Building a future from the camps - Turkey's Nizip refugee camp

The Nizip refugee camp in Turkey, near the Syrian border
The Nizip refugee camp in Turkey, near the Syrian border CC/Flick'r/The European Union

As a Syrian refugee in Turkey, you have a choice of where to stay. Some people arrive with nothing and seek shelter in the camps which are run by the Unites Nations or the Turkish government. But other Syrians start to build a kind of new life in Turkey.


Dressed in black jeans, running shoes, a skull ring and a trendy haircut; 24 year old Youssef looks like any other guy his age. But for the time being, both he and his friend, 20 year old Mohamed, are living at the Nizip refugee camp run by Turkish authorities, which sits about 30 kilometres from the Syrian border.

Life in the camp

Youssef describes life at the camp:

"It’s like a prison. We can’t come and go easily. It’s very restrained. We can only leave between the hours of 5 am to 3pm. Once you leave, you can only return between the hours of 6pm to 10pm. If you arrive after 10, you’re not allowed back in."

Both men agreed to meet me in the middle of the day in a café in Gaziantep to talk about their lives since arriving to Turkey.

Youssef has been here for only a year, whereas Mohamed arrived four years ago.

While authorities have done much to raise the standards of refugee camps by providing many amenities, the catch is residents must abide by a tight set of rules, including mobility, which is a hard thing to swallow in your early twenties.

Failure to do so results in punishment.

Youssef explains that "if you are caught, you receive your first warning, so it’s not an immediate deportation. That means they take away your ‘kimlik’: your entrance card. That means you’re stuck in the camp for ten days. Then you get a new card. But if you’re caught again, then you’re deported."

Upon arrival in Turkey, Syrians who have fled the civil war can apply for a spot in any of the United Nations’ run camps or those under Turkish control.

But if they have the means or at least connections, they can try setting up a new life on their own.

In the case of both Youssef and Mohamed, their families arrived to Turkey with very little.

Each one has a different story of how and why he left Syria.

Youssef begins by telling me his:

"After my father was murdered, and I had injured my arm, I got my call for military service for the regime. That’s when I decided I had to leave. I smuggled myself into Lebanon and stayed there for two months. But I was constantly being questioned there, so I came back to Syria and decided to go to Libya where I had some family and could get some medical attention for my hand, and then finally joined my family in Turkey."

Youssef lost most of his hand after a rocket hit a truck convoy he was driving that killed everyone; save for him and the passenger.

He speaks in a very quiet voice, asking me to make sure people don’t notice he is being interviewed. He fears any unsolicited attention could result in him being kicked out of the camp, and separated from his family.

Mohamed on the other hand talks with a booming voice, wearing a worn-in t-shirt that is already beginning to show holes, with sandals that have seen better days. He recounts his tale through jokes as his eyes dance around, laughing at pauses, as he recounts his tale of misfortune:

"When the regime army went into my village, my family decided to come to Turkey so we went to Urfa. Then things got better, so we went back to Syria. My father was the leader of a brigade, but then he was killed during battle. So again we came back to Turkey.

"Then again things were better in my village, so we came back. I had been fighting for the Free Syrian army since I was 16, so every time we’d go back to Syria, I’d fight again for them. Then one time I went with my brother, who was trained as a sniper, but was killed. After that, we all came back to Turkey."

Exhausted and poorly paid

Both men are from the same village in Aleppo province, and work together at a shoe factory run by a Syrian man.

With this job, they live in a dormitory all week, but must check in on Sundays, to ensure their spot at the camp is not given away.

They work 12 hours a day with just 30 minutes for a break, standing on their feet all day trying to keep pace with the machines.

The work is exhausting and pays little.

But prior to this, Mohamed worked in a workshop at the camp. He says it was worse than what they’re doing now, explaining "in a week I’d make 180 liras, which is not enough for anything."

He pokes fun at his situation saying the money earned would never be enough to provide for a wife, "I want to get married, but with that money, I can’t even afford to buy her a t-shirt!"

Neither one has the luxury to look at other options such as schooling, since both men are the de facto heads of their families.

Regardless of the work they’ve found now, they agree that they see no future for themselves in Turkey.

Despite the fear of being caught by Turkish authorities for giving us interviews, both Mohamed and Youssef say they wanted to share their stories with me, to describe what life has been like for them, and to show people that they just want a chance to have a good future.

Mohamed dreams about leaving here, adding "if we were chosen to leave, we’d go right away to Europe. Life there is easier because life here in Turkey is just so hard."

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