A Syrian Family, Seven Miles from Home
Mohammed’s hometown – Kobane, Syria – lies in ruin. Although he's found safety close by in Turkey, he yearns to return and rebuild.
While the fight for Kobane largely ended earlier this year, the Syrian town’s more than 40,000 residents remain scattered in neighbouring Turkey and further abroad. A handful have returned, but months of clashes and airstrikes that ultimately forced militants out of Kobane also levelled much of the border town, depriving many of a home to return to.
Mohammed’s family are among them. In September, he and his wife – then pregnant with their youngest, who’s now three months old – and their two toddlers were forced to flee. They became part of the largest influx of refugees into Turkey since the Syrian crisis began just over four years ago.
At the border Mohammed asked a taxi driver if he knew of a nearby place where he and his family could stay. The driver brought them here to Saygin: a few dozen small mud-brick homes strung along a dirt road. Originally built as farmhouses, they now mostly serve as summer residences for Turkish families living in nearby urban areas. Just 10 kilometres south, across tracts of agricultural fields, lies the Syrian border.
Saygin village looks like a place from another time. Mohammed’s family lives in a small two-room home with a thatched roof and thick walls made of mud and dried grass. Only recently wired with electricity, a single outlet hangs from a wall, powering a small space heater in the main room.
Desperate to return home now that active clashes have ended, Mohammed’s family are playing another waiting game – continuing to shelter in Turkey until it’s safe to return to what remains of their hometown.
“If there was a chance I could go back today, I would.”
Concerned about the lack of infrastructure, and the possibility that as militants withdrew they may have booby-trapped homes and buildings in the town, many Syrian families are hesitant to return to Kobane.
“Once we hear it’s okay to go back, we will go the next day,” Mohammed says. He asks only to be identified by his first name out of concern for his family’s safety. “If there was a chance I could go back today, I would.”
The long fight for Kobane, which at times reached deep into its dense, residential centre, destroyed an estimated 80 per cent of the city’s buildings, according to local officials. The first images to emerge from Kobane in late January showed a town in ruins: entire blocks of houses levelled, among them Mohammed’s family’s home.
For the past several months Mohammed says he watched the fight for Kobane unfold from just outside his door.
“We could see the smoke. When it turned black we knew our house was gone.”
“We could see the smoke,” Mohammed recalls, gesturing out the window. The outskirts of his hometown are just visible on the horizon. “When it turned black we knew our house was gone.”
The confirmation came weeks later. Mohammed’s brother returned to Kobane a few days after the fighting ceased and reported back that the house had been destroyed. He sent Mohammed a photograph by text message. The house had been burned to the ground along with the rest of his neighbourhood.
Building a life in Turkey is out of the question, Mohammed says, because food is expensive, he doesn’t speak Turkish and he can’t find work. So far, landowners in Saygin village have allowed families like Mohammed’s to stay rent-free. That, combined with handouts and aid from local humanitarian groups, has allowed them to survive.
“Sometimes I think I just want to kill myself,” Mohammed says flatly. “We should just die instead of living this miserable life.”
From the main road that runs through Saygin village, neat rows of brand new white tents gleam in the sunlight on a far hillside. The newly opened Suruç refugee camp, operated by the Turkish government, has a capacity of over 30,000 and provides residents with free housing, food, medical care and schooling.
But despite the perks and encouragement from local officials to make the move, Mohammed and other families from Kobane say that staying in Saygin is out of the question. Expecting to go home any day now, Mohammed says relocating to a nearby refugee camp is also pointless.
Turkey’s southern countryside is dotted with farming villages like this one. Once sleepy places inhabited by only a handful of families during the winter months, they’ve now become hives of activity, hosting dozens refugee families refusing to stray any farther from Kobane. They have seen their hometown liberated, but are still unable to return.
The waiting and uncertainty has taken a toll on Mohammed. He says that no matter what the situation he’ll never flee his home again, and that he would rather die in Kobane than endure the humiliation of life in exile.
“I will be honest, I can’t sleep at night,” he says, admitting that while he’s determined to return home, he’s also haunted by doubts. “I stay up until two or three in the morning. Sometimes I can’t sleep until dawn.”
“I smoke a lot as a result,” he continues steadily. “I think about the situation, what will happen and how will we go back.”
A version of this story was also published by Global Post.