Robin Yassin-Kassab visited Atmeh, a Syrian refugee camp close to the Turkish border which currently houses 22,000 refugees: Some tents are fire-resistant; some are plastic; some are concoctions of canvas and blankets. Some have been distributed by the United Nations’ refugee agency, some by Turkish and expatriate Syrian charities. Some tents are pitched among the silvery olive trees, but the area closer to the barbed wire, where tents are set unshaded on the baked and stony earth, is much grimmer. There are toilets (unpleasant and not nearly enough of them), rough shower blocks, and daily deliveries of clean water. But there are also streams of green liquid filth, which the children fall into as they play. Many children have something that sounds like a bad smoker’s cough but is most probably tuberculosis — a disease, like typhoid and leishmaniasis, once defeated in Syria but now resurgent.
A “main street” in Atmeh features stalls set up in tents that sell cigarettes, soda, and sandwiches for those who can afford them; there are also barbers in tents and of course a tented mosque. A “ready meal” breakfast is sent in by the Turks each morning, and a simple lunch — lentil soup, for instance — is prepared in communal kitchens and distributed in buckets around the camp. There is no dinner.
Most impressively, a civil society infrastructure has been established — something that was effectively forbidden in Assad’s Syria. Atmeh has its own Coordination Committee — an extension of the committees that sprang up across Syrian cities and villages from the revolution’s first days in order to provide services the state wouldn’t and to organize protests and media work. Over half the assembled members and speakers at the meeting I attended were women, a fact which illustrates both the expanded social role of women in the revolution and the disproportionate numbers of women (and children) in the camp, because so many men are dead, imprisoned, or fighting.
One of the committee’s duties is to help set up schools for the camp’s children. I saw three schools: the Revolution House, which was a single-room concrete shack; the Ghurabaa (“Strangers”) School, run by Salafi Islamists and disapproved of by many because it entirely ignores the old Syrian curriculum in favor of a purely “Islamic” education; and the Return School, which serves 500 children, cramming 40 at a time in stifling tent classrooms.
The Return School was where I gave my storytelling workshop as part of the Maram and Karam foundations’ Camp Zeitouna project, which included workshops in calligraphy, art, dental care, and soccer skills. We were assisted by some of the school’s 20 unsalaried teachers and inspired by the laughing, shouting children. Some of these children have had only one month of schooling in the last two years. Some are physically scarred and emotionally traumatized. They responded well to the workshops and of course to the soccer field and playground constructed by Maram. They responded best of all, simply, to attention.
One of the trip’s highlights was sitting in the dust on the new soccer grounds and being sung to by a group of boys and girls — a surreal mix of revolutionary nationalist, jihadi, and romantic songs. One of the low points was meeting Manar, a woman whose two children died in a tent fire caused by a fallen candle. Another woman said she’d prefer to be dead than living in such conditions. American teenagers say such things in English, and it means nothing much. In Arabic it means a great deal.
Tamador, a volunteer psychologist, does her rounds. She advises a woman whose husband has abandoned her for another wife, but still turns up to take her money. She hears about a man who sexually abuses his son’s wife. Pre-existing social problems have been immeasurably exacerbated by war trauma, unemployment, entrapment, and the forced proximity of the extended family.
Muhammad Ojjeh, our soccer coach and professional photographer, went down on one knee with his long lens to shoot a picture of a child. The child screamed in terror, turned, and ran. His mother shouted after him, “It’s a camera, stupid, not a gun.”
A woman welcomed us to her tent shamefacedly. “We’ve become Bedouins,” she apologized. Deprived for so long of influence on the public space, Syrians of all classes take inordinate pride in their carefully ordered homes. Now this, too, is denied them.
An angry man reacted badly to the playground under construction. “What’s the use of this?” he complained. “We don’t want to stay here. The insects are eating us! We want to return to our homes. We need weapons. We need help.” [Continue reading…]