Thursday, April 23, 2015

The Husk of Aleppo

An internal refugee camp on the outskirts of Aleppo, Syria
Aleppo, Syria - Walking through the bombarded streets of Aleppo, each Syrian on the rubble-strewn road fixed their eyes on the clear and open sky stretched out above them, fearfully scanning the blue for any sign of aircraft. This is ideal weather for airstrikes. Soon enough, the cry goes up in Arabic, "Jet! Jet"! freezing everyone's pounding heart in their throats. Several women, men, and children quickly run back to their homes, or places of shelter as groups of men gather together, pointing at a small black dot miles above in the sky, debating on what the object could be: a jet, a helicopter, or a distant bird. A moment later, clarification came as the distinctive sound of an engine caught up with the machine of war flying overhead - a helicopter. A soldier for the Free Syrian Army (FSA), dressed in green army fatigues raised his unit on the handheld radio he kept attached to his waist, directing the nearest 50. caliber gun mounted on the back of a pickup truck to the helicopter's location. Given the altitude of the helicopter overhead, small arms fire would prove pointless; all that can be done is to wait helplessly for the bombs to fall. Slowly, the helicopter floated past as it seemed to be identifying a target below. Then, in a moment of frozen terror, we watch a smaller black dot free-fall from the helicopter; a barrel bomb plummeting towards the city below. It will take what seems like a minute for the barrel of crude oil, filled with shrapnel, and rigged with elementary explosives, to fall through the sky, and detonate on impact: a soldier's minute, where time slows to a crawl, where blood pounds through your body with each heart beat, where silence becomes almost deafening, and where everyone around you stands motionless with the collective, clairvoyant knowledge as to calamity that is about the ensue. Then, like a lightning strike cracking overhead, the ear-piercing explosion of a bomb striking a three-story building a mile down the road sending a thick plumb of smoke, and dust towering into the sky as wavering citizens run for their lives, while others run into the thick haze to help the wounded.
A war torn street in Aleppo
The sky is the only front that matters in Syria at the moment. Skirmishes and firefights can win minor victories for the FSA; a high-ground position atop a mountain, or a section of an urban neighborhood. Yet, in the end, only the Syrian government has the capability to marshal airpower to the battlefield; an advantage so great that no true gains can be made against the government while they dominate the air. In fact, any territorial gains, or spear-head offensives made by the FSA will become a prime location for Syrian government counter-airstrikes and artillery shelling. With no airpower to reinforce their victory, and with minimal surface-to-air weaponry, there is little for the soldiers of the FSA to do except to dig in, and attempt to survive the falling onslaught.

The Syrian civil war, which began in the spring of 2011 during the height of the Arab Spring, quickly slipped from popular protests into full scale conflict as Syrian civilians and defecting military personnel banded together in force to oppose the violence perpetrated against non-violent demonstrators demanding the overthrow of Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad. What started as a movement with rallying cries of freedom, liberation, and revolution, has now been bludgeoned to anything but that. Four years into the conflict, over 200,000 people -estimated conservatively- have lost their lives; over 40% of Syria's population has been displaced with millions of refugees fleeing into Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon. Hundreds of thousands of Syrians remain internally displaced inside Syria - too poor, sick, young, or elderly to escape the brutality of war. In my work with various units, brigades, and fighters of the FSA inside Syria and Turkey, many of the soldiers referenced a struggle for freedom and revolution, even if their tone and emotion suggested something otherwise. For some, the battle for independence is a true and honest driving force. Yet, for an ever increasing number of combatants now on their fourth year of a calamitous war, much of these phrases have become empty rhetoric; a piece of propaganda you tell yourself over, and over again to muster the courage to go back the front, and fight.
A Syrian woman walking through an internal refugee camp around Aleppo
Born from the true emotions of the desire for self determination, freedom, and democracy, the Syrian civil war has, on all sides, has become enshrouded by the myths of war. In my experience with the men that make up the command and ranks of the FSA, the words "freedom", and "revolution" are seldom heard; instead, accounts of atrocities, and personalized horror are cited as the catalyst for further war. The enthusiasm for a democratic government is rapidly fading in the minds of those fighting on the front line, becoming less and less about a war for liberation than it is a war about attrition, and toppling the government who has spurred them into militancy by killing their brothers, raping their sisters, torturing their fathers to death in prison, and who has decimated their country's infrastructure, and the lives of millions of innocent civilians.
FSA soldier inspecting a neighborhood after being bombed by the Syrian Gov.
As I watched the barrel bomb attack in Aleppo, with civilians scrambling away from the impact site while others selflessly run towards the blast to help survivors, I realized the need to rendezvous with my armed escort. The Hazm Movement, one of the factions that make up the FSA, had agreed to smuggle me into Syria, and provide military security while I was in Aleppo to help my documentation of the ongoing barrel bombing campaigns, and to build their relationship with western media. After gathering with the FSA squad to which I was attached, calls were made to report the blast, and provide directions for the first-responder team rushing to ground zero. Racing down the street in our car towards the strike, the soldier driving leaned endlessly on the horn as the fleeing civilians made their way onto the sidewalk. The volunteer ambulance had already arrived on the scene and loaded the injured into the van. The initial account was four wounded civilians with no dead - but that figure changed later after a family member returned to their crumbled house, unable to find their grandmother who had been hit directly by the barrel bomb. Her body had been mostly incinerated.
A Syrian boy recovering in a field hospital
We followed the ambulance to an undisclosed field hospital, refitted from an abandoned government building stationed on a hilly lookout, where unloaded wounded began receiving treatment. In one corner of the room a man sat up on a metal table, using both hands to clamp down his writhing right leg as he cried freely into the arms of a friend who embraced him so tightly it seemed that by letting go, his friend would die right then and there on the table; a possibility not too far from reality. Across the room sat a stoic elderly man with short hair, and a peppered beard who had been connected to a breathing apparatus. Fortunate enough to have avoided the main blast, this elderly gentlemen collapsed on the street shortly thereafter due to the dense dust particles which make it difficult for him to breathe, and which struck directly at his asthma.

The more severely wounded cases were unloaded from the ambulance and brought below to the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) located in the basement. A child, no more than ten or eleven years of age, already unconscious from pain and shock by the time they arrived, was laid out on a cot-style bed with a mangled left leg. While the unconscious boy was having the remnants of his shin and calf wrapped back together in that dark, cool, crumbling concrete room, the final vehicle arrived carrying a middle-aged man groaning in agony. He had taken a direct hit, and had shards of shrapnel lodged into the gaping hole of his right thigh, mere centimeters from his main artery. Needing immediate surgery, but unable to receive the proper medical attention due to the field hospital's severe lack of equipment, the doctors gave him anesthesia to temporarily stop his suffering while the doctors gathered together to discuss their makeshift options.
Doctors operating on a wounded civilian's leg
"In these situations, we aren't left with many choices" the chief medical director, who asked to remain nameless for his safety, explains. "People living in rebel [FSA] held areas are too afraid to go to government hospitals for fear of being punished as traitors. But this is just a field hospital, we don't have the medical supplies to properly treat many of the wounded here."

Eventually the doctors decided to operate to their best potential, and I suited up with the surgeons to document the parts of the procedure. For two hours the three surgeons worked with the situation presented to them: trying to stem the bleeding, retrieve each piece of shrapnel, and mend the leg while attempting to keep the main artery intact; all under a single lamp, while we all lost our footing and slipped on the blood covered floor. Ultimately, the man was stabilized, but still needed medical stents which the hospital could not acquire for another four days. After being sutured up, he was moved to a bed near the young boy who still lay unconscious: it was now a waiting game, a matter of luck if the stents would show up in time, or at all, before further complications claim his life.
Asthmatic man being treated in a field hospital 
"The situation is very dangerous for the medical staff here as well," the medical director went on to tell me as we stepped out of the ICU. "Because I am a doctor, I cannot enter any government controlled areas because they will put me in prison for treating wounded rebels. We've lost many doctors in this country because they were tortured to death in government prisons. "

Leaning in closer with his hands clasped together, he concluded in a somber tone before heading off to treat another patient, "This hospital is constantly targeted by government bombs. Already, we've been bombed six times. Six! And three of those were last month. Inshallah [thanks be to God] we've been able to stay open, but people in the world don't know about the terrible things happening to us. We're being targeted for being a hospital. But what are we supposed to do? These are my people, my neighbors; I swore an oath as a doctor to help people who need treatment, but they [the Syrian government] wants us finished."
Two of the surgeons in the field hospital's O.R.
Four days later, I received a call from my Fixer telling me that the field hospital had taken a direct hit from another barrel bomb flung from a government helicopter. The hospital was reduced to ruins.

As we continually watch the tragedies of this war deepen, while listening to politicians claiming to know the best solution, I'm witnessing the ever growing amount of preventable suffering occurring to innocent people being treated like chess pieces, mere pawns in a global bid for supremacy. This is no longer a war for freedom - it is now a war for power, and whichever side eventually arises from the ashes with the most Pyrrhic of victories will claim the war to be over, while placing a flag atop the pile of rubble that was once a nation.
A bombarded apartment block in Aleppo 
A Syrian child idles outside during a lull in violence
Man walking through a residential alleyway before a barrel bombardment
Residential alleyway after a government bombardment
Destroyed vehicles line the roadways into Aleppo, Syria 
From inside the crater of a barrel bomb attack

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

From Motion to Stagnation

A life that transitions from constant motion to complete stagnation is common for thousands of Syrian refugees fleeing into Turkey to avoid the civil war. Escaping from a country embroiled in one of the most catastrophic humanitarian disasters of our current time, Syrian refugees in the millions have risked their lives to find a way out of the chaos and bloodshed. There is little time to plan, and people are more concerned about simply getting out of the country alive and escaping the bombing campaigns than worrying about what they will do after the cross into Turkey. Some refugees have the better disposition of having family or friends already relocated in another country; a community to help you get across and resettled in their new life. Yet, for hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees, there is no available option for relocation. With an overburdened host nation, rapidly rising housing prices along the border, and completely full refugee camps with no plans for further construction, countless refugees are left to their own means to survive; stranded to find shelter wherever they can.

These are a series of images showing the transition of Syrian refugees from motion to stagnation as they flee Syria, and struggle to establish a dignified life.
Syrian refugees rush to haul their belongings across the border - Hacipaşa 
Mother of a newly arrived refugee family thinks on what to do next - Hacipaşa  
Children being transported through Turkey via car during the night - Gaziantep
A Syrian family getting ready to sleep another night in a public part - Gaziantep
Syrian children aimlessly waiting in the shade - Kilis
A mother in despair after crossing into Turkey - Hacipaşa

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

The Second Siege

The Syrian Border - Bassam Abadi survived the military siege and bombing campaigns of his home city of Aleppo, Syria for three years. Yet after finally escaping and illegally smuggling himself to safety in neighboring Turkey, Bassam began experiencing the severe hardships of living as a refugee in a foreign country without housing, employment, or a familiar language—a desperate situation known by many Syrian refugees as 'the Second Siege'. Now, after a full year of scraping by in Turkey, the difficulties of being a refugee are driving Bassam to return home, where he will opt to live in the midst of the civil war rather than continue to struggle to make a new life for himself in an unfamiliar land.
Syrian refugees on a bus returning them back to Syria.
Unlike the military siege occurring within Syria, the Second Siege is not an assault of artillery and airstrikes, but of culture and economics. The past four years of civil war have devastated the value of Syria's currency, at a time when the Turkish economy has seen a steady rise in its national industries. This rapidly expanding gap in currency values adds an almost insurmountable  level of difficulty for Syrian refugees trying to adapt to a new life outside their own country. A Syrian family's weekly budget for food and public transportation before the civil war can easily be spent in a day or two when living in Turkey, due to the widening exchange rate between the two nations. This weakened purchasing power forces families to choose between rent or food, between medicines or clothing, or between school supplies for the children or bus fare for a father to look for employment or to travel to work. 

Syrian refugees living in Turkey also face the barriers of navigating a country with a wholly unfamiliar language and culture. Once outside the Arabic-speaking border communities, Syrian refugees generally find themselves unable to communicate with local Turks. This language barrier can make critical tasks such as finding employment, asking for directions, or seeking medical assistance acutely difficult, encouraging Syrian refugees to clump together with other Arabic speakers in overcrowded, economically depressed neighborhoods. These desperate living conditions and lack of assimilation in turn exacerbate existing Turkish animosity toward Arabs, dating back to historical resentments over Arab complicity in the fall of the Ottoman Empire. This anti-Arab hostility has only intensified as the Syrian civil war grinds on and more and more Arab refugees are permanently settling in Turkey.

"[The Syrian refugees] come to Turkey illegally and take our jobs for a lower wage," Garip Batur, a Turkish bus driver from the city of Gaziantep expresses as we sit in the lounge of a transit depot. "Unemployment is already a large problem here in Turkey, and Syrian people are taking jobs away from Turkish citizens. Arabs don't bother to learn Turkish, and they open shops with only Arabic writing. Housing prices and rents have doubled or tripled in the area because there are so many Syrian people arriving, and even then, families sleep on the ground in our parks because there are too many of them. Turkish culture is being replaced by a more conservative Arabic culture. How can young Turkish people manage to make a life with these problems? Arabs are changing everything here and I don't feel safe in my own city anymore." 
A single mother of three has no other option but to live with her family in a park.
Under such devastating economic challenges and with so much animosity from the Turkish populace, many Syrians surpass their own personal limits and can no longer bear to live as displaced refugees in an unfamiliar and unwelcoming society. The return to Syria—the return to life in a war zone—is one of the only remaining options open to them. Riding with Bassam in a bus full of refugees returning to Syria, the mingled emotions of desperation, frustration and uncertainty hang heavy in the hot summer air. A somber silence falls over everyone as passengers anxiously text on their phones to friends and family in Syria awaiting their return. The dejected expressions of those peering out the bus windows grow more distraught as the barbed wire fences defining the border come into view. 

“What am I going to do now?" Bassam exclaims, unable to suppress his desperation any longer. "How can I go back to Syria and try to live in war? But I have no other option. Everything is so expensive here [in Turkey] and all my savings were used in the first month. I can't afford to live as a refugee in this country anymore. I have to go back now and live with the bombs." Another long silence takes hold as the border fence grows closer. Staring out of the window, he shakes his head in defeat, muttering almost under his breath. "This isn't fair. This isn't right. What am I going to do?" Finally the bus comes to a halt, and the doors draw open. Disembarking, Bassam and his fellow refugees begin walking through the barred, metal gates that will usher them across the border and back to their home country—back to a life amidst what may well be the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. 

It is unclear what will happen to Bassam and the others like him who have given up on building a new life and are returning home to Syria. Some will likely be killed by the bombings, while others may starve to death. Those who make it through the war will be witnesses to the horrors of combat, the destruction of their country, and the mass slaughter of their neighbors and countrymen. There was a moment of hope for these civilians—a chance to start a new, safer life in Turkey—but that moment is gone for them now. For countless Syrians who once fled to Turkey hoping for a better future, the burdens of the Second Siege have simply proven too great to bear. 

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

A Smuggler and His Son

The smuggler looking back through his rear-view mirror
Hacipaşa, along the Syrian border - Syrian refugee Muhammed and his eldest son, Akeem, have begun a new form of family business: human smuggling. Beginning in 2012, the father and son duo have joined forces to illegally smuggle an average of 70 Syrians per week out of Aleppo and other parts of the country and across the Turkish border to safety. Muhammed and Akeem each cover half the journey, with Akeem working from within Syria to transport people to the Helleh River crossing, and Muhammed smuggling the refugees into Turkey once they make it across the border. Due to the massive influx of Syrian refugees, Turkey is surpassing their allocated resources to aid the newly arriving multitudes. As each refugee camp in Turkey has exceeded its capacity and no longer admits new families, the Turkish military is enforcing stricter border patrols and entrance regulations; a policy that only increases the need for sly smugglers such as Muhammed.

Dawn was beginning to break when I accompanied Muhammed along the Turkish-Syrian border toward the Helleh River in his rumbly, dented, white 1982 Mercedes-Benz, in hopes of documenting the experiences of incoming refugees. Passing through a Turkish military checkpoint along the road, Muhammed recalled his own experience illegally crossing into Turkey three years earlier. Born and raised in Aleppo, just like his father before him, Muhammed, 56, worked as a general handyman for most of his adult life, raising 12 children in the same Aleppo neighborhood where he grew up. When Syria slipped into brutal civil war in 2011, Muhammed and much of his family fled to Turkey along with hundreds of thousands of other Syrian refugees, while a few of his oldest children—those with homes and families of their own—chose to remain in Aleppo.
Driving to the Syrian border
Getting out of Aleppo and other besieged cities is difficult and dangerous, and the physical risks and financial costs of crossing into Turkey are even more extreme. Yet, after finally making the crossing, legally or otherwise, countless Syrians are left stranded just across the Turkish border, stuck in a country with an unfamiliar language, currency, and culture. This reality was clearly visible as we drove through the smuggling border town of Hacipaşa, its streets lined with dozens of newly-arrived Syrian refugees sitting idly on the sidewalks with looks of confusion and desperation, unsure of what steps to take next. Facing the same experience when first arriving in Turkey with his family, it was this dilemma that led Muhammed to his new career as a smuggler. After a year living as a refugee in southeastern Turkey and struggling to get by, Muhammed began looking for more unorthodox job opportunities, and with his personal experience of illegally crossing the border still a fresh memory in his mind, he called his 35-year-old son Akeem and began setting his plans in motion.

That was two years ago, and the savagery of the Syrian civil war has only worsened since then. With over 40 percent of the Syrian population now displaced, millions have fled to neighboring countries. While thousands of Syrians are still stuck inside their war-torn country, unable to afford the cost of smuggling themselves and their families out, many working- or middle-class Syrians are able to pull together the necessary funds—enough that Muhammed and Akeem can earn a steady living.
Approaching a military checkpoint nearing the Syrian border
"Not all Syrian people can afford to become refugees," Muhammed explained to my fixer and I as we neared a small border village, where a second van waited to take us to the crossing point. "It costs them the amount of $40 US dollars for my son to get them out of Aleppo or Idlib. Once they cross the border and I meet them, I will drive them to any outlying border city for another $30-$40, but that doesn't include the bribes they need to pay to secondary smugglers who take them across the No Man's Land between the two countries illegally. That is done by different smugglers who charge by the person and can change their price anytime depending on the situation or their needs. It is very dangerous, but there are always more people."

His last sentence strikes a cold, simple truth: there are always more people. It is almost impossible to truly comprehend the atrocities happening to the Syrian people, the everyday suffering of innocent people stuck in city siege. Internationally, most people are left to rely on bits of information, trickled in from media outlets: footage of combatants destroying one another over a street of rubble and refugees living in dire conditions; one humanitarian crisis after another with a lack of medical care and food, but a surplus of weapons and human suffering. The violence has even escalated to the point where the UN no longer counts the casualties of the Syrian civil war due to the carnage and difficulty of confirming their sources. The Syrian regime indiscriminately blanket bombs entire sections of a city, rogue militias and gangs have free reign to impose their rule over whatever strips of land they can seize, and humanitarian aid is routinely denied by the regime to civilians living in rebel-controlled areas, under threat of torture to the aid workers delivering desperately-needed supplies. It is a crisis beyond description, without moral bounds, and with no solution on the horizon. Instead, we simply stop counting the dead, and Muhammed’s business thrives, because, in the end, there will always be more people.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Vying for Arms

Commander of the Free Syrian Army's 'Shab Unit'
Procuring the weapons:
Aleppo, Syria - The sky is the major front that defines the Syrian Civil War. Civilians keep their eyes locked to the open blue skies, fearfully anticipating the next brutal strike. Opposition forces have no air power and extremely limited access to anti-aircraft technology, leaving the Assad regime with supreme air superiority and the ability to barrel bomb or air strike any city at will. Over the past several months, the Syrian Air Force has exploited this critical advantage to progressively regain territory lost to rebel groups during the past four years of war. For the fighters of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) facing these bombardments, the only possible path to victory is clear: eliminate the Syrian government's air superiority. This is only possible, however, with Western military support and anti-aircraft weaponry, which has only recently been offered, and so far only to certain small sub-factions of the FSA.

Contrary to popular belief, the FSA, the armed opposition structure established by Syrian army defectors in 2011 to lead the fight against Assad’s forces, is not a single standing army with centralized coordination. Rather, the FSA operates through multiple cells of various sizes, each capable of independently carrying out its own military strikes. Each unit has its own commander and hierarchal structure, and each varies in politics, tactics, and ideology. As a result of these distinctions, certain factions of the FSA, such as the “Hazm” movement, have been selected to receive Western weaponry and military support, while many smaller and less organized factions have not.

Driving through the crumbling neighborhoods of Aleppo, Muhammed, a fighter who switched factions to join the Hazm movement, explains: "I left the Islamic Front because the chain of command was beginning to break down. So I switched to Hazm because they are strong and organized. We are part of the FSA but we do not work with other units. If another unit committed a crime, and we were affiliated with them, that crime would stain us too. If one of our soldiers commits a crime, we know who did it, and when. Because of this control, we receive help from other countries."
Aleppo, Syria: Man digging through the rubble of his house after a bombing.

Currying Western Favor:
While all cells fight under the banner of the FSA and struggle for the same goal—the overthrow of Bashar Al-Assad—there is some level of understandable rivalry between the various units, particularly over this issue of Western military support. To date, Western governments have been extremely hesitant about providing major arms to largely unknown rebel groups, for fear of seeing them fall into the hands of radical actors such as Al Qaeda, ISIS, or Hezbollah. The result is that many FSA factions struggle to accomplish military operations or to hold on to their territory due to a lack of funds and equipment, while only a handful, such as Hazm, have been documented using American and European made weaponry such as Stinger missiles as of earlier this year. While no Western governments claim to provide weapons to the FSA, the end result is that these heavy, shoulder mounted, armour-piercing weapons make all the difference in pushing back against Assad’s forces. With Western military support, Hazm is able to intensify  their military operations in Aleppo's neighborhoods as well as in their ongoing battles at Kesaab and Latakya.

"Aleppo can be taken," an anonymous officer from the Shab unit, a smaller FSA faction that has not yet received any Western weaponry, told me. "The revolution is being destroyed by these splinter factions breaking away, but this is the revolution of the Syrian people. All we need are heavy arms such as Stinger missiles to destroy his tanks and to stop the bombings from his helicopters and jets." For smaller and less established units of the FSA, the only way to procure this military hardware is to somehow win foreign support and negotiate a deal with Western governments. But how? For the commanders of the Shab unit, the answer is to raise their international profile by securing the release of Western journalists kidnapped by radical jihadist groups inside Syria and Iraq. Yet paradoxically, in order to secure the journalists' freedom, the leaders of Shab must negotiate and collaborate with radicalised, historically anti-western groups that would raise valid concerns for any government open to providing Shab with military aid."

By invitation, I joined commanders from the FSA's Shab unit who managed to gather other unknown delegates from oppositional factions inside Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq currently waring with the FSA, for a meeting to discuss various options for securing the safe release of a handful of the 20 plus journalists still held in captivity. The journalists being discussed (whose names will be concealed for their safety) were kidnapped by the Islamic group Dias and by ISIS, the jihadist group that has recently become famous for their sweeping victories in northern Iraq. Usually, the factions attending this meeting are bitter rivals, but when dealing with the growing power-house that is ISIS, the enemy of your enemy is a friend. For hours, the discussion continued concerning the options of multi-million dollar ransoms, prisoner swaps, weapons trades, or lastly, a full assault to secure the prisoners’ freedom by force.

Meetings of this style continued several times a week for a full month, yet, in the end, no major agreement could be reached, save for the one consensus that none of the groups working to secure the journalists’ freedom would seek a financial reward. Shab leaders were insistent on this point, believing that not pursuing a monetary reward would allow them to more effectively curry the favor of foreign governments, in the hope of receiving Western military support. Without a financial reward, however, it is unclear how Shab would repay whatever unspoken, background arrangements may have been made with other parties at the meeting, raising serious concerns when arming groups like the Shab unit. Thus, despite their commitment and desperation, the FSA units engaged in the talks came no closer to securing the freedom for any of the kidnapped journalists. At the same time, the search to procure anti-aircraft weaponry continues, and the war in Syria rages on.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014


A quote from the Qur'an posted outside the Sultan Ahmed Mosque 
With a single day to spend in Istanbul between travels, what better way to spend my unscheduled time than by hitting the streets for a day of photo-hunting. These photographs are not linked to any specific political issue, but rather, a general view of everyday Turkish people who make up the fabric of the country's largest city.
A shop owner in the Great Bazaar
A woman weaving leather to make closes on the sidewalk
Men making ablution before the midday prayer 
Men washing before entering the Sultan Ahmed mosque
A lamp seller waiting inside his shop

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Dar Al-Salam School for Syrian Refugees

A collaborative painting by Syrian children in art therapy class for trauma 

Reyhanli - It's 10:30 when the sharp ring of the mid-morning bell pierces the silence at the Dar Al-Salam school for Syrian refugees. Hundreds of students begin pouring out of their classrooms, yelping excitedly as they make their way to the playground. In the distance, a couple of rundown old school busses are approaching, carrying a fresh load of eager students ready to start their day. As one of the first and largest (1,200 students at the time of this writing) schools established for Syrian refugees fleeing violence in their home country, Dar Al-Salam has become an invaluable resource to displaced children and families. However the school, whose name means "House of Peace", is faced with a continually growing student body which has already outmatched the resources of their facility. In order to handle such a large number of children, the school operates in three separate daily shifts, constantly loading children on and off of the busses and moving them back and forth.
Children lining up for the next school shift rotation
As I stood there, observing the controlled chaos that is a daily shift change, my attention drifted to several young girls hard-at-work in the sandbox over in the corner of the playground. For almost a half-hour they diligently toiled over several rows of sand pillars, each one carefully and lovingly shaped. Once every grain of sand was in its proper place, the girls dispersed to the gardens to gather flowers to adorn their creation. As they carefully laid rose petals on each mound, one of the girls approached me and placed a rose in my hand, pointing to the last unadorned sand pillar. Taking the hint, I laid the flower on the final pillar and stood back to take in the site before me.

At this point, the school's director approached me and offered some explanation, "These are in memory of the Syrian children who have died. Memorial graves for their former classmates from Syria who couldn't make it out, and were killed in the war." The director and I stood in silence for what seemed a small eternity, the painful meaning of these girls actions laid bare before us. Another moment, and the bell rang, breaking the silence. The girls hurried back to class, leaving the memorial graves standing in the midday sun, a stark reminder of the horrors and bloodshed visited upon Syria's youngest, all but forgotten about in the international community.
An orphan in the gardens to pick roses for the memorial graves
Most days, Dar Al-Salam just manages to keep going. The emotional and physical strains placed on the school by the constantly growing student body, coupled with the fact that they almost entirely supported by donations, makes day to day subsistence a challenge. Basic schooling provisions such as books, chalk, pencils, markers, stationery, and art supplies for students with trauma usually come up short, and often the school barely has enough to pay its 60 teachers. Despite this, the school continues to grow and recently made headway at constructing additional facilities for its students. However, soon after the building for the new, desperately-needed classrooms began, it ground to a halt due to a lack of funding. Now the skeletal foundation of the new structure must await an additional $30,000 in donations before it can reach completion. The new building would provide space and much-needed relief for the overcrowded classes, as well as the creation of high school level classes for advancing students.
Two teachers walking through the unfinished addition to the school
Many of these children have nothing to hold on to; they now live in this foreign land, separated from their homes and families, traumatised by the bloody fighting that has torn all they knew asunder. Some have seen their fathers killed in the aimless barrel bombings, and their brothers imprisoned and tortured by Syrian government forces. Some have seen their mothers and sisters raped and brutalised by power-crazed militia thirsting for a sense of domination. Too many have experienced all of these tragedies, and yet have somehow managed to make it out alive, only to now begin their lives anew as orphan refugees.
A young child leaving the physiologist's office
I discussed this seemingly impossible situation Dar Al-Salam's physiologist, Dr. Hassan Kurdie over tea later that afternoon: "These are just children and innocent teachers," he says. "We know we are not terrorists, but they (Assad's regime) call us terrorists, and the people here (in Turkey) treat us the same way. We have done nothing wrong. We only want to care for these children who have lost everything like us." After a moment of reflection while sipping his tea, he solemnly finished by saying, "We want to be treated as human beings. We want Assad to stop killing us. We want to be left alone. After all we've been through we struggle to remember love, but we can't loose our humanity. If we do, then the regime has won."
A Syrian orphan looking for peace in the school's rose garden 

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The Contagion Unit

Antakya, Turkey - The “Freedom Ship” clinic opened its doors two years ago, in order to serve the growing refugee population fleeing across the Syrian border into Turkey. Yet as the need for its services has grown several-fold, the clinic’s staff has shrunk to half its original size, primarily due a lack of funding from its Saudi Arabian benefactors. Last year, half of the facility's doctors, along with multiple pharmacists and the only resident dentist, departed the clinic for better paying jobs in larger government hospitals, leaving a skeleton staff of only four doctors and one pharmacist. With a refugee population nearing one million, the clinic is currently able to treat only 200 patients a day—half the number it could accommodate only one year ago—and now focuses primarily on helping children with trauma, providing immunizations, and treating curable viruses.
A child in the Contagion Unit for onset Scabies
This morning, Syrians line up outside the clinic's front door before its opening time, and within 30 minutes, the facility's waiting room is filled with mothers and their children. “Some of the children coming here clearly have shell shock,” Yasmin, the clinic pharmacist, explains to me. “Mothers bring in their children who are shaking uncontrollably, or suffer from night terrors or hallucinations. There are medicines we can prescribe to help treat these symptoms, but we are often in low supply.”  

Today, most of the children needing care wait to see the doctor in the “contagion room.” Because many Syrian refugees entering Turkey have no relatives in the country to take them in, one of the final alternatives to homelessness is to rent out a single room with other Syrian families. Yet, even for those fortunate enough to secure a form of housing, there is often little to no money to afford a proper diet, leading to weakened immune systems and greater vulnerability to illness—particularly among children. At the same time, it is common for one studio-sized room to house up to twenty people, making it easy for communicable viruses such as the measles, scabies, and chickenpox, to spread rapidly. These conditions threaten to overwhelm struggling clinics like the Freedom Ship, which are already fighting to manage an eroding supply of medicines and hold onto what few doctors are available.
A Syrian boy being treated with family looking on

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

A Most Gracious Thank You!

We did it! We surpassed the fundraising goal to aid my projects along the Syrian border! I would like to express a massive thank you for everyone who donated to my ongoing endeavors, sent me inspiring emails, and helped share my articles far and wide. You're all amazing, and your support is truly humbling. As an independent photojournalist, I'm not financially backed or supported by any organization, and can only accomplish my work with the support from individuals like you. So again, thank you all so much, and please keep checking this blog to see all my upcoming projects focusing on Syrian's refugees crossing the border, human smugglers, Syrian refugee schools, and child welfare.

With overwhelming gratefulness,
Kyle Merrit Ludowitz - from the Syrian border
A Syrian refugee walking to her school - Antakya, Turkey

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Orphaned by War

A Syrian orphan in class at Baraem Al-Shouhada Orphanage School
Antakya, Turkey - The mission of the Baraem Al-Shouhada Orphanage School is to provide a safe, nurturing learning environment for Syrian refugee children whose parents have been killed in the Syrian civil war. Nestled in an urban residential community, and situated on a small plot of land wedged between two neighboring houses, this modest, brightly-colored three-story school is fitted with narrow hallways and small, stuffy rooms, crammed with 220 plus students. As the sound of the afternoon call to prayer falls away, the residential street fills with the noises of children at play. Children proceeding between classes form a line by placing their hands on the shoulders of the child in front of them, giggling as they snake their way down the staircases toward their next classroom. The youngest of the children are allotted more free play time with their teachers in the back section of the school, while groups of elementary-aged students are rotated outside for recess and exercise.
Children proceeding to their next class
Each child attending the Baraem Al-Shouhada Orphanage School is exactly what the establishment's name suggests: an orphan. Every child has lived through the terrors of the Syrian civil war, has had their family violently taken from them, and is now left to face their own ordeals. "Every child here has trauma," an Arabic language teacher told me. "We do the best we can to comfort them, but you can see memories of the war on the each of their faces." Some of the children lost their fathers in combat—those who picked up a gun to fight in the revolution against the Assad regime—but most lost their families during the endless bombing campaigns around the country. This is the case for 12-year old Hassan, a Syrian boy who took refuge with his family in an underground shelter. After getting his family to relative safety, Hassan's father ran back into the streets to help others find cover, and to aid those who had been wounded in the bombardment. Then another round of shelling fell, and Hassan's father never returned. When the dust settled, and people ventured out from their hiding places and back into the streets, it was Hassan who recognized his father's body, and who dug him out from the rubble with his own hands. 
A Syrian girl anticipating recess
This is but one of more than 200 stories carried by the school’s orphaned children. All across Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, and inside Syria itself, thousands of these stories will continue to go untold. Although these children have survived through the violence physically unharmed, their wounds are deep, and their traumas are clearly visible. Students occasionally break down in tears, crying uncontrollably for their deceased parents, and an entire class of children will instinctively cower under their desks for fear of bombing when the sound of an airplane is heard overhead. "Every child needs our help," the program coordinator for the school explained to me. "We try to provide them with psychologists to talk about their problems, give them games to be happy, or read from the Quran to help them relax. We don't have much money. Like other Syrian schools, we have been working for over two years without being able to pay our 25 teachers. But we cannot leave these children. If we [teachers] cannot afford to buy shoes, then we will teach barefoot, and hope that God will provide for us. We must look to the future, not the past. Too many children have suffered, and we must look to find a way to make their lives better."
A girl in studying during her Arabic language course
Leaving Baraem Al-Shouhada, the school principal thanked me for coming to be with them. Looking back at a class making art with their teacher, at the child in the far corner sobbing uncontrollably for his family, and at the children congregated to say goodbye, I asked the principal if there was anything he wanted me to tell the outside world. Placing one hand on my shoulder, he replied, "The world needs to see how we live. Most people are good, but before they will want to help us, they must understand our lives. Tell them. Put them in our shoes. How would they feel if their father was taken from them, if their mother was killed, if there was no future for their child? What would they think then? What would they want the world to do?"
An Syrian orphan after crying for her parents
The youngest group of students learning with their teacher

Saturday, May 24, 2014

A Life-Rope Over the River

Hatay, Turkey - Dawn breaks, stretching its pinkish-orange gaze westward across the sky as the smuggler's van slowly rumbles along a dusty road toward the Helleh River, the natural border separating Syria and Turkey. Pulling off to the right-hand side of the road, the van stops along an earthen trench, 15 feet deep and 10 feet wide, running parallel to the border for as far as the eye can see. In a few areas, mounds of dirt have been compacted to form a thin walkway to cross the division, leading to foot-holes chipped into the far wall to help climb the rising embankment on the other side of the trench. Standing atop the tall embankment, you look down on the Helleh River with its green, slow moving waters laden with sediment. On the other side of the river, Syria.
Syrian refugees eagerly waiting the cross the Helleh border river into Turkey
The day has only just begun, yet already dozens of Syrians gather on the far bank of the river waiting to cross—illegally—into Turkey. Women, children, and men, young and old, have traveled through the night to reach this crossing point. Now they congregate along the river, starring anxiously across the water, eagerly waiting to put the living nightmare that is Syria behind them. A single rope, spanning the breadth of the river, is all there is to help pull each of them across on a makeshift floating device. For hundreds of Syrians every day, this simple length of twine, four inches thick, and 150 feet long is the difference between a safer life in Turkey and a continued life in the midst of war. One by one, families load themselves and the few belongings they can carry onto variously styled rafts, and are tediously drawn across the river to Turkey.
Syrian refugees using a rope to cross the river on make-shift a raft
The window of opportunity to cross the border is slim. Soon the Turkish military will arrive to stop the crossings, and everyone knows it. A tense atmosphere lays in the air, as thick as the dust being kicked up by the newly arriving refugees who are scrambling up the embankment with their children to the smugglers’ trucks waiting across the trench. Everyone's pace quickens, the tension ever rising, the grips of desperation clearly seen and felt. The personal story of each refugee is varied, but all are fleeing from violence and war. Many families traveled for days on end through war-torn areas and cities under constant bombardment. They don't know what life has in store for them, or their children in Turkey, but they cling to the hope that whatever the future holds, it surely must be better than living a life under endless shelling. The uncertainty is total. Many people have no idea of where to go, or where to turn. Yet, as the father of one family expressed to me, "I would rather risk my family's starvation, than continue to live a life under the bombs."
Crossing the trench
The dawn crossing over the Helleh river