KILIS, Turkey – A mural at the entrance to the Oncupinar Accommodation Facility shows a dove, emblazoned with a Turkish flag, nursing another dove with the Syrian rebel flag painted on its body.
The second dove is bleeding and sad. It’s one of many symbols here that indicate Turkey’s commitment to Syrian refugees, more than two million of whom have crossed into the country since the Syrian civil war began in 2011.
A border town with 90,000 people, Kilis has been the main entry point for these refugees. Now, more than 110,000 Syrians are estimated to live here. The Turkish government has even suggested nominating the town for a Noble Peace Prize, because of its commitment to hosting so many desperate people.
Around 13,000 of these Syrian refugees live in the Oncupinar camp, which is run by the Afet ve Acil Durum Yonetimi Baskanligi (Disaster and Emergency Management Presidency, AFAD), an organization founded in 2009 to deal with natural disasters but are now also tasked with aiding refugees.
“Children and women are the vast majority here,” says Ayla Cimen, a 48-year-old woman who works with many of the women refugees here and provided a tour for journalists last Thursday. From Adana in Turkey, she has a hopeful worldview about the tragic conflict unfolding next door.
“The most important thing is to be human. There is no difference between Jewish, Muslim, Christians or Kurds,” she says, but wonders why other countries are not showing more commitment to refugees.
Women have borne a special burden in this Syrian conflict. As villages and cities became combat zones, many men took up the rifle to fight. Women and children were forced often to fend for themselves.
One refugee named Bushra describes how she first fled her village for the safety of Aleppo when Assad’s forces attacked protesters in the area of Idlib in northwest Syria.
Then Aleppo became a massive war zone with competing factions and Syrian regime bombing the city.
She fled again to what she describes as a cave, where dozens of other women and children sheltered.
But there was no escape. The Syrian regime struck their area after six months of relative peace but meager living standards. That was the breaking point. With her six children she made her way to the Turkish border and since 2013 has been housed in a caravan, like the other refugees.
These caravans, smaller than a single-wide American-style mobile home, provide a kind of dignity and shelter. Usually one room is converted into living room with a TV and places to sit on the floor, while another serves as a bedroom.
Many of them have TVs and a satellite dish.
Children can attend school and women may leave the camp to work in Kilis. For other women the opportunity to make arts and crafts or work in the communal laundry is a way to stay closer to the families.
“Many of these families have lost relatives, there are orphans and disabled people,” explains one of the volunteers. An organization has donated looms so the women can learn to make rugs. These pretty rugs now hang on the walls of one of the community centers and sell for around 800 Turkish lira ($270).
Cimen says these are the lucky Syrian refugees. “Most of them do not leave; it is comfortable for them here, some low percent went out.
Those here are lucky really they have everything here.” There is a mosque, school and a nice park.
Children ride bikes and play with balls. It’s a simple existence, but it’s better than being in a cave or walking in the field trying to get to Europe. Another incentive to stay is the proximity to some of the husbands still in Syria, fighting the Assad regime.
This camp is mostly composed of Arab refugees from Sunni areas between the border and Aleppo and Hama, around 170 kilometers away in Syria. Some of the women wear the full face niqab, a sign of religiosity that was not common in Syria before the rebellion. That is likely due to the fact that many of the Syrian rebel groups have become increasingly Islamic in recently years. Less than five percent of the refugees are Kurdish, says Cimen.
Many of the Kurds have gone on towards Europe or live elsewhere, reflecting the sectarian split in society that has happened across the border in Syria.
Children face special circumstances.
With the war dragging on into its fourth year, this camp has operated since 2012. That means formative school years are spent here. “The teenagers faced difficulties in the beginning, but now they are more integrated. They learn Turkish,” says Cimen. Older students are also applying to Turkish universities. So far 75 have been enrolled. In one room we went to some of the youth were playing video games, such as Grand Theft Auto. None of them was playing first-person shooter games. Perhaps having suffered real war, it was not a game now.
For the women, many of whom came from conservative villages in Idlib province, this new life has been a major challenge. “We are patient with them, we teach them to be more independent and integrate.
Some are damaged psychologically and have nightmares from the war. Many came so tired of war, you can see on their faces as they adjust and feel safe,” Cimen notes.
But life must go on. Even in this sterile camp atmosphere, with line upon line of white caravans, people are getting married. There are two to three weddings a week, according to those present. Sometimes they marry men who are in Syria with the rebel forces. The men may stay for a month with their new wives and then go back to the front.
Contrary to the stories spread by anti-refugee voices in the West, a UNHCR report from January 2016 noted that women make up over 55% of those fleeing to Europe.
When one counts the children, it may be that more than 80% of the refugees are women and children.
Facing the new lives in refugee camps that are safe and clean like those run by AFAD is preferable to life on the move, where being a victim of human trafficking or other assaults can be more common.
The health services provided women are also superior at these facilities. There is pessimism about the ability of any of these refugees to return to Syria.
“People should not kill each other,” Cimen says. However, in recent months the power of Assad’s forces has grown with Russian and Iranian support. Across the border in Syria we could see many tents perched on a hillside. There are tens of thousands more refugees who want to cross here. As the fighting gets closer, many fear the war that these women fled, the nightmares they have, may return.