Syrian Refugees: The kindness of a stranger in a southern Turkey border town

News Stories, 7 November 2013

© UNHCR Photo
Syrian refugees in the southern Turkey town of Akcakale collect aid donated by private individuals and aid organizations.

AKCAKALE, Turkey, November 7 (UNHCR) Some 200 metres from no-man's land, and the war zone beyond, stands a dusty street lined by modest houses, shops, garages and an office. Outside the office a crowd waits under the scorching sun for an aid distribution.

They are among the 10,000 registered Syrian urban refugees who have made their home in Akcakale, a southern Turkey border town of more than 35,000 people before the influx. Just down the road another 30,000 Syrians live in a crowded refugee camp set up by the Turks with tents and equipment from UNHCR.

The crowd outside the office in Akcakale are waiting for a truck to arrive with relief items collected by private citizens and non-governmental organizations. Armed with a registration card, each family will be given oil, sugar and a box of basic foodstuffs.

As the refugees continue to pour into Turkey, UNHCR is helping by providing 23 mobile registration centres around the country, along with more blankets and stoves for the winter.

A key figure among the local aid organizers is Mahmut Yalçinkaya, a burly man with a thick black moustache. He waits with the refugees for the aid. A Turkish Arab, he first began organizing private aid efforts from Istanbul, where he had a tourism business. As the war in Syria dragged on, he left his job and moved back to his home province in the south to concentrate on the aid efforts.

"At the beginning we didn't think it would go on so long," he says. "I had friends in Syria who fled the war. But the situation continued. We couldn't stand apart from it because we come from the same people. There's no difference between us."

Mahmut first delivered aid right across the border, sometimes accompanying the precious cargo to the border crossing. Then it became too dangerous. "We were delivering assistance and someone [on the Syrian side] sprayed us with gunfire. I was wounded in the leg. One policeman was killed and 13 people were injured," he recalls. "But we would not stop offering help because of such incidents."

He would, however, stop sending aid packages across the border because very little of it was getting to the people in need. Instead, he began lodging refugee families in his large family house in Akcakale.

When the aid truck arrives, Mahmut helps members of the three families he is hosting to present their registration cards and get their aid, and then packs the boxes and bottles in his car and drives them home.

One of the men who came with Mahmut is Wahid, a 70-year-old from just across the border. He fled the fighting seven months ago with his daughter and her family of six. She and her older children are working in the fields picking cotton to earn a little money for the approaching winter.

The accommodation is rudimentary, four rooms on the ground floor, bare cement walls and floors with mattresses piled in a corner. In these rooms, 30 men, women and children have been living for months. Still, it's better than the conditions that several other families must endure, sleeping in a park, in garages or, in one case, in a tent made of blankets under a skeletal tree a short walk from the border.

Wahid remembers with gratitude his first meeting with Mahmut in Akcakale. "He was driving and we flagged him down with our bags beside us. He asked us to come with him and brought us to his house and insisted that we stay." Vahta, grandmother of a family of 14 all under Mahmut's roof, is also thankful. "If it hadn't been for Turkey, where would we have gone? Without Turkey we would have died."

In the late afternoon, the aid safely stored, Mahmut feeds his chickens and geese and reflects that he never expected the war or his aid efforts to go on so long. The world, he says, must do much more. Turkey has done more than its part. But in the next breath, he says he will never abandon the Syrians.

By Don Murray in Akcakale, Turkey



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UNHCR country pages

Beyond the Border

In 2010, the Turkish border with Greece became the main entry point for people attempting by irregular methods to reach member states of the European Union, with over 132,000 arrivals. While some entered as migrants with the simple wish of finding a better life, a significant number fled violence or persecution in countries such as Afghanistan, Eritrea, Iraq and Somalia. The journey is perilous, with many reports of drowning when people board flimsy vessels and try to cross the Mediterranean Sea or the River Evros on the border between Greece and Turkey. The many deficiencies in the Greek asylum system are exacerbated by the pressure of tens of thousands of people awaiting asylum hearings. Reception facilities for new arrivals, including asylum-seekers, are woefully inadequate. Last year, UNHCR visited a number of overcrowded facilities where children, men and women were detained in cramped rooms with insufficient facilities. UNHCR is working with the Greek government to improve its asylum system and has called upon other European states to offer support.

Beyond the Border

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Syrian Refugees in Lebanon

As world concern grows over the plight of hundreds of thousands of displaced Syrians, including more than 200,000 refugees, UNHCR staff are working around the clock to provide vital assistance in neighbouring countries. At the political level, UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres was due on Thursday (August 30) to address a closed UN Security Council session on Syria.

Large numbers have crossed into Lebanon to escape the violence in Syria. By the end of August, more than 53,000 Syrians across Lebanon had registered or received appointments to be registered. UNHCR's operations for Syrian refugees in Tripoli and the Bekaa Valley resumed on August 28 after being briefly suspended due to insecurity.

Many of the refugees are staying with host families in some of the poorest areas of Lebanon or in public buildings, including schools. This is a concern as the school year starts soon. UNHCR is urgently looking for alternative shelter. The majority of the people looking for safety in Lebanon are from Homs, Aleppo and Daraa and more than half are aged under 18. As the conflict in Syria continues, the situation of the displaced Syrians in Lebanon remains precarious.

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