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Family Ties

Syrian Kurds used to visit Turkey for joyful reunions with relatives. Now, with nowhere else to turn, many are moving in for the long haul.
10 November 2014
Aris (center) and his family found refuge with his uncle in Turkey.

Syria's bloody civil war has displaced almost half the country's population, with more than 3 million refugees registered in the region. Over the past couple months alone, more than 200,000 Syrian Kurds have fled the besieged city of Kobane into neighbouring countries.

A great many have sought shelter in Turkey, where they have relatives, as well as in northern Iraq. The exodus to Turkey is particularly bitter: What was once a joyful journey to visit family across the border is now forever marked by pain and loss.

Finding refuge with friends, family and acquaintances may be an improvement on camps and public shelters, but it also means that the war is being brought home in new ways across the region.

Meet five families who have made the journey, reuniting with loved ones in the midst of sorrowful separation.

Songul and Veysi (left) found refuge in Turkey with his nephew Ibrahim, a bread maker, and his wife, Feyime.

The Bread Maker's Uncle

When 41-year-old Ibrahim, one of the most cherished bread makers in the Turkish city of Suruc, heard the news that ISIS was surrounding his Uncle Veysi's village near Kobane, also known as Ayn al-Arab, he rushed to grab his mobile phone.

"I told them to get out of there right away . . . to come here," he says, in the small grey courtyard of his apartment, tucked away behind his bakery just a few miles from the Syrian border. "It's just as much their home as it is ours."

So Veysi, his wife and children packed up as much as they could – some clothes, a few books and family jewellery – and fled to the border. Ibrahim, still wearing his baker's smock, was there to greet them.

"The Kurdish life in Syria, and everywhere, has always been hard," says Veysi. "But this is something we never imagined."

"Everything has changed," she says. "For us, for Turkey, for the whole region."

Veysi spends most mornings as an extra hand in his nephew's bread shop, which turns out around 1,500 loaves a day. Most afternoons he catches a ride to the border, where, through borrowed binoculars, he can catch a glimpse of not only his village under plumes of smoke – but also his past, present and future colliding in the rubble.

"Everything has changed," says his wife, Feyime. "For us, for Turkey, for the whole region."

For the Muslim holiday of Eid, Ibrahim's family usually buys new clothes and sheep. But this year they couldn't bring themselves to buy anything.

"We live like them now," says Ibrahim's wife, Songul. "Their struggle is our struggle."

The last time Ibrahim's family visited Kobane, Feyime cooked up a big feast of fete gost, cooked lamb's head stuffed with rice.

"The next time we go, we'll celebrate with the biggest head in all of the land," says Ibrahim, his smile stretching up to his ears and his dough-speckled hand clenching Veysi's. "We'll eat it all and be happy."

Ahmed, seen here with his wife, Fatma, left everything behind when they fled, including his beloved football uniform.

The Football Player

Ahmed has always loved football, but he didn't start playing until three years ago.

The 36-year-old baker and father of five has spent the last 20 years toiling away at a family bakery, with little time for recreation beyond his impoverished neighbourhood. But when the mayor of Kobane built the town's first field, Ahmed started playing for "Team Kurdistan" – one of 15 teams in a new regional league. His team made it to a championship game held in Suruc, Turkey, where Ahmed says he played the best game of his life.

"Suruc then became my second home," he says. He never thought it might soon become his only home – that the land of one of his greatest victories would also shelter him from his greatest defeat.

"Crossing into Turkey used to be thought of as a vacation," he says. "Now it's survival. Everything is upside down."

Ahmed now lives in Suruc with his wife, Fatima, and their five children. When ISIS advanced on Kobane on 19 September, his family fled, leaving behind everything, including his beloved football uniform. They've sought shelter on his uncle's farmland, in a deserted, two-room home.

"Crossing into Turkey used to be thought of as a vacation . . . a short break to visit family," he says. "Now it's survival. Everything is upside down."

Before fleeing Kobane, Ahmed rushed to the hospital to pick up his father, who had been admitted for 10 days due to severe diabetes complications.

"We knew it was a risk taking him," he says. "But it was even more of a risk to leave him."

Tragically, the risk did not save his father. There were delays crossing the border and trying to identify a hospital that would admit him. Two weeks later he died.

Ahmed says that when they return to Kobane, the first thing they'll do is hold a proper funeral ceremony in his father's village.

"There's no worse fate," he says through tears, "than dying without your home."

Abdullah, a farmer, left his livestock behind and walked five hours to the border. He's now staying in his Uncle Heli's farmhouse in Turkey.

The Mayor's Nephew

Forty-five-year-old Abdullah still remembers the first time he visited his Uncle Heli's farmhouse in Marut, Turkey.

"It was big and beautiful . . . and it still is," he says, recalling how he brought his uncle some sheep and pastries as gifts.

He never thought, some 40 years later, that he and his family would live there in a brutal, involuntarily exile.

"It's a dream," he says. "A very bad dream."

When ISIS advanced on their village in September, Abdullah, a successful farmer, was forced to leave behind their life's savings: a slew of cows, sheep, chickens and other livestock. They walked five hours to the Turkish border, with a brown suitcase and an ache in their necks from repeatedly looking behind.

"I always wanted my children to be something more than farmers," he says. "But now they can't even be farmers . . . My land, my animals are gone . . . There are no assurances left."

The past four years have been a slow sort of death, Abdullah explains. As the war raged on, school had stopped; many teachers were not being paid and soon became fighters in the war. His 11-year-old son, after seeing a classmate die in shelling, has suffered from chronic nightmares and sleeping fits.

"I always wanted my children to be something more than farmers," he says. "But now they can't even be farmers . . . My land, my animals are gone."

None of them are who they used to be.

His Uncle Heli, the mayor of the village of 1,500 for 10 years, says watching them go through the anguish of war is a slow death for all Turkish Kurds. He's hosting 40 or so families in his village alone.

Heli is a relatively well-to-do man, with a stable of horses he says are worth several thousand dollars. He says he would sell them all to make things better.

"But some things you can't solve through your wallet," he adds. "Some things you can never change."

Osman had a thriving dentistry practice in Syria and finds it hard to be a refugee. "It's an empty life," he says, "more painful than a root canal."

The Dentist

For Osman, a 48-year-old dentist with a penchant for challenges and a thirst for adventure, root canals are the most difficult procedure. But they're also the most enjoyable.

"There's always pleasure in the struggle," he says, sitting in the garden of his uncle's home on the outskirts of Suruc.

But his most recent struggle has been less welcome – a tragedy that brings his 98-year-old mother, Emine, to unending tears.

"My whole life I had a closet full of dresses and now I just have this one," she says, fingering the sleeve on her ragged black dress. "What can we do?"

The middle-class family never thought the Syrian war would spill into their homes, upending their closets and disrupting a peaceful life in which they didn't have much, but had enough.

"It's an empty life," he says, "more painful than a root canal."

When one of their neighbours died in nearby fighting, Osman and his three brothers decided it was time to flee. Their destination was their uncle's home in Turkey.

So as not to leave behind their mother, who is partially crippled, the sons took turns carrying her across the border to safety.

Emine says the flight has been the most difficult on Osman, who had always been her "most clever son" – achieving top marks at Aleppo University and always striving to make something of himself.

"I don't even have anyone to call to check on my office," Osman says, fearing that his 20-year-old practice has been destroyed. "I used to have days filled with 10 patients."

He now spends his mornings driving around nearby towns, looking for work. At this point, the bookish dentist says he'll work in any field just to keep his mind sharp.

"Now we just eat and sleep and eat . . . It's an empty life," he says, "more painful," he adds wryly, "than a root canal."

Aris was on his way to becoming a pilot. Now he's a refugee. "One day I will fly my family away from here," he says. "I will take them away in the sky and fly us back home."

The Aspiring Pilot

If 23-year-old Aris had one wish, he'd fly away into the clouds.

"I'd go into the sky," he says, "and I'd forget everything."

Since he was little, Aris always dreamt of being a pilot. He had one year of training left at the University of Aleppo when he was forced to put that dream on hold, indefinitely. One night three months ago, he recalls, five of his classmates were stopped on their way back to Kobane from Aleppo and murdered, their throats slit by ISIS fighters.

"We didn't think they'd ever come for us," says his father, Mostafa. "We're poor. We don't have oil, we don't have anything . . . What do they want from us?" The family crossed into Turkey.

"One day I will fly my family away from here," says Aris. "I will take them away in the sky and fly us back home."

Aris's family is now living in his uncle's deserted building with eight other families. His youngest brother, four-year-old Azat, which means "freedom" in Kurdish, hasn't stopped wetting the bed and crying. His mother, Hedlan, says she wishes she could cry. What's worse than feeling pain is feeling nothing at all.

"One day I will fly my family away from here," says Aris. "I will take them away in the sky and fly us back home."