Spreading a little happiness in the Turkish border camps

Published: 12 July 2011 10:46 CET

By Petek Akman in Turkey

Over 10,000 Syrians, fleeing domestic unrest, have been living in six ‘tent cities’ near the border for over a month. The camps are run by the Turkish government, while relief supplies and personnel are being supplied by the Turkish Red Crescent Society (TRCS).

Despite the wider political considerations, real life goes on for the families uprooted by the events in their homeland. Over 20 babies have already been born in the camps, and a wedding has taken place: these happy events are made all the more poignant by the longing people have for the homeland; the worries they have for family members left behind.

It's my fourth week in Antakya.  As usual, I start the day with the question: what else we can do for our guests to support them in coping with the trauma they have been living through? My friends in the team are seeking the answer to the same question at our morning meeting.

Every day, we get a better understanding. We revise the requirements determined at the meetings held in the camps. Milk, baby food, items of clothing and hygiene materials; it is really great to be able to meet requests the same day.

After taking care of families’ physical needs, we focus on their psychological conditions. Even though I have taken part in many domestic and foreign disasters with TRCS, and participated in many activities for refugees during my university years, I know that every disaster has its own specific conditions. Each individual is affected differently and has their own way of coping. Every day, we try to organize at least one activity to reach children, adults, and the disabled.

I start the day by organizing painting for the children in Altınözü Tent City, which is home to some  1,400 people. Children draw the places where they imagine living. Mostly, they draw pictures of Syria. The excited way they tell me about their houses moves me. I think myself lucky, since I am near them and can share what they feel.

Then I go to Boynuyoğun Tent City and meet with some of the 50 pregnant women who live here. We talk about the new conditions and their needs while we are drinking our Syrian coffee with them. We inform them about how to cope with stress and hygiene and child care with our team doctor.

When a 20-year-old woman, pregnant with her third child, tells me how she and her family had to leave their possessions in their car at the border, and her concerns and fears about her family and the new baby soon to be born, I can’t help crying.

Sharing experiences

Even if I say that we have understood what our guests feel, in fact, I think we can only understand a little of what they have been through. What we can do is to provide them with a good atmosphere and environment for living; listen to their problems; share their sadness and concerns; and meet their requests, even if it’s just bringing them the dried figs and fruit juice they ask for. We want to do more, as much as we can for them, and then we get stressed too, but it’s a real  comfort to gather with these pregnant women and share a moment of life with them.

Often, it is enough to care for these women even for a short while and help them to return to their normal life. Behaviour and routines normally perceived as trivial gain a new importance in the tent cities.

I move on to visit an old man and his family who have fled their home. Just as they were leaving,  the old man had a stroke. Now he lives in a tent with his family, on a special bed with a fan to keep him cool. His daughter is an artist, so we give her some paints. It’s such a special feeling to see the joy when an artist gets the tools of her trade – she can draw again and that makes me think what a wonderful job I have.

Next it’s off to the two tent cities in Yayladağ. Here we have drama activities for kids, and volleyball too. The older ones write down and share their thoughts and feelings more easily like this. Adolescents share their yearning for their country and concerns about their future. And while listening, I can’t help thinking how unimportant my own worries are.

Bringing people together 

I chat to a young man who has been married for just two months. His wife fled to Turkey while he was working in Lebanon. Since the family of his wife wants their daughter to stay with them, he has to visit his own wife. I am bringing this newly married couple together by talking to the family of the girl. I will never forget how they greet each other and their laughter as they sit and chat like newlyweds do, under a tree. I will always keep the small copper jug the young man has given me as a gift and a sign of his gratitude.

I finish the day with a special activity in Reyhanlı Tent City. Here, like all the other camps, half of the population are children. We have 600 kids, all using oil paints. They dip their hands in every colour and freely draw. In the meantime, their hair and dresses turn into all the colors of the rainbow!

Then, we put up the canvasses on the edges of the tent city. Children examine them and laugh. Their families watch, happy to see the smiles and the new colourful look of the tent city.

When it gets dark, the residents go back to their tents for dinner. We evaluate the day and plan for tomorrow. It’s exciting – I imagine the experiences I will share with the residents of the tent city, all the new stories, the smiles, and the look of hope in their eyes.

Petek Akman is a psychosocial support specialist with the TRCS, and she has been working in the camps for four weeks.

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