By Umit Bektas
Only a half hour’s walk from the hundreds of tents lined up in the camp would take them to the banks of the Orontes River, the natural boundary between Turkey and Syria. When they cross the river they would be back in the land where they were born and grew up, among the people speaking the same language – their homeland. From the border it is only a short journey to their town or village and their own homes. Yes, the distance is short but what keeps children away from their homes is not always distance. Sometimes it is politics and the conflicts born of politics. And it is precisely this strife that forces the children to live a life in tents in bleak territory. There are reasons behind all conflicts, they have their antagonists, those in the right and those in the wrong, the strong and the weak. Who is right and who is wrong may change according to everyone’s way of thinking but there can be no doubt that the most innocent and the most vulnerable victims of all conflicts are the children.
A small number of the millions of displaced children who have fled fighting around the world are the Syrian children who have found refuge at the Boynuyogun refugee camp in Turkey’s southern Antakya province. Hundreds of them now live with their families in the identical tents pitched in the camp. The Turkish administrators of the camp provide food, clothing, shelter and medical care for the refugees. An important part of life which these children miss now that they are away from home is of course their schools. Because no one can predict how long they will have to stay in this camp, Arabic-speaking Turkish teachers have been assigned to conduct classes for them. These teachers have grouped the children into age groups and teach them in tents, turned into makeshift classrooms.
Certainly the education Syrian children receive here is inadequate compared to their regular schools but it is obviously a much better alternative to idleness and at least helps further their learning. New camps are under construction in the same region and school buildings are part of their planned infrastructure, evidence of the importance attached to the continued schooling of these children.
I was at Boynuyogun Camp for the first time in the summer of 2011. My latest trip there was in recent weeks. The one hour I was allowed to take pictures told me I had to use this time well. So I decided even before I entered the camp that I would observe and document only the children. When my paperwork was approved and I entered the camp through gates guarded by Turkish soldiers, I made my way straight for the tents used as schoolrooms. It was noon and teachers had sent the students to join their families for lunch. I heard children’s voices coming from only one tent and when I peeked inside I saw some children drawing. I introduced myself to the teacher and asked what they were drawing. The teacher said he had asked the children to make a picture of “My Dream House”. It was not only the teacher who wondered what the house of their dreams would be like. I did and I’m sure you would to. What was the dream house for these children who now lived in a single-space tent?
When they finished their drawings each child showed them to me and I photographed them. They had all drawn different houses but most of them stood under a bright sun. In defiance of the bare concrete of the camp site they now lived in, some had adorned their drawings with plenty of flowers and trees. Possibly their dream house was the one they had left behind in Syria. I could not converse with the children but I was still aware of what the drawings told me: A tent is not a home. No matter how long you may stay there, you can never belong to a camp. Everyone comes from a city, a small town, a village but above all, we all belong in a house.