The Camp – A Home for Refugees

May 8, 2013 by Open Doors in General


Hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing the violence in Syria are staying in camps just across the border inside Turkey. In light of that, the April 10 news item from Reuters, announcing the creation of two more camps in Turkish town of Midyat, just beyond Syria’s northeastern border, did not garner much notice – at first.  

The announcement of construction on a camp specifically for Syrian Christians, however, was new.

Of the thousands of Syrian refugees in Turkey, only a few hundred are Christian. Nowhere in the Islamic world has a refugee camp for Christians from one country been built across the border in a neighboring country. Now Turkey is building a camp that will hold between 3 and 30 times the number of Syrian Christians currently taking refuge in the country.

But why? Why is Turkey creating a small city to handle a flood of Syrian Christians?

Jamil Diarbakerli, a local representative of the Assyrian Democratic Organization, maintains that the persecution of Christians in Syria is exaggerated. “They are just looking for an excuse to leave Syria and escape to Europe,” he says. Sargon, a Christian from the Syrian town of Qamishly, just across the Turkey border, strongly disagrees. “What are you talking about? The body of my cousin Alexi Skandar has been lying on a street in Aleppo for more than two weeks. His lacerated corpse has rotted. No one dares to go and get him; if you do you’ll be killed. And he is not alone; many other bodies of Christians are rotting on the streets because Islamists threaten to kill people who want to bury them.”  

While the civil war continues to cause suffering for Muslims and Christians alike, Christians and churches are often specifically targeted. “We were doing fine under Bashar’s regime, before the so-called revolution,” points out Sano, a Syrian refugee. “Certainly, everything wasn’t okay, but at least we weren’t oppressed because of our religion. It was much better before. Now, al Qaeda and Salafists have taken over certain parts of Syria and are about to occupy more territory. It is really scary.”

Journalist Nuri Kino, of Syriac Orthodox background, traveled to Midyat, Turkey, to observe construction of the camp. He met with Turkish Christian leaders who are divided on the idea of opening a camp. He also met with Syrian Christians; some believe the camp is needed, while others it will become a Christian ghetto. Some see the potential for sectarian trouble arising from the camp’s proximity to a separate camp for Muslim refugees, also under construction; other see the potential to empty Syria of Christians entirely.  

“It’s not time for a camp yet, not for Christians,” Diarbakerli contends. “There are only around 300 of them in all of Turkey. If the situation becomes acute, you can always pitch tents; it’d only take a few hours. I don’t understand why they are taking these drastic steps. They should wait.” He suggests an alternative plan to providing shelter to Assyrians and other Christians in a humanitarian zone within Syria.

The few hundred Syrian Christians taking refuge in Turkey do not relish the prospect of being relocated to a tent city, but construction of the camp is already in full swing. “I’m convinced that letting land for the camp was the right thing to do,” says the vice president of the Midyat church board. “It’s indeed needed for the Christian refugees that are already in Turkey. And it could be needed for many more.”

Some of the refugees are currently staying at the Syriac Orthodox monastery; others are living in apartments in the center of Midyat, in a Catholic church and in villages around the city. Saliba men of the monastery explains, “We have been taking care of them for a year and a half. They have lived and eaten for free in the monastery. We fear that they will arrive in large numbers. That is why we turned to the Turkish government and asked for help.” He confesses, though, that things have not gone as they hoped. “We asked the government for barracks, not tents,” he says. “The whole thing has turned out so wrong. Anyway, the refugees that are here, and are coming.”

The refugees say they have each received 150 Turkish Liras, about 80 US dollars, from the Turkish government. This is the first time any of them have received government support. While appreciative, their main hope is to be granted work permits. The board vice president, Yusuf Tker, says, “Many Christians in Midyat will be able to find work; we are going to need interpreters and people with other professional skills in the camp.” The members of the refugee committee are pleased that many other Christian associations have promised their help in meeting needs. Tker adds proudly, “The Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs has promised that it’s going to be a state-of-the-art refugee camp with sports grounds, food stores, health care and many other facilities lacking in other camps.”

One concern is the proximity of the camp to another being built for Muslims. “They are going to build not one but two camps, one for 6,000 Muslims and one for 4,000 Christians,” says a Turkish journalist, herself a Muslim. “What will happen if Christians can’t flee from Syria? Then both camps will be used by Muslims and 10,000 Syrian Muslims will be located in close vicinity to one of the world’s oldest monasteries.” Tker counters that this situation will not be allowed to occur. “Our agreement with the government is that only Christians will be allowed to stay in the camp located near the monastery.  Should anyone commit a crime or create problems, that person will be sent back to Syria.” Tker adds, “We hope and pray that there will be peace in Syria and the situation for Christians will improve. The camp will be there if the situation gets worse, in other words, just in case.”

Father, we pray for Christians in Syria who are enduring persecution in their homeland. We pray for the many who remain, hoping to reach out with the gospel to their Muslim neighbors and offer comfort and help to those who suffer. And we pray for those who have fled to Turkey, those who are homeless, that You will be their refuge. Protect them, Father. Provide shelter and food. Comfort them with Your presence. Thank You for the churches in Turkey that have provided shelter for their fellow Christians during the past year-and-a-half. Grant them wisdom for the future as they prepare and maintain this refugee camp and as they seek other ways to aid these Syrian believers. And we pray for an end soon to the conflict in Syria. In the name of Jesus, our shelter from all the storms of life, Amen.

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