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Time stands still in Turkey's Elbeyli refugee camp

Residents hang their laundry out in front of their container, Elbeyli refugee camp.
Residents hang their laundry out in front of their container, Elbeyli refugee camp. Anne-Marie Bissada/RFI
Text by: Anne-Marie Bissada
7 min

In the middle of wheat fields and pistachio farms, just a few kilometres from the Turkish-Syrian border you'll find the Elbeyli refugee camp. Or as the Turkish authorities refer to it, 'facility centre'. 

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The calmness of the countryside is a stark contrast to the chaos on the other side of the border, where a civil war, in its fifth year now, has forced thousands to flee, leaving behind their homes, cities and loved ones killed from the fighting.

'Everything is supplied'

Unlike the refugee camps run by the United Nations, Elbeyli and other centres run by the Turkish government provide more facilities and amenities to the residents, but are tightly controlled.

Access by non-residents to the camps is only granted via special authorization by the government.

With a capacity of 25,000 residents, Elbeyli currently houses 23,000. According to those running the camp, the centre is seen more as a permanent set-up rather than a temporary one.

Upon arrival, each family is provided with a container to live in rather than a tent. In each container there is a bathroom/toilet, and bedroom, so a family of four might be alright. Of course, if it is a big family, the conditions are cramped.

The sand-coloured containers are stacked beside each other much like a trailer park, with laundry hung up in front.

It's not like a camp since all amenities are provided, including 24 hour emergency care and hospitals.

In this centre, people get a chip card that issues 85 Turkish lira (26 euros) about every month.

There are two markets in the camp, which means families can buy what they need– items from outside cannot be brought in.

Orhan Cavit Gurbuz, a spokesperson at the centre, say it’s easier for people to live here than to go to the next major town of Gaziantep because "everything is supplied". To live in  town, you have to rent a house, 500 turkish lira minimum. You have to find a job to work. But here little money, but you can survive with this little money."

Inside the Elbeyli refugee camp

The grid system of the containers is organised into districts, which falls under the supervision of a resident, known as a Muktar.

Muktars rule

Each Muktar is elected by the refugees and is also a resident of the camp.

The chief of Muktars at Elbeyli is Tamer Mohamed Abouehg.

Once the mayor of a town in Syria’s Idlib region, and an Arabic teacher, he is now in charge of overseeing the needs of his people in the camp.

I ask him if this system – which provides everything – creates a culture of dependency.

He explains that "of course it's a natural process. When you get used to these kinds of standards, you get lazy. But for those who get out and find jobs, they work. But for those who don't work, they get lazy."

School at the centre is free, with classes in Turkish for children in kindergarten.

As I enter one of the class rooms, the pupils are singing a song in Turkish and then in English.

Eda Shuhmelioglu is one of the kindergarten teachers.

Overcoming trauma

She has been working with the children right from when they arrive to the camps. She says she tries to create an environment of love and positivity to help them open up to learning a new language, and of course, overcome the traumas they may have just lived through.

"It takes six to seven months to learn to speak Turkish. For them to learn a song, it's about two weeks. Now they are at a good level where you can sit and talk to them in Turkish", adds Shuhmelioglu.

After kindergarten level, classes are taught in Turkish or Arabic. But if students continue to learn Turkish, they can get qualifications that will allow them to enter a Turkish university.

Duggu Tasdelen is in charge of one of the schools. She explains that 44 students have already graduated and are now studying at the university enrolled in programmes "varying from health to engineering."

She explains that while at school, "their families remain here, and they come to visit them during holidays." The students are supported through a Turkish government scholarship. Because they have only been around for three years, Tasdelen says “we don't have anyone who has yet graduated."

All the residents have access to medical facilities which include two psychologists and a social worker.

Fikret Gelebi is one of the social worker here. She says although school is free, it cannot be enforced, adding that "the first priority is to encourage them [children] to go to school, but if they don't want to or their families forbid it, they can come to the arts and crafts centre to learn a trade to earn some money. But school is available both in the morning and in the afternoon."

Apart from the education facilities, there are four centres dedicated to arts-and-crafts, including carpet-weaving, painting, and needlework.

In the carpet-weaving room, women are busy working on the looms as they chit chat alongside one another. The atmosphere is lively as they exchange the latest gossip while their young children look on.

It’s there that I notice 14-year-old Zeinab, who’s clutching her little brother Erdogan - named after Turkey’s president.

I ask her why she's not at school today. She says "I am the oldest out of my nine brothers and sisters, so my father will not let me go to school since I have to help out my mother with the family."

Women at the camp can make a little extra cash selling their crafts.

Over in the camp’s art room, there are paintings for sale. This too can help people earn a little money. Some of the pictures seem bright and hopeful, while others show images of death and war.

When I ask Tamer if he thinks Syria has future, the warmth in his face drains and he looks at me straight in the eyes, saying "when I look at Syria now, I see nothing. There is no land, there is nothing there."

While life at Elbeyli and other centres run by the Turkish government provide the amenities to sustain its residents, it does little to give the Syrians hope for the future.

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