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A Syrian refugee in Turkey: 'I sometimes regret that I was born'

GOAL’s Yusuf Nural tells the stories of Syrian Refugees in Turkey ahead of the release of a moving new documentary and photo exhibition.

Yusuf Nural

Updated Jun 16th 2021, 9:09 AM

THE YEARS OF living hand-to-mouth show on the face of Shofa, a mother of five who was forced to flee her home in Syria to seek refuge in Turkey eight years ago.

Shofa is one of over 3.7 million Syrian refugees who have crossed the border to Turkey since the Syrian conflict began in 2011.

Turkey is both a transit and reception country for asylum seekers, refugees and irregular migrants, and it currently hosts the highest number of refugees worldwide. Almost half of the Syrian refugees in Turkey are children, and 46.2% women and girls.

Shofa Shofa features in the documentary Source: GOAL

Today, Shofa and her family live in a tent in Gaziantep in Turkey’s Southeastern Anatolia Region, close to the Syrian border. They survive by foraging for food, selling recyclable material sourced in a dump, and doing seasonal agricultural work.

I met Shofa while GOAL was recently filming a moving new documentary, “Home from Home: The story of Syrian Refugees in Turkey”, which gives a rare insight into the lives of nomadic and semi-nomadic refugees and seasonal agricultural workers in Turkey.

Screen Shot 2021-06-15 at 16.16.37 Nomadic children ride their bicycles around the camp sewer. Akdeniz, Mersin, Turkey. Source: Cetin Karasahin from GENBAR

Funded by EU Humanitarian Aid, the documentary will be premiered at a virtual event this Thursday with former President of Ireland and Chair of the Elders, Mary Robinson, as keynote speaker. An accompanying exhibition of impactful photos will also be unveiled (with an exclusive selection of pictures published here).

The event, which comes just ahead of World Refugee Day which falls on 20 June, will feature a discussion with international experts on how to promote a better understanding of the diverse experiences of the most vulnerable refugee communities.

Screen Shot 2021-06-15 at 16.07.24 A migrant woman, who fled the war as a child and hid for days, states that her only possessions are her own children. Source: Cetin Karasahin from GENBAR

It will ask how governments, the international community, and civil society can continue to support millions of Syrian refugees who cannot go back home as the conflict continues.

Tales of survival

Shofa and her husband, Hasan, who feature throughout the documentary, were living happily in Jarabulus, northwest Syria until conflict broke out in 2013. Life then changed dramatically for the family.

Pregnant with her fifth child, a bomb hit their home seriously injuring Hasan. Shofra and her four young children – Mohammed, Dilan, Ahmed and Berivan – fled to safety, making their way to Turkey where they set up “home” in a tent in Gaziantep.

Some months later, when he was well enough to travel, Hasan joined his family and was present to hold Shofa’s hand as she gave birth to their fifth child, a son Kemal, in their tent.

Life has been so tough in the last eight years. When I arrived we had nothing. We did not have ID so we could not access services. With the help of Turkish people, I was able to set up a tent. I was the only tent here at the time. Now there are 30.

To earn income Shofa and her children forage for paper or plastic in a dump. Hasan is unable to work due to his injuries. “We dig with our hands, or sometimes knives, to get what we can.”

Screen Shot 2021-06-15 at 15.49.12 'A dream on the scrap piles'... an image from the documentary. A little boy in the tent settlement at Nizip/Gaziantep. Source: Cetin Karasahin from GENBAR.

“We sell on what we collect. Often when we get home filthy, we don’t have soap or detergent to get clean. When we can we get seasonal agricultural work to make some money. It is tough. We never know from day to day what we will earn. We never know if we will have enough to eat. This is our life.”

Shofa says her children don’t go to school. While child labour has reduced considerably, it is still a problem, especially in seasonal agricultural production.

“All I want from life are better conditions for me and my family. I have the smell of garbage in my brain. I sleep with it. I wake up to it. But we have no choice. We must do this in order to eat and to survive. Winters are tough. The rain comes in and we cannot find anything to eat. I sometimes regret that I was born.”

Screen Shot 2021-06-15 at 16.05.42 Bold Hair is a symbol of beauty for many. One little girl, a refugee, living in Turkey. Source: Cetin Karasahin from GENBAR

Shofa is from the Abdal nomadic group, one of two such groups (along with the Dom people) who feature in the new documentary. These are among lesser-known ethnic Syrian refugee groups in Turkey, originating from India and linked to the Roma in Europe and the Lom people in Eastern Anatolia and the Caucasus.

Without a home

These communities are predominantly mobile, living across the Middle East, including in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and the Palestinian Territories, with a lifestyle similar to ‘Roma’ or ‘Gypsies’.

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As well as focusing on Abdal and Dom people the new documentary also shines a light on refugee seasonal agricultural workers, people who move to get work. They have no permanent employment, insecure working conditions, and get paid on a daily basis.

Screen Shot 2021-06-15 at 16.00.17 A nomadic agricultural worker picking peppers in Akdeniz, Mersin in Turkey. Source: Cetin Karasahin from GENBAR

As protected people, refugees and seasonal workers are entitled to vital services from the Turkish authorities. But many do not know their rights. Shofa is one of thousands of vulnerable nomadic and semi-nomadic people being connected by GOAL, through the European Humanitarian Aid-funded LINK programme, to state and non-state services in order to access services including healthcare and education.

The LINK programme offers support through community-based outreach activities and toll-free phone lines. LINK Social Support Centers in Mersin, Adana, Gaziantep and Sanliurfa offer a safe space that community members can visit for advice on a range of issues, including legal counselling, access to essential services like healthcare, education, legal aid, registration, social assistance, and humanitarian aid.

Screen Shot 2021-06-15 at 16.14.03 Children deprived of suitable housing. Informal tent settlement, Nizip/Gaziantep. Source: Cetin Karasahin from GENBAR

We are proud to bring to Irish and European citizens, in partnership with EU Humanitarian Aid, this important documentary and photo exhibition which build a vivid picture of the huge challenges refugees face every day as they try to build their lives away from home.

As we mark World Refugee Day this Sunday, we hope the documentary and exhibition are pivotal in raising the critical humanitarian issues faced by the Syrian refugee population not just in Turkey, but beyond.

Yusuf Nural is Protection and Inclusion Programme Coordinator for the GOAL charity in Turkey. The documentary will be aired on Thursday 17 June at 10 am Irish time. To register, click https://www.goalglobal.org/homefromhome/.

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