Syrian refugees: one woman’s charity becomes a life line for a family

Street in a Gaziantep neighbourhood, Turkey
Street in a Gaziantep neighbourhood, Turkey Anne-Marie Bissada/RFI

While many Syrian refugees who cross into Turkey stay in camps, others set up a life for themselves in the cities. RFI's Anne-Marie Bissada meets two families in the town of Gaziantep whose lives have become connected as they help each other out.


In a working-class neighbourhood of Gaziantep, I enter the apartment of Mustafa (all names have been changed for safety reasons).

His wife, Rasha, sits on the bed with their new born baby girl.

As People come up to her to congratulate her, she smiles back, but her vacant eyes betray her feelings as she goes through the motions of caring for a new born.

Mustafa sits on a chair beside his wife’s bed. As he begins talking he breaks into sobs.
Holding his head in his hands, he tries to hide his tears, explaining “we’re not settled here, we want to go back to Syria.

"It's so humiliating to live here, we don't have work, we don't have money to survive. We live on charity. We used to have a life, we used to have money, we used to have work in our country. We don't care about Assad or anyone, even if we were without clothes and naked, we'd just want to go back to our country, no matter who is ruling, we just want to go back. "

Mustafa's father in law, Amir, sits quietly in the corner.

Back in their village of Suran, over ten family members were killed during an air raid after their apartment collapsed on them.

Amir managed to save his daughter and three grandchildren. .

The others were picked out from the rubble and buried by Amir, Mustafa and other family members.

Escaping to Turkey

Afterwards, they wanted to escape to Homs or Damascus, but their region was already under control by the Islamic State armed group, who blocked them from leaving.

Instead, they sent those who needed medical attention to Raqqa –the current headquarters of the IS.

After 15 days, they began to improve, and that’s when decided to cross over into Turkey.

But still today, Rasha and her youngest niece continue to have health problems because of the shrapnel lodged in their eyes, and Rasha has gone deaf in one ear.

Mustafa crosses over to show me a picture on his phone of three young smiling boys. These are his sons, but only one survived the bombing.

In a flash of angry frustration, Mustafa’s voice gets loud as he laments on the current state of his home country:

“They're all savages back in Syria. They're fighting each other and we, the Syrians, are being destroyed. The blood of my children, her brother, her sisters, everyone is just being killed for no reason. We are not part of anything. The brigades and the regime, and the Russians and the Americans are fighting and we're being killed for no reason.”

But after fleeing Syria, Mustafa says their first few weeks here in Gaziantep were difficult

"We didn't have any relatives in Gaziantep, but we knew one person here that we had met back in Raqqa, so we stayed with her for a few days until we managed to get an apartment."

The family opted to stay in an apartment rather than a camp, since they had some money saved, although Mustafa says they are now entirely dependent on donations.

And it's been through the care of people like Om Mohamed, a Syrian woman, who lives around the corner from them, that they have been able to continue living here.

They met Om Mohamed soon after moving into their apartment, as Mustafa explains “by chance we ran into Om Mohamed one day on the streets, who asked about our situation. So we told her we're Syrian and we have just arrived. And at that moment she began helping us, as she does through the charities she works for."

Back at Om Mohamed's home, she can't sit still for more than a few seconds.

At one point, she comes back into the living room with a tray of stuffed cookies that she made herself, while clutching her grandchild in her arms.

It's these cookies; along with her other culinary delights that have allowed her to provide for her family and to keep helping at the charities which look after the Syrian refugees in the city.

Cool reception

Her living room is sparsely furnished, but she has what she needs. When I ask her to describe her life before coming to Gaziantep, she lights up and says “back in Aleppo, I used to be like an Arab princess. I didn't work out of the house. My only job was to cook for my children, take care of my house and spend time with my friends going out. My husband was the boss of a factory, so I led a very comfortable life."

Once arriving in Gaziantep, she and her husband and other family members, pooled their money together to get this apartment. But with no work, the money quickly dried up. And things weren’t any easier with often cool reception offered by the Turks. Om Mohamed describes their treatment:

"In general they don't like us Syrians. They think we brought along a culture of no discipline which has corrupted their society. So in general they were not really good. But some were good, and after I ran out of money, some of them supported us with blankets and carpets."

After wondering what she would do make ends meet, Om Mohamed had an idea for work.

While sitting in the park one day with her sister-in-law, she noticed a rather well-to-do woman, who also appeared to be Syrian. She approached her and asked if she was Syrian, and if so, would she be interested in having someone come over to her house to do some cleaning and cooking.

The woman agreed and soon both Om Mohamed and her sister-in-law were working for different Syrian households in Gaziantep.

Om Mohamed would also cook for her clients’ dinner parties. It was there that she got to know more people who ultimately developed a taste for her food. And in due time, people began asking her to cater certain functions and parties.

Because her husband has suffered medical problems since coming to Turkey, Om Mohamed is now the sole bread winner. But she says she makes enough now to survive and donates the rest to those who need it.

When asked if she would return to her life as a princess back in Syria, she smiles and without missing a beat says "I'm going to open up a restaurant. I will not waste the efforts I've put into my time here in Turkey. I'll put that effort back into my country. I don't want to waste the time I've spent in Turkey."

It’s through the generosity and determination of people like Om Mohamed who continue to give back to her community in exile that she has been able to help other families settle into some semblance of a normal life.


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