Syrian Refugees

Syrian Refugees in Kilis Border Camp Try for Normal Life Amid Upheaval

Syrian refugees in Turkey struggle to lead ordinary lives—but depression and divorce tell the toll of the conflict. Mike Giglio reports.

yusuf sayman

“All his brothers want to call him Hamza,” says the father. He’s been asked what he’ll name his new son, born just hours before. “So I guess we can call him that.”

Hamza’s mother is getting ready to bring the baby home from the hospital in Kilis, a town near Turkey’s border with Syria. When the infant arrives, he’ll be the newest resident of a refugee camp that already houses some 12,000 Syrians displaced by war, a sea of two-room freight containers so close to Syria that scattered gunshots can be heard. His father, Mohamed Abu Ahmed, is in no rush to welcome a child into this surreal world. “I really can’t describe the feeling,” he says, sipping tea at a makeshift café in the camp.

The new baby is the fifth in a long line of Mohamed’s sons. But he almost wasn’t born at all.

When his parents learned of the pregnancy, they had been forced to flee from their hometown of Jisr al-Shugur, a city on the banks of the Orontes River that was one of the first to be attacked by the Syrian Army as it sought to put down the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad. They were in the midst of a cold and muddy winter in another Turkish camp, where the family had been forced to cram into a tent. “Life is too hard to bring an extra kid into it,” Mohamed remembers thinking. The couple debated an abortion.

Finally, they decided—“If God wants another kid, we’ll have another kid.”

Mohamed sees the baby as part of a larger fate far beyond his control. He connects the story of Hamza’s birth with that of the myriad deaths inside Syria, such as a relative who had been riding his motorcycle recently when an errant shell split him in half. “We really have no clue day-to-day who’s going to live and who’s going to die,” Mohamed says. “You can’t control these things anyway.”

Between the births and deaths, marriages and divorces, life at Kilis has pressed on toward its own version of normalcy. Families live in small, two-room containers, which have electricity and running water. Satellite dishes sit atop many of the rooftops, and United Nations SUVs roll along the well-paved road that leads to Kilis’ two sturdy schoolhouses. It’s the best and one of the most populous camp in Turkey, a country that gets high marks from human rights workers for the quality of its refugee quarters as it hosts an estimated 120,000 of the more than 400,000 Syrians who have fled the conflict.

“Our life has to continue. If it doesn’t keep a minimum amount of normalcy, then we’ll have nothing,” says a large mustachioed man standing inside a homemade porch, which has been fitted with a mattress, and covered in blue tarp in an effort to keep out the rain and the winter’s oncoming chill.

For many of the refugees in Kilis, like Mohamed, the appearance of the ordinary also hammers home just how much life has become anything but normal—and how it could remain that way for a long while. Back home in Syria, the vicious conflict continues to rage with no end in sight, as Assad’s forces demolish towns and cities and the death toll approaches 40,000. Government airstrikes near the Turkish border have even fueled a recent spike in refugees—last week, some 9,000 crossed into Turkey in the span of just 24 hours. On Wednesday, meanwhile, Syrian warplanes bombarded a town just yards from Turkey for a third consecutive day.

Kholod al-Haj, a resident of the Kilis camp who volunteers as a counselor, says the push to go about regular life—as parents bring their children to schools supplied with Syrian textbooks downloaded from the Internet, entrepreneurs set up small cafés, and weddings press ahead, though without the celebration—is one way to cope. “It’s almost like a defense mechanism,” she says. “We don’t want to sit and think about what we lost. So we go out and do things.”

The strains show beneath the surface. Many female residents of the Kilis camp complain that psychiatric services are sorely needed, for adults as well as their traumatized kids. Haj says most of the residents she counsels (she posts flyers around camp advertising her help, after receiving training from an NGO) show signs of deteriorating mental health—lack of sleep, depression, “feeling like they’re just not there.”

The pressure of refugee life has driven some couples to divorce, Kholod says—including a few that only recently met and got married in camp. Many women report being left alone to act as both mother and father, since their husbands often stay in or return to Syria for the fight against Assad. Sometimes wives leave too. Meree Yonson, the headmaster of the Kilis schools, says his wife “had a breakdown” and returned to Syria, leaving him behind with their four children. He thinks the reality of her departure has yet to really sink in. “I lost my home; I lost my job,” he says. “And now I lost my wife. It’s just one more thing in this package of things that I lost.”

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Ahmed Zeyran, 24, had serious reservations when his parents told him he should find a wife among the girls at the Kilis camp. The process was incredibly rushed, due to the desperate times. But on the day his parents arranged a meeting with Menal, a beautiful girl four years his junior from the conservative countryside surrounding Aleppo, he knew he had to act. She’d had many suitors before leaving home, and her parents demanded an answer on the spot. He sheepishly said yes. “Let’s not let her think this through,” he remembers telling himself.

That night he fell into a panic at the thought of bringing Menal into his family’s overcrowded container. So he rushed to a newly opened row of containers and claimed one for himself and his bride-to-be, even though it’s against the rules for a childless couple to get their own place. They were married the next day in a quick and understated service. When Menal first saw their home, with little more than some cushions on the floor, she began to cry. “At the beginning I felt really guilty,” Zeyran says. “I thought, Why’d I even go through with this?”

The guilt was compounded when Menal had to sell her wedding ring so the couple could afford furniture and food.

Six months later, though, their home shows signs of a young couple in love. Menal keeps the container spotlessly clean, and in the small living room, along with a TV and mini-fridge, are two cages of singing canaries. On the white wall, Ahmed wrote “A Loves M” in colorful red hearts. They had found out hours earlier that they were expecting a son. “Now she’s starting to love me,” Ahmed said.

(Menal, speaking through a female translator in the container’s other room, was bubbly about her husband, saying she didn’t care that she no longer had her ring. “I just want him,” she said.)

On the other side of the camp, Mohamed finished a leisurely breakfast and finally made his way home, past the schools and shops along the camp’s main road and to his container off Street B. While he held Hamza in the cool air outside, his wife, recuperating inside, spoke of the need for “renewal” in Syria, saying people should continue having children. But she wouldn't be among them.

She recounted a long and difficult labor that she attributed to the stress of living as a refugee. The birth had required an emergency C-section, and she said she told the nurses she wanted to keep her womb stitched up. “Leave it the way it is,” she said. “I don’t want any more kids.”

With Schadi Semnani in Kilis.