Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Reporting Syrian Refugees in Turkey
Rediscovering humanity in a Syrian refugee camp
(NEAR ADANA, TURKEY)--As we took off our shoes off to enter Sevsan’s living room, it would have been easy to think  we were in an average home somewhere in the Arab world.

Sevsan and kids
Sevsan, a pretty, 30ish housewife adored with a colorful scarf covering her hair, smiled and offered us a comfortable seat on one of the cushions lining the walls. Her house is small—about 12’ by 18’—and spotlessly clean. Artwork by three of her children is stuck randomly on the walls. Her fourth child, a beautiful, radiantly-grinning four month old girl, was passed to one of the visitors who beamed almost as brightly as the child.

In the background, on low, is a regional TV channel, captured by Sevsan and most of her neighbors using a satellite dish. Sevsan invited us to take pictures of her home. As we chatted, three neighborhood toddlers quietly slipped into the room, sitting close but not too close to the visitors. Games of peek-a-boo ensued, as did multiple rounds of “make a silly face, get your picture taken, get shown your picture, and snicker uncontrollably.” Of course, I did my fair s
hare of the snickering.

The conversational topic favored by host and guests was one that avoided the elephant in the room—war, violence, lost loved ones, displacement, and homesickness. Instead, we talked about children. I noted that Sevsan’s  four month old seems especially alert and aware of her surroundings, and that the girl is undoubtedly very intelligent. Sevsan, through a translator, agreed, adding that all her children are very smart. She then asked me about my son, and I told her about his kind spirit. Sevsan grinned broadly, and in a lower and very  earnest tone of voice, said she hopes God blesses my son.

I was stricken almost breathless by Sevsan’s comment. Her she is, living with 10,000 others in a “guest accommodation” (what the Turks euphemistically call a refugee camp), having endured God-knows what to get here—here she is worried about my son.

I thanked her, and, stumbling to find the right words, offered the same blessings for her children.
Sevsan’s tent is one of 2,142 in this enormous, 437,000 square kilometer, two-year-old  complex about 10km from Adana. The camp includes schools for all ages, all housed in Quonset huts. Primary students attend co-ed classes, while older students are segregated by gender . There are 3,268 total students learning in both Turkish and Arabic. 

Amanisaouf in her preschool/kindergarten
One of my favorite stops at the camp was the preschool/kindergarten, where about two dozen four and five year olds greeted our arrival with enthusiastic, deafening glee. Teacher Amanisatouf, turning occasionally to cast some stern glares to her charges, said that when she first came to the camp two years ago, the students were constantly afraid, angry, and nervous. Now, s  This healing was illustrated in a story I heard twice. When kids first arrive in the camp, they cry, cower, and sometime hide when they see an airplane, which, coming from Syria, they associate with bombs, fire, and death. However, after they’ve been here in Turkey for a few months, they don’t even notice the airplanes. She said, the kids are “too happy.” Even though these youngsters seem to be resilient and well-adjusted, Amanisatouf said they  still long to return home to Syria.

Aside from dozens of education-related tents, this sprawling facility also includes a clinic, fire station, and a modern grocery store. We walked to the store by veering around a noisy soccer match (on a regulation-sized field). The store was well stocked with canned food, produce, and dry goods—indistinguishable from a grocery store in Adana, we were told. “Guests” make purchases here using a monthly allowance from the Turkish government  or by using money from odd, low-paying jobs many of the men work outside of camp.
 
The camp director said this facility, Adana Saricam Konaklami, is a “small and peaceful city” run by the Turkish government. UN representatives come at least once a week to check up on things, the director noted as he passed out sheets of statistics about this place. One compelling statistic—Sevsan’s genius baby daughter is one of 2,280 infants born in this place.

Down the street from Sevsan’s tent, we encountered a group of a half-dozen Syrians lounging in green plastic chairs. They waved us over, and offered up their seats. They also offered tea, but we politely declined. The matriarch of the group, wearing a colorful head scarf similar to Sevsan’s, told us that they had lived in the camp almost two years, and that her family, including her seven children, originally came from Hama, Syria. She said her two daughters live in another Turkish camp, and added that reuniting the family, while wonderful, would be problematic at best. She said that they try to stay in touch with relatives in Syria by phone after midnight when the rates are lower. The woman went on to describe their hopeless economic situation. Her smile was big, she was quick to laugh, but the sadness in her voice belied her happy fa├žade.

I never asked her name or sought permission to take pictures, either. I realize that this isn’t exactly standard journalistic practice. However, asking these things in this instance just seemed unnatural and intrusive. 

About a dozen of us toured Adana’s “guest accommodation” as part of a peace journalism workshop here that was sponsored by the US State Department, Istanbul University, and the Center for Global Peace Journalism at Park University. The workshop centered on responsible reporting about refugees. I encouraged my seminar participants, journalists and students, to look for “counter-narrative” stories that debunk the largely negative stereotypes of refugees in the media.  I was pleased with what the participants came up with—stories, for example, about the difficulty of daily life here, about having a baby in the camp, about young adults who learn Turkish and thus are able to go on to a university, and about the psychological trauma of children.

As good as these ideas are, for me the best story is still about Sevsan, who was able to look past the tragedies in her own life and offer up this lesson about humanity: that no matter one’s own circumstances, we can always find a little kindness and concern for the well-being of another. 

--For a complete photo album from the camp, click here.

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