Syrian refugees' struggles harden almost six months after Turkey quake

At a camp in Reyhanli in the south-west, children remain without school and their parents live in fear of expulsion

Syrian refugees' struggles harden months after Turkey quake

Syrian refugees' struggles harden months after Turkey quake
Powered by automated translation

At a dusty camp in south-west Turkey, Syrian families have been living in fear since they were displaced after the earthquake that devastated parts of the area in February.

Last week, Turkish police destroyed three tents on the camp’s edge.

“They said they were hindering pedestrians. But no one walks here,” says Sheikh Ahmad Al Ahmad, a preacher who administers the informal camp.

Almost six months after an earthquake that killed 53,227 people, 87 per cent of them in Turkey, the impacts are continuing.

The disaster and its costs have exacerbated xenophobia and hatred against the country's 3.5 million Syrian refugees, further encouraged by a vow by authorities to expel one million to areas under Turkish influence in Syria.

From bricks to canvas

A general view of the camp. photo: Khaled Yacoub Oweis / The National

The camp’s 27 families were living in poor residential areas on the edge of the Turkish city of Reyhanli, just a few kilometres from the border with Syria, when the earthquake struck on February 6.

Their buildings were destroyed, became unsound structurally, or their Turkish landlords threw them out.

Now survival is a day-to-day battle.

People at the camp, mostly the women, earn five cents a kilo for the seasonal work sifting through jute mallow, or molokhia in Arabic. The plant is sold as leaves, mainly to other Syrians who fled to Turkey during the crackdown on the 2011 revolt against President Bashar Al Assad's rule, and in the ensuing civil war.

This is due to become their only source of support as a Syrian merchant who was paying for lunch for the camp's residents will stop next week.

"We are running out of donors,” says Sheikh Ahmad.

Sheikh Akhmad said the Reyhanli camp’s residents might have to pick up their meagre belongings and find another spot when the landowner comes to collect the half-year rent next month.

A Syrian man pours water over the grave of his friend at a cemetery for victims of the February 6 earthquake, near the city of Hatay, south-west Turkey. photo: Khaled Yacoub Oweis / The National

“It will be much more than before,” he says, pointing to Turkey's rampant inflation problem. The 15,000 lira rent for six months, paid in February, was the equivalent of $1,150.

The lira has lost half its value since then to 27 liras to the dollar.

Measures against refugees are being reported across Turkey. Hundreds have been returned to Syria in the past several weeks. In the town of Osmaniye to the north, a makeshift camp for 80 refugees was levelled, Syrian aid workers say. YouTube footage purportedly from the site showed tents flattened on the ground.

A manager at a European aid programme aimed specifically at helping earthquake victims in Turkey says local officials have been refusing the programme's offers for cash and other aid, because 10 per cent of the assistance is earmarked for Syrian refugees.

"They were absolute in their rejection," the official says.

Future prospects dwindle

Turkey-Syria earthquake damage set to exceed $100bn, UN estimates

Turkey-Syria earthquake damage set to exceed $100bn, UN estimates

Before the earthquake, most of the several dozen children at the camp in Reyhanli went to school. None have returned.

Their parents say school has become a non-priority. They worry more about food and expulsion to areas in Syria they still regard as worse than their current situation, even with the Turkish presence in these zones.

One of the children has had an unsuccessful operation to remove fluid from his eyes and can barely see.

“I try to keep him away from the sun,” says his mother, Khalidiya.

She belongs to the Baqara, a tribe in northern Aleppo that partly turned against the regime and joined the 2011 revolt.

“We cannot go back to the regime,” she says.

Reyhanli, like other areas in the southwest, had historically formed the hinterland of the great city of Aleppo, a centre of culture and trade for centuries.

The area produced intricate rugs that were prized by the merchant families in the city. With the end of the Ottoman Empire and the spread of borders that hindered trade, rug-making in Reyhanli became extinct.

But its closeness to Syria made it an obvious choice for hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees fleeing the Assad regime.

Khaldiyeh Al Saleh, a woman in her sixties, fled from the town of Habeet in Idlib governorate, the target of Russian and Syrian air force bombing, before the regime captured it in 2019.

Her daughter was killed in the earthquake and she is taking care of her surviving six-year granddaughter.

“I feel myself withering,” she says.

A family in the next tent, who are from Hama, try to help her by looking after the child. They have three children of their own, and the father, Ibrahim, who was a carpenter, is disabled.

He has a hole in his cheek from shrapnel. He was also hit in his stomach, hands and legs, and can barely walk.

Ibrahim says he sustained his injuries after fleeing Hama to opposition areas in the governorate of Idlib and coming under air bombing there.

“The only thing I can do is to clean molokhia,” he says.

Updated: July 25, 2023, 12:53 PM