Millions of Refugees from Syria’s War Are Clinging to Life In Toxic Conditions

For Syrians displaced by their country’s war, homeless in their own land, life inside refugee camps is a desperate existence.


The refugee camp in the Turkish city of Kilis has been called “a five-star hotel.” Residents have access to electricity, playgrounds, and schools. They receive money for food, and satellite dishes adorn many of the housing units. Crime is low, and gratitude is high. Indeed, for the approximately 14,000 people living there, the Turkish government has built—in the words of the New York Times—the “perfect refugee camp.”

Ever since the uprisings against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad exploded into civil war in 2011, the UN estimates (PDF) that over 9 million people have been displaced from their homes. Yet for the vast majority—including the 6.5 million still inside Syria—the relative stability of a Turkish camp remains an illusion, far removed from the harsh reality of their current lives.

Of the over 650,000 Syrian refugees in Turkey, only about one third are living in camps, the rest are struggling to get by and fending for themselves.

For those still inside Syria, the situation is even worse.

Nowhere are these disparate conditions more evident than in Bab al-Salameh. Located just across the border from Kilis, the camp is the antithesis of the “five-star” Kilis camp. Walking into Syria, I ask my local fixer about the similarities between the two.

“Similarities?” he says with a wry smile. “There are no similarities, only differences.” And he could not have been more right.

According to Nizar Najjar, an assistant to the director of the camp, Bab al-Salameh is home to anywhere from 15,000 to 25,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs). He says the number fluctuates wildly, as many families move back and forth between their homes and the camp. But over the past year, as the Assad regime has targeted Aleppo city with a constant barrage of barrel bombs, thousands have been forced to flee north toward the border, overwhelming Bab al-Salameh with an influx of IDPs that it often cannot handle.

“Sometimes we do not have the capacity to receive new refugees,” says Najjar. This has led to the makeshift construction of nearby camps in Shamereen and Marea, but still, “some people (are forced to) just put up their tents in fields. There is no room in the Turkish camps… and they cannot afford to live in the city (of Kilis) so they are forced to stay here.”

But the conditions “here” are increasingly desperate and toxic for the inhabitants. Walking through the camp, the smell of feces follows you everywhere. Green water runs through ditches, a combination of detergent, urine, and who knows what else. Children play with diapers on the ground, dirt covering their faces like makeup.

“What do people do for enjoyment here?” I asked.

“They survive,” said a spokesman for the camp.

Many IDPs are provided with only one meal per day, and while Najjar ticks off a list of the humanitarian organizations they work with, it is clear from both the tired look on his face and a cursory glance at the camp that this aid is nowhere near enough. “We are like orphans,” he says. “Anyone who (is willing) to support us, we are happy.”

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Compounding this is the fact that Bab al-Salameh, while significantly safer than most other areas, is still in a war zone.

Up until a month and a half ago, the town of Azaz, which sits a few kilometers down the road from the camp, was under the control of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), an extremist rebel group that recently split with al Qaeda. In February, five refugees were killed when a car bomb went off near the camp. And even now that ISIS has retreated from the area, it is still subject to periodic attacks from the Assad regime. The day of my visit tensions were high after Assad had bombed Azaz earlier in the morning.

Still, amid the uncertainty the residents of Bab al-Salameh do their best to carve a semblance of order into their lives. The camp has a market street where merchants set up shop and sell their goods, mostly small food items and sweets. There is also a medical clinic and a school, which in reality is a collection of six rundown tents that house between 500 and 650 students. Each tent is divided into several classrooms by a curtain, and when classes are in session the noise blends together, creating an excitable whirlwind of chatter that is infectious to those passing by.

Abd Ar-Rahim al-Hammadi, who goes by the name Abu Omar, is the assistant headmaster at the school. Before the war, he was a teacher in Menbij, a town in northeastern Aleppo province. Now, he is partly responsible for overseeing a staff of 29 teachers in Bab al-Salameh. A merchant from Latakia province pays each teacher the equivalent of $40 per month. He used to pay $55, says Abu Omar, but wages were cut recently because the benefactor could not afford to continue at that rate. “Maybe this is the last month we will have salaries,” Abu Omar says with a shrug. He does not seem particularly fazed by this. “We will carry on with what we can get.”

The school is short on other supplies as well. Simple things, like printing out homework sheets for students, are a challenge. First- through third-graders do not have books, and Abu Omar says they do not have the capacity to educate secondary school students. “We are moving backwards,” he laments, shaking his head. “We are going to be illiterate and uneducated.”

Outside the school, the wind picks up as we walk back toward the border. To our right, the flap of a tent opens up and a young boy, maybe 2 years old, walks out. He stares at us blankly, then pulls down his pants and begins peeing. The stagnant pool of green water at the bottom of the ditch rises slightly.

The journey back to the Kilis camp is short. We have our passports stamped and are waved back into Turkey. For us, the walk was only a kilometer or two. But for the IDPs in Bab al-Salameh, it is a world away.