Embarrassed to Ask, Dying to Know: Conflicts in Syria

The violent conflicts in Syria, resulting from a dramatic civil war beginning in 2011, have generated nine million refugees — and that number is growing day by day. On average, 500,000 refugees per month currently flood into the neighboring countries of Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq.

With exponentially growing numbers of people fleeing Syria, there is a need for exponentially greater humanitarian resources and physical accommodations from neighboring countries. Although there are scores of refugee communities within the outer ring of Syria, one particularly rich source of Syrian refuge is found along the Turkish-Syrian borderland.

So, what do these camps in Turkey look like now? According to several sources, including BBC and CNN, the refugee camps in bordering towns of Turkey and Syria are among the best. Of course, this doesn’t mean the conditions are ideal, nor does it mean that thousands of refugee families aren’t turned away repeatedly from these same camps. In fact, many have chosen to live outside of these refugee camps to seek under-the-table employment in factories, restaurants or shops. It simply means that Turkey has been politically and culturally more accommodating, on average, than several other regions that currently foster Syrian refugees.

According to the New York Times, “Turkey has a record of embracing refugees with ethnic and cultural ties; it absorbed more than 300,000 from Bulgaria in 1989 and 25,000 from Bosnia in the early 90s. Whatever the reason, Turkey decided to open its arms to its war-ravaged Syrian neighbors.”

UC Irvine graduate student and president of the Turkish Student Association, Kemal Davasliglu, shared with me his perspective on the high influx of Syrian refugees in Turkey and its resulting effects on the current life in his hometown of Izmir, Turkey. Although his hometown is further west from the higher concentrations of refugees occupying Istanbul and southern Turkey, conversations regarding refugee care have been viral throughout the country.

“Historically, we have been with Syrians [since the beginning]. We share the same cuisine, similar culture, and were both part of the Ottoman Empire [among other things],” he said.

From what Davasliglu shares, it appears that Turkish citizens generally foster a social responsibility toward Syrians and have thus accommodated for them both politically and socially. Indeed, the Turkish government has provided health services, shelters and other humanitarian resources. Although Turkish law has made it extremely difficult for Syrians to obtain a work permit and seek employment in its formal economy, it is often the case that these diverse Syrian communities make great attempts to help each other in whatever way possible.

“[While in Turkey] I met a group of Syrian refugees who were all lawyers. They tried to open up a Syrian restaurant so that Syrians could have Syrian food … I watched as certain communities formed before my eyes. And that’s how it happens: people try to help others look for what they feel [is] comfortable,” Syrian-American OC resident Sema Wareh said. Wareh spent weeks in Turkey in 2012 to financially and emotionally support refugees on her own.

“I kept hearing reports that [donations] were getting stolen on the black market,” Wareh explained. “All the aid was not even going to the refugees. So I decided, ‘Why isn’t it possible to just go myself?’”

After her three weeks within the Turkey-Syria borderland, Wareh ended up traveling to Lebanon to build a school for young refugees in November 2013. From her day-to-day blog titled “The Road to Refugees,” Wareh chronicled her time in both Turkey and Syria, constantly describing a strong need to foster emotional and intellectual support for all refugees: “… if we take the kids that have dealt with war, get the yucky animosity out of their system, teach teamwork, kindness, respect, forgiveness, and the idea that you can be anything you want to be, then these kids will go back to Syria one day and contribute to the positive rebuilding instead of getting caught up in the waves of violence….” Wareh, during her final day in Dier Ammar, Lebanon, wrote.

While there are plenty of stories detailing human-to-human interaction in efforts to accommodate for these refugees, the Turkish government has made some efforts of its own.

One particular initiative that was hosted by the Turkish government and supplemented by nearly 40 National Government Organizations was the One Bread One Blanket for Syria Campaign, which donated hundred-thousands of tons of humanitarian aid — including daily food supplies and basic health services — to Syrians both within Syrian borders and along the Turkish-Syrian borderland.

Orange County resident Monica Curca went to Turkey two years ago to devise programs in Turkey that are conflict sensitive.

She has also worked with several activist groups both within the United States and abroad in co-existence work and conflict resolution within contending ethnic groups within these high-risk border regions.

“[Syrians] are there, fighting, risking their lives, and I find it really unethical for American activists to take the credit of other people’s work and sacrifice. We do only a smidgen compared to what they’re doing, but because we have access to our own work through the media, it easily becomes our story,” Curca added.

A personal project that Curca is developing is an in-depth digital storytelling series on Syrian housewives. Her goal is to work intimately with Syrian women in collecting their stories to shed light on the fact that Syrian women are not merely victims of circumstance or the recipients of oppression.

“These women have a pivotal role in the revolution and in this conflict… [The problem is that] even humanitarian aid agencies are telling [their trainees] that women are victims and that they need protection. So in this kind of culture which is very shame-based, [women] are pretty much not going to be chosen as any kind of President or elected official because of the shame being placed on them,” she said.

Her series of profiles on Syrian women hopes to overturn these sentiments and empower women to elevate themselves as leaders of local and regional movements.

Curca’s personal project speaks for all refugee stories. These refugees are not simply victims of circumstance. They are mothers, fathers, artists, leaders, business people and more. They may be sidelined at this point in time, but humanitarian efforts generated by Syrians and non-Syrians alike are evolving each day — and hopefully something will move toward widespread repair.

When asked what she thinks will happen for Syrian refugees if or when the conflict goes away, Davasliglu responded:

“People are tied to their roots. Their grandfathers are buried there. Their memories are fostered there. They have a beautiful country. They will definitely return once all of this is over. But I think people [in Turkey] are still speaking about creating spaces for them if they stay.”