Life in the grey zone

“Every month we say, ‘Next month we’ll go back to Syria. But it has been a year now, and we’re still saying ‘next month,’” says 14-year-old Amar from the playground of the Al-Bashayer School on the outskirts of Antakya in eastern Turkey.

“I don’t believe we will ever go back,” says 13-year-old Maya, standing next to Amar. “Assad will stay in power.”

More than 17,000 people like Amar and Maya have already fled the fighting in Syria and gone to Turkey. The Turkish government accepts them onto its territory and has built them refugee camps, but does not give them residence and work permits. The refugees live in a constant limbo – they can’t go back, but can’t move on with their lives either.

A boy standing in the school yard presents a piece of paper with the words “Down with Bashar! Freedom! Freedom!” written in play dough. Next to him two girls argue with each other. “What are we doing here? People are dying in Syria,” shouts the first one. “So what? We aren’t in Syria anymore! We have to go to school!” says the second.

Many of the 150 Syrian children in the school lost family and friends in the fighting. “Our house was destroyed by the army,” says Maya. “The tanks just fired into the city. Our neighbor went out to buy candy and was killed.” In a break between battles, Maya’s family got into their car and fled to Turkey.

The teachers of the school try to offer the children a better environment. The classrooms are painted a warm yellow. During the classes, there is a lot of singing and playing games. But the experience in Syria left a mark on the children. “Many of the children are traumatized when they first arrive here,” says English teacher Abdul. The 24-year-old tries to teach the children easy sentences, sometimes with unexpected results. “Do you watch TV?” he asks. “Yes! Yes! CNN, BBC, Al Jazeera,” the children shout back.

“The children are like small adults,” says another teacher, Salwan, who also fled the fighting in her home city, Latakia. “But we’re trying to give the kids a normal environment. It’s been a year now, and life goes on.”

Living a normal life is not easy, though. Many criticize Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, for not doing enough to help the refugees. “The government has to grant us a real status. We need residence and work permits,” says Salwan. Without these, the refugees live in a grey area. Many of them leave the country every three months, returning the same day to get a new tourist visa.

The school is financed through private donations. But as fighting in Syria intensified in the past weeks, more and more refugees moved across the border, stretching the finances of the school. The children have no books, and the teachers work for free. The principal had to borrow money recently to pay for school busses.

Many of the refugee families living in Antakya have savings or relatives abroad who send money. Though it is usually not enough to buy a decent standard of living, the environment helps the children to cope with their experiences. “The first three months after a child arrives are always difficult,” says Salwan. “But the daily routine here helps them.”

For many people in the Reyhanli refugee camp, 40 kilometers outside Antakya, the daily routine is torture. “We’re about to explode. The camp is like a prison,” says camp resident Ahmad. The 26-year-old defected from the Syrian army nine months ago and since then has lived with his wife in a tent in the camp. “There is nothing to do. You wake up in the morning and then you do nothing – all day long.”

The Reyhanli camp is one of seven tent cities the Turkish government erected for the incoming refugees. The aid organization Turkish Crescent gives out free food and takes care of most other needs.

The camp consists of cramped rows of white tents. Screaming children fight pretend battles, and small groups of men wander around the muddy pathways. Empty Styrofoam trays lie in the dirt. There is a small prayer hall and a small school. The lack of free space is depressing. “We’re exhausted. Sometimes brothers start to fight about small, silly things,” says Ahmad. “I’m taking drugs, anti-depressants.”

Ahmad served six years in the Syrian army. His last post was in the notorious Air Force Intelligence. After the outbreak of the uprising, he was sent to Daraa to suppress the demonstrations there. “We were told [the protesters] were armed gangs. We didn’t know what was going on. We captured a lot of people. Later we killed them all,” says Ahmad. “The next time I was sent to a protest, I deserted.”

Like almost all the young men in the camp, he wants to go back to Syria and fight the regime and avenge the murders of relatives and friends. But nobody has the necessary funds. “One bullet costs several dollars. We don’t have any money, we don’t have any weapons,” says Ahmad. Instead, the young men loiter around in the camp, desperately looking for something to do.
Most of the refugees don’t believe opposition groups like the Syrian National Council are able to help them. They are too self-concerned and weak, they say. The same applies to the international community. “The US and Israel don’t support us, because they are afraid about Israel’s borders. Russia protects [the Syrian president], and the Islamic countries don’t want the revolution to be successful,” says Ahmad. “If they wanted, they could get rid of Bashar [al-Assad] within an hour.”

Rumors about regime spies infiltrating the camp run wild, especially as security surrounding the area is very loose. Distrust lingers in the air. More than once in the past week, an angry mob attacked alleged spies in the camp.

Suddenly a mob gathers around this reporter’s interpreter, Hisham, who had been taking pictures with his mobile phone. “You’re a traitor! You’re a spy!” the men shout, grabbing his arm. The attackers could gauge form Hisham’s accent that he was from the city of Aleppo, which many consider pro-regime. For the mob it is proof enough of Hisham’s guilt. “We’re going to kill you! We will rape your sister!” they scream and slap him in the face. Hisham breaks free and runs to a nearby police car.

In front of the camp stand two dozen white mini busses ready to take people to Kilis, 150 kilometers from Reyhanli, where the Turkish government has built a new camp. Instead of tents, the people in Kilis will live in trailers, which are supposed to be more comfortable. “They tell us that it’s better in Kilis. But it’s not,” says Ahmad. “I wish I could go to Syria just for ten minutes and then die there.”