′If we don′t help them, who will?′ | Middle East| News and analysis of events in the Arab world | DW | 29.10.2014
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Middle East

'If we don't help them, who will?'

Tens of thousands have sought refuge from the fighting in Kobani in Syria by fleeing to neighboring Turkey and staying in refugee camps. A network of local volunteers is trying to address their most pressing needs.

Ahlam smiles, and cradles her baby in her arms. It's evident how proud she is, and how much she loves the child. If she weren't seated in a hot, stifling tent, Ahlam could be one of the many women going about their daily lives in the small Turkish town of Suruc.

But the 25-year-old isn't here by choice. Six weeks ago, she was still living in Kobani, just a few kilometers away on the Syrian side of the border. She had just had her baby when the "Islamic State" terrorist militia invaded her hometown.

Fearful, she fled with her baby and three other children. According to the Turkish government, about 180,000 Kobani residents have fled to Suruc and neighboring villages seeking shelter. The number of inhabitants in the small border town has more than doubled in a short period of time. The refugees stay with relatives or friends. Some have rented apartments, while others live in abandoned buildings or in the streets.

Ahlam pictured with her child

Ahlam shares a tent with around six people in Suruc

Hope for news from Kobani

Ahlam was placed in a refugee camp in Suruc built at the initiative of the pro-Kurdish BDP party. Six people, sometimes more, live in a tent that measures ten square meters. Day in and day out, the refugees hold out, waiting for news from besieged Kobani. Up to 1,500 civilians are still holed up there, Kurdish representatives say. There's no way to verify that figure. Earlier this month, the United Nations warned that in addition to the Kurdish fighters, between 500 and 700 people still live in Kobani, mainly older people. A massacre threatens should the city fall.

Ahlam is a Kurdish name, and it means "dreams." Ahlam dreams a lot these days, but her dreams are far from pleasant. "I'm sure our house has been looted and everything has been stolen," she says. Like many in the refugee camp, she has relatives and friends who are still in Kobani. Every evening, she sits by the phone, dialing the familiar numbers, relieved if someone picks up at the other end.

Medical donations

At a Suruc cultural center, a group of men sit on the patio in front of the house, drinking tea. On the first floor, 36-year-old Hassan is busy stacking pill boxes on a shelf in a narrow room. The room is full of medicine, bottles and white wrappers with blue, green or red labels. Hassan ran a pharmacy in Kobani before he, too, fled from the fighting in the Syrian town. In Suruc, he says he doesn't want to sit around with nothing to do.

With the help of aid workers, he set up the pharmaceutical storage facility to meet refugees' needs. Over the past few weeks, the Suruc cultural center has become a base for dozens of volunteers like Hassan. "There's a lot we don't have - mainly antibiotics and penicillin," Hassan says with a tired smile. The pills and vials come from many different places: Turkish pharmacies donate what they don't need, and some shipments have come from Germany. Hassan and the other volunteers distribute the medical supplies in refugee camps across the city.

Ahmed pictured in a pharmacy

Long days and a sense of obligation are the norm for Ahmed

12-hour days

Hassan has also stopped at Ahlam's camp. It houses about 2,000 people. Built in a hurry, it appears to be well-kept all the same. The tents even have electricity. Children play between the grey plastic sheeting, and women hang out laundry to dry.

Ahmed is also a volunteer. He works 12 hours a day, he says, and peers at his watch: he has little time to chat. He tracks the people in the camp who are ill, distributes medicine and makes sure emergency cases are taken to the hospital in town. "We're one people," he responds when asked why he has volunteered to help out at the camp. "If we don't help, who will?"

Hearing the refugees' stories, how they have left their homes and lives behind to come and live in tents in Suruc saddens him, he says. With a polite farewell, Ahmed returns to work.

In the face of thousands of refugees, help is limited - a fact Ahlam has experienced first-hand. Her baby is ill, but the doctors say they must first attend to other, more serious cases. "I'm very worried," Ahlam says, and plucks at the baby's tiny romper. "But it's much better here than leaving my children to the Islamists."

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