Why would we want to leave? It is safe and clean here and there is food to eat – refugees tell me one after the other when I ask them if they want to leave Turkey and try their luck in Europe. They are right: the container camp at the Syrian border could not be better. It lacks only one thing: a future for them and their children.
I visited the Nizip-2 container camp in Turkey in October, 2015 as part of a group of Hungarian journalists. Nizip-2 is a refugee camp near Gaziantep, on the Syrian border. It is one of the ‘nice’ camps where roads are paved and clean, you can shop in a grocery store, send kids to school, go to a mosque, use the laundry room, the library, the computer room or have a free haircut provided by the Turkish state. It is called the ‘perfect’ refugee camp by the local and the international media as well.
There are 900 containers in Nizip-2 which houses about 5000 Syrian refugees. Since the start of the civil war in Syria more than four million people left the country; right now more than 2,7 million of them are in Turkey. Last fall the nine container camps and the sixteen tent ‘cities’ were able to accommodate 260 thousand of them. The rest are living in Turkish cities – there are a few where Syrians are already a majority.
People we talked to always said the same: the camp is perfect. It is safe and they have everything. Except for one thing: a future.
There are people who arrived just a few months before our visit, but there are many others who left their homes years ago. I asked a few teenage girls (refusing to be photographed but happy to talk) what they wanted to do when they grew up. 17-year-old Gufran said she wanted to be a lawyer like his father. But only when they go back to Syria. Because her father, a successful lawyer, has been idling in the camp for years now, not being able to practice his profession. He is sitting around, smoking and drinking tea with the village elders.
Girls have the opportunity to train as hairdressers in the hair salon of the camp – and many of them use the opportunity. But those I talked to told me that this is far from anything they dream of. They want to be home in Syria and become doctors, lawyers or teachers.
The camp is run by AFAD, the Disaster and Emergency Management Authority of Turkey. They do not allow UNHCR or any other NGO to run the camps. They asked them for best practices and then built the camps and run them on their own terms. They say who can come in, who can sell food and they appoint teachers and doctors. However, they give some autonomy to the people living in the camp: they can elect district ‘leaders’ who need to make sure that order is maintained.
In every classroom there is one Syrian and one Turkish teacher – the former are there to be able to understand the kids and the latter are trained professionals paid by the Turkish state. All kids have the opportunity to follow the Syrian curriculum and learn from Syrian textbooks. However, some parents are starting to wonder whether the Turkish curriculum and language would be more useful for their kids – they are no longer sure that they will be able to go back to Syria.
Kids can learn from Turkish textbooks and graduate from highs school in Nizip-2. By last fall, six of them were already studying at Turkish universities, outside of the camp. Education is not a problem for those living in refugee camps but for those outside. More than two million Syrian refugees live in Turkey, outside the camps, and there are not enough classrooms and Syrian-speaking teachers for them. There might be a whole generation growing up without the proper education and language skills. This will be a huge problem for either Syria or Turkey in the next decades – depending on whether they can go home or not.
In Nizip-2 there is a library where we find and afternoon class for kids who fell behind with their studies because of the civil war. A Syrian teacher is reading with them – her name is Salva Jussef and she fled Aleppo when Asad’s army was approaching. She asks the children what they remember about Syria and they start recalling images of war and destruction.
They talk about having their schools bombed, hiding under their desks and seeing their teachers dead. One boy remembers soldiers coming to the school, sending everyone home and putting guns on the roof. Another remembers bombs falling from the sky and hitting the school next door. He tried to help but they were unable to save anyone.
I ask a few women if they have though of leaving the camp and starting a new life in Europe. Salva Jussef sais she does not want to go and that she is hoping that her sons will not go, either, because they would ‘lose their souls’ in Europe.
Khadija Hassan, 41, is living in a container with her husband and six children. They have a TV, a satellite dish, an air conditioner and she says she is happy. They fled Asad’s regime three years ago and she says she does not wish for more. She says she does not want to leave, why would she and her family ask for trouble when they are safe and they have food to eat every day?
But many refugees are realizing right now that most probably they will never be able to go back to Syria and have to start a new life. And Europe gives them a much better opportunity to do that, that is why so many of them (last year more than a million) are risking their lives trying to get there. And with that, setting off a chain of events that pushed Europe into a crisis it has not seen for decades.