After the conflict began and he lost his business, he shuttled between cities in Syria before landing at the Kilis refugee camp in Turkey, where he resides today.
This week, a two-month-long government barrel bomb campaign of Aleppo’s opposition-held areas escalated, resulting in the exodus of thousands of refugees across the Turkish border near Kilis, which aid workers called one of the largest refugee streams since the start of the conflict nearly three years ago.
Areas of Damascus and Deraa were also affected. More than 1 million refugees are currently registered with the U.N. in neighboring Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. Hundreds of thousands more are either unable or unwilling to register and are living undocumented in cities like Kilis, which has seen its population swell from 90,000 to more than 500,000 over the last two years.
For those who have found their way here, home is a precious memory.
Abo Esmael first left Damascus for his hometown in April 2011, thinking it would be safer for his family to stay there with relatives. “When I decided to bring my family to Idlib, I thought that it was a temporary situation and wouldn’t last for a long time,” he says. “I left my house and office as I was thinking that we would go back there in a short time.”
Months passed, and he told his children that they would soon return to the house in Damascus, and that he would take them to the playground and to Qasioun Mountain, the family’s weekend tradition.
A year passed living with his brother’s family, all crowded into one house, hoping the situation would improve. He couldn’t work and had no way to make a living. Unable to afford his family’s expenses, and wanting to shield his children from the encroaching war and tired of crowding his relatives, he moved the family to Kilis.
“I’m in a nightmare,” he says. “Three years ago we were in a four-room house, my wife and I, thinking that our children would get bigger and go on to study at the university. I had never imagined that we would be living in a tent and eating, sleeping and bathing in 15 square meters, with nothing prohibiting people from watching.”
Near Abo Esmael’s tent in the camp is that of Sana’a, her two sons and her daughter. She is in her 30s and from Aleppo.
Sana’a and Jamal, her husband, were living in the city’s Sha’ar neighborhood until August 2012. When battles between the Free Syrian Army and Assad soldiers came to the area, a shell fell on their house partially destroying it – and killing Jamal. Sana’a took her children and fled for Kilis.
When she speaks of her former life, she cries. “I had a happy life before that,” she says. “My husband and I were thinking of bringing our children up and teaching them, and had never thought one of us would suddenly lose the other. I had never thought of being responsible alone of bringing them up alone, and where? In a tent.”
Om Ali, a woman in her 60s, didn’t think she would never return home to Darays, in the Damascus suburbs, after leaving home 20 months ago.
She says she never imagined living with all 13 of her children and grandchildren in one room in Kilis, none of them with a job. They are now living on NGO care packages that they receive at the end of each month.
“My children were planning to send me to Saudi Arabia for [Muslim] rites of pilgrimage this year,” she says. “But our bad circumstances, displacement and poverty, prohibited me from going. Our main interest now is of thinking how to get our main needs for living and a loaf of bread.”
Her fellow refugee Abo Esmael says that every time he sees his house keys in one of his luggage bags, the image in his mind is of the legendary tale of an old Palestinian refugee who had kept her old house keys since 1948. He laughs while imagining that he might stay in a tent till the end of his life.
“I hope not,” he says.