, after all, only because Syria’s civil war forced them to flee their homes. At night, the sound of shelling from across the border keeps the children awake in the cramped containers, some providing shelter to more than 10 people. At the local supermarket, where customers pay with e-vouchers issued by the U.N.’s World Food Programme (WFP) and the Turkish Red Crescent, there are complaints about prices. The monthly food allowance of 80 Turkish lira ($45) is sufficient, says Abdulmajeed, a father of four who runs the store’s meat counter and gives only his first name, but the money accorded for other household products is not. “Everyone gets 24 lira per week for things like laundry detergent or diapers,” he says. “The diapers alone are 16 lira a pack.”

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Still, says Abdulmajeed, pointing to the well-stocked shelves around him, “Compared to the other camps, this is heaven.” That much becomes clear after only a short walk across the border into Syria.

At the Bab al-Salam camp, just to the east of a border gate manned by Free Syrian Army rebels, the scenes are harrowing. Families try desperately to keep rainwater out of their tents by using sandbags or building on higher ground. An old woman bundles together thin olive branches to help kindle a fire. At the edge of the camp, near the latrines, trash and raw sewage spill out into the mud.

The previous week, says Mahmoud, who works at the local press center and also declines to give his last name, there were about 7,000 people in Bab al-Salam. But after shelling by regime forces in nearby Azaz, Mahmoud’s hometown, he says, 4,000 more have arrived.

With the camp having run out of tents, many of the new arrivals had to seek shelter at the local mosque. There, dozens of women and children crowd into the main prayer hall. A group of men, sleepy and overcome with fatigue, slowly emerges from the darkness of an adjacent room. They’d like nothing more, one of them says, than to join the 160,000 Syrians living in camps on the Turkish side of the border. “But the camps there are full, and we don’t have enough money to hire a flat.”

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At a local soup kitchen run by IHH, a Turkish Islamist charity, volunteers dish out boiled potatoes, tomatoes and bread. The portions are meager, say the men waiting in line, but enough to keep everyone fed. It is the cold that kills. Inside one of the tents, protected from the creeping rainwater by a narrow ridge of dried mud, Ibrahim Mustafa and his family huddle around their rickety stove. Mustafa spends five to seven hours a day gathering wood, he says. Even so, complains his mother, cradling Mustafa’s infant son in her thick arms, neither their stove nor their clothes are enough to protect from the cold. A few weeks earlier, they explain, one of their neighbors lost a 2-month-old daughter.

Outside Mustafa’s tent, a ruckus suddenly kicks up. Someone —  an aid worker presumably — has begun flinging large pieces of cardboard across a wall raised between the IHH tents and the rest of the camp, sending a group of runny-nosed children, underdressed and unwashed, into a frenzy. (The cardboard is prized as fuel.) As the kids shriek, dart to and fro, and shove one another out of the way to catch the spiraling cartons, a little girl in a white headscarf breaks off from the fray with a despairing yelp and draws near. She is holding a baby boy, his eyes dimmed by fever, his face, like hers, scratched and inflamed.

She and others in Bab al-Salam are only a fraction of the roughly 40,000 displaced civilians massed along Turkey’s 560-mile (900 km) border with Syria. Their wait may not last long. According to a Turkish official, five or six new container cities are under construction in Turkey. At the beginning of February, a camp designed for 10,000 people is expected to open near Oncupinar.

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Even if Turkey eventually manages to absorb those struggling to stay warm in Bab al-Salam, many more are certain to arrive. According to a recent report by the International Rescue Committee, upwards of 2 million people are currently displaced inside Syria, and an estimated 4 million are said to require urgent humanitarian assistance.

As evening approaches, the cold quick on its heels, the smoke from the stove chimneys in Bab al-Salam begins to envelop the tents. There is no electricity, other than that produced by the generators growling at the edge of the camp, and therefore almost no light. And so, unobstructed, the sour haze blends with the thickening darkness, slowly erasing the camp from view.

The next morning, replaying footage recorded on a phone’s camera, the girl in front of the IHH tents stands out. Unlike the other kids, who laugh and monkey around in the presence of journalists, she stands motionless, solemn and mute, the infant boy pressed to her chest. Her eyes refuse to let go of the camera. She seeks nothing more, and nothing less, it appears, than to be seen.

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