Syrian camp takes on the trappings of permanence, including overcrowded classrooms for school-aged children
Erin Banco is a freelance journalist based in New York and a candidate for a master's degree in public administration at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs. Follow her on Twitter @ErinBanco.
Al-Salama, Syria -- The windshield of the abandoned blue truck is smashed in its center. The tires lie flattened on the sand and one door hangs sideways from its hinge. In the front seat are three boys pretending to drive the truck. Each are smiling and waving through the cracked glass.
The truck, worn and broken, looks like it has been in one place for months. It sits in the center of a camp that has grown up around it where more than 13,500 Syrians now live. The Bab al-Salam camp is sprawling, and officials inside say it is continuing to grow. But despite the increasing number of internally displaced people in the camp, it seems all but forgotten.
The camp sits at the Free Syrian Army (FSA) controlled border crossing. In the last year the opposition group has developed its operations at the crossing by setting up an official passport office and a press center. They have hung official welcome signs that read “Free Syria."
But 50 feet away from this development live the thousands of Syrians the FSA claims to be fighting for. Cross the FSA passport stamping station, take ten strides, turn left, and one will turn directly into the Bab al-Salam camp. The FSA claims to be fighting to take down President Bashar al-Assad so the Syrian people can be free. But somehow that fight gets lost in translation at the border. FSA members hardly even notice the camp is there, and the people inside the camp say they feel no freedom at all.
The camp is a mishmash of white canvas tents, some, but not all, marked with UNHCR logos. The camp is confusing both for the Syrians who live there and the few aid workers who are there to provide what little service they can. It is not an official refugee camp, but rather an internally--displaced persons camp. It is neither completely in the war zone, nor is it under the safe protection of the Turkish government. It is simply in a no-man's land, and there is no one organization that coordinates resources and operations inside the camp.
One woman from Maraa, Syria said she has been living in the camps for five months with her three children and husband. “Our houses fell down to the ground. There is nothing left,” she said.
Her tent, set at the beginning of the plot, looked as though the family was not planning to leave any time soon. It was decorated as a home in Syria would be. Pots and pans hung from strings on the roof of the tent. Rugs and pillows lined the floor where she sat cleaning dishes in a water pot. Plastic bottles used for water were shoved into a crate. Like many other families in the camp, this one had made a makeshift fire pit out of a cardboard box and sticks to make food.
There are four tents that function as schools in the camp, but the children said they are only learning the Koran and some English. One boy from the outskirts of Aleppo attended the morning session for school. He had practiced his English, flashing his notebook filled with different phrases. Good morning. Good afternoon. Play more. Love this.
There are two sessions of schooling a day—one in the afternoon and one in the evening. But each tent only holds a few dozen children. Sometimes there is not enough space for each child to attend class. One father said his children did not go to school in the camp because it was “always really crowded.”
Even without school every day, the Syrians living in the camp try to normalize their days the best they can. Men and women have set up clothing and food shops out of tents. There is even a barber shop and an ice cream stand.
Turkey has been a safe haven for more than 250,000 refugees since the beginning of the war. But the Reyhanli bombings May 16 changed the dynamic for the refugees living in Turkey, forcing many to transfer to other camps. As the tensions in Turkey continue to grow, more Syrians may make the decision to set up tents in camps like the one in al-Salama.
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