Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Turkey: Life for refugees in Turkey

Source: European Commission Humanitarian Aid department

Part One 
Life for refugees in Turkey, Part I: Cold comfort

Turkey is playing an increasingly vital humanitarian role, hosting over 1.6 million Syrian refugees and an additional 300 000 from countries such as Iraq. Caroline Gluck, the European Commission's Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department (ECHO) Regional Information Officer in Amman, met some of the thousands who have feld to the country's south-eastern region. In the first of this two-part series, she shares their moving stories and the difficulties of life away from home.

All it took was a photograph of a smiling young man to be passed around and within minutes the family I've been talking to are in tears. Saeed was just 23 years old and had been the sole breadwinner in his family. He was a Yazidi Kurd - a religious minority group. He was killed trying to return to his village in Iraq's north-west region to help others who weren't able to flee soon after the village had come under attack by troops from the militant group, ISIL (the Islamic State in Iraq and Levant).

His widow, Khalil, is struggling to look after her three young children, the youngest just four months old, and shares one room with 16 members of her extended family in a bare, unheated building that once served as a military barracks in a desolate coal mining area in Şırnak province, south-eastern Turkey. Signs of the buildings' former inhabitants are still visible. Slogans etched onto hallway mirrors serve as reminders to soldiers, urging them to “Straighten your uniform”.

"We can't go back to Iraq”, Khalil told me. "They destroyed our houses and looted our things. They killed many of our men and took many women".

In August, tens of thousands of Yazidis fled for their lives after being attacked by ISIL troops in Iraq. Many were stranded on the barren slopes of Mount Sinjar and their plight captured the news headlines.

Today, around 30 000 Yazidis are living in makeshift shelters and camps in Turkey and Kurdish areas of northern Iraq struggling for help, mostly out of the news headlines. Many Yazidi women and children are said to still remain in captivity under ISIL control in Iraq.

In south-eastern Turkey, around 1 200 people are staying in abandoned military buildings in Şırnak province. The site had, until recently, been packed with more than 4 000 people but many families have moved on in search of somewhere better to stay ahead of the bitter winter.

In the meantime, the municipality and local people here have been coming to their aid, providing three hot meals a day, blankets and clothes, making basic improvements to the empty buildings, including ensuring there is hot water, and even installing some washing machines. But support for the new arrivals is straining local resources.

ECHO's partners are also working here - providing waterproof tents, improving existing shelter conditions, providing hygiene kits, non-food items and cash assistance. A medical partner has set up a primary health care centre, managed by a local Turkish partner Doctors Worldwide, since the nearest hospital is ten kilometres away, There will soon be youth- and child-friendly spaces for youngsters.

Iraqi doctor Ahmed Saad Saeed, who works with Doctors Worldwide, sees around 60 patients each day. He says most of the health problems are a result of psychological trauma – including severe anxiety and depression in adults, and bed wetting among the children, since many Yazidis witnessed killings and extreme violence.

"I didn't expect my work to be so valuable, but when I came, people were so happy to see me", he said. "My work here is as much about providing psychological support as it is giving medical help".

For now, the plan is to improve shelter facilities and install other amenities here as quickly as possible before the worst of the winter sets in. Despite the difficult conditions, many families here are adamant they will not return to Iraq, where they fear they could once again face attack because of their minority status. Instead, many want to be resettled in Europe, where many Yazidis have moved in the past.

At the shelter in Sirnak, there is little for families to do. Children gather in the chilly morning temperatures around tins that are lit up with small fires to stay warm. Families try to stay positive, but many feel frustrated and haunted by recent events. Many tell stories about men being killed and women still held captive in Iraq by ISIL troops.

Kine Haji, 37, ran with her children from her village near Sinjar city, carrying her youngest daughter on her shoulders. Her other children ran with her, barefoot. She fled after witnessing her husband being killed by ISIL troops. “My hope for my family and me is to go to Europe”, she told me. “There is nothing for us in Sinjar. We do not feel safe and we don’t want to be attacked again.

“Right now, there is no good place to live. I have no milk to give to my children; I don't have my husband anymore and there is no one to take care of us. We have no money. This place is not good, but at least it's safe”.

Stay tuned next week for the second story from Caroline's trip, focusing on a refugee family's concerns and how local people are giving all they can to help their new neighbours in need.
Part Two
Christos Stylianides, European Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Management, is in Turkey this week to see first-hand the situation for some of the over 1.6 million Syrian refugees in the country. Caroline Gluck, the European Commission's Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department's (ECHO), recently met some of the thousands who have fled to the country's south-eastern region. In the second of this two-part series, she shares a few refugees' personal hardships in adapting to a new life away from home.

In villages and towns across Suruc district, in south-eastern Turkey, there's almost nowhere you can travel these days without encountering a Syrian refugee.

Hundreds of thousands of Syrians fled the city of Kobane and neighbouring areas in September 2014 in a matter of days, when their homes came under attack from ISIL (the Islamic State in Iraq and Levant). They sought refuge in Turkey and while many scattered across the country, the largest numbers – around 92 000 – have remained in Suruc district close to the Syrian border.

Many villages and towns have more than doubled in size, as they struggle to accommodate the new arrivals. Some refugees are staying in government- and municipally-run camps. But the well-run camps are full, forcing other refugees to seek shelter where they can: in shops, warehouses, mosques and unfinished buildings.

Khalil Mahmud and his wife, Kathawar Khalil, live with five other families in one empty, unfinished building in the small farming community of Boztepe village. They've tried to make it as habitable as they can, installing doors and windows, putting in some electricity. Local people have rallied to their help. “The villagers here have been very hospitable, they welcomed us so warmly”, says Khalil. “Everything we need, they have helped us with, from food to mattresses and kitchen sets. Even this mobile water tank”, he says pointing across the yard. “Local people have filled it for us to help us get water”.

The family have been here for more than two months and are also supported by ECHO's partner organisation Concern, which provides food and non-food items. The biggest concern for Khalil, a farmer back in Syria, is the lack of work opportunities. “There is no work here. I cannot find a job and without any income, it’s very difficult”.

His wife, Kathawar, is worried about the winter. “We need will be so cold”, she frets. But Khalil’s worry is longer-term. “We could be here for years. It’s difficult in Syria – everything is full of war and conflict”.

The arrival of the refugees has meant that Boztepe village has almost doubled in size. Yashar Ali, a dentist back in Syria, is staying in a school stockroom with his wife and parents. “It’s so hard to rely on help with everything, but we left our village empty-handed”, he said. “It’s not just that we’ve left our jobs; we’ve lost our land, our houses, our friends. We don’t know where they have gone. We have lost so many memories. We have lost everything”.

“I never thought I would ever become a refugee”, said his father, 65 year-old Ahmed Naoh, a landowner in Syria. “We were satisfied with our lives then. But then ISIL came. We’re just very thankful for the help we’ve got – from the Turkish government and the people and from international organisations”.

The arrivals have had a big impact on the community, said Mehmet Kilic, the locally-elected village head. “There are more power cuts, because so many people want to use electricity”, he said, “and waste management is a problem too. Water is more scarce. But we are in solidarity with these people, we see them as one of us and we welcome them”.

But such large numbers of refugees and their long-term impact in Turkey is a cause for concern. It’s estimated that Turkey now houses over 1.6 million registered and unregistered refugees. Under Turkish law, registered refugees have access to health care, but it is often hard for them to access services that are available, including education. Currently refugees can only work informally, although in areas where they are able to find illegal casual labour, such as seasonal cotton-picking, many complain they are paid half of what their Turkish counterparts would earn.

Donors like the European Commission's Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department (ECHO) are increasing the humanitarian support they can offer, especially to refugees living outside of camp settings, who account for around 85% of the total refugee population. ECHO recently allocated €3.9 million to support the delivery of emergency aid through partners to help families who fled conflict in Kobane.

More will need to be done as new arrivals continue to flow into the country. “Turkey is not alone”, said ECHO’s head of office in Turkey, Jean-Christophe Pegon. “We are working with institutions and member states to do more.

"We'd like to reach out to more refugees in more places; there are many areas where we believe assistance is not reaching”, he said. “We believe we can also contribute to the establishment of stronger systems in terms of providing basic assistance through our international and Turkish partners with a view to looking at viable, durale solutions".

Last week, Caroline shared some of the stories of Iraqi refugees who have found refuge in the same region.