Turkish student volunteers are bringing joy to Syrian children, who have been deprived of their childhoods, in the war-torn country's liberated northwestern province of Azaz.
Forty-five volunteers joined the Borderless Festival, organized by the International Refugee Rights Association (UMHD).
They organized fun-filled activities, including theater plays, street shows, workshops and dance performances, as part of the festival that will run through Sept. 21.
Salih Sarı, an Islamic studies student at Istanbul Şehir University, said he has been volunteering at the festival for the second years.
"We are here to bring a
little smile on the faces of these children, to leave them with some unforgettable memories and be part of their happiness," he said.
Despite the long work hours, Sari said the volunteers are highly motivated and energetic. Children at various elementary schools in Syria's northwestern province of Azaz also received school supplies at the end of the festivities.
"Even if we get tired, a child's smile here is enough to start the next day with more energy," said Muhammet Cevher Bülbül, another volunteer from Istanbul.
Ceyda Yıldız, a student of psychology at Istanbul Şehir University, said she joined as a volunteer due to her interest in forced migration and war.
"It was one of my biggest dreams to come here. I wanted to have a different perspective than the ones reflected in the media. I wanted to have my perspective on these children and to get in touch with them," she said.
A young couple also joined the volunteers. İskender Tagiyev said he saw details of the program last year on social media and decided to join with his wife.
"We wanted to make the children happy, we did not know what mental state they were in. We were surprised and upset about how hungry these children were for entertainment," he said.
Sare Köroğlu said she had many distant relatives in Azaz and was curious about her heritage.
"The most impressive things I witnessed during the festival are the children. Even if they get hurt during the games by falling or getting pushed, they continue and you can tell they are longing for a playground like this," she said.
The festival, which aims to reach 10,000 Syrian children, will hold its last event at the Elbeyli refugee camp in southern Turkey's Kilis.
As the conflict in Syria entered its ninth year, children in the war-weary country continue to bear the brunt of the conflict. Many young Syrian children have never known peace and only lived in squalid conditions in refugee camps for most of their lives.
According to UNICEF, some 5.6 million children still need humanitarian assistance in Syria, while 2.6 million remain internally displaced.
Still, while there have been many leaving the country, there have also been some who have returned to Syria. More than 354,000 Syrian refugees have returned to their hometowns that were liberated from terrorist elements by Turkish military operations.
The return of Syrian refugees has been made possible thanks to two Turkish operations: Operation Euphrates Shield and Operation Olive Branch. Turkey launched Operation Euphrates Shield in 2016 to clear provinces west of the Euphrates, such as al-Bab and Jarabulus, from Daesh and PKK-affiliated People's Protection Units (YPG). Operation Olive Branch, on the other hand, was launched in 2018 toward northwestern Afrin province, again to clear the region of terrorist elements.
Following the operations, Turkey has also been involved in efforts to rebuild the towns' infrastructure as well as health and educational institutions. Schools are being renovated and a hospital is being built.
The activities boosted the number of Syrians returning to their homeland from neighboring countries. Turkey has also spent more than $35 billion for the needs of refugees living in tent camps as well as those living outside the camps on their own so far.
The humanitarian aid efforts will continue in 368 centers in northwestern Afrin and Idlib and in 285 centers in the areas cleared through Operation Euphrates Shield.