Officially there are 2,131,493 Syrian refugees in Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, Jordan and Egypt, according to the U.N. This number is wrong. The U.N.’s figures only include displaced people registered with the world body’s refugee agency. The real number of Syrians forced from their homes and into neighboring countries is probably much, much higher. Many cross the border illegally without proper documentation. Others are unable to find space in the overcrowded camps where they would be officially counted. Most of the forgotten refugees come to places such as Turkey’s Reyhanlı border town with only what they can carry.
Neglected by aid groups, the media and even the Syrian opposition, these displaced people are impoverished, hungry and desperate. And as winter falls, they will soon be cold. Real cold. I visited some of these refugee families in a complex of warehouses and unfinished buildings on Reyhanlı’s outskirts where refugee families squat with permission of the buildings’ owners — but with essentially no other support.
On a dusty road outside Reyhanlı there’s this unassuming house — an unfinished concrete structure, really — occupied by five Syrian families totaling 32 people, all of them forced to flee Bashar Al Assad’s campaign of indiscriminate bombing.
Four of the five families belong to the Sikeny clan from Ashrafieh in northern Aleppo. Hamed, the father of these children, is currently unable to work. His brother Ahmed is in a hospital in Antakya, Turkey, suffering from abdominal cancer.
The five families barely have enough food. Needless to say there’s no money for proper windows, doors and insulation in their unfinished shelter. With the looming threat of a harsh Turkish winter, the residents have bricked over the window openings, hoping to keep out the bitter cold.
Some of the small rooms are reserved for barely adequate bathroom facilities that also double as cooking spaces with small propane stoves. Sanitation is a low priority when food and water are so hard to come by.
The view of Reyhanlı features newly built homes and apartments for the more affluent. The native Turks, especially, have benefited financially from the massive influx of Syrians of all economic backgrounds.
These families are fortunate enough to have mattresses for each individual. In other refugee homes, however, families have only the bare concrete floor to lie on.
Despite the property owner generously allowing these desperate families to live in his building, he insists on keeping pigeons. The birds represent yet another sanitation challenge for the five families.
Maleck Al Wasel presides over the fifth family living on the top floor. Once a blue-collar farm worker from Hama — then fully capable of supporting his growing family — he was compelled to leave his home and his way of life when Assad’s air force bombed his house and burned his fields.
The few unofficial schools for Syrian refugee children in Reyhanlı are underfunded and overcrowded. Aspiring students waiting to get in number in the thousands. Maleck’s children have little else to do other than watch television and play in the dusty fields surrounding the house.
Despite such poverty, Maleck still insists on entertaining guests. His wife even pulled out nice serving pieces that remarkably survived the exodus from Syria. Over coffee, Maleck expressed his belief that people of all faiths and cultures are the same, tied together by a common humanity. He also described a very American sentiment: the right of personal self-determination. He asked not for charity, but for the opportunity to work.
There is little work available for the men. The scraps of aid that actually make it to Syrian refugees is concentrated in the higher-profile camps. Conditions are desperate in the camps, but they are worse for the forgotten refugees. Maleck lamented the dearth of recognition from international aid groups — and the world, even. But his greatest source of frustration is the Syrian National Council, the rebel government-in-waiting that he said has ignored the thousands of forgotten refugees of Reyhanlı.
On another dusty street, a pair of families led by the patriarch Hussein Ali Al Qassim live in a storage space under Turkish apartments. Before the war, the families worked an olive farm in Maarrat al-Nu’man. They were prosperous enough to own two houses. Strategically positioned on the highway between Damascus and Aleppo, the town became the front line of the war. Al Qassim’s fields were burned and his farm destroyed.
For six months Al Qassim’s families attempted to wait out the battle. When hope ran out, they made their way to Reyhanlı with little more than the clothes they could carry and a few other essentials.
In an attempt to create something resembling private areas, ropes are strung across the spaces between columns for hanging rugs and clothes. A rudimentary bathroom facility in the corner can hardly meet the needs of the two families, but they’re lucky to have plumbing.
Estimates put the number of forgotten Syrian refugee families in Reyhanlı at around 200, but the actual total is probably higher. They occupy the vacant unfinished spaces of the city, usually surrounded by tolerant Turks. They have been forgotten by the world, but living in the shadow of the Syrian mountains, they have not forgotten their homes.
A presentation worth to view: UNHCR, “The challenge of education“, The Future of Syria – Refugee children in crisis, November 2013.