Residents of Bab Al Salama camp on the Syrian–Turkish border talk about the past and present – and wonder about their futures. Report by Patrick Wells
BAB AL SALAMA, Syrian Arab Republic, 23 April 2013 – Last November, Bassam Guan, a 35-year-old father of four, left for work at a freezer plant in his hometown of Marea in the northern part of the Syrian Arab Republic. His family never saw him again.
At Bab Al Salama camp on the Syrian-Turkish border, Raya talks about when her husband was killed and how she feels her children are “going backwards”. Her son Aysa, 11, talks about his life before and after the family fled their home.
That afternoon, the plant was bombed by war planes. Mr. Guan and nine of his colleagues died in the explosion. Many more were wounded.
Six months on, his 11-year-old son Aysa sits in Bab Al Salama refugee camp on the Syrian Arab Republic’s northern border with Turkey. The family lives in a small concrete room.
“Now we don’t smile, after my father [was killed]. We just spend our days walking in the mud, fetching food and water,” he says.
Aysa’s mother Raya shows me a picture of her husband that she has on her mobile phone. He has a kind, open face.
“My children don’t get lots of basic stuff here, like proper schooling and books,” she says. “They are going backwards.”
“I wanted to be a teacher, but now where’s the school to learn, let alone teach?” says Aysa.
The death of her husband means Ms. Guan must also worry about how she’s going to support her children, all of whom are under 13.
“After my husband was killed,” she says, “I was left with four little children. Of course, they can’t have a job, because they are too young. They keep asking me for money for clothes and other needs, and I can’t do anything about it.”
When I try to ask her about the effect her husband’s death has had on her children, her grief boils over, and she weeps bitterly.
In order to generate income, many refugees in the camps have resorted to selling sweets, snacks and necessities such as candles and soap.
Ibrahim Abdel Ghani was an ambulance driver in Aleppo, before war swept through his neighbourhood. Now, he sells falafel from a makeshift stall in the mud. His 12-year-old son Mohammed tries to help by roaming the camp selling small packets of biscuits, mostly with little success.
“We sell biscuits and cookies and try to help our father,” he says. “We aren’t earning much; people just give us tips like one lira.”
As we talk, Mohammed wraps his arms around himself and shivers. He has only a long-sleeved t-shirt to wear, which offers little protection from the wind and rain.
“We need clothes and somebody to fix the bathroom,” he says, “but what we want most urgently is better food.”
Play sessions provide some relief
Samir Belshi, who was an art teacher in Damascus, is now working for an NGO that provides play sessions for children in specially built tents.
“Most of the children have the same mental problems now from the blood and destruction,” he tells me. “If they see a plane, they start trembling and get scared. Whenever they hear an explosion, they say, ‘It’s a scud, they fired scuds at us’. They’ve become afraid of any loud noise. Even the sound of a car.”
Mr. Belshi’s office walls are hung with the children’s artwork. It speaks of extreme violence burned into young minds.
One painting shows a family living in a tent, but the windows are barred, like in a prison cell. “In their sleep, the children have nightmares that they are imprisoned in this camp,” says Mr. Belshi.
“Children are innocent. The children have not done anything wrong. They haven’t destroyed anything or shed any blood. But they are paying the price.”