Life is starting to look more permanent for the Syrian refugees in Kilis. There are no tents in the Turkish camp. Instead, thousands of white cubicles sit in endless rows.
With every grey brick laid along the paths that criss-cross the sea of container houses, Terkia Zarzoureh feels she is further from returning to her home across the border.
“We left our home in Jisr al-Shughur almost 11 months ago, and I think it will still be a long time before we ever go back again,” says the 27-year-old mother-of-six, whose family fled some of the first scenes of bloodshed from President Bashar al-Assad’s crackdown on the year-long revolt against his rule.
Even as diplomats debate ceasefires and the deployment of monitors to calm Syria’s streets, the builders of Kilis seem to think Syrian refugees are in for a long haul.
Three large yellow schools are being constructed. Two mosques with blue minarets and stained glass windows mark either end of the camp.
“This is not a camp, this is a city. Next month you will see a different world here, like a dream city,” says Suphi Atan, a Turkish Foreign Ministry official who oversees the Syrian refugee camps.
In the linoleum-tiled floors of a new administrative office, Atan shows visitors seated in black leather chairs a color-coded map outlining this camp, made for 12,000 of Turkey’s nearly 25,000 refugees. He proudly notes the “Carrefour-style” store being built, for everything from vegetables to shoes.
Back in Syria, security forces and rebels have mostly stuck to a ceasefire imposed on April 12 through a deal brokered by special envoy Kofi Annan. The United Nations is now discussing sending in a small monitoring mission to observe the truce.
But Zarzoureh says it is not convincing enough to leave Kilis.
“Who believes in these things? Our neighbors came 10 days ago, they saw rockets and death. Right now all I want to worry about is how to fit a family of eight in two rooms,” she said, frying potatoes for dinner on a stove next to her bed.
“This is not the home I want, but I may have to settle for this for a long time. We will not see our homes again until Bashar al-Assad falls.”
Turkey has spent about $150 million on refugee camps, Atan said. Kilis’ construction will cost $50 million and take another $2 million per month to run. Turkey is now accepting international aid to share the rising cost.
“As the Turkish government we should be prepared for the worst scenario,” Atan said. “We do not hope that this conflict continues very long but we want to be prepared for hosting our brothers coming from Syria.”
“Dream is dead”
Around 500 Turkish employees will work in Kilis, including police, teachers and doctors. The freshly painted clinic will have x-ray machines and operating rooms.
But for Syrians living here, the tall aluminum walls topped with barbed wire and the police watchtowers that loom above are a stark reminder that they are fleeing a nightmare.
Mahmoud’s family carried his half-paralyzed body for three days to bring him to Kilis, after shrapnel pierced his neck when a rocket hit his home in northern Idlib province. He lies pale on the floor as his mother and seven sisters huddle around him.
“I can move my left foot a little bit. I don’t know what happens next. A few months ago I was protesting, now I try not to worry about the future,” the 15-year-old boy said.
Just visible over the wall near his new home are the green peaks of Syria and the Syrian flags waving from an army border post nearby.
Syria’s Interior Ministry called on refugees to return home after the truce. But Mohammed says that is not an option.
“Look what happened to me, this is a big scar to remember the price for asking for freedom. We won’t go back until Bashar is gone,” he said.
Only rows of tattered laundry and a playground swarming with children break up the endless rows of identical houses.
Residents also try to personalize their new homes. Black graffiti labels one road the “Conqueror of Assad Street”, other homes cluster around an intersection dubbed “Freedom Square”.
As some 9,000 inhabitants already in Kilis settle in for a long stay, a new pace of daily life emerges.
Women roll out dough for bread on door stoops. Nearby, young men have dragged the metal frames of the bunk beds onto the street as makeshift shop counters, filled with candy and cigarettes to sell.
Mustafa, a 25-year-old activist from Hama, lays on a mat outside rewrapping a gunshot wound through his leg. He is grateful for his new home in Turkey, but says it is no dream.
“They could build us a palace and we wouldn’t forget we were refugees,” he said. “It is hard to dream here, being here means that for now, our dream is dead.”