“They are leaving the AFAD camp and are coming to this camp because they don’t want to learn Arabic,” Pervin, a camp organiser at Şehit Gelhat camp in Suruç explained to me. Şehit Gelhat, the newest of the six camps run by the pro-Kurdish DBP (Democratic Regions Party), has been receiving hundreds of Kobane refugees who have come from the government-run AFAD camp. Muhammad and his family, who was placed in the AFAD camp soon after it was built, left and came to Şehit Gelhat camp in early February. “We were not treated well. They didn’t allow us to be free and kept us like prisoners,” Muhammad explained as we sat outside his tented accommodation, “we always had to speak to them through Arabic translators. We would rather be with our Kurdish brothers in this camp.”
The Şehit Gelhat camp is run by the local pro-Kurdish party and Turkey’s Kurds who have come to support the large influx of Kobane refugees that fled Kobane back in October. As far as refugee camps go, it has a relaxed feeling of co-habitation between the camps officials and refugees alike. At the entrance, refugees wander in and out of the camp, many collecting the wild edible leaves which grow in the nearby field. A market has been set up by the refugees, and a hammam is currently under construction. In the makeshift classroom, the teacher explained to me that all education is done in Kurdish, something that Turkey’s Kurds have been fighting for too. Nobody appears ill at ease, and refugees are free to do as they please.
In contrast, the AFAD camp has an imposing feeling. Arriving at the camp, where gendarme soldiers guard the high barbed-wired fence surrounding it, the atmosphere amongst the officials and refugees alike lacks that natural co-habitation. Permission is needed for anybody to enter. Once inside, we were escorted around the immaculate camp. AFAD, the government agency responsible for humanitarian aid in Turkey, run a total of 23 camps across Turkey’s border with Syria. However, this camp, which opened on the 25th January, is the largest one in Turkey with a capacity of 35,000. As of yet, only 7000 refugees are in the camp, as many refugees choose to stay in the municipality camps.
The reason the AFAD camp has not reached full capacity is that, to many Kurds, the AFAD camp represents something they thought they had left behind: Arabic education. Along with basic Turkish education, the school in the AFAD camp is all in Arabic. For decades, Syrian Kurds were forced to study in Arabic rather than in their mother tongue, Kurdish. However, when Kobane and the other Kurdish cantons of Cezire and Afrin asserted their autonomy in July 2013, they began educating children in Kurdish.
“It represents a step backwards for us,” Muhammad stressed as he offered me another cigarette, “I was educated in Arabic but it is for that reason that I don’t want my children to have to go through the same ordeal.”
From the Turkish government’s perspective, its decision to educate the refugees from Kobane in Arabic and Turkish is an attempt on their part to deny the Kurdish identity of the refugees. The AKP has tried to advertise itself as a champion of humanitarian aid to its Syrian brothers. Whilst I visited the AFAD camp, they continuously referred to the refugees as Syrian, rather than Kurdish. The Turkish state would rather see the refugee crisis of Kobane as part of the same crisis facing the millions of other Syrian refugees, thus disassociating it from its own problem with its Kurdish citizens.
However, the refusal to see these refugees as Kurdish has backfired as hundreds of families have left the AFAD camp for the more relaxed and friendly municipality camps, which have a strong sense of cross-border Kurdish solidarity. Furthermore, of all the Kobane refugees I spoke to, they emphasized how Turkey has routinely turned a blind eye to the flow of ISIS jihadists crossing the border. In contrast, Turkey has imposed a strict embargo on the Kurdish autonomous cantons of Rojava (of which Kobane is one), and have frequently shot people attempting to illegally cross on sight. What seems clear is that Turkey’s humanitarian agenda is part of its wider policy of downplaying Kurdish aspirations in the whole region. As a Suruç shopkeeper explained to me, “Turkey’s attempt to assert their agenda on the suffering of the refugees is testament to how untrustworthy they are when dealing with Kurds.”
All photographs by Yvo Fitzherbert
Yvo Fitzherbert is an Istanbul-based freelance journalist who focuses on Turkish and Kurdish politics. He writes a weekly column for International Times and is also a features writer at the MiddleEastEye. He can be followed on Twitter at @yvofitz .