Diala is 25 years old. Married, she arrived in Darashakran camp, in Iraq, one year and half ago. Her baby was born five months ago – one of 100,000 Syrian babies born outside Syria since fighting began – with a UNHCR paper as a document. “We came from Al Hasakah, north of Syria,” Diala said. “When the security situation was becoming worse, we decided to leave. We have a big family, my father and my mother are still inside in Syria. We decided to come in the north of Iraq because we speak Kurdish and here we feel at home.”
As is common with families fleeing from Syria, Diala’s first priority is safety and somewhere to stay, and then making sure those left behind are also safe. “Sometimes we have contact by phone with our families and friends who remained in Syria, but it’s not so easy,” she said.
In Kurdish Iraq, refugees coming from north west Syria have the comfort of a common language and traditions.
Life for women like Diala is very different now from how it was at home. “We try to have a normal life,” she said. “But mainly we don’t have anything particular to do. My daily life involves cooking, taking care of my children and sitting in the tent. My husband tries to get work each day, but it’s very difficult,” she said. “We had problems with electricity and it’s a challenge to buy nappies for the baby.
We don’t want to live in a camp forever with nothing but empty days
“We want to return to our country and be safe. I want to return in my city, with family and friends.”
Coming back to Syria is the common dream of the Syrians here in the camps. Sabah is 53 years old and lives in Darashakran camp, in Iraq with her five sons between the ages of 11 and 25. “During winter there is water everywhere, during summer it is too hot, there is six of us in our tent: our daily life is not so good,” she said. She arrived here without her husband who died after a long illness, and her eldest son died because of the conflict. His picture takes pride of place in the tent.
We literally ran away from war, two years and half ago. We are completely dependent on aid
Sabah’s family travelled for five days to get to Iraq. When they crossed the border, they were given some food and water in a temporary camp before making their way to Darashakran.
Life in the camp is very difficult because they don’t have anything to do, they are living more than half an hour from the city of Erbil and it’s very difficult to have an income. “We are completely dependent on the assistance of the humanitarian agencies,” Sabah said. She is taking care of her family, and searching for work to help provide for themselves. “Our main concerns are health, food, education and employment. We want to decide our future, n’t want to a camp forever with nothing but empty days.” Her thoughts are always of home. “We will return back home as soon as possible,” she said.
In a dark room at the top of three flights of crumbling, water-logged stairs, Ameena sits with her two severely disabled sons.
Jalal is listless, lying under a blanket with his thin feet poking out the bottom. He is 17, but rake-thin and looks more like a small child. He is sick and hasn’t eaten for three days. Hasan, nine, is next to him.
Syria’s conflict has shattered their lives. Ameena thinks back to better times. “In Damascus we had a fruit shop and our own house. The health facilities were good and these boys got physiotherapy, they saw doctors and were given medicine.”
Then the fighting came.
Bombing and shelling
Ameena says: “Our house was destroyed and we had to leave because of the children. They were terrified of the bombing and shelling, they still are. And they have problems like wetting the bed.”
So for the last 20 months, the family’s home has been a few rooms at the top of an unfinished building in the northern tip of Lebanon.
Ameena has five children in all, with another one on the way. Providing for them is hard. There are few chances to earn money here.
Her husband can only find work about one day in every ten. He has asthma and diabetes, but struggles to find the money to pay for medicine.
Ameena adds: “The problem is we need nappies for the boys, and medicine, but no one has helped. Usually I buy nappies for them, but now I am in debt to the local shops who have given us credit.
A neighbour is helping us, getting nappies from shops further away in another area, but the debt is getting very high.
The family is also getting some food vouchers and other aid from a mix of organisations. Ameena says: “We get cash from the Red Cross. They gave us the most help, and quickly. They give us food parcels and diesel and they provided us with this heater.
“We have to pay the rent with the money, and if we don’t we could lose this place.”
Ameena’s brothers, mother and the rest of her family are still in Syria. She hasn’t been able to speak to them for more than eight months – hasn’t seen them in a year and a half.
At just 37 Ameena looks broken. She stares out of the window, in the direction of her old home in Syria. She doesn’t expect to ever go back there.
With tears falling down her cheeks she says: “Everything is difficult. Everything is difficult.”
Zeytan and her family came to Turkey less than year ago, after her father went missing.
“We don’t know where he is,” Zeytan’s mother said. “We waited as much as we could but it was not safe there anymore.”
I was pregnant and with a little baby. We crossed the border running, with nothing, just what we could carry.
Zeytan has four siblings. Her eldest brother is 9 years old. The youngest one was born in Turkey and has not even had his first birthday. Winter is tough; people gave them some blankets and old mattresses to replace the even older ones they received when they arrived. The municipality also provided a stove but they have to find their own source of fuel.
Single parent families face particular difficulties. Zeytan’s mother said: “I would like to work but I have the baby and one little boy. I have to take care of the family.” They mostly live on donations provided by different institutions or a little cash given by friends. Zeytan’s mother also washes clothes to supplement her income. “I wash while Zeytan helps me looking the children,” she said. With this little money the eldest children can go to the market and shop for the daily needs. Zeytan’s mother tells us that she wishes the war was over, so they can return to their lives, but for now the situation is like this. She hopes that her children can attend school and improve their lives.
According to Iraqi Red Crescent figures, the city of Erbil is currently home to 82,000 Syrians. Refugees are scattered all around the city but it’s not hard to find them. They are living in garages, unfinished buildings, and informal settlements and shelters. A few lucky families have found a room to rent.
Kadija is 44 years old. She fled from Syria with her 4 children aged, between 8 and 13 years old. Her husband died in Syria and she now lives in a tent in Erbil. “First we arrived in Turkey, but after one month we decided to come to Kurdistan where the language is much more familiar to us,” she said. “During the journey I lost my sister and we have not heard any information about her.” The family has been in the camp now for 18 months.
Kadija’s situation is particularly desperate, but she is receiving help from the local community.
We are surviving because our Iraqi neighbours are cooking at least two or three times per week for us.
We don’t have any problem with the local community. Sometimes I get daily work, but it’s not enough,” she said.
Many families come to Erbil in search of work, some to be in the city, and others because they say the camps on the outskirts are full. Regardless of the motivation, it is clear that the generosity of host communities needs more support from the rest of the world.“We don’t have anything,” Kadija said. “Every day I must find a way to let my children survive; they are not going to school or they don’t have health access when needed, it’s a horrible situation.”
Mohammed’s young son points to a place far in the distance. “That was our home, Q’assair” he says. “All the houses in our neighbourhood have been flattened there now. Completely flattened.”
Mohammed and his family left Syria nearly two years ago, crossing the border into Lebanon to find safety.
They found a house to live in for a year, but when their contract ended the owner made them leave immediately.
“Some people gave me some wood and this plastic sheeting so we could manage to build this,” says Mohammed, gesturing to his new home. The family now lives with two others in a cluster of tents, one of thousands of informal shelters dotted across Lebanon.
They drink water from a tank that belongs to a local shepherd. Their home has no proper kitchen, shower or insulation.
He says: “Living here is very bad. We don’t have proper walls and in the winter the water comes in. Underneath it really smells bad and we have a lot of humidity here.”
‘I love her so much’
Mohammed’s wife is making bread on the stove in the middle of the room. “The Red Cross gives us money so we can buy some basic things and we are grateful for that,” she says. “There isn’t much help out there for us. We need everything. “
The couple’s youngest daughter, Rukaya, sits close to her mother, watching as she tosses the bread from hand to hand. Rukaya is 10 but she’s not in school.
“I love my mum and I used to celebrate with her for her birthday or mothers’ day. I love her so much,” she says.
When I was in Syria I could give her gifts. I brought her flowers and presents. I hope we can go back to before.
Sanliurfa is one of the Turkish provinces experiencing a massive influx of refugees from Syria. In September 2014, over 160,000 people crossed the border, fleeing from Kobane. In this province Arabic is a second language and there are strong cultural and familial bonds for many families in Iraq.
Sara came to Turkey two years ago, when the security conditions in her hometown were very bad. “Many of us saw very bad things happening,” she said. “We are adults but there are many children needing psychological support, they experienced a lot of trauma. They need to be able to express what they feel.” There is a danger, Sara said, that children growing up in the city would lose their connections with Syria; she sees their Arabic skills becoming less important as people attempt to assimilate. People here face the barrier of language. Sara, like many educated Syrians, speaks French and English but Turkish is less common.
Sara was also concerned that many children were not attending schools, and so she began volunteering for different organizations. Volunteering, though, is not without its challenges, not least trying to get the right help to the right people. “For instance, some organizations give clothes but don’t care if they are the right sizes. Or others give us things we do not need.” Being part of the solution, Sara said, is working closely with the local Syrian community; the people who helped her find somewhere to stay when she arrived.
Rather than receiving donations, it would be better for us to be given opportunities to work so we can have our own dignity.
Siba arrived in Urfa two years ago with her family. “When we arrived the first time, we came because things in Syria were not so good,” she said. “But then we had no work and we didn’t know the language. We found difficult to live here. So went back to Deyr-el Zor.”
Soon after, however, things got worse in Syria and they left again. This time they came with a plan: they would attempt to rebuild their lives in Turkey. Learn the language, find work, and stay for the long term. Learning the Language was a priority this time for the children. “I had to help my family, so I took Turkish lessons at the Harran University. After seven months I started working for Vodaphone and then in a hospital as translator,” she said.