Walking through the steel turnstiles that form the entrance of the Kilis refugee camp on the Syrian border, it is the children that you notice first. Dozens of children run along the narrow gaps between grey containers that stretch to the horizon. They kick footballs against the metallic perimeter fence and throw marbles on the paths.
They’re the lucky ones. While so many are still trapped inside Syria, the people here have managed to escape to the safety of a well-equipped and modern camp that’s generously subsidised by the Turkish government, a host of NGOs and Irish Aid. But for the children old enough to remember why they fled, the damage has already happened.
Teachers and aid agencies working in the Kilis camp worry about the psychological effect of the war on Syria’s young – a generation that may forever be scarred. Many of the children are withdrawn and quiet, camp volunteers say. Whenever they are encouraged to talk about what is bothering them, the stories they tell are shocking.
There are three schools and a small playground for the children but the war is never far away. Overlooking the sprawling camp is a large hill speckled with small trees. And this imposing mound actually lies across the border in Syria. At night the flash of gunfire streaks across the sky and American bombs echo in the near distance.
According to the UN high commissioner for refugees (UNHCR), about half of the 1 million Syrian refugees currently living in Turkey are children. 73pc of those outside the camps – the overwhelming majority of refugees – don’t go to school. You see them working in cafes and shops, or simply begging on the street. The legal working age is 15 but since refugees from Syria don’t get work permits in Turkey, underage Syrian workers are not being recorded at all.
Syrians have been pouring out of their country in recent months, fleeing an increasingly murky conflict that is pitting scores of armed groups against one another as much as against the government. Hanan, 28, fled her home 40 days ago because of fighting between Syrian rebels and government forces. Her husband remains behind, fighting for the Syrian Opposition army. “We though the revolution would be over quickly like in Egypt but only God knows when it will end,” she says, gazing at the plumes of white smoke rising inside Syria.
As the boom of shelling resounded along Turkey’s border with Syria here on a recent afternoon, Mamoud had nowhere left to run. He had bused and walked more than 100 miles to Kilis, chasing the rumour that refugees would be allowed into a Turkish-run camp. He squatted in a gravel-strewn field, sleeping under plastic sheets hanging from the branch of a cypress tree. A few weeks later he was allowed to enter the camp.
Dry food rations have been typically distributed inside refugee camps during crises in Africa, while registered Syrian refugees are given vouchers or debit cards to buy food at supermarkets. The cost is greater, but the Syrians prefer the freedom of preparing their own meals. The practice also injects money into the host communities — $160 million from the World Food Program has trickled into local stores in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt so far this year.
Governments and humanitarian groups are increasingly working under the assumption that the crisis will be a long-lasting one. “’The fighting still goes on, people are getting displaced and we don’t know how long it’s going to last says Noor, one of the UNHCR workers. “Apart from making sure the humanitarian operations are running, we need to support the host communities and governments too.”
Lorraine Courtney is a freelance journalist. She received funding to travel to Turkey to report of the socioeconomic effects of the Syrian conflict on Turkey and the impact on refugees living in camps. Her article ‘Turkey does its best for the refugees, but it still isn’t home for Syrians‘ was published in the Irish Independent in September 2015.