CAFOD’s Catherine Cowley writes:
It feels strange to do humanitarian work in Turkey. When I first drove down the dual carriageway from the international airport, past large apartment blocks and miles and miles of green countryside, I couldn’t help but be struck by the contrast with other emergency programmes I’ve been involved with.
Two years ago, I joined CAFOD as a trainee humanitarian officer. Since then, I’ve been based in Haiti and Kenya, where most of my experience has been of bumping along rutted, dusty roads, working with people you could see were living in poverty even before their lives were turned upside down by natural disasters.
The small Turkish town I’ve been working in recently, near the border with Syria, could hardly be more of a contrast. Everything seems stable, calm and prosperous: the shops are bustling with customers; the roads are teeming with vehicles; the scale of construction work is striking.
But look south on a clear day and you can make out large clouds of smoke rising from areas across what is, in fact, a heavily mined border. It’s even more shocking when you realise that whatever building is burning probably had people in it.
Take a closer look at passers-by in the street, and you notice that many are wearing thin, worn-out clothes and open-toed shoes that are clearly inadequate for the cold weather. Visit the parks around town and you come across long queues of people waiting patiently for food.
Turkey has been generous in its welcome to Syrian refugees, but the number needing support has exceeded all expectations. Although 260,000 Syrians have been officially registered, or are awaiting registration, the Turkish government estimates there are closer to 400,000 in the country.
Some have sought refuge in the camps set up by the Turkish government along the border, away from the towns, but the rest have had to manage as best they can, renting apartments with whatever money they have left.
Turkey is an expensive place for the average Syrian, and the majority are living in crowded households along with numerous members of their extended family. It’s not unusual for fifteen or twenty people to share one small flat.
Many of the Syrians I’ve met come from secure, middle-income backgrounds. I’ve realised that they share the same hopes that I have – of having a job, a car, stability. I hadn’t thought in detail about what would make someone like me abandon my home. I’ve quickly realised that, for most of the refugees, it wasn’t a choice, it was a necessity.
“We moved out because we didn’t feel safe,” 37-year-old Ahmed from Aleppo told me, “but even as we were moving, part of our house was destroyed by a bomb. My neighbourhood had become a battleground, the whole area was a warzone.”
Ahmed and others like him crossed into a country with an unfamiliar language and culture, those without papers risking the heavily mined fields in the middle of the night. Many have never had to depend on outside support before. It has been a devastating experience to ask for help, knowing that they are relying entirely on the generosity of strangers.
Ahmed and his family could hardly bring anything with them from their home. Their priority was to save their photos – a reminder of how their life used to be. A lot of Syrians have told me about the things they’ve lost: their homes, their gardens, the loved ones. People say that children have lost their childhoods.
Mohammed, a 33-year-old father of two, said: “One of the reasons I left home was because my little girl had started to recognise the noises outside. She could tell what machines they were – which ones were a tank, which ones were a machine gun, which ones were a bomb from the sky. Children are supposed to know about school and TV. About eating sweets and playing with friends. But instead they learn the sounds of war.”
It may seem odd to think that there is a humanitarian emergency happening in relatively prosperous countries like Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, but it’s hard to overstate how dire the situation is.
Every day, an estimated 8,000 Syrians are fleeing into neighbouring countries to escape the war – an eightfold increase since January this year.
One of the most striking things for me has been how quickly, easily and comprehensively, everything people held dear in their lives could be stripped away. I’ve found the rawness of what people have told me heartbreaking. There is not yet the guardedness I sometimes found in Haiti, which people had developed over the years as a shield to protect them from their situation.
The people I’ve met try to believe that they will be able to go home soon, but they know that nothing can be the same again. They hope for the future, but expect the worst.
Mohammed told me: “I am very pessimistic about the future of Syria because the damage is so bad. Bridges, houses, and hospitals – they are all gone or damaged but at least they can be rebuilt. We humans are hurt, though, and I’m not sure we can be fixed.”
Catherine Cowley is an Emergency Support Officer for CAFOD.