IZMIR, Turkey — When barrel bombs fell near Alaa’s home in Aleppo, the eighteen-year-old Syrian ran outside to check on her family and to make certain her relatives were okay. In the process of seeing the carnage and searching for her loved ones, the mother of two ended up miscarrying and losing the baby with whom she was then seven months pregnant.
“Our main concern is the children,” she said, when I asked how she made the arduous journey out of Syria with little ones in tow to join more than 1 million of her countrymen now living as refugees in Turkey. “Doesn’t matter to us if we have anything; it is about our kids.”
Today Alaa, her husband, sisters and their husbands barely eke out a living that passes for survival in a mixed neighborhood of Turks and Syrians in Izmir, a coastal town best known for its tourists enjoying sunny vacations and its inviting climate. Her eight children have no socks to block the cold nipping at their tiny, bare feet, not enough blankets to keep them warm as they pile into their drafty sleeping quarters each night, and not nearly enough food to keep them growing as they should be at their age. They run about a dimly lit three-room apartment, pulling at their mothers’ sleeves and running in and out of the building they now call home. Food comes twice a day – if their parents can manage it. Their mothers stretch the hours between meals in hopes their children will notice their hunger less.
Welcome to the front lines of these “Syrian terrorists,” the desperate lives of people who once had normal lives that then slipped into the crosshairs of Assad’s barrel bombs and the Islamic State group’s abject terror. From here, with a glimpse into the lives of Syrians who brought nothing but their children with them as they fled for their lives, the policy conversation happening in America could not feel more remote – or more off-base.
Alaa and her sisters dream of two things: going back to Syria and getting their children into classrooms in the meantime. Neither looks likely to happen soon.
Here in Turkey, as in other countries housing refugees, landlords fleece their tenants, charging sky-high rents for barely habitable rooms crawling with roaches and rats which bite and crawl on the babies seeking safety within the same walls. Schools accept only one or two children from the families of new arrivals as demand far outstrips any supply of study space. The rest of the children remain confined to their four walls and the street that runs in front of them, lots of running about and absolutely no learning in sight.
While Washington talks about Donald Trump and his plan to stop Muslims from entering the U.S., members of Congress call Syrians “ticking time bombs” and the administration argues that ISIS has been “contained,” the fight here is about making it through another day in a battle to keep children fed and families afloat. And it is clear that the Americans have been largely blind to a humanitarian crisis so great that UN officials working to help refugees are fresh out of words to describe it. The United States is the largest humanitarian donor to the crisis, to be certain. But the crisis is drowning any attempts to stem it with the sheer volume of displacement.
America, the indispensable nation, has been indisposed when it comes to the war in Syria. America wanted to end its decade of war, no one wanted to begin a new battle, and its elected officials led the way. “The tide of war is receding,” President Barack Obama said in 2011. Time for “nation building here at home.” Only the war didn’t end because America left. For years the United States pursued a policy of containment of Syria, matching far-reaching rhetoric from the podium (“Assad must go”) with incremental measures on the ground, and restating the idea that there would be “no military solution” to the war in Syria coming from U.S. troops. The president remained unconvinced that intervention would not create more problems than it would solve; the idea of arming rebels was dismissed as “fantasy.” Humanitarian safe zones were too difficult to enforce and raised nearly as many issues as they resolved. Worries that U.S. weapons would end up in the wrong hands could not be overcome. Meanwhile into a vacuum of ungoverned space took root the far-reaching threat of ISIS, a force the United States now seeks to “destroy” through bombing, advising, and pinprick kill-or-capture missions, even while admitting that that strikes from the sky will not defeat it, as foreign fighters keep pouring across this border. The conflict is now closing in on its fifth year with no end in immediate sight.
Stories like Alaa’s are now easily heard for those who have the heart and the stomach to listen without looking away: tales of displacement, loss, barbarity, hunger, disease, carnage, and of children caught in the crosshairs of a conflict the world just wants to go away.
Related: Defense One’s complete coverage of the Syrian refugee crisis
Related: In Syria, ‘Containment’ Has Produced A Predictable Deluge of Refugees
Related: The Unintended Consequences of Containing ISIS
Right now more than 12,000 refugees sit on the Jordanian border alone, hoping to escape to safety in a country that doesn’t want them. In total more than four million Syrians are estimated to have become refugees: it is as if every Los Angeles resident was tossed out of their home and forced to go on the march to find safety.
“Women have had to give birth at the berm, in unsanitary and unhygienic conditions. Common medical complaints among the growing population include respiratory tract infections, gastroenteritis, and skin diseases such as scabies,” said the UN High Commission for Refugees’ spokesperson Melissa Fleming in Geneva of life on Jordan’s border at this moment. “The health situation is deteriorating, with increasing signs of diarrhea, vomiting and acute malnutrition among children.”
The sight of a little boy washed up dead on a European shore has made no difference in Washington or most other global capitals. In Turkey, cheaply made life jackets just waiting to be bought by those desperate to flee hang from the top of storefronts in Syrian neighborhoods. No one has any illusion that all who attempt the crossing will survive. But Syrians who cannot reach Europe legally risk their lives in the water in search of a land that offers peace, so they can send for their families once they receive asylum.
Later this month, the UN will host ministerial meetings meant to develop Security Council resolutions that support January peace negotiations and the idea of a national ceasefire. But the central question of President Bashar al-Assad’s fate remains unresolved, complicating a near-term end to the fight.
In the meantime the refugee crisis shows no signs of abating. The UN estimates 2016 will be the high point year in the record-breaking, post-war number of people seeking to escape their countries for the promise of peace.
For those whose lives are ensnared in the grim thicket of Assad versus the opposition versus ISIS versus the world, the challenge is to keep carrying on while people in America they have never met talk about them in ways they don’t come close to recognizing.
They monitor all the conversation on Facebook.
“We are not terrorists; we had this uprising because we wanted to have our simplest right, which was to be treated as humans,” said Roula, a 27-year-old aid worker. “U.S. and Europe are now the options to stay alive.”
She watches her countrymen fleeing this war by boat to Europe or America by the thousands.
“They are not going there to have a fancy life. They just want to stay alive.”