Dispatch from the Turkish-Syrian border: ‘Aged 11, he survived Aleppo to be forced into sweatshops’
PUBLISHED04/12/2016 | 02:30
A Syrian refugee child in Nizip 1 outside Gaziantep, Turkey on the Syrian border.
Gaziantep is a prosperous, bustling city. There are smart restaurants, fruit and vegetable stalls groaning with local produce, busy but excellent roads and a well-to-do, middle-class population. Here too you can detect an edge. That feeling common to frontier towns.
It’s December but the daytime temperature rises to 16 degrees; from dusk it plunges to near zero. The region in which Gaziantep in south-eastern Turkey sits is known for its agricultural and industrial output. During our visit, there is an exhibition under way celebrating the local pistachio nut. It is also home to the world’s finest baklava, the honey-soaked pastry.
Four years ago, Aleppo must have looked like this too. Bustling, commercial and comfortable for its two million inhabitants. Now it is a mere shell, pounded for months by Russian jets, Syrian regime artillery and helicopter barrel bombs – filled with explosives, shrapnel, oil and chemicals.
Around 25 people a day are being killed in Aleppo – where this week the Assad regime’s army took its most decisive grip on the city since the outbreak of civil war. Aleppo’s near neighbour, Gaziantep is just 30 miles from Syria. It is now also the centre of one of the biggest geo-political stories of our time.
Syrian refugee children gather for school in the camp they live in Nizip 1 outside Gaziantep, Turkey on the Syrian border. Photo: Mark Condren
Nearly three million of the 7.65 million Syrians who have fled the country’s catastrophic civil war have settled in Turkey, many remain in this border region – and this city in particular. Most of those who have stayed here are the poorest – their better-off compatriots with the means to make it to Germany and the West. In the last two weeks, Turkish President Erdogan has upped the stakes and threatened to tear up a landmark deal to stem the flow of refugees into Europe.
His comments came a day after the European Parliament urged governments to freeze EU accession talks with the administration in Ankara.
The fear is that Erdogan could stop supporting the refugee camps that hold up to 500,000 Syrians, and open the gates for them to flee into Europe.
“You clamoured when 50,000 refugees came to Kapikule and started wondering what would happen if the border gates were opened,” Erdogan said in a speech last week – referring to the Bulgarian border crossing where refugees massed in the summer of 2015.
Stephen Rae with the Dahinin family at the camp. Photo: Mark Condren
“If you go any further, these border gates will be opened. Neither I nor my people will be affected by these empty threats,” he said. “Do not forget the West needs Turkey.”
Relations between the EU and Turkey have cooled considerably since the attempted military coup in July – which has now seen President Erdogan consolidate power, clean out all his rivals at every level of the establishment and muzzle the media.
The president does not like the repeated criticism from European capitals of the purge of tens of thousands of civil servants, army officers, judges and 10,000 police since the failed coup. Similarly, media outlets have been closed and journalists jailed without trial in Turkey.
Here in Gaziantep, the fear of a clamour of refugees that is being felt in Europe and the threats from Ankara ring a little hollow. The Syrians we met in camps around the city and those living in one-room tenements don’t harbour a dream of making it to Oslo or Berlin. For them, day-to-day survival is the number-one priority. After that, they want their children to get an education, and then they want to return home to Syria.
A Syrian refugee child in Nizip 1 camp outside Gaziantep, Turkey on the Syrian border. Photo: Mark Condren
“All they want is to be safe, to get a job. The first thing, however, is safety. They want a place where they feel safe. After that, the adults would like to earn a living, send their children to school and have a place for medical help when needed. Then they can regain their dignity and take care of their own basic needs,” says Philippe Duamelle, Unicef’s representative in Turkey.
But even such fundamental desires remain firmly out of grasp for most.
Time and again you meet Syrian widows who cannot afford to send their sons to school – because the boys are sent to work as the sole breadwinners. It is estimated that there are 850,000 child labourers in Turkey.
The influx of Syrians has added to the numbers of children working for poor wages in textile factories, backstreet garages and warehouses.
Heading for class: A Syrian refugee outside his Unicef-supported school outside Gaziantep
One organisation at the frontline of helping parents find ways to keep their children in education and out of the sweatshops is ASAM (Association for Solidarity with Asylum Seekers and Migrants). It also helps treat the psychological problems that afflict adults and children alike from years of bombardment and dodging snipers.
ASAM’s director, Ebru Saner, introduces me to a young mother-of-four children, aged 12, 11, seven and four, who fled Aleppo after six months under siege. She is waiting to see the organisation’s psychologist to make an appointment for her son.
“We all have been damaged by the war but especially my seven-year-old boy. Since the age of two-and-a-half, he has had problems with wetting the bed and different psychological problems that have affected his speech,” the mother says.
A Syrian refugee child in Nizip 1 camp outside Gaziantep, Turkey on the Syrian border. Pic:Mark Condren
Earlier, the psychologist explained that the four biggest problems they encounter with refugees are depression, trauma, and (with children) fear of loud noises and bed wetting.
The mother, through an interpreter, explains why she is here. “Now we have big problems with him at school. He can be violent, hits his peers and when I ask the teacher, ‘is it because he is Syrian and the other children gang up on him?’, she says, ‘no. No, he has been damaged by the war’.”
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Her husband was incapacitated in a car accident, meaning he can no longer work as a cobbler. Her two eldest boys, aged just 12 and 11, have left school to work in a sewing shop – the family’s only source of income. Their wages are used to pay for a rat-infested two-bedroom flat they share with her sister-in-law. In all, 12 people share the house, including three orphan girls her sister-in-law cares for.
A Syrian refugee man shaves in Nizip 1 outside Gaziantep, Turkey on the Syrian border. Pic:Mark Condren
She, like all the Syrian women I encountered, was dressed smartly, in a long, patterned winter overcoat.
I asked, did she dream of coming to Europe. “No. My husband tried three years ago but we do not want to go, and I am not interested in going. We had an interview in Istanbul. We refused the idea later on.
“I have a lot of relatives who have actually resettled in Europe, in Norway.”
She, like so many others, clings to the hope of getting back across the border to Aleppo.
“My hope is to go back to Syria. We had our own house. We had to pay for electricity and water but that was all.” To her, this week’s drive into Aleppo by the Syrian regime army offers a glimmer of hope that this may actually happen.
Being the major crossroads, Gaziantep has gained a reputation for espionage and nefarious activity. It is said that all the major powers have intelligence assets in the city and that Isis also has its spies.
It was here that Ibrahim El Bakraoui, one of the two brothers responsible for the killing of 32 people in Brussels in March, was arrested by Turkish police as a suspected Isis fighter. They deported him to Holland only when the Belgians said they didn’t think he had terror links. Here too came the three British teenagers, Shamima Begum, Kadiza Sultana and Amira Abase, from London to join Isis and cross the border to become teenage jihadi brides.
In August, 54 people died when a suicide bomber attacked a wedding here, and two Syrian journalists who wrote about Isis have been killed on the streets.
It has been reported that some of the apartment blocks that dot the city are home to people-smuggling gangs and sex-slave trading – where the wives and daughters of Sunni Muslims killed by Isis are sold.
Earlier this year, before the Syrian army advance into Aleppo and the large-scale Russian air strikes, foreign fighters flocked to the city to join Isis ranks. Locals tell the story of the jihadis arriving in Gaziantep in shorts, covering their beards with scarves and having their socks pulled up high – apparently a giveaway sign of Isis membership, as the fanatics are forbidden “lavish” wearing of garments below the ankle.
The steady trek across the border by Islamists has all but stopped as the encirclement of Syria’s biggest city – home to 2 million before the war – is pulled ever tighter and the so-called Caliphate shrinks by the day.
The intrigue that surrounds Gaziantep makes the work of organisations such as Unicef on behalf of the Syrian dispossessed children all the more clear.
Only by giving them schooling will they keep the vulnerable out of the hands of the jihadis – and give the Syrian children some hope of a future.
Children in the refugee camps are freezing this winter. You can help keep a child warm this winter and help fund a teacher. To help click here