New concrete homes bring rare respite for Idlib's displaced

But only few families have benefited so far from houses built by Turkish charities

Hamad al-Abdallah, speaks to AFP in his new concrete home at a camp created by Turkey's Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH) near Kafr Lusin on the border with Turkey in Syria's northwestern province of Idlib, on March 10, 2020. Abdallah fled with his wife and four children when the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, backed by Russia and Iran, began their assault on the last rebel hold-out of Idlib. / AFP / Ozan KOSE

Hamad Al Abdallah has installed Wi-Fi and insulation in his new concrete room, trying to make the most of the desperate conditions his family has endured since fleeing Syrian regime bombs.

They were among the lucky ones to move into the new, 24-square-metre concrete homes provided by a Turkish charity last month after almost a year in a tent in the huge, squalid camps along Syria's northern border with Turkey.

Mr Al Abdallah fled with his wife and four children when the forces of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad, backed by Russia and Iran, began their assault on the last rebel holdout of Idlib.

"It's big enough and we feel comfortable," he said of his new two-bedroom home.

"If one day we can go home, we will. But so long as the Syrian army does not pull back, we can't because most of us are wanted by the regime.

"With young children, we can't try to get into Turkey either, so we will stay here."

Turkey, which already hosts more than 3.5 million Syrians, has refused to let any more in.

But its charities are busy building an enormous stretch of new housing inside Syrian territory to deal with the latest wave of displacement, now close to a million people in Idlib.

Despite a ceasefire agreed to on March 6 between Turkey and Russia, few believe the Syrian regime will give up its plan to eventually retake the province, leaving few options for the displaced.

The camps stretch as far as the eye can see, thousands upon thousands of tents on either side of the road linking Turkey to the city of Idlib, but now with some of the new concrete-block houses.

Along the dirt tracks of the camp in the area of Kafr Lusin, children play while groups of women chat around washing lines, and a flock of sheep nose around piles of rubbish.

Many tents have their own solar panels to charge batteries and provide light.

Some residents have managed to make a small living here. There is a hairdresser, grocery and even a dress shop. And some blocks serve as makeshift classrooms.

There are public toilets, although the smell from open sewers is still overpowering.

Ankara encouraged the construction of more permanent structures as a way to stop refugees trying to breach the border.

According to IHH, the main Turkish charity working there, the concrete homes are reserved for families of six or more who earned less than $150 (Dh550) a month.

Spokesman Selim Tosun said the charity aimed to build 15,000 homes and had completed 1,000.

"People are exhausted from life in the tents," Mr Tosun said.

"These new houses can at least protect them from the winter cold and the summer heat.

He said that 100,000 of the houses would eventually be needed to completely replace the tents.

Each new home costs $360 to build, Mr Tosun said, with the money coming entirely from private donors in Turkey.

They at least offer displaced families hope of a modest improvement in daily life after months and years of horror.

Suleiman Mousa hopes to move into one of the concrete houses in a few days, after two and a half years of living in a pair of tents, shared between his two wives and 10 children.

Despite the difficult life, the camp has at least given his family some sense of safety.

"As long as we are safe here, without bombings and fighter jets flying over us, it's better to stay here than try to reach Turkey," Mr Mousa said.

Noora Al Ali fled the town of Maaret Al Numan with her son and eight grandchildren.

"A rocket blew up near me and my nephew was killed," Ms Al Ali said. "I thought I would die, too. I left everything.

"At least I'm spared Bashar's bombs here."

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