Our guest blogger is Krittika Lalwaney, who recently visited Syrian refugee camps in TurkeySyrian refugees in Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan are a forgotten piece of the ongoing Syrian revolution. The refugees are not only fleeing the bloodshed, they are active revolutionaries aiding regime opponents and bridging the communication gap between pro-democracy activists inside Syria and the international community. The roughly 10,000 Syrians living in tents inside Turkey have spent the past 10 months urging friends and family inside to continue to demonstrate and plan escape routes for defectors. I visited two refugee camps in Antakya, Turkey in January where I spoke to Syrian refugees and members of the Free Syria Army to understand their roles in strengthening the Syrian opposition.
Inside the refugee camps, only 500 meters from the Syrian border, families were glued to television news reports from Al-Arabiya and Al-Jazeera. Laptops with wireless internet connections were on Skype where refugees connect with friends and families inside Syria. Refugees will often inquire about access to staples because in many cities such as Homs, the regime has cut off water, electricity and food supplies. Syrians in these camps organize and infiltrate the border to deliver food packages, medical supplies and water. The porous borders serve as a vital communication channel for the refugee community and play an imperative role in keeping the opposition alive.
One Syrian refugee I interviewed said he keeps track of the number of dissidents killed, detained or missing through underground networks and then relays that information to international media outlets. Refugees are central to coordinating protests in Syria; and Army defectors in these camps provide military intelligence to soldiers in the Free Syria Army.
The refugees are also faced with everyday challenges living in Turkey. The Hatay province in Antakya, Turkey at one time used to be a part of Syria and consists of a large Alawite community. Turkish Alawites have enjoyed a strong relationship with the Assad regime and many have benefited from sending their children to Syrian universities. Thus, the recent influx of Syrian dissidents has caused problems with the host community. Refugees have to be wary as many Turkish Alawites are suspected of spying for the regime. One refugee told me that a group of men severely beat him after he spoke openly against Assad and in favor of the revolution.
There are also concerns about the living conditions in the camps. Turkey has not developed a long-term strategy for hosting them. Consequently, their children have no access to public schools and there is no potential for legitimate employment. And harsh weather has wreaked havoc. Syrians living inside Turkey are in desperate need of winter clothes, blankets, new tents, and shoes to cope with winter weather. As the violence in Syria persists, more refugees have been crossing over to Turkey in need of basic essentials. Furthermore, access to health care is limited in the refugee camps where there is only one health tent for 3,000 people. The health unit is not equipped to treat severe wounds or infections.
The refugees continue to aid the opposition but it’s unclear, given worsening living conditions and security fears, how long their efforts will remain effective.