A photogenic row of pastel-colored buildings line Reyhanli’s main street. Although the Syrian border sits on the edge of this Turkish town, just two short years ago it did not look like Syria at all. Since 2012, the town’s population has more than doubled with Syrian refugees. The parks are filled with Syrian children, the streets with Syrian families and the main street is dotted with distinctly Syrian shops. Arabic signs over fast food shacks and grocers invite the booming Syrian refugee population, and entice the constant stream of Syrian expats like us inside for a taste of home — with a side story of loss.
The Barakat chicken shack is a direct import from the Salah al-Din neighborhood in Aleppo. Salah al-Din was once one of the revolution’s strongholds; it’s now a neighborhood in ruins. The proud owners stand in front of a massive rotating skewer of roasting chicken, slicing off long pieces of meat and tucking them into toasted wraps filled with pickles, french fries and thick garlic sauce. Our large group of Zeitouna mentors order shawerma sandwiches and drinks. They peel off the greasy paper and begin eating right on the street.
A few of us amuse ourselves by posing in front of Syrian cars parked along the sidewalk, each of us finding their city on the license plates: Aleppo, Homs, Damascus. There is no difficulty finding Syrian cars or corresponding cities. No one mentions the significance of this sad fact. We just smile into our iPhones while holding our sandwiches.
I walk down the street to check out another Syrian shop, Falafel al-Nuzha from Hama, but stop next door at a drab, half-empty grocery store. An middle-aged man, thin and gray, sits behind the counter. I ask him where he is from. Homs, he says. I ask him how long he’s been here. A year and a half, he says. We are both silent. Then he continues, “I was shot by a sniper. He aimed here,” he says pointing at his neck, “but he missed and got me here.” He raises the sleeve of his thin cotton shirt to expose two bullet-hole sized scars on his shoulder. “I had to come to Turkey for my operations and never went back. Now, I work here.”
I look around for something to buy, anything, among the half-rotted crates of vegetables and fruits. I end up buying bags of dried goods that he claims to be from Syria. He counts out my change carefully. We say goodbye in the newly customary way for Syrians, “May God return us to the homeland.”
On another day we visit a family from Idleb. The eldest son used to own a full bakery but now works using only a portable electric saj, a half dome-shaped hot surface for making flatbreads. His younger sister, 15-year-old Hiba, kneads and rolls out uniform circles of dough. He expertly tosses and stretches the dough into paper-thin rounds that immediately bubble on the searing surface. He covers some rounds with homemade mixtures of cheese, or zaatar, or red pepper paste. Each bite is perfect.
The makeshift storefront occupies a nook in front of his rented apartment building, marked off with a blue plastic curtain, and there is no sign. The space reeks of illegality. His Turkish landlord has allowed him, for now, to operate here. The saj place seems to be a success story in the making. Maybe this time next year they will have a bakery. We leave with a sense of hopefulness for the fledgling business except for the one fact that brings us here — Hiba does not know how to read. We hope she will persevere through the accelerated literacy program she just started in June at the Salam School for Syrian refugees. Otherwise, she will be condemned, at best, to a future of rolling dough — not by choice but by cruel circumstance.
The dusty back streets that surround the Salam School where we are running our third Zeitouna creative therapy and wellness program for displaced Syrian children, are a world away from the wide, tree-lined main street. The low buildings are drab and green spaces are scarce. The harsh light exposes a harsh neighborhood that hides thousands of impoverished Syrian refugees. These are the ones who were not lucky enough to score a tent in the official Turkish camps and are too poor to start over again after losing everything they owned in Syria. They are urban refugees in a rural town — undocumented, unofficial and practically forgotten.
The school headmistress, Hazar Mahayni, takes Zeitouna Executive Director Kinda Hibrawi and me on a tour of the wretched slums. She slows down to point out families who live in tents among the livestock on a sliver of a garden. Another family crowds in an unfinished concrete building. Syrians rent and are rented any space considered to be shelter.
At every corner we witness a scene that redefines the bare minimum of what shelter means. The line between home and homeless almost disappears here.
She stops the car in front of a small warehouse. A rolling metal door is a quarter open, exposing a little boy sleeping inside. A worn carpet, strewn with little plastic slippers and an overturned plastic chair, sits in front of the door. She says, “Go and take a closer look.” I approach him slowly and take a picture. Suddenly a girl’s round face pops out from the side of the door. Another, older girl appears from the shadows inside. I walk closer, curious to peek inside. A man’s voice behind me asks, “What are you doing?” Mahayni explains who we are and tells him about the school. She tells him it is free of tuition and open to all Syrian children and accepts everyone no matter their level of education. She urges him to send the children. He looks skeptical. I can’t help but think as we drive away, these kids will never go to school again.
We find random Syrian children along the road. We ask each one if they go to school. The answer was a constant no. We urged each one to come back to school. It felt like a hopeless cause. There were just too many children and not enough people gathering them.
A few days later, Mahayni approaches us with excitement in her voice, the warehouse family came to the school that morning and registered all of the children. They would begin school next week. I smile. Being nosy had never been so rewarding. My happiness lasts for a only a few moments. What about the thousands of other Syrian children waiting for someone to find them?
The months and years are passing by as Syrian children are growing up in dark spaces not fit for humans. They roam the dusty slums they now call home and aggressively beg on the streets of Reyhanli. In many ways, their future is as bleak as their homeland.
To be continued
Zeitouna is a creative therapy and physical wellness program for displaced Syrian children run by Karam Foundation. Zeitouna’s third mission took place in Turkey last week. Follow the Zeitouna Diaries on Syria Deeply. www.karamfoundation.org