Suruç, Turkey – The concrete floors were soaking wet. The voices of children echoed through the hallways of what was once a boarding school for 95 students. Now it serves as a government-sponsored refugee camp for 9,000 Syrians. The walls frequently shake from the sound of American bombs in the distance.
It was a cold november night, the earth outside turned red with rain. The rest of Suruç was going to sleep, but two doctors stay to man the camp’s clinic, as emergencies come in and out all evening.
“On paper, we are not here right now,” says Dr. Firat, 29 who just recently graduated from Medical School in Odessa, Ukraine, “We are volunteers.”
Dr. Firat has dark circles under his eyes. After two months of working in this building, he has gotten hooked on cigarettes to relieve the stress and to help him stay awake. Now, he smokes a pack a day. He and another doctor stay up all day and all night, only getting a couple hours sleep here and there. During the day, the Turkish government provides two doctors and two nurses to help with the 400 or so refugees that will line up outside the clinic, seeking treatment. Though the this medical staff are supposed to work between 08:00 AM and 05:00 PM, the reality is that they often arrive at 10:00AM, and leave at 04:00 PM and have a half hour or hour long break in the middle for lunch. Otherwise, it is left for the two volunteer doctors to give their time.
“I ask you,” Firat says, running a frustrated hand through his hair, “What would happen if I was not here? Babies are not all born between the hours of 8 in the morning, and 5 at night, and we have a lot of pregnant women here. Also heart attacks, diseases… What would happen if we were not here? We just let them die?”
That night, Dr. Firat would have to handle three emergencies – one pregnant woman would give birth to a premature child, one man had a heart attack, and one a sick child. He spent the rest of the evening wandering the tents, checking on the health and welfare of the inhabitants. Though the emergencies had good outcomes, he never got a chance to celebrate or reward himself with more than a couple hours of sleep.
He admits that he does not know all of the refugees anymore, the population surging too fast for him to keep up.
“It is also a problem with security,” he tells us, “because though there are guards at the gate, the sides of the camp are open! No security! You don’t know who belongs here and who doesn’t. One bomb in this camp, and you will have catastrophe!”
A few days ago, there were men lingering outside the gate in a car. Some one called the Kurdish party, and those men were apprehended and handed over to the local authorities. They discovered that they were members of Daesh, and had come to try and kidnap some of the inhabitants . The Army sends soldiers to guard the front gate, but they do not patrol along the perimeter. It is an added fear that must stack up on the already stressed minds of the refugees.
For his part, Dr. Firat likes these soldiers that are there.
“All problems I have with soldiers are not caused by them, but by the system,” he says, “If you go to other camps, the soldiers have no respect for the refugees. They walk around and treat them like beggars or gypsies, not like people getting away from a war to survive.”
Among the refugees, about 4,000 of them are children. Kurds love to have children. Many of the women were pregnant.
“But, it’s not as if these parents could not provide for them before they were refugees!” he says, defending his patients, “They had homes, jobs… Now they are robbed of it, and they feel terrible that they cannot provide for their own children. What do you think that does to their minds and their hearts?”
Being foreigners, refugees are not able to get legitimate work and the children cannot attend school. Men and women who had decent trades are not able to practice their craft. Likewise, because of the humanitarian crisis, it has been impossible to find homes or apartments in Suruç, or even in the district capital of nearby Sanliurfa, as demand has inflated prices. Some families resort to renting storage units and living in them through the winter.
The population of Suruç alone had more than quadrupled from about 50,000 inhabitants, to 220,000 after the influx of refugees.
“They have no other choice,” Firat says, “if they could have their own home, they would.”
Many of the parents witness, with great distress, the toll that the situation is taking on their children. With no school, the children are often left neglected, playing outside in the dirt and rain, without the structure of school and a traditional home. The children are learning bad habits and coming under bad influences, getting one another into trouble. Dr. Firat fears that this generation will be lost, different from other Kurds who have strict family values, and, as a family, rear all the children as a unit.
Two days prior to our meeting, refugees who had been teachers in Kobane began a Pre-school to give some of the children and the parents a little structure and relief. However, this is only a temporary solution; they need school rooms, supplies, more teachers for multiple age groups…
As we walked around the small camps towards the back of the hard-stand building, we meandered between rows of large white tents, eight families per tent. Between them are lines of hanging laundry. Inside, blankets are stacked on top of a plastic racks to get some distance between themselves and the cold, wet ground. They are also supplied a heater, but those only arrived recently, though the cold nights had been sweeping through the area for over a month.
There are few bathrooms for the camp, and all of them are in the main building. Within a few minutes, I saw a little girl washing her hands in muddy water. Then, I saw a child, pants around his ankles, squatting by a nearby tent.
Many of the children are barefoot in the mud, or wearing ill-fitting shoes that belong to adults.
“We request shoes,” Dr. Firat continues, “and they bring us shoes. But they are useless, because they don’t use judgment. They give out the wrong sizes. I ask them ‘How can you say you provided shoes when they cannot be used?’”
But he believes that the government claims the number of shoes given as providing for the refugees, instead of taking into account how many can actually be used. Dr Firat finds himself caught in the tug-of-war between the government’s need to quantitatively show that they are giving aid to the refugees, and the quality of the aid being given.
He is constantly frustrated, rushing between one emergency to the next, handling crisis after crisis.
As we walked around the tents, a woman approached us; she was pregnant, with tears in her eyes. She gave out her list of complaints; she had no blanket and no heater. She knows that they give out food at the front of the camp, but she has no plates, or anything to eat with because it was all lost in Syria, along with the rest of her family. All she has now is herself, and the baby in her belly. When she attempted to go shower that morning, other refugees had turned her away! She did not know why, but she was desperate for help.
The doctor tried to calm her down, concerned that the stress might hurt her, and the child she was carrying. He reassures her that he will make some calls to try and address her concerns. She lets him go, but the worried lines on her brow, and the wringing of her hands over her large belly give away signs that she’s not sure if she’ll get any help.
It’s that fear that all the screaming and weeping in the world will go ignored, and they will be left alone with their misery.
There are a dozen shower facilities for all the refugees and only two water taps for drinking water. Strained and limited supplies combined with the stress of living in such close quarters result in much in-fighting and squabbles among families. Sometimes, the Doctors are caught in the middle.
Other administrators and staff often tell Dr. Firat to just do his job, and stay out of everyone else’s. But how can he? Dr. Firat believes that everything is linked towards health. He believes that the stress caused by lack of supplies for that woman will cause health problems in the child, which will cause medical problems that he will need to solve later on. It is better to handle the root cause now, before it causes more pain down the line.
One thing not being addressed is the hard psychological toll suffered by the refugees.
From the trauma of what they witnessed while in Syria, the stress of crossing the border, and now the daily uncertainty of having to live on government support and having no autonomy and choice.
Dr. Firat claims that none of the refugees believe that the Turkish government truly cares about their well-being, but provide the bare minimum in order to justify to the world that they are doing their job.
“Take the food, for example,” he says, “Everyday, the same thing. No variety, no change. It causes health problems, digestion problems because it is not a well-rounded diet. But the government can say that they are feeding them – because they are.”
Breast feeding mothers might feel gassy from the beans, rice, and lentils that are served, but when they pass that on to their babies, the results can be incredibly painful for the child. This leads to unhappy, crying children, which leads to distraught parents. These can have physical manifestations down the line, causing great pain to both in the way of anxiety, elevated blood pressure, sleep deprivation and spreads like a plague throughout the camp in the way that only misery can.
Dr. Firat has a room on the third floor of one of the adjacent buildings. He has a mattress on the floor, some blankets, a backpack and a plastic desk. On the desk are a stack of books – some on philosophy, others from French writers and Turkish poets. Then, he has stacks of medical books with well-worn spines with the titles boldly written: Pediatry, Internal Medicine, Obstetrics, Trauma… all specialties that he has had to perform, though he has never studied them explicitly. He thanks his Ukrainian education for having given him such broad experience that he can deliver babies, and perform surgeries – all things that he has put to good use since coming to work at the camps.
He completed his studies in Russian, but learned English at the same time. Along with his medical books and notes, he tries to read things that might be good for the soul and his sanity.
“I like to read a lot of history,” he says, “Or at least I used to… and I have this nightmare in my mind. I don’t know what is worse – Daesh or Hitler and the Nazis. I cannot tell who is the more evil.”
When I look at Dr. Firat, I see a man on the brink of burning out. He is exhausted, and his eyelids are heavy. He is a man fueled by nicotine and caffeine, a man who is not allowed to get sick because if he does, then there will only be one doctor who stays up all night to treat the constant stream of patients. Every one of the 9,000 refugees is a possible crisis. Two doctors are too few to handle them – for one person, it would be impossible.
For all his efforts, Dr. Firat admits that what they provide here is only a temporary solution.
“If you want to solve the problems of the refugees, you must solve the problem of Daesh,” says Dr. Firat, “The world must help solve that problem or this will never end.”