Life in a Syrian Refugee Camp

Youssef Al Sharif reports from Syrian refugee camps in eastern Turkey, painting a portrait of the various walks of life forced to coexist. Even though many Syrians are thankful for Turkish aide, some feel discriminated against because of sectarian tensions between them and the Turkish Alawites.

al-monitor A Syrian refugee sits beside a drawing on a tent's canvas near the Turkish-Syrian border.  Photo by REUTERS/Umit Bektas.

Topics covered

sunni, sectarianism, free syrian army, economic crisis, economic, alawites

May 15, 2012

Yunis and Abu Faris are neighbors in Haji Pasha, a Turkish village situated along the Syrian-Turkish border. Abu Faris is housing his Syrian relatives, who fled Syria seven months ago and came to Haji Pasha after the Syrian army invaded their village.

He recounted the horrific stories that his Syrian guests told about the reckless targeting of civilians, and how the Syrian security forces opened fire on his relatives when they tried to escape: “They saw that there were children and women aboard and yet they still opened fire on us.”

Yunis does not hide his resentment of the Turkish authorities for building the Syrian refugee camp in front of his house and farm. He says: “Ever since they arrived, we have been suffering an economic crisis. Before the crisis, we used to smuggle gasoline and sugar across the border. Back then, we never saw a Syrian or Turkish soldier in our village. Now, the Syrian army and the Turkish gendarmerie are stationed along the border.”

Our conversation was interrupted by the arrival of live broadcast vehicles from one of the Arab news channels. Two men exited the vehicle and entered the camp. A few minutes later, someone yells into the microphone, urging refugees to “stage a demonstration condemning the parliamentary elections; channel so-and-so will broadcast the demonstration live on the air.”

These events not only affect Antioch, which is situated along the border and whose population consists of Alawites, Sunnis, and Christians. They also affect the governor, who is accused of failing to cooperate with the refugees, contrary to the Turkish government’s strict instructions. Through his actions, the governor prioritizes the discontent of the local Alawite population — which supports Bashar al-Assad’s regime — over the Turkish government’s policy on the Syrian crisis and the deteriorating relations between the two neighboring countries. These sectarian disputes pin the Syrian guests and their relatives in Antioch against the local Alawites, which makes establishing a large, Sunni refugee camp in the eastern city of Kilis even more urgent. This way, Sunni and Alawi refugees can be separated.

Tourism Boom

Indeed, smuggling has ended, but tourism is flourishing in Antioch. By this, we mean tourism from a wide range of activists and intelligence agents. Every day in the Narin Hotel, you can hear conversations between young Syrian opposition activists and Arab Gulf guests about the Assad regime’s injustice and ways to aid and financially support the refugees.

The conversation takes a sudden turn when they start discussing sectarian “hostility” and Iran’s role in fostering it. At another table, a Japanese journalist finds it difficult, despite the presence of an interpreter, to understand the sectarian issue that the Syrian opposition youth is discussing with the journalists. He asks, innocently: “Are Syrian Alawites not Muslims? Why does a Muslim hate a fellow Muslim so much that they are willing to fight each other?”

A British journalist at the hotel jokes and says: “For the first time, I realized that having intelligence agents around can be beneficial after all. Yesterday, I forgot my telephone at the lobby, and a hotel employee called my room two hours later and said that a Turkish man brought a mobile phone and told him to give it to the British journalist who is staying in this room!”

Officers from the Free Syrian Army are in a specially-guarded camp. They cannot leave the camp except on very short trips escorted by Turkish security and intelligence, for fear that they could be agents of the Syrian regime. One of these officers said that Turkey supports the Syrian people without a second thought. He then describes a number of ironic situations that he cannot understand: “The Turks communicate with us through Alawite interpreters, who hate us and sometimes try to distort our words. We tell Turkish officials about these kinds of incidents, but they never react. They are watching our every move. Two months ago, they arrested a defected officer as he was crossing the Syrian-Turkish border with his personal gun, and so far we have been unable to secure his  release. The Turkish government is being kind and generous, but some bureaucrats do not care about what we have to say. Some of us have begun to wonder: ‘why are we still here when they are keeping an eye on our every move?’”

Clearly, the officer’s high expectations of Turkey were shattered the moment he set foot in Antioch. He said: “We told Turkish intelligence that Assad’s men are roaming in Antioch, buying land under Turkish Alawite names and recruiting men to work for them. Yet, the Turkish government stands idly by while Assad’s regime plants human mines among Turkish Alawites in Antioch.” I replied, saying that those are Turkish nationals, and the Turkish state does not deal with its citizens based on their sect. He furiously answered, “but they are loyal to the regime of a country that is hostile to the Turkish government.”

Unknowingly, this Free Syrian Army official has indicated that there is a divide between the Turkish government and the Turkish state over the Syrian crisis. He also indicates a rift between the “government,” which is convinced that Assad and his regime must go, and the “state” and its institutions. The Turkish state adheres to the fact that Syria should not slide into chaos and civil war, and understands the importance of not igniting Kurdish and Alawite strife in Turkey, since this would have repercussions for the Syrian crisis. Documented security reports state that the Syrian regime has been cooperating on intelligence and organizational levels with the Kurdish Workers Party [PKK] and with Alawite groups loyal to the Turkish regime by stirring sectarian tensions.


In Antioch and in the Samandag Mountain region, which has a majority Alawite population, residents speak of a massive conspiracy against President Bashar al-Assad. Some of these residents believe that Assad’s family roots extend all the way to Samandag, and that the Syrian Chief of Staff’s grandfather, Hasan Turkmani, was also born in Samandag.

The conversation about what is happening in Syria then becomes a debate over “our men and their men, our group and their group.” We discover that “our men and our group” does not refer to the Syrian regime in general, but to Assad’s family in particular. Some of them say that the Syrian regime must become a democracy, and they believe that the reforms that Assad is making are good for democracy, which is something that cannot be achieved overnight.  They argue that Turkey should not intervene in Syria because the crisis is an internal issue. The conversation then takes another turn, and some cast doubt over how Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan perceives the Alawite community. One person says: “Didn’t Erdogan tell voters not to vote for his opponent, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, because he is an Alawite?”

160 kilometers away from Antioch, the Syrian refugee camp in Kilis was preparing to welcome Erdogan. He had previously announced that he would visit, but postponed it a number of times. His visit came after the Syrian army opened fire on the camp, wounding Syrians and Turks in a flagrant violation of the Turkish border.

The Kilis camp is supplied with all the facilities necessary for living, and Erdogan’s government has not hesitated to financially facilitate its Syrian guests’ stay. Yet, even though the refugees are grateful for the Turkish government, life in the camp is still one of migration and refuge. People tell horror stories about the crimes committed by Syrian security, including kidnap, torture, and murder, as well as the army’s reckless gunfire. By visiting Kilis, Erdogan  intended to highlight the crimes against humanity that are taking place in Syria, as well as the economic wound that Turkey has sustained because of the Syrian crisis. Caring for 40,000 refugees is costly, trade with Syria has ended, and Turkish commercial trucks can no longer reach the Gulf through Syria. However, in front of thousands of Syrian refugees, Erdogan stood firm with his wife, Amina, and seven of his ministers.

This picture alone carries a number of humanitarian messages:  mainly compassion, aid, and support for the refugees. Erdogan apologized to his crowd for any negligence or ill-treatment, and then he directed his words to the Syrian regime, saying that “victory is near.” One elderly Syrian man started crying, and as he listened to this emotional speech, he said “I believe him. No one stood by us like he did. Turkey will do anything for us.” Following Erdogan’s speech, however, the elderly man mentioned that this is the third time in a year that he heard the Turkish prime minister say those same exact words. He returns to his plastic house in the camp, dragging along with him a dying dream that can only come to life when he sees his grandchildren playing in the alleyways of the camp. 

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