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Kurdish refugees reject government-run camp in Turkey

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Kurdish refugees from Kobani are shunning the well-funded and staffed AFAD Suruc camp to stay in nearby municipal-run camps with fewer facilities.

SURUC, Turkey — This time last year, Mustafa Hamcu was lord and master of a 22-hectare farm in northern Syria, where his 15-member family raised livestock and grew wheat, lentils and sesame. Today, Hamcu is “lord” of a large gray tent in a refugee camp in Turkey, where he greets visitors sitting cross-legged on a carpet, surrounded by his wife, brother and 12 children.

Hamcu, an aging man with black eyebrows under his red-and-white headscarf, has a presence. The adult members of his family watch him respectfully as he ponders a question before answering, “There is nothing left of our farm, just the walls.” Last September, Islamic State (IS) militants rampaged through Biri Vaki, a village outside Kobani, in northern Syria.

The story of the Hamcu family illustrates the bewildering choices Syrians have had to make after fleeing to Turkey. It also demonstrates the monumental effort being made by Turkish municipalities and the central government to accommodate the refugees, who now total some 1.7 million.

Hamcu had the foresight to get his family to Turkey as soon as he could. Six people from his village who stayed longer were killed by IS. The Turkish town of Suruc in Sanliurfa province, just across the border from Kobani, has put up the Hamcu family in a camp sheltering 1,250 people and called "Rojava," the Kurdish name for the northern area of Syria (Western Kurdistan).

There are about 600 children in the camp, but only one school where Kurdish is the language of instruction. One of the camp managers, Helbest Dersim, a Turkish Kurd who gave up her job in Istanbul to volunteer in Rojava, called the conditions there “reasonable, for wartime.” She also said, however, that the camp needs more visits by doctors.

Just up the road from Rojava stands AFAD Suruc, a newly built facility for refugees operated by the Disaster and Emergency Management Authority (AFAD). The biggest “tent city” in Turkey, it has a basic hospital with doctors, nurses and a pharmacy and five schools with Arabic-speaking teachers.

The Turkish government has made a major effort to make all the refugees feel welcome in AFAD Suruc. The camp employs 60 translators who speak Turkish, Arabic and Kurdish. Every sign in the camp is written in four languages: Arabic, English, Kurdish and Turkish. Such linguistic equality is a big step forward for Turkey, where six years ago, state television cut a live broadcast feed of a speech by Kurdish political leader Ahmet Turk when he switched from Turkish to Kurdish while addressing his caucus in parliament. The institution accused Turk of violating the constitution by speaking in Kurdish.

What really impresses about AFAD Suruc is the quality of the facilities. The tents are small but cosy, half the size of those at the Rojava camp. They have partitions so men and women can dress separately. The floors are plastic, protecting against the dampness of the ground. Each adult resident in AFAD Suruc receives credit on a plastic card to shop in the camp's supermarket. There is a washing machine for every 22 people.

The Sanliurfa governor’s press officer, Arif Farac, asked foreign journalists, “Have you ever seen a refugee camp like this anywhere in the world?” AFAD, which operates under the prime minister's office, built the camp at a cost of $35 million. The AFAD Suruc planners seem to have outdone themselves. Its water filtration plant provides water that is purer than that found in Suruc.

“Do the residents of Suruc know that they are drinking inferior water?” Suruc's chief administrator was asked during a press tour of the camp. “Yes, they know,” Abdullah Ciftci replied with a smile. He noted that the town’s water is overseen by the municipality, while the camp’s water is provided by AFAD.

The residents of AFAD Suruc are impressed. Ihlas Hassan, a mother of five from Kobani, said she had stayed in four refugee settlements, and AFAD Suruc was “the best.” Another refugee, Bozan Abdi, from a village outside Kobani, is grateful for the hospital and schools. The father of seven children, he said, “I cannot do without the camp.” 

Many Kurds, however, feel they can do without AFAD Suruc. Its facilities may far exceed the norm, but they are still not enough to attract many of the refugees living in nearby, more makeshift municipal camps. When Al-Monitor visited AFAD Suruc in February, it housed fewer than 5,000 refugees, but had space for another 35,000. The 1,250 Kurds in Rojava camp are among those choosing not to pack their belongings and move down the road.

Hamcu said he was not going to AFAD Suruc because his family had a better chance of finding work if they lived in Rojava, which is closer to the center of Suruc. AFAD Suruc, however, is only a short bus ride from Suruc. Pressed on why he has chosen not to move to the better camp, Hamcu said, “Perhaps there will be Arab refugees there. We have run away from Arabs.” The Kurds from the Kobani region have accused their former Arab neighbors of having sided with IS.

Rojava manager Dersim said her camp’s residents were staying clear of AFAD Suruc because it is run by the government. “These people don’t like the Turkish government, because they say it is supporting their enemy,” Dersim said. Referring to riots and delays at the border crossing in late September and early October, she stated, “The Turkish military tear-gassed refugees trying to come here. They kept [Kurdish] fighters waiting at the border [to enter Kobani during the battle against IS].”

Turkish opposition parties have also accused the government of supporting IS. The government hotly denies it, but there appears to be evidence that at one time Turkey did indeed assist the group. Last August, an IS commander with the nom de guerre Abu Yusaf told the Washington Post that Turkey had provided his group with “equipment and supplies” as well as allowing recruits to cross into Syria and treating wounded IS fighters in hospitals.

For the Kurdish refugees, over and above Turkey’s alleged support of IS lies the fact that Rojava and its five sister camps are run by the Suruc municipality, which is controlled by the Kurdish Peoples’ Democracy Party. “We are all Kurdish here,” said Rojava resident Wahideh Ahmed. “We want to stay with Kurds.”

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Found in: turkey, syria, suruc, refugees, people's democracy party, kurds, kobani, islamic state

Jasper Mortimer is a South African-trained journalist who works for France24 TV and GRN. While traveling the world, he was waylaid in the Middle East, married a Turkish woman and settled in Ankara in 2007. He covers the Kurdish issue, the Syrian war and Cyprus.

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