I arrived in Rehanly, a small Turkish town along the Turkish/Syrian border, a few days before the rest of the team to ensure everything including logistics, accommodation and supplies were in place before the start of our activities with Syrian refugees.
This was our first trip to Rehanly as part of the Watanili Project. A big part of our mission was to film a short documentary to give the world a glimpse into the refugee crisis from a different perspective, one that does not portray them as victims but rather heroes who have faced all forms of oppression and are yet standing strong in the face of all the hardship. We wanted to highlight the humanitarian aspect of the tragedy through their eyes. Another part was to run art workshops with the kids, which included music, painting, drawing, reflective activities, tug of war and other creative games alongside photography.
As I got into the cab, I could not help but feel a great deal of nostalgia. Perhaps it was the close proximity to the border or the driver pointing, with a slight smirk, at the mountains: “This is Syria. Look!” “Yes, I know,” I reply. It is beautiful, feeling a natural cringe in my stomach. I wondered, perhaps the most common thought that occurs to every Syrian driving across Hatay: how many Syrians today like myself cannot go back and are only allowed to glance at their country from afar, through a car window?
Things were relatively easy to handle as I reached Rehanly. Thankfully, Walid, a Syrian man and a dear friend, who has been living in Rehanly for the past year, was there to help me wander the streets from a Turkish shop to another Syrian one to get all the supplies that we need.
I noticed many Syrians, strolling around, all refugees, from different cities, different accents, from Aleppo to Hama; the number was expectedly high, given the towns’ proximity to the border.
Some were working in small Shawerma shops, and others were occupying street corners, selling anything that they could to provide for their families.
There was an obvious disparity between the refugees. Some seemed to have settled down and were casually rebuilding their lives, and others were struggling to make a living, barely finding jobs and living in truly terrible, partially finished shelters. It was these people that I wanted to reach.
The next day, Walid and I were prepared and excited, waiting for the rest of the team to land and join us on our mission to create some positive vibes and install a little hope among all those in despair.
As everyone arrived, we gathered in a small room and started discussing the work schedule, the filming process and the kid’s activities. Though we had planned everything already, it was not a bad idea to do some last-minute brainstorming and think of new ways to bring about a sense of joy. What united us all was our dedication to making their lives a little happier, even for a little while, and distance them while we can from their unsettling day-to day reality.
The team included 10 volunteers, Syrians and non-Syrians, some of whom have never been to Syria or spoke no Arabic but were politically conscious about the humanitarian tragedy.
The next morning, we arranged a bus and passed by the families to ask them if we could take their children for a couple of hours to run some art workshops and fun games.
We went to visit the less privileged refugee families, the ones who were barely receiving any form of aid from international donors, whose kids have not been to school for some time as a result of the crisis. It was a heart-wrenching encounter that I will not forget.
I remember Safiyeh, a 37-year-old women from Idleb. She looked at me, suspiciously, not grasping why exactly I was there:
“Why did you come here?” “To show the little ones a good time.” “Hmm. And then what?” “We will try to help further, but for now all we can do is some fun activities with the kids, away from the camp.” “Ok, you can take them. I will tell them to get ready.”
Safiyeh was openly suspicious at the beginning and would not share her story with us. After a few days, we became friends. She told us she had a bad experience with international agencies and donors. They would photograph the kids and leave without any sign of return or acknowledgement.
I think what Safiyeh appreciated was that we did not give her empty promises. We told her that our mission is to raise awareness about the millions of refugees scattered across Turkey and living in such poor conditions in the hopes of attracting people to help more in any way they can.
A Turkish man, who spoke a little bit of Arabic, saw us speaking to another Syrian family. He thought we were giving them money and started ranting about how they should go back to their country where they can receive better forms of aid instead of staying in Turkey and taking his “resources.”
It was heartbreaking to witness that.
The second day, we passed by other shelters of Syrian refugee families. Most of the parents we visited seemed to be overwhelmed: their kids have not been to school for some time, they spend their days hopping from one precarious job to another, from working in the cotton fields to selling shawerma sandwiches, and did not seem to know what the solution for the crisis is: whether to adapt to a completely new life or to wait in hope that the day will come when they will be able to go back to their hometowns.
Another encounter was with a defected soldier who had joined the ranks of the Free Syrian Army right at the beginning when the protests were peaceful and the thought of the fall of the regime was unquestionable. We asked him to tell us about his journey, how and when he fled Syria, and perhaps the most disturbing question: “Do you think the revolution died?” His answer came after a long sigh: “The revolution is in our hearts; we still want everything that we took to the streets for; we still want to live in dignity, we still want to be able to say no to injustice. And I still believe that justice will prevail; perhaps not in my lifetime but I hope that my children will see better days.”
As disheartening as it was to hear these words, there was something beautifully comforting about them.
—This article is part of Watanili, a grassroots initiative, founded in May 2014, dedicated for social and political change in Syria. Initially, the idea was to shed light on the civilian aspect of the Syrian uprising; stories and issues that were not necessarily being covered by the mainstream media. Today, Watanili aims to focus on sustainable projects from educational initiatives to recreational activities for internally and externally displaced Syrians alongside various campaigns and films to continue delivering one message for a free Syria based on democracy, rule of law, freedom and social justice.