A seemingly curious 12-year-old girl approached me and asked about my identity and what I was doing near her house in Arabic. “Can you take a picture of me? My name is Betul,” she said.
I was surprised to learn that we share the same name as I wasn't aware that "Betul" was a name given in Syria, though it is Arabic in origin. Betul and I met in Idlib in the war-torn country's northwest on my visit to report on the launch of a new briquette housing complex by the Turkish Red Crescent.
It was not my first time in Idlib or Syria yet the children's enthusiasm to speak to strangers with smiles wider than mine never ceases to amaze me. A place where holding on to hope is difficult even for visitors and journalists like us, let alone the inhabitants.
Betul is one of three protagonists in this story, a story similar to that of almost every Syrian child, left without a mother, a father or both, lacking shelter and access to education. Betul thankfully still has her mother, who she lives with in the town of Sarmada, some 6 kilometers (3.7 miles) from the Turkish border. Her mother now works in the fields in the absence of Betul's father, who is said to have died during the war.
Betul says she helps her mother in the field, despite being at an age where she should be in school rather than contributing to the livelihood of her family. Returning to education seems like a more unattainable goal for the country's children by the day without concrete assistance from the international community.
On Saturday, the Turkish Red Crescent delivered nearly 750 briquette houses out of a total of 1,300 to be built in the Mashhad Ruhin neighborhood of Sarmada for displaced Syrians. A ceremony was held with the participation of the humanitarian organization’s head Kerem Kınık, along with high-level officials and volunteers from the organization, as well as donators and officials belonging to associations that helped in the collaboration.
Kınık noted during the ceremony that the remaining 540 will be delivered to their owners within 15 days, and approximately 7,000 Syrians will reside in the newly built houses. “Those children who reside in these houses and hold on to life, I believe, will shape the future of Syria,” he said.
The new briquette housing complex, a form of shelter favored by Turkey as it provides more stability than tent cities, particularly during the winter months, features a 400-square-meter (4,305-square-feet) health care center, a bakery, a market area and a children's playground. The foundation has been laid for a local mosque, as well.
The locals informed me that they applied for housing through the immigration authorities and then awaited their turn. The process prioritizes those in urgent need, which is determined by authorities based on several criteria, but the ultimate goal is to have as many families as possible settled in the briquette homes, which are continuously being erected by both the Turkish Red Crescent and other humanitarian organizations based in Turkey.
The campaign to help the displaced in Idlib was launched by Turkey's Disaster and Emergency Management Authority (AFAD) in early 2020 by building housing in the area. They aim to build more than 50,000 houses in Idlib by June this year.
The Turkish Red Crescent, so far, has sent a total of 56,000 trucks loaded with humanitarian aid to neighboring Syria and distributed approximately 128,000 tents and forms of accommodation, 720 million units of food boxes, 30 million units of hygiene equipment, 1.5 million pieces of stationery equipment and 65 million items clothing and blankets.
Each year, Turkey delivers 100,000 tons of flour to those in need in Syria via the Red Crescent and AFAD, apart from the aid provided by private humanitarian agencies. Turkey, through its state-owned associations and foundations, has also established a solid infrastructure to provide permanent drinkable water and some 38 million tons of drinkable water has been provided to the inhabitants of Idlib to date, Kınık said during Saturday’s ceremony. The humanitarian agency has eight hospitals and 40 medical centers it operates in collaboration with Turkey’s Health Ministry, employing 3,000 health personnel. Apart from Turkey’s cross-border aid that reaches millions, the country has been providing protection to 3.6 million Syrians for the last 10 years within its own territories.
The second protagonist of our story arrived to the area just a week earlier.
A Syrian mother of three whose family has been without a permanent residence for almost nine years.
The mother, who did not disclose her name, invited us to her new home while quickly covering her head, before letting our cameras inside.
She explained that they first moved to a tent city around the Bab al-Hawa border crossing near the Turkish border from Ma'arrat al-Nu'man in northwestern Syria, some 33 kilometers south of Idlib – the last province still under the control of Syrian opposition groups. After living in Bab al-Hawa and Sarmada for some two and a half years in tents, the conflicts and lack of opportunities forced them to move again, and the family relocated around the nearby region for five years before finally settling in their recently-delivered briquette house.
The father explained that he worked as a porter while living near the border crossing, loading and unloading the trucks passing by. When asked about how he plans to earn a living, he said he used to paint houses before the civil war erupted and that he is “now ready to do anything, anything at all,” as he “does not want to rely on aids just to eat and drink,” but wants to earn for his family.
As we continued our conversation inside their home, they explained that two of their children attend a local school in Mashhad Ruhin at the moment where they are provided basic education.
The mother said she used to sew clothes and would like to do so again but she does not have a sewing machine.
No particular reason makes her the protagonist of the story, yet there is every reason to tell her story. She represents many Syrian women who have struggled to find shelter for their families. Others have been left widows by the war, some have been put through unspeakable torture and others have left the country seeking safety abroad.
Having fled their homes so many times over the course of the 10-year-old war, many Syrians found safety in Idlib, their last stop, before the Russian-backed regime forces began launching relentless airstrikes in a bid to capture the last remaining opposition-held areas.
The population of Idlib swelled from 1.5 million before the war to 3.75 million. Many residents lived in tents prone to flooding in rain and freezing temperatures while being the final targets of the brutal regime and its allies' attacks. Since December 2019, almost a million people have fled the Assad regime and Russia's offensive on Idlib with many seeking refuge in overcrowded tent camps near the Turkish border.
In March 2020, a truce was brokered between Turkey and Russia in Idlib province as a result of Turkey’s Operation Spring Shield, which was launched in retaliation to a regime attack targeting Turkish soldiers.
Although some of the displaced have returned to their homes in areas following the truce, the regime has since violated the cease-fire many times and according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR), at least 75 attacks have been recorded since then.
Having moved due to frequent attacks and a lack of basic needs, the Haji Naem family is also among those who settled in Idlib on Saturday, having come to the area with a small pickup truck loaded with the bare essentials. Saria Haji Naem, who lost her husband, said she was living with her seven children before an airstrike forced them to leave their house and find shelter in a tent camp in Afrin. Her brother, who has five children has settled in a briquette house nearby and is forced to earn enough to support both families, despite it being almost impossible to earn enough to support just one given the lack of jobs in the region.
Saria’s oldest daughter left school in eighth grade due to the war and has been unable to continue her education and pursue her dream of becoming a doctor.
When asked why she wants to become a doctor, the daughter, who spoke to us while her mother was receiving the key to their new home, said that it was her childhood dream to help people but she doesn't know when she will be able to return to school.
“I don’t know, I really don’t know,” she said, with apparent disappointment trilling her voice.
Emine Taş, a Turkish mother of two is the third protagonist of the story, the volunteer. However, she is not the only protagonist of the Syrian cause. There are hundreds of volunteers from around the world, who came together due to the daily suffering of the displaced citizens of the once-prosperous Mediterranean country. Taş, along with four other female volunteers has established a foundation that now reaches millions across Syria, Yemen or Palestine.
With the motto "happy children, happy world," five mothers hailing from Turkey, Switzerland, Albania and Bosnia-Herzegovina joined forces in Switzerland in January 2020 to set up For Children Smile to help children living in different regions of the world, particularly in refugee camps.
The founder and the current head of the international association, Taş, and two volunteers were in Idlib for the launch of the housing complex and the children’s playground which they sponsored in collaboration with the Turkish Red Crescent.
Speaking during a brief interview on Saturday, Taş explained that she specialized in refugee studies and works as a refugee official in Switzerland. She began helping Syrian refugees after first visiting the country in 2016.
The first project Taş undertook was the opening of a school in the Atmeh refugee camp in northwestern Syria.
“We have launched the For Children Smile with five mothers solely as volunteers and have been carrying out projects by widening our volunteer network since then,” she said, adding that the donations collected go directly to those in need, even if it is only a donation of a small amount.
Explaining that they tried to send aid through different channels before establishing their own foundation, Taş stressed that their entire projects are based on personal donations and that there are people of many different religious backgrounds who contribute to their cause from different countries.
Taş noted that they also visit refugee camps in Switzerland and deliver food, clothing and offer psychological help, adding that they have never found the need to recruit volunteers as “volunteers find them to be part of what they do.”
When asked about the future of the association, Taş described their establishment as a small group aiming to reach much bigger crowds.
The women at the managerial level of For Children Smile have different professional backgrounds, ranging from a construction engineer to a teacher and a movie director.
Speaking as a crowd of children gathered around her, Taş, who visited Idlib at least 25 times among other regions of Syria, noted that she has never become accustomed to the demolition witnessed in the country, noting that if she would “get used to this, she would have left what she is doing.”
“Today, I’m feeling both the proud and the bitter happiness of the fact that I just want to enable these children to play like my own children, without being harmed,” she added, noting that it never feels like they have done enough and there is still much more to be accomplished.
More than 400,000 people have been killed so far in Syria’s war, which according to the World Bank sent 5 million seeking refugee abroad and displaced 6 million internally, per the U.N. agencies. The peaceful pro-democracy protests that began against the longtime dictator Assad family and the current regime saw Bashar Assad regain control over almost 60% of the Syrian territory again, mostly relying on Russian support in a country that became home to countless terrorist organizations.
Today, no one in Syria knows whether they will ever have a place to call home again as the war ensues. The stories of millions of refugees, most of whom are women, children, the elderly or injured remain the same after 10 years, with only the names changing.
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