When we met the families in October while* **they were in limbo, sleeping under trees near the Turkish-Syrian border, waiting to be relocated.*
Under the shade of tarps off the side of the highway, a small group of Syrian refugees has adapted to sleeping outside. Children climb trees and explore the short trails that separate their camp from the road above. Mothers cook dinner over campfires and men sleep in the afternoons or take a minibus to Kilis, the nearest town, which has been flooded by Syrians over the last two years. There are Syrian barber shops there, Syrian restaurants. But here, straddling the border and within earshot of the prolonged battle for Azaz, refugees have nothing to do but wait.
“Last month we were in Syria,” says Abed, a young man from Idlib province. “Planes struck us by day, rockets by night. We couldn’t sleep inside our homes.”
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He says he waited as long as he could before leaving Syria: “It was the hardest decision of my life.”
It wasn’t an easy journey. Once they reached the border, he and his family walked several more miles until they finally got through an opening east of the official crossing at Bab al-Salameh. Turkish authorities there have turned a blind eye to people, many without passports, going back and forth from the unofficial rural crossings around Kilis.
Once on Turkish soil, the refugees here hike through an olive orchard and duck under the upturned corner of a chain-link fence where, in a grotto off the road in front of the Öncüpınar border gate, they’re left to fend for themselves. This is where many of Abed’s group had dropped their luggage and set up temporary shelter.
Out there, life is lived out in the open. Men pray outside, between trees. A teenage boy and girl sit on a tree stump, walked away together and come back, talking quietly. Steam from kettles and pots rises up among the lines of families, loaded down with luggage, who appear from out of the olive trees or disappear into them, headed back home.
Across the road from the camp, in the parking lot in front of the border offices, a large white tent is set up for new arrivals. Men play cards and people mingle outside. At one end of the lot two shops have opened, selling water, candy and other sundries.
People say they’ve been staying at the border for one month, two months, 50 days. The Turkish authorities have told them different things: that they’ll be relocated to a camp in two days, or two weeks, or after the weekend. The wait is exasperating.
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Ibrahim, a young father of two who has been living in a tent for a month and a half, remains hopeful. “We came here hoping that Turkey would adopt us,” he says, but only until it was safe to return home. “I wish to go back home, to my country, to my work, and raise my children.”
He’s worried that his kids will get sick living in an unsanitary place, with 65 families packed into the small lot.
One man, who arrived at the camp alone, claims to have survived August’s chemical weapons attack in eastern Ghouta, outside Damascus. He and his family lived in the vicinity of the attack. He was away when it happened, he says, returning late that night. He claims to be the only member of his immediate family (he had five children) to have survived.
Turkish authorities run two dozen Syrian refugee camps across southern Turkey, and there is one at Öncüpınar. With about 15,000 inhabitants, it’s at capacity. The next closest is between Kilis and Gaziantep, an urban center about an hour’s drive north. It is off the side of the highway, across the road from a Renault dealership.
Shortly after our visit, the 65 families living outside and in the large tent in the parking lot were finally moved to a government-run camp near Gaziantep. After several months of hardship, they may have secure shelter for the winter ahead.
Blake Hunsicker is a News Deeply Fellow.