At model refugee camp, Syria refugees look for a way out

Friday 26/02/2016
A place of pride for Turkey (…) A prison for refugees

ELBEYLI (Turkey) - Under a huge Turkish flag waving in the breeze from a towering pole, the Elbeyli camp for Syrian refugees is seen as a place of pride by Turkey which has taken in tens of thousands fleeing the war just across the border.
Neat rows of pre-fabricated containers turned into two-room homes of about 21 square metres (226 square feet) provide shelter for 24,000 people. There are satellite antennas on the roofs. Every day the refugees are given food and each receives 85 Turkish lira (26 euros) a month.
The camp near the Turkey-Syria border has a hospital, two mosques with sheet metal minarets, a supermarket, a pharmacy and schools and playgrounds for 8,500 children and teenagers.
But for many refugees, all they want is to get out of Elbeyli.
"It's true, we were given a warm welcome," said Mahmud Eid, 35, sitting with three friends near a basketball court, smoking cigarettes.
"But this is not a life."
Tired of living with rules and behind wire fences, they look for ways to make some money, like working in the fields for local farmers during the summer season.
Refugees are allowed to leave the camp in the morning and return at night, but they can't stay away for too long or risk losing their rights.
"We're trying to save enough money to go live in the city, in Kilis or Gaziantep. We all want to leave here. It's like living in barracks," said Eid.
"No, a prison," his neighbour chimed in.
Elbeyli was opened in June 2013 around two years after the start of Syria's civil war which enters its sixth year in March -- albeit Saturday saw fighting subside across much of the country as the conflict's first major ceasefire took hold.
"The construction cost 46 million Turkish lira (14 million euros, $15.3 million dollars), and we spend more than three million euros a month to run it," said Metin Yildiz, a spokesman for the camp administration who took several journalists on a tour.
He added that 550 people work every day at the camp.
And for the refugees there are workshops where women weave carpets or learn hairdressing.
Men such as Mohamad Mahmud, 43, dabble in painting.
With a brush hand, he has just finished a view of the Bosphorus in Istanbul which he painted from a photograph.
"In the beginning it was a bit hard," he said of camp existence. "But after a while you get used to this life.
"I was a civil servant in the finance ministry in Aleppo and an amateur at drawing," he said.
"Now I'm an artist... Sometimes visitors buy a painting."
Others have seen their lives improve. On the walls of the school are photos in star-shaped frames of the first students, who didn't know a word of Turkish when they arrived, and are now in university.
In total, around 260,000 Syrian refugees live in 23 camps run by the Turkish government which has estimated the cost at more than $10 billion since the war broke out in 2011.
That number, however, represents less than 10 percent of the 2.7 million Syrians living in Turkey, especially in the big cities.
At Elbeyli, some families are suffering from being separated.
Walking out of the pharmacy with medicine in one hand and the other holding on to his little sister, Khadija Hassan said, "Yes, we are fine here..."
But the little girl suddenly started sobbing, and the 13-year-old explained that they are living without their father.
"He left for Aleppo to try to sell some things to get a little money, but he stayed too long. When he returned, they would not let him back in the camp."
Their father is now living in the nearby town of Kilis.
"He comes often to see us, from the other side of the wire fence..."