Senior Indian journalist M. A Majid is on an official visit to Turkey, following an invitation from the office of the Prime Minister of Turkey Ahmet Davutoglu. The visiting journalist is known for his balanced reporting calibre and counted among the prominent media personalities of India. He gives a first-hand account of the lives of the Syrian refugees staying in various camps in Turkey. M. A Majid poured out his heart to Ahmed Mohiuddin Siddiqui on the plight of the Syrian refugees.
Speaking exclusively to The Moroccan Times from the Turkish capital Ankara, the veteran journalist Majid marveled at the Turkish government’s ability in hosting the largest and the unprecedented number of 2 million ‘guests’ (refugees) in this century so far. He has tales of happiness and despair from the refugee camps. Excerpts from the heart-wrenching interview:
Mr Majid, welcome to this exclusive conversation with The Moroccan Times. Could you please spell out the historical background of Turkey and the influx of the Syrian refugees into Turkey?
Thank you very much. It is privilege and an honor to speak to The Moroccan Times from the great Arab nation Morocco. Turkey has a 979 kilometer long border with Syria. The Syrians, who were victims of President Bashar Al Asad’s tyranny, began to move to Turkey to save their lives. The Turkish government gave them the status of ‘guests’ and have been looking after these refugees since 2011. On the Syrian border in the city of Gaziantep, there is refugee camp. The 11-member delegation of journalists was taken late night to this city, which is 375 km from the Turkish capital Ankara.
We were under the impression that the refugee camp may be devoid of utilities and may house the poverty stricken people in tarpaulin tents. Gaziantep is a small city but it is a centre of dry fruits. On one side, there are high hillocks on the Syrian border. On the other side, there is the historical Euphrates River (Nahr Al Furaat), which has seen many tempests. This river has quenched the thirst of the caravans of the great prophets like Lord Moses (Syedna Musa, peace be upon him). Alexander the Great intoxicated by a series of victories crossed the Euphrates but could not return back to his country.
On seeing this great river, the pages of history flashed back before my eyes. The Second Righteous Caliph Hadhrat Syedna Umar (May Allah be pleased with him) had defeated the Romans near this river. This refugee city is built of iron sheets and not tarpaulin sheets. This is the ‘Container City’ under the protection of the Turkish Armed forces. We met Farhatain Okir, the general manager of the natural disaster organization – Muntazim Aafaat. Okir informed us that the Turkish government gave the status of ‘guests’ to these refugees. Perhaps, it could be due to the reason that the noble companion of Prophet Muhammed (PBUH), Hadhrat Syedna Abu Ayyub Ansari (May Allah be pleased with him), who had the privilege of hosting the Holy Prophet when he arrived in Medina Al Munawwara, lies buried in Turkey. Turkey has kept the Islamic tradition of hosting the guests alive even in the testing times of the 21st century. During the last four years, Turkey has spent $5.5 billion to look after the Syrian guests. Though it is burden on the Turkish economy, the people of Turkey consider hosting the Syrians as an honor.
Mr Majid, you mentioned about the ‘Container City’. Could you elaborate on the lives of the refugees in this city?
The Gaziantep refugees’ camp hosts more than 5,000 Syrians. They are provided with all utilities and comforts of life. Every family has been given a 40 square yard iron container (as seen in the photograph above). The container is equipped with modern facilities. It has a bedroom, a small room, a kitchen and a washroom. Satellite dish television and air conditioning are also provided. Every refugee is given 85 Turkish Liras for monthly expenditure. An ATM card is provided, which can be used for shopping at the super market in the camp.
What facilities are extended to the refugees regarding food, education and healthcare?
There are separate facilities apart from the food hospitality. Facilities for washing and ironing clothes and a hair cut salon are provided. Modern schools which are better than the corporate schools, a hospital, an entertainment centre, a mosque, vocational centers for girls and women and marketing of their crafts and products in different cities are the highlights of the camp.
The youth can go out of the camp after producing their identity cards. They can earn according to their skills and talents. The children are specially taught Arabic and Islamic studies.
This camp witnessed marriages and deaths. 806 children were born here. The Syrian guests are happy here but they are longing to go back to their country. The beautiful Syrian women and the handsome men, young or old alike, have a similar story. Bashar Al Assad victimized his own people to stay in power. Syria had a population of 20 million before the war, out of which 10 million are displaced out of the country now. Some 2 million Syrians are hosted by Turkey alone.
Were you able to meet any Syrian journalists in Turkey? What have been their reactions about the happenings in Syria?
Yes, I met a Syrian journalist from the capital Damascus. Ayman Saleh is a refugee journalist in the camp. He told me that Damascus, which was an international power centre for many centuries, has now become a city of ghosts. His newspaper office was destroyed in a bomb attack. He alleged that Bashar Al Assad used chemical weapons against his own people who gave the slogan of freedom. Ayman Saleh also left Damascus in a car with his family to save their lives. The car was fired at and destroyed. He put his little beautiful children on his shoulders and walked for days and nights and reached the banks of the Euphrates, where the Turkish army welcomed him. He has been staying in the camp for two years now.
How is the Turkish economy? How is Turkey able to sustain 2 million refugees for four years now?
Turkey has a strong economy. The Turkish currency Lira is stronger than the petro-dollar rich Saudi Arabian Riyal. Istanbul is Europe’s largest trading city. The industrial production is going places. The packed olive oil is actually sourced in Turkey, processed and packaged in Italy, Spain and Germany and sold in the Arab and global markets. The strong Turkish economy is a major reason why Turkey is able to sustain the 2 million guests.
Which other Syrian refugee camps have you visited in Turkey?
I have visited Yayladagi refugee camp also. There are about 25 camps in Turkey where 250,000 refugees reside. The rest of the Syrians are outside the camps, some do menial jobs in restaurants and houses and some are begging on the streets, though begging is banned by law in Turkey. Once, the Syrians were rich people. Now, many of them have lost their riches, property and wealth and reduced to the status of beggars. 624 children were born in the Yayladagi camp. A total of 46,000 children were born to the Syrian refugees during the last four years. The Government of Turkey issues a birth certificate but they are not entitled for citizenship because of their present status. Some rich Syrian businessmen have established their businesses in Turkey.
What is the demographic profile of the Syrain refugees?
Ninety per cent of the Syrian refugees are Sunni Muslims and the rest ten per cent belong to Bashar Al Assad’s Alawaite, Yezedi and the Christian communities. The Turkish Government has not discriminated on grounds of religion or sect but gave food and shelter to all the Syrian refugees, which is an admirable thing.
What is the inner most desire of the Syrian refugees?
The Syrian refugees are well looked after by the Turkish Government but the refugees are longing to return back to their beloved homeland. Every morning, the rising Sun gives a new hope to them that one day they will be able to return to Syria in peace and live happily ever after.
Mr Majid, thank you very much for speaking to The Moroccan Times in spite of your busy schedule. Wish you a pleasant stay in Turkey, churning out excellent journalistic copies to focus the attention of the world on the plight of the suffering Syrian people.
It is a pleasure talking to you, Mr Ahmed Siddiqui. Please convey my regards and best wishes to your Editor-in-Chief Mr Idriss Benarafa, all the readers of The Moroccan Times and the brotherly people of Morocco.
International columnist, political analyst and senior journalist Ahmed Mohiuddin Siddiqui’s articles are published across Asia, Africa and Europe. He writes for The Moroccan Times, The Tunis Times, India Tomorrow, Kohram News, The Etemaad Urdu Daily and for news papers published from Muscat, Sultanate of Oman. You can follow him on Twitter at: @journopolana[/symple_box]