Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Turkey’s Syrian ‘guests’ in limbo at refugee camps

 Inside a temporary metal shelter in a dense refugee camp, Abdelwahed, a mason and father of 7, sat in contemplative silence for nearly a week after his shell-shocked family arrived here in June. His children’s legs hurt from the three-day hike into Turkey across the mountainous border from war-torn Syria. It was the lost look in their eyes that hurt him.

Then, the weathered, thin 50-year-old had something of an epiphany. ‘‘I had no answer when they asked when we would go home. So I thought, I will build our town here.’’

Five months later, the Syrian town of Al Haffeh — former population, 6,000 — is literally taking shape in the corner of their small living space. Only, in the lovingly detailed scale model Abdelwahed labors on each day, there are no bullet holes in his favorite local mosque.

The roofs of his miniature buildings are undamaged by the mortar rounds that sent his family fleeing into Turkey, where more than 135,000 Syrian refugees — including 106,000 in officially established camps — have crossed from war into limbo.

In the purgatory of the Turkish camps, engaged young women struggle to reach fiances fighting in the opposition from shared cellphones. War-hardened men with missing limbs shout bitterly about the lack of Western support for dying Syrian civilians.

As weeks have turned into months and, for some, more than a year, children age 5 to 16 have enrolled in makeshift schools, learning the native Turkish of their host nation and striving for a sense of normality in art and math classes.

The Turkish government, which still prefers to call them ‘‘guests,’’ granted permission to a reporter for a rare visit inside what appeared to be among the best outfitted of the 14 refugee camps constructed since the Syrian conflict became critical last year. Turkish officials authorized the visit on the condition that the name of the camp and the surnames of refugees be withheld.

As the violence escalates, more refugees are amassing at the border, leading the government in Ankara — which is funding the relief operation with minimal international aid — to sharply limit the number of those allowed in.

Scores of refugees have been crossing the frontier illegally every day. Those with wealth and connections are renting private accommodations or finding routes into North Africa, Europe, and beyond.

The majority, however, are landing in Turkish-funded camps that Western diplomats describe as filled way beyond international norms, one reason the government tab has already surpassed $400 million.

There are strong indications that opposition fighters — and some extremists — are using the Turkish side of the border as a staging area, particularly escalating tensions with Alawite Turks, who are from the same religious sect as Syrian President Bashar Assad.

‘‘Unfortunately, some of those accommodated in the camps are going back to Syria to fight and then return to the camps,’’ said Refik Eryilmaz, a national legislator from the Hatay border region for the opposition Republican People’s Party.

‘‘The local people in Hatay have had no problem with the ordinary, innocent people who fled the war and took shelter in the camps,’’ Eryilmaz said. “But there have been people from Al Qaeda and other radical groups who came from Libya, Iraq, Chechnya, and Afghanistan and rented homes in the city centers.’’

And yet, the vast majority of camp dwellers are people like Aysha, an 18-year-old from the coastal city of Latakia who fled nine months ago with her family, paying smugglers a good chunk of their life savings and arriving literally with the clothes on their backs.

Aysha and her fiance had been planning their wedding. Now, he is fighting in the resistance, and she has been unable to reach him by phone for the past three weeks. She constantly watches Arabic language channels — many families have managed to find old televisions — for news. But there is no self-absorption about her concern.

‘‘It makes no difference that I am engaged and waiting for my future husband,’’ she said. ‘‘We are all suffering. Syria is suffering.’’

While they wait, the refugees have begun to build a sense of normality. Allowed out of the camp from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., some of the men have begun working as olive pickers and day laborers.