Roughly 80,000 Syrian refugees are currently living in Turkish reception centers along the border. But ongoing fighting means the hope of a quick return home is fading.
Abdullah Janoudi is doing what he mostly does these days - watching the news on an Arab satellite channel. The coverage is mostly about the situation in Syria, where Janoudi comes from, and which he left a year ago after being thrown in jail by President Bashar Assad's security forces.
His arrest was a warning - Janoudi, a bear of a man with salt and pepper hair and hands like shovels, was paroled from his jail term for anti-regime sentiments shortly before the outbreak of the rebellion against Assad in March 2011. A glint of anger crosses his blue eyes when he talks about the Syrian president, but then he returns to watching television. There is not much more he can do here in exile in Turkey at the Öncüpinar refugee camp along the border to Syria.
Janoudi is one of some 12,000 Syrians to find shelter in one of Öcüpinar's metal containers. The camp, with its robust living quarters, is said to be more comfortable than the other Turkish reception centers along the border, where many Syrians live in tents or old factory buildings.
'Life in Turkey is difficult'
The corrugated steel containers are lined up in neat rows in Öcüpinar. But there is no shade and the heat accumulates in the narrow alleys between the boxes. Janoudi, together with his family, fled to Turkey from the port city of Latakya. They ended up here after several stops at camps along the way.
The Janoudis are a proud family. Back in Syria, they weren't rich, but certainly affluent - here in Öcüpinar, that is no help at all. Janoudi holds up a little packet of Arabian coffee. In Syria, it would have cost about 40 euro cents (50 cents), he says. In the supermarket that the Turkish authorities set up in the camp, the package costs more than twice that. Every refugee at the shelter receives a plastic debit card with nine euros on it. That money has to last a week and many refugees complain about the high prices at the supermarket. "Life in Turkey is difficult," sighs Janoudi's father Omar.
Schools, mosques and health center
The Janoudis are thankful just the same. They know that they are very possibly only alive because of Turkey. The 73-year-old Omar smiles sheepishly when asked about the high prices and the denial of work permits for Syrians by Turkish authorities. "What can I say? I am a guest here," he says.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said recently that the Turkish camps for the Syrians were among the best refugee shelters she had ever seen. And indeed Turkey has gone to great lengths in Öcüpinar. The camp's garbage collection trucks drive over streets paved with interlocking cement bricks. There are two mosques, a kindergarten, a school, a health center and several playgrounds – all of this despite the often difficult realities of life in Turkey. Many an Anatolian village would be happy with Öcüpinar's infrastructure.
Homesick and war at their doorstep
But even the best refugee camp is no substitute for home. One reason why the television news is on all the time is that the refugees do not want to miss the moment when Assad's demise is announced. A few days ago, they all cheered as pictures of a government helicopter shot down by rebels was broadcast.
But even without television the war is always present in Öcüpinar. For some young men, like Hassan Maseri, the camp is a place where they know their families are safe when they return to Syria to fight. "Next week, I'm going," says the 24-year-old. At the bazaar in the provincial Turkish capital Kilis, Hassan hocked in his wedding ring so that his wife and children would have a little financial cushion in his absence.
Throngs at the border
Meanwhile, the steady flow of Syrian refugees to Turkey continues. Several thousand Syrians are trapped in no-man's-land just a stone's throw from Öcüpinar. Turkey has refused to let them in because there are not enough camps to accommodate them. Turkish diplomats say a new refugee camp will be finished soon, and then these people can be cared for.
In view of the increasing influx of refugees and the escalation of fighting in Syria, hopes of a speedy return home are fading in Öcüpinar. Many refugees blame the West, in part, for the continuing carnage and the fact that they have spent months, and in some cases more than a year, in limbo. "If there was a safe haven zone or a no-fly zone, everything would be over quickly," says Salih Abdullah, a refugee from Idlib, a province in western Syria. Most people in the camp share this view, but no one expects the international community to act soon. "Eight people have been killed in my family alone," says one man. "I ask myself why the life of a Syrian is worth so little."