A Syrian mother attends to her child in the Oncupinar refugee camp, located near the Turkish city of Kilis
© UNHCR
A Syrian mother attends to her child in the Oncupinar refugee camp, located near the Turkish city of Kilis
Last updated: July 20, 2014

Syrian refugees without water during Ramadan: Blaming themselves and Turkish authorities

Banner Icon Despite generally good conditions in the Kilis 1 Camp in southern Turkey, water has begun to run out. And so is the patience among many Syrian refugees who live there.

In February, the New York Times published an article about the world’s best refugee camp, found in southern Turkey. The image of a Syrian woman getting a free blow out in a refugee-run hair salon burrowed into my mind. By all accounts, although the camps in Turkey serve only a quarter of the refugee population, they are world class in relative terms. 

This week, inside that same camp during the holy month of Ramadan, Syrians without water are turning on each other and on the authorities.

In southern Turkey, on the border with Syria, heat is a constant this time of year. As I write, it’s almost 40 degrees. Kilis 1 Camp, home to over 14,000 Syrians, is an outdoor oven. After passing through the front gates, residents walk as much as 30 minutes to get to their containers. Family groups of four to fourteen people live in more than 2,000 metal boxes in rows just a few feet apart.

Most of the people in Kilis 1 are Sunni Muslims. Ramadan is widely observed in the camp, which means fasting from around 3:30am until 8:00pm, up to 17 hours a day. Despite the rigors of the holy month, it is not commonly taken as a hardship. Many think of Ramadan as a time of mercy and abundance, a time to be grateful and to honor Allah.

"Syrians without water are turning on each other and on the authorities"

Last Monday, I sat with my friend, Abdul-Lah, in his apartment in Gaziantep, Turkey. His mother, father, brother and sister are in Kilis 1 and he is saving money so he can move them out. Muna, Abdul-Lah’s mother, called him that afternoon, reporting helplessly that there was no water in the camp. She was missing the relief of a shower. She needed water to cook for the Iftar meal after sunset and Sahoor before dawn.

Conditions in the camp are generally very good. Muna’s husband gets routine medical treatment and prescriptions for his high blood pressure free of charge. The schools have first-rate facilities, although teachers do not all have fixed salaries. When Muna came to the camp, the orderliness of the place impressed her. Yet now that the camp has been Muna’s home for over a year, she has less patience. 

Needing to start preparations for the meals that night, Muna went to the grocery store that Monday afternoon to buy bottled water. She gets 80 Turkish Lira per month from Turkish Red Crescent and 5 Lira from the Turkish Ministry of Disaster and Relief. That’s $40. Two bottles of water are $1.  

Muna has the right to make a complaint to the muhtar, the official who speaks Arabic and liaises with the other administrators on residents’ behalf. But the lines to see him have been long. Plus she has seen the muhtar dole out harsh words to residents. After living in Syria, she has learned not to draw attention to herself.

Tuesday evening, a group of over a hundred camp residents gathered in the space between containers to wage their collective protest. Their voices carried their frustration: “Free Syria! Out with the governor of Kilis!” It’s not just the water. Their camp used to be one of the more lenient ones in the area. Residents could leave for up to 15 days out of a month and still maintain their container. Now they will only be permitted to leave for one day a week.

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Every Syrian I have talked with in Turkey is quick to express gratitude to the government for being hosted as a “guest.” Some came to Turkey via Lebanon, where the Prime Minister will not allow the UN to build refugee camps for fear that Syrians will stay. But Support to Life, a Turkish humanitarian organization, points out that Turkey’s use of the word “guest” is not hospitality but rather a caveat. When Turkey signed the 1951 Refugee Convention, it applied to European refugees. A new protocol in 1967 lifted this limitation, but Turkey would only sign if geographic limitations to Europe remained. Because of this, in Turkey Syrians do not qualify for refugee status. Some key rights are not guaranteed to Syrians, including the right to education. Paradoxically, the government has been generous in many ways, such as giving Syrians access to university scholarships and access to preparatory language courses.

As for the problems in Kilis 1, Abdul-Lah puts some of the blame on Syrians themselves. In the camp, there are regulations around the use of electricity. Residents are restricted to using basic items like a refrigerator, electric stove and fan. Yet some families bribe officials and smuggle air conditioners and washing machines into the camp. Camp administrators have recently raided residents’ containers and confiscated the prohibited items. Near Muna’s container, a new playground was recently installed. In short order, the park benches went missing. Below the colorful slides and swings, there are still bare patches where someone has stolen squares from the rubber matting meant to break a child’s fall.

Muna and her daughter, Amar, suffer the July sun more than the men in the family. Although they are a conservative family, in Syria they did not wear long coats. But in the camp, in addition to hijab, they cover top to bottom to avoid unwanted comments. Last year, administrators allowed each family to put a metal structure on the front of their container. By draping fabric around the frame, they could create a breezy sitting area. There, the women could remove their robes and privately escape the tin heat of the container. When some families extended the structure so far that no one could pass between containers, the camp officials summarily banned all the extensions.

"She has learned not to draw attention to herself"

On Wednesday, when there was still no water in the camp, a Turkish journalist called the governor of Kilis. The governor promised to remedy the situation. Since 2011, cross-border bombings, tension in host communities, and camp management issues have increasingly occupied his office.  Unannounced, at midday water began to run at a dribble. Inside containers were all over the camp, families surfaced buckets and every possible carrying device. In starvation mode, the Syrian families captured as much water as possible.  Four hours later, the water was back off.

That night, a Turkish friend called the governor’s press secretary to lodge an anonymous complaint about the situation in Kilis 1. The official told her that she must fill out a form online and give her national identification number. Abdul-Lah asked her not to proceed: he feared it could lead back to his family and endanger their position in the camp.

Back in Istanbul on Thursday, I watched a translucent stream run from the hose in my back terrace. My daughter splashed in the three-ring Princess Sophia pool I bought on the way home from the airport. Abdul-Lah’s email came through as the level in the pool reached the third ring: The water in the camp was on for eight hours today. 

This week in Kilis 1, known to be the best camp for Syrians, the water is shifting on and off. A feeling of hardship continues, despite some gratitude for the improvement. Last night, after her day of fasting and restraint, Muna went to the camp mosque to pray before Iftar. Not knowing when or why the water will be shut off next, Muna and her neighbors ask themselves if they are being punished for the bad behavior of some Syrians in the camp.

Xanthe Ackerman
Dr. Xanthe Ackerman is a writer based in Istanbul and a senior fellow at the Syria Research & Evaluation Organization. Formerly, as the associate director of the Center for Universal Education at Brookings, she wrote about education in the Middle East and in Africa. She is the founder of Advancing Girls' Education in Africa, a term member at the Council on Foreign Relations, and a former Peace Scholar at the United States Institute of Peace.
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